June in Lisbon means grilled sardines and Sto Antonio and the feast days of the santos populares (“popular saints” or “people’s saints”)…
The feast days of the most popular saints in Portugal — St Anthony, St Pedro and St John– are all in June, and every year this is an excuse for Lisbon (and much of Portugal) to turn the month into one big party.
Sto Antonio (St Anthony) is said to have been born in 1195, in Lisbon. His saint’s day (June 13) is a municipal holiday. He is the patron saint of matchmaking and each year the St Anthony weddings are held on June 12th. Dozens of couples vie for the honor of participating in the group weddings (since 1997, those selected can opt for either a religious or purely civil ceremony). Around 15 couples are chosen to be the Noivos de Santo Antonio, and the the city pays for their whole wedding.
(The grey-haired gentleman who appears repeatedly in the video–kissing people, handing out statues and making a speach at the end–was the mayor of Lisbon at the time the video was made.)
St Anthony’s Day is also the height of the arraiais, or street parties, that the festas populares are best known for, and which pepper the city throughout the month of June.
Look for streamers strung over the roads, music in the streets – often live – and fresh sardines grilled over charcoal, served on a slice of hearty bread. The most famous festivities are in the Alfama, but almost every neighbourhood has their own arraial for the Popular Saints.
The biggest party, though, is on the Avenida da Liberdade, where people gather to watch the marchas populares. This is the giant parade in which the bairros (neighbourhoods) compete with coreographed march/dances down the Avenida. The marches are held on June 12th–the 13th is a holiday, so people can sleep in. If you happen to be in town that evening, you should stop by, since it really is quite a spectacle. The whole event will be televised, as well, but it loses much of its flavor that way.
The weeks of the Popular Saints are an excelent excuse to visit Lisbon. It’s the time of year when the Portuguese–normally a private and somewhat reserved people–are the most open and friendly. I’ve even seen Portuguese families invite total strangers and tourists to share their dinner of grilled sardines.