June is the month to be in Portugal, as the “santos populares” (popular saints) are celebrated throughout the country with a number of festivals. Lisbon celebrates São António on 12 June (the eve of the saint’s day on the 13th). That is followed with the festa of festas in Porto – São João (Saint John) on 23 June.
Porto has a double holiday on 23 and 24 June because the day of São João is on 24 June, but the 23rd is when the party happens – one of the biggest street parties in Europe – and there’s a lot of organising to do. Here’s a guide to how to celebrate São João.
For some reason, possibly starting in the 1960s, a big feature of the São João street party is the squeaky hammer. Children and adults alike walk around the streets with these hammers hitting each other on the head. This is the only time of the year when you can hit someone on the head with a squeaky hammer and laugh, and your victim will turn round and smile at you.
Manjerico (basil bush)
The manjerico bush is an important feature of the dinner table at São João. Traditionally, a young man would buy manjerico in a pot and give it to his love. I can’t find a historical explanation for this, but people enjoy rubbing their hands on the bush to smell the aroma of the basil.
São João without sardines is like beans on toast without beans. On the morning of 23 June you will see long queues at the large supermarkets at opening time as Porto citizens line up to take advantage of special deals on kilos of sardinhas. They are cooked on the barbecue with lots of sea salt, and they go well with a plate of boiled potatoes topped with olive oil. Many people will enjoy the São João dinner at a party in someone’s house. Restaurants and hotels also lay on the whole São João experience.
Bunting and flags
One of the most enjoyable things about São João is the decoration – bunting and flags drape from balconies on houses and the districts around the city put up elaborate displays. Each district also puts up a stage and has live entertainment for crowds that come out to enjoy the festivities.
Usually at the end of dinner, before everyone goes out to celebrate on the streets, a popular tradition is the lighting of chinese lanterns. For a good hour after dinner you will see the sky full of floating lanterns. Rather amazing when you consider how many acres of forest are lost each year in Portugal due to forest fires.
The main square in the centre of Porto is a great starting point for your evening on the streets. Travel to Trindade or São Bento station and walk into the square where you will mingle with many other people looking for heads to hit. Street vendors will be out selling soft drinks and beer (there is no restriction on drinking in the street, and there is very little trouble to worry about).
For the fireworks at midnight, make your way down to Ribeira, either on the Porto or Gaia side, for a great view of the fireworks display around Dom Luis II bridge. The display goes on for some time, and (unlike the UK where fireworks mark the end of an event) this is only the starting point for the second half of celebration.
If you have the stamina to keep partying beyond 3am or 4am, as many do, follow the crowds that walk down towards Foz for the sunrise celebration before making your way home to bed.
If that full night of fun isn’t enough to satisfy your party spirit, cross the river to the fishing village of Afurada in Gaia a week later where they celebrate São Pedro.
Rabelo Boat Regatta
In the afternoon of 24th June, the Douro River plays host to the annual Rabelo Regatta, where historic port wine cargo boats race upstream to Ribeira. Read more about that event and see pictures.