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Portugal’s Summertime Festivities: The Santos Populares

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Published on 12 June, 2024 • Last updated on 12 June, 2024

By Portugal Homes

Portugal’s Summertime Festivities: The Santos Populares

Portugal is worthwhile to experience year-round, even during the winter months, which unlike many other European countries, is still warm and mild. However, when the days last longer and the sun shines brighter, the mood and liveliness shifts. During the summer, Portugal truly comes alive, and the Portuguese have their own way of celebrating the warm season’s arrival: the Santos Populares. Celebrated widely throughout the country, there are several festivities held throughout the country in multiple locations, including smaller towns and villages. However, two stand out from the rest: Santo António in Lisbon, and São João in Porto.

Lisbon’s Santos Populares: The Santo António’s Festivities

Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, is known for many things: its seven hills, the cobblestone pavement, its buildings of many colours, and the iconic Trams which roam around the city’s historic neighbourhoods. When the summer approaches, though, Lisbon becomes particularly known for hosting a citywide event, which completely shifts and electrifies the atmosphere: the Santos Populares festivities.

Lisbon’s streets, especially in the historic neighbourhoods of Alfama, Mouraria, Graça and Bica come alive with lights, music and community spirit.  Many arraiais – outdoors parties, usually occupying a street or a square – sprout all over the capital’s neighbourhoods, where it’s possible to eat, dance, sing, and enjoy live music. No matter where you find yourself in, you’ll either hear iconic Portuguese kitsch songs, which will be sung throughout the night by locals, or the strumming of Portuguese guitars and melodic Fado songs. Barracas, or stalls, line up the streets, offering the most typical of Portuguese and Lisbon meals – if you’ve never had grilled sardines or a bifana before, the Santos Populares is the perfect opportunity to try them for the first time.

As you stroll through the streets, it’s likely you’ll find people wearing funny, beer-shaped or sardine hats, or holding little basil plants (manjerico) - all of it symbols and signs of the festivities.

Originally held in honour of Santo António, Lisbon’s patron saint, these festivities have become a popular cultural event signifying the unofficial beginning of the summer season in Lisbon. The festivities officially begin as of June 1st but it’s on the night from the 12th to the 13th of June – the actual holiday, Santo António’s Day - when the real celebration occurs, and music, food and tradition dominate Lisbon’s night.

The pinnacle of the night is the Marchas Populares – where several of Lisbon’s neighbourhoods, like Alfama, Castelo, Bica, Madragoa, Bairro Alto, Graça, Alto do Pina, among many others, come together to march in a friendly competition down Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s beating heart.

The talented dancers and marchers begin preparation and training months in advance, creating the costumes, props, and the choregraphed dance and routine wear elaborate costumes and perform a choreographed dance and routine – all to conquer the victory, which serves as a testament to the pride the Lisbon natives have in their traditions.

The holiday itself concludes during the 13th, culminating with the Santo António weddings, a yearly tradition where multiple couples tie the knot in a collective ceremony at Lisbon’s Sé Cathedral. While the Santos Populares have become a secular tradition, homage is still paid to its historical, religious roots, especially as churches and chapels all throughout Lisbon liven up with lights and adornments, celebrating the holiday.

The Santo António festivities are a must for any visiting Lisbon in June, as they continue beyond the 13th, lasting throughout the entire month. For anyone seeking to truly experience the Portuguese lifestyle to its fullest, going out for the Santos Populares will provide a unique experience to do so, and bask in the most important aspects that tie the Lisbon community together: music, food, cheerfulness, tradition, and community.

Porto’s Santos Populares: The São João’s Festivities

Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, is also famous in its own right. Bearing a very distinctive feeling from Lisbon, Porto stands out for its multiple bridges, the golden Douro River and its Valley, and its unmissable, sweet Port wine. Every year, when June comes around, the city transforms in preparation of its own Santos Populares festivities, held in honour of São João.

During the month of June, Porto’s streets are filled with smoke – not from fires, but from grills roasting sardines and cooking delicious pork slices and placing them on Portuguese bread, creating the delicious bifanas. Laughter and humorous, energetic and traditional music, which is played loudly on every corner, flood the street, creating a unique ambiance which can only be felt in Porto.

The São João festivities in Porto are the most engaging and joyful celebrations in Portugal and mark the unofficial start of the Summer season in the city. They start as soon as June begins, and as the month unfolds, the weeks are celebrated with immense heart and dedication from the Portuguese locals.

In the historic neighbourhoods of Fontainhas, Miragaia, locals and visitors alike partake in arraiais, where concerts by popular Portuguese singers create a lively atmosphere. These gatherings are complemented by an abundance of food, featuring beer, grilled meats, and sardines.

Don’t be surprised if, along the way, someone slams your head with a hammer. Relax, it’s just a plastic hammer! São João partygoers often gently tap each other on the head with toy hammers – a gesture that means they only wish you have good luck in your life.

The festivities are further marked by another tradition – that of jumping over bonfires, symbolising purification and good luck, which is a long-last tradition, with its roots tracing as far back as the medieval period.  

The night further continues with a spectacular show, where hundreds of paper lanterns - balões de São João are released, creating a truly magical sight. The night of the 23rd, though, reaches its peak when the clock strikes midnight, and fireworks are launched from boats on the Douro River, illuminating the whole city, synchronised with music for a captivating multimedia experience.

The celebrations continue until the early morning of the 24th, with many revellers, especially the youth, talking, drinking, laughing and walking along the waterfront from Ribeira to Foz do Douro, concluding their night on the beach as they await the sunrise. In essence, going to São João is more than just going to a festival – it's getting to know the city, it’s immersing yourself in Portuguese culture, and embracing life, community and tradition.

Santos Populares: A Unique Way of Experiencing Portuguese Culture

For all that can be said about Portugal and the many benefits of living in the country, no one wants to feel unwelcomed in their country of choice, whether just for holidays or when taking up a new Residency. The Santos Populares festivities celebrated all over the country, some in honour of Santo António, others paying tribute to São João or São Pedro, present a truly unique opportunity for an expat to truly feel like one of the Portuguese.

During the month of June, independently where you are from, the festivities bring about the best of the Portuguese: culture, tradition, community, togetherness – all come to create an electrifying beginning to the Summer, where it’s all about the good, fun times, relaxation, and spending time with your friends. No matter where you come from, these June festivals bring about a unique opportunity for new friendships to be forged, for good times to be had, and for truly diving in and getting to know more about Portuguese culture.

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