Wander into any Portuguese town during the early summer, and you’ll witness enchanting street festivals happening here and there. But show up to Lisbon during the month of June — especially in the first two weeks — and you’ll be left wondering, “What the hell kind of nonstop citywide party did I just stumble upon?”

The sweet, pungent scent of charcoal-grilled sardines pervades the air, stinging the nose in the most enticing way. The bouncy oom-pah of folksy songs fills the evenings. And the locals, well, they’ve likely had a few, as designated streets in various parts of town echo with boisterous conviviality and raucous laughter.

Whether referred to as “Santos Populares,” “Festas de Lisboa,” or just “Santos” for short, it’s a charm-a-minute cultural gift from the street-party gods.

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For a full month, most neighborhoods in town set up collective block parties winding through the maze of cobblestone canyons. Streets fill with makeshift grills cooking up traditional Portuguese festival favorites. Beer and wine flow as cheerful conversation echoes well into the night, and old-timers and youngsters alike eat, drink, and dance the evening away to wildly suggestive “Pimba” tunes from back in the day.

The Santos Populares Setup

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Portugal — as the original source of Portuguese Catholic culture “exported” globally — would have a Carnival season rivaling that of its transatlantic relative, Brazil.

But, no. While Portugal does indeed celebrate the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday and Lent with its own traditions, it doesn’t produce anything close to the technicolor fantasy land engineered by its South American counterpart.

Here, it’s Santos Populares during the month of June that Lusophone locals yearn for every year. A combination of days dedicated to popular Catholic saints — swirled with a healthy infusion of pagan midsummer fertility rites — provides a framework for the month. Select betrotheds marry en masse, daredevils jump bonfires, and sweethearts exchange symbolic pots of basil as celebrations of life, tradition, and culture.

But similar to many religious festival seasons worldwide, when push comes to shove, it’s largely about the exuberant party.

“I love it when I realize that the neighborhoods are starting to dress the streets to welcome Festas de Lisboa, because it marks the countdown to the beginning of the festivities, the approach of summer, and to many people, the arrival of holidays,” says Patrícia Cuan, communication coordinator for Paulo Ribeiro Company, a renowned Portuguese contemporary dance troupe. “I mean, who doesn’t love that?”

“It’s very important for us to respect our recipes and respect our culture. We’re Portuguese, and we’re very proud of that.”

She describes the buildup to June as being “almost like Christmas,” as streamers and strings of lights spin an overhead web from building to building, nooks and crannies transform into music stages, and sidewalks convert to makeshift beer gardens.

It’s All About the Street Food

Local eateries get in on the act by constructing outdoor kitchens with front-window service areas. “We do an entire grilled traditional menu for the week of Santo António,” says Ricardo Ferreira. “[We] sell all the traditional style food to go.”

He and business partner Renato Ferreira — unrelated, self-described “brothers from another mother” — jointly own and operate the standout restaurant and wine bar Boca d’Uva, located along the epicenter of the party in the Alfama-adjacent Mouraria (Moorish Quarter) neighborhood.

“Everyone is waiting for June. Everyone comes to Santos for the Festas. Even those who never come down here to this part of town,” Renato says. As local culinary ambassadors, the two friends and colleagues embrace the celebrations of Santos Populares as an opportunity to lean into their neighborhood role. “It’s very important for us to respect our recipes and respect our culture,” Ricardo adds. “We’re Portuguese, and we’re very proud of that.”

The cuisine across the city encompasses a somewhat set menu of easy, grab-and-go Portuguese street food classics ranging from caracóis (tiny snails doused in a garlicky broth) to the likes of bifanas (mustard-slathered pork sandwiches), charred chouriço (spicy pork sausage), and caldo verde (a typical stew of potato and greens). And for the fire eaters out there, a bottle of piri-piri hot sauce is always within reach to kick it up a notch or nine.

The Rowdy Portuguese Summer Festival of Red Wine, Sardines, and Old-Timers Hollering Raunchy Lyrics
Credit: raquel – stock.adobe.com

But the champion of this Lisbon lineup? Fresh, local charcoal-grilled sardines, often served with a side of pepper salad. During other times of the year, this Portuguese blue-collar delicacy in Lisbon is usually the frozen kind transported in from elsewhere. And frankly, you’ll almost never see those ordered by the city’s residents.

“As a nation, we’ve traditionally been more into red wines. So it’s not necessarily about the pairing. It’s about red wine, and it’s about sardines. And during Santos, they happen together.”

However, from May to August, it’s time for the Lisbon-area fishermen to head out in pursuit of their seasonal quotas of the super-fresh and local kind. For these silvery, plump omega-3 bad boys, the recipe is as purist as it gets: just olive oil, salt, grill, and slap ‘em on a piece of bread to soak up all the fatty goodness. They’re a crispy-skinned gift from Poseidon himself, and a tribute to the Portuguese sailors who first traversed the globe.

All that richness needs a counterpoint, and of course there’s beer aplenty. The duopoly of Portuguese mainland macro-brews, Sagres and Super Bock — both crushable lagers despite the latter’s moniker — flow like water under the warm glow of the Lisbon lights.

But if truly embracing the old-school traditions, there’s a mighty odd pairing that’d be a damn shame to miss. A glass or three of red is the go-to call with… everything. Yes, even the caracóis — and especially the sardines.

As the inky-hued Vinhão variety from up north in Vinho Verde/Minho serves a wickedly zesty zip of acidity combined with relatively low alcohol (and price), it’s often the pour of the party. Despite its misleading color, the freshness cuts cleanly through the richly flavored seafood.

“[It] works better with sardines than some others,” Renato says. And full disclosure, this is certainly not a haute pairing devised by posh sommeliers in decades past, but rather a marriage of coincidental convenience.

“As a nation, we’ve traditionally been more into red wines,” Ricardo explains. “So it’s not necessarily about the pairing. It’s about red wine, and it’s about sardines. And during Santos, they happen together.”

You’ll also see plenty of other wines offered up, including different regional reds and, of course, white, bubbly, and rosé for those a tad squeamish at the thought of red with oily fish. “I’m not a fan of that pairing,” Cuan adds with a laugh. “But I guess it’s the closest thing to what people ate and drank in medieval times? Sardines on bread and cheap red wine on tap, maybe?”

Love or hate, it’s a pairing unlike any other and more than worthy of a try.

The Dos and Don’ts of the June Festas in Lisbon

DO your pre-travel homework. Some neighborhoods take various nights — or even whole work weeks — off, and other towns can have entirely different dates altogether for their main festivities. Also, verse yourself on some Portuguese wine knowledge or pick up a guidebook before catching that flight. The native varieties and regions, while undeniably glorious, are completely unfamiliar to most wine drinkers.

DO hop between the various neighborhoods to enjoy the flavor and specific vibe of each. Some are more family-friendly, while others become significantly more rowdy — especially as the night goes on. “Our route … Bica, Bairro Alto, Mouraria, and ending in Alfama,” Ricardo says.

raquel - stock.adobe.com
Credit: City Guide Lisbon

DO have a local explain some of the Pimba song lyrics to you while dancing along with the crowd. “Quim Barreiros. He’s major. He’s the one,” Ricardo says of the living legend while translating some thinly veiled, saucy lines. “‘I wanna park my car in the neighbor’s garage!’” The Pimba genre represents the absolute opposite counterpart in the spectrum to Portugal’s far more famous and poetic musical tradition, Fado.

DO experience the raucous mob of revelers at least once in Alfama during the eve of Santo António on June 12 — but only if you’re OK with very intensely packed crowds. “It’s a really fun party to be at, if you’re into that. You need to accept and embrace everything that’s happening,” Ricardo says.

DON’T be a jerk. Nobody wants to deal with that obnoxious drunk guy. “Just show respect,” Ricardo emphasizes. “And respect the people who are working. They’ve been going for 12 hours straight.” There are almost always children present as well. Keep that in mind. It’s still a family festival.

DON’T forget to plan ahead. “Always have cash with you,” Cuan says. “Use comfortable shoes because you’ll be walking a lot, and traffic will be chaotic. So choose well the neighborhoods you are planning to go to. Taxis and Bolt or Uber cars can also be hard to find.” Additionally, your clothes will get decorated with some combination of beer, food, and wine. It’s inevitable. Accept it and dress accordingly.

DON’T be afraid to venture into other towns should your time in-country be flexible and ample enough. Celebrations in smaller cities like Évora and Sintra can be thoroughly delightful and culturally fulfilling as well. And never overlook the ancient rival metropolis of Porto, as its denizens loudly and proudly celebrate the Festas with their own singularly mischievous gusto.

DON’T take the bait when a local friend tries to convince you that the grilled sardine’s guts are the best part; oldest practical joke in the Portuguese repertoire. However, if you’re lucky, you’ll witness a gullible fellow newbie choking down the bitter innards with a desperate slug of wine.