Many Catholic countries around the world have must-do religious festivals that you should attend. Although many are now associated with drinking and partying and not religion, there are some festivals that are quite simply intriguing. One of them is the Lisbon Sardine Festival, or the Feast of St. Anthony. Every year, from June 12-14, Lisbon honors St. Anthony of Padua, its most revered Patron Saint, with a festival and holiday. In 2013, while attending a Portuguese Wedding, we were lucky enough to attend!
[For more on things to do in Lisbon, check out Danielle’s excellent “5 Incredible Lisbon Views” post from her Lisbon Travel Blog]
Preparation for the Lisbon Sardine Festival takes weeks. Normally, you’d think of the peak of any festival as being the last day. But in this case, the big celebration is on the first night – the 12th. All the narrow streets and plazas in some of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods mesmerize locals and visitors with their colorful decorations. On this day, Lisbon also prepares for a mass wedding celebration at the Igresia de Santo Antonio. A lively parade with dancers in traditional costumes, massive parties on many street corners, and a plethora of makeshift grill stations and bars that sell Portuguese sardines, beer, and sangria. It lasts the whole night till sunrise.
St. Anthony was born to a noble Lisbon family in the 12th century. He became a friar, joined the Franciscan Order, and moved to Padua, Italy. St. Anthony has been associated with many miracles recognized by the Vatican. Worldwide, he is the patron saint of missing objects (there’s the official Prayer to Saint Anthony of Padua to recover lost things, making him as one of the Catholic popular saints). But in Portugal, he’s the matchmaker – a patron saint for singles.
If Portugal is on your list, then you should definitely check out the St. Anthony Feast Day. First though, here are a few things you need to know about the Lisbon Sardine Festival.
The Feast Day of St. Anthony is all about Sardines!
According to the Portuguese Público newspaper, the Portuguese consume about 13 sardines per seconds during the Festas de Lisboa – Lisbon Festivals in June, where festivals associated with the fish occur throughout the country. Walking around some of Lisbon’s old neighborhoods after the sun goes down, you will smell the fragrant blackened over charcoal sardines and barbecue all over the city. These salty sardines have no additional seasoning to bring out the charred taste. They’re served enveloped in small bun (Sardinha no Pão). And trust me, you will smell these on your clothes and you will do laundry the next day. I promise!
Sardines are important because they are associated with the poor, and St. Anthony, being a Franciscan friar, had taken a vow of poverty. Another reason is because of a peculiar legend of St. Anthony who, after being ignored by actual people of Rimini, Italy during one of his sermons, decided to preach to the fish instead, who came to the sea edge to listen to him.
Another thing you may run into is Green Soup, or Caldo Verde and Entremeada, cheap and fatty pork ribs. These cuts are typically prepared the same way as sardines – over an open fire and served on a bun. The dish is Entremeada no Pão.
Lisbon Sardine Festival: Sangria and beer
No party would be complete without alcohol and the Lisbon Sardine Festival is no different. Long tables of street vendors sell beer and sangria for everyone to enjoy. And not just street vendors. Local residents open up their street-facing windows to do it too! Beer & sangria, all served in plastic cups!
The biggest block party in Lisbon
The whole city celebrates! In the winding narrow streets and plazas of some of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods of Alfama, Bica and Castelo, thousands of attendees party and dance the night away. Some areas are extremely packed and are very difficult to pass through, let alone dance. “Ai, Se Eu Te Pego,” a popular Brazilian pop song at the time, was heard in almost every corner of the Alfama neighborhood.
For those who prefer a more traditional touch, a lot of restaurants have a fado performance, which originated here in Portugal.
Santo Casamenteiro: St. Anthony’s Mass marriage
In Portugal and its former colonies, St. Anthony is the Patron Saint for singles. He is the matchmaker. Single girls practice the tradition of writing down the names of boys on small pieces of paper, rolling them up, and leaving them overnight under their beds. The one name that unrolls the most is the chosen one.
Many couples get married during the Lisbon Sardine Festival. The Brides of St. Anthony, or Noivas de Santo António, line up at St. Anthony’s Church to join hands during the mass marriage held at St. Anthony cathedral.
It is tradition to stuff written prayers inside a small roll of bread and stick them in the frame of the saint’s portrait inside the cathedral.
Lisbon Sardine Festival: The Marchas Populares Parade
On June 12th of each year, dancers and newlyweds march in the parade along the Avenida da Liberdade in colorful costumes. Lisbon’s traditional neighborhoods compete against each other to show off their best-choreographed dances and costumes. The parade starts at 9:30 PM at the Marques de Pombal square and finishes at the Rossio Plaza around midnight.
Sagres, the popular beer company in Portugal, hands out three types of decorative hats during the festival for people to wear. No doubt it is also quite lucrative for them to have thousands of walking advertisements! The first two are obvious in their meaning to me – the sardines and the friar’s bald head. But the third green bushy one just looks like Chia pet to me. These are Manjerico, a potted plant of basil in the form of a ball that symbolizes newly-sprouted love.
Inside the actual Manjerico pot (not the hat), a colorful paper maché flower is placed on top of the plant, along with a verse of Manjerico. It is customary to rub the leaves between your fingers for the wonderful aroma of basil.
Locals create several Manjerico for decoration; some are given away to loved ones.
Some things to consider
Lisbon’s weather in June is very comfortable. At night, the average temperature is about 61°F (or 16°C). We had no problem wearing just t-shirts and shorts. But we’re from North America, so this was a good temperature for us. Perhaps the Portuguese felt differently.
Be mindful that by the end of the Lisbon Sardine Festival, your clothes and hair will smell like grilled sardines and charcoal!
Wear comfortable shoes. The old streets are cobblestone streets, and you will walk and dance the whole night. Enjoy the festival without foot problems.
Bring lots of small bills and coins. Typically, food and drinks are priced in whole numbers – €1, €2, etc, and the vendors appreciate small bills or exact change. Anything €10 smaller works best. Definitely don’t plan on using your credit cards. The majority of the street vendors don’t have machines. Like many countries in Europe, most people in Portugal still tend to prefer cash to plastic.
Unfortunately, there are not many options for vegetarians.
Watch out for pick-pockets. With thousands of people packed into such small areas, this is a concern. Be aware of your surroundings. Bring enough cash and an ATM card (to get more if you need it) to cover spending for the night and leave everything else behind. Bring a color copy of your ID instead of taking your actual ID or passport with you.
Lisbon has a great public transit system, but it doesn’t cater to the Portugal festival whole night’s party scene. Check with locals and the city’s official webpage for hours during the Feast of St. Anthony festival and plan your night accordingly. But let’s be honest, most party goers will spend the whole night on the streets anyway! Be mindful that traffic gets extremely congested – Uber and Taxi are not as fast as just walking!
Need a bathroom in any Portugal celebration? They’re extremely limited or non-existent in some areas, and some folks choose to relieve themselves in a darkened street corner. Don’t count on restaurants and other establishments to let you use their restrooms either. Very few allow it.
July 13 is a public holiday in Lisbon. While the city is recovering from a huge hangover, be mindful that some places may not be open to cater your needs, especially governmental offices and some stores and restaurants.
So enjoy the Lisbon Sardine Festival, and if you’ve been to any cool religious festivals, let us know!
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