In a city that’s already bursting with colour, Lisbon’s Santo Antonio festival takes it up a notch. Before June has even settled in, the streets are strung with vibrant decorations in anticipation of a full month’s partying. Lisbon’s old town neighbourhood, Alfama, an already confined maze of narrow streets and tiny doorways, becomes even more cramped as outdoor grills and plastic tables are set up as crudely charming temporary food vendors. Other parts of the city follow suit. It’s a particularly fun time to experience the city.
What is it?
Also called the Festival of Popular Saints (Festas dos Santos Populares), the June festivities are in honour of a string of saints days – though, with St Anthony (Santo Antonio in Portuguese) being the patron saint of Lisbon, it’s his particular feast day that gets the most attention.
When is it?
Though the celebrations start and end with the month of June, they culminate mid-way. The feast day of St Anthony falls on the 13th of June, and the cities biggest, wildest night of celebration happens the night before. During the rest of the month you can still find plenty of street food, decorations, live entertainment and general revelry throughout the city.
What to eat?
One word: sardines! Lisbon’s saint festival is famous for its fresh sardines which are grilled outdoors into salty, smokey, crispy-skinned delights and served on thick slices of Portuguese bread. Wash them down with red wine or sangria (also in very ready supply). If sardines aren’t your thing, you can also snack on other treats like a traditional Portuguese bifana (pork sandwich) or farturas (Portuguese doughnuts) from the numerous food trucks in the street.
Where to go.
Alfama is the most obvious choice of where to immerse yourself fully in the festival spirit — the historic neighbourhood is simply charming and ripe for festivity. Other neighbourhoods like Graca or Bica are also popular and buzzing with people. Be warned though: this is not a festival for those who wish to avoid crowds. Santo Antonio festival is all about getting in amoungst the sardine smoke and sloshing drinks with your dancing shoes drawing you on through the streets.
What to do.
Other than eating, drinking and getting into the spirit of things, the Santo Antonio Festival offers plenty of options. Listen to traditional Fado music blasting its heart-rending strains into the streets, or dance to the cheesy yet charming upbeat Portuguese pop that manages to whirl together young and old alike.
During the day on the 12th a huge parade snakes through the city, displaying intricately decorated floats. You can also spot 12 sets of brides and grooms on their way to the special saint’s day wedding celebrations.
Last but not least, you can always engage in some local traditions and superstitions. With Santo Antonio being the matchmaker saint, single girls have a number of unusual rituals they can engage in to implore his help in finding a husband. One is to hold a mouth full of water until they hear a man’s name spoken – the first name being that of their future husband. A slightly more aggressive method is to bury a statue of the saint upside-down, his head in the dirt, promising only to relieve him from the uncomfortable position once they’re happily betrothed.