Every June the smell of sardines and sound of pimba music ricochets through the narrow cobbled streets of the city’s most traditional neighbourhoods. The start of summer is a wild and wonderful time to be in Lisbon.
In late May locals start constructing temporary bars and barbecues, and hang colourful streamers and decorations ahead of the month-long party that brings Lisboetas out dancing and drinking on the streets.
The Santos Populares Festival, sometimes called the Festival of Sardines, peaks with the so-called longest night of the year in Lisbon on June 12. That night we celebrate Santo António with an all-night street party – think drinking, dancing and grilled sardines.
Here’s everything you need to know if you find yourself in Lisbon in June during the Santos Populares or Santo António Festival.
Who is St. Anthony and why celebrate him?
Why celebrate a saint with sardine and sangria street festas? St Anthony was a 12th-century Catholic priest and friar born to a wealthy Lisbon family. He’s known as the patron saint of lost things, love and marriage, plus he’s associated with being a matchmaker. It’s likely that you’ll become the lost thing on Santo António night (June 12).
Funnily enough, Lisbon doesn’t celebrate the city’s patron saint, St Vincent, with a big party.
What’s fun about Santo António (or Santos Populares) festival in Lisbon?
Decorations strung across every street, people dancing, epic sing-a-longs, cheap street food and cheap drinks, good vibes everywhere… Santos Populares is a blast.
Locals and visitors pack into the oldest neighbourhoods like sardines in a tin where make-shift stages, pop-up bars and improvised grills keep the masses happy. These street parties are called arraiais and they run across the city all month.
Where to find the best arraiais (parties), especially on June 12
You want to arrive at any arraial party with an open mind, comfortable shoes, cash and a willingness to be silly. The corny pimba music played at an arraial will have the Portuguese crowd singing and dancing like their lives depend on it. Almost every family-friendly pimba lyric is filled with innuendo (and kids probably do think this song is only about parking your car in the neighbour’s garage).
If you’re interested in learning the chorus to a few songs, start with the King of Pimba, Quim Barreiros. Across June the 74-year-old singer is the hottest live act to catch, drawing huge crowds with his giant moustache, accordion, cowboy hat and naughty lyrics. A hoot!
The best and most popular neighbourhoods to find Lisbon’s Santo António festivities are areas like Alfama, Castelo, Mouraria, Graça, Bica, Madragoa and Bairro Alto. I won’t say exactly where as honestly the parties stretch from square to plaza through the skinny streets. You should be able to find great vibes, sardine barbecues and dancing all through these neighbourhoods. If in doubt, follow your nose or the music.
What it’s like on June 12 in Lisbon
On the night of June 12 the fun kicks off after the sun sets. Around 9pm head to Avenida da Liberdade to watch the Marchas Populares parade (more details below) before venturing up to one of the party neighbourhoods for a night of silly chaos, drinking and dancing.
If you struggle with crowds, especially post-pandemic, then consider this a warning. My first Santo António festival we spent June 12 in Alfama and I’ve never been in thicker crowds. There was a point where, while holding hands with friends to avoid losing them, I was carried and unable to touch the ground for a few metres.
If you’re looking for a more relaxed experience, go early to feast on sardines and listen to pimba. You’ll probably even find a seat.
Considered Lisbon’s longest night of the year, the festivities kick on until dawn. It’s hard to find a taxi so walking home is best. The next day is a public holiday, for obvious reasons.
Events to seek out during Lisbon’s Sardine Festival
Desfile de Marchas Populares
On the night of June 12 venture to Avenida da Liberdade, one of Lisbon’s grandest avenues, to witness a parade of floats, costumes, dancers and bands. It’s a competitive battle between neighbourhoods with each area of Lisbon in it to win it.
Mass wedding (Santo Casamenteiro)
Matchmaker, matchmaker make us a match. Apparently back in 1958 the old Diário Popular newspaper sponsored 26 marriages to help couples facing financial difficulties get married. Fast forward to today and every June 12 the Santo António marriages continue. Each year Lisbon council chooses 16 couples to wed – they get the ring, dress and honeymoon all paid for – and it’s all broadcast on TV.
What to eat at Santo António Festival
Across the city huge plumes of smoke rise from the streets, carrying the salty, unmistakeable stench of grilling sardines and more. It’s said that St. Anthony took a vow of poverty, and since sardines are associated with the poor they are also a symbol of the saint – not just a delicious grilled snack.
Sardines on bread
This is so simple. You get a grilled sardine or three served atop a slice of bread. No seasoning, no sauce. Knock the white flesh off one side, flip it and repeat then tuck into the sardine-soaked slice.
The Portuguese love to eat soup and you’ll spot this traditional potato and cabbage soup about the streets. There’s always a slice or two of chorizo floating on top.
Bifanas (pork sandwich)
Hate sardines? No problem. At any street grill you’ll also find bifanas, a thin pork steak sandwiched into a fresh bun. Just add mustard or piri piri sauce.
Any street festival in Portugal has a fartura and churro van parked out the front. Watch them pour a spiral of dough into hot oil, then slice the doughnut into pieces. Farturas are cheap, coated in cinnamon sugar and the thicker size means crispy outside, soft inside.
A summertime favourite, a plate of stewed snails with a beer is a delight. If you’re eager to try them ask for a meia dose or small serve as they servings are usually huge.
Pão com chouriço (chorizo bread)
Slices of chorizo baked into a bread bun = delicious, carby goodness. Extra excellent late at night after a few beers.
Extra cultural tips for surviving the month
- Carry cash – it’s unlikely stalls will take card. Arrive with cash as often ATMs run out of money, especially on Sundays.
- Expect no bathrooms – good luck finding a bathroom on the streets. Most restaurants will block their door as they pop bars out onto the street. Sadly this means many laneways or parked cars become bathrooms.
- Wear comfortable shoes – you’ll likely be standing, walking or dancing so dress accordingly. On the night of June 12 hailing a taxi home may be difficult.
Other odd Santo António traditions
The Manjerico Plant
You’ll see cute little shrub-like plants with a message for sale across the city and at pop-up stalls usually run by old ladies. This is a small, sweet basil plant and the tradition is to gift them to loved ones on June 13th, the official Santo António day. They symbolise newly sprouted love.
So, that’s Santo António festival in a nutshell. If I’ve missed anything or if you found this useful, please drop me a comment!