High culture or low, or something in between, there’s something for everyone all year long in Portugal. Pagan rites, Holy Week happenings, foodie fests, big rock shows and more—the Portuguese love their parties, many of which you’ll find nowhere else in the world. Beyond the big events, almost every town has a saint day feast or a harvest festival, which can range from a stately procession to a multiday food and entertainment fest. Just make sure to check festival dates before you plan your itinerary, so you’re not left off the guest list.
If you’re looking for a little bit of Rio, your best bet for Carnaval is Lisbon and the Algarve, but venture a bit farther afield if you’d like to experience a more traditional Carnaval celebration. Our pick is the masked street party of the Entrudo dos Comprades in Lamego (in the northern Douro region).
After the parties of Carnaval, the pious take over with stately Semana Santa religious processions. Our number one pick for Easter festivities is Braga, followed by the Festa das Tochas and the Festa da Mãe Soberana in the Algarve, and Tomar, where the floral crosses are ceremoniously destroyed after the procession.
For nearly a month, the small medieval town of Obidos, on the coast north of Lisbon, will turn into a Willy Wonka wonderland, with chocolate sculptures, chocolate competitions, even a chocolate house for kids—and, of course, plenty of chocolate to sample and buy. No sweet tooth? A few months later, Obidos hosts the Medieval Market, where you can enjoy jousting knights while chewing on a grilled turkey leg.
Portugal has long been known as one of the world’s hot spots for high-quality fresh fish. Combine that with the fact that Lisbon is on the rise as a foodie capital, throw in a few Michelin stars, and you get Peixe em Lisboa, Lisbon’s gourmet seafood festival. What could be better? Oh yes, there will be wine pairings.
An 11-day festival highlighting the best of independent film from around Portugal and around the world. With many films in English and a variety of features, docs, experimental fare and shorts you aren’t likely to see in the local Cineplex, it’s worth taking in a flick if you’re in Lisbon in late April.
Five weeks after Easter Sunday, the most important festival of the Azores takes place on the in island of Sao Miguel. The festival of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres draws thousands of followers from the Azores and around the world to Ponta Delgada to honor the Lord Holy Christ of the Miracles with lights, flowers, offerings, dance, music and food during a six-day-long massive party.
How about a little dragon-slaying? At the Festa da Coca in Monção in the far north, you may see just that. After a parade and procession to the local church, townspeople gather at the Souto amphitheater, where the knighted St. George battles Coca the dragon, a painted canvas pushed on hidden wheels. Viewers cheer for good St. George or evil Coca—a win by George foretells a bountiful harvest for the year.
Experience classical music and dance to it the way it was meant to be enjoyed, in the mountain town of Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage site featuring Romantic-era architecture. A pride of Sintra, the two-week festival has been performed for more than 50 years and is still going strong.
Porto’s Festa de São Joao – June
Nearly every town in Portugal has a patron saint, usually St. Anthony, St. Peter or St. John, and celebrates him with processions and feasting in June. But one saint day celebration that stands out for us is the Festa de São Joao (St. John) in Porto, where, as the evening progresses, the beer and barbecue come out, live music blares from loudspeakers—and people begin hitting the object of their affection over the head (love taps, really) with plastic hammers and fresh leeks. Then it all devolves into a giant all-night beach party. What’s not to like?
On the subject of unusual fertility rituals, take the Festa de São Gonçalo in Amarante, a bit inland from Porto. Here, young lovers trade phallic-shaped cakes as tokens of their affection. Make sure to follow up the cake with a trip to the church honoring São Gonçalo, where, legend has it, if you touch the saint’s tomb, a speedy marriage will follow. Lisbon throws one of its biggest parties for the feast day of its native Saint Anthony of Padua on June 12-13, with parades, processions, paper flowers, garlands, music, dance and roasted sardines.
Mark your 2019 calendar for this one: The central town of Tomar attracts visitors from around the world for the massive Festa dos Tabuleiro every four years in July. The party is centered around a parade of girls in tabuleiros – tall crowns of bread and flowers, topped by a dove, symbolizing the patron of the celebration, the Holy Spirit.
Huge rock festival more your style? Lisbon, Porto and Zambujeira do Mar in Alentejo are the places to get your party on. Though lineups for 2016 are just filtering out, we know you’ll have the opportunity to see the Pixies, Chemical Brothers, Wiz Khalifa and The National, if you so desire.
It’s hard to say goodbye to summer, especially in the Algarve. But one celebration, Noite Branca, held in Loulé, aims to close out the season with a huge free night party in the central business district—and everyone’s invited, as long as they wear white. Not to be outdone, the northern city of Braga does a 48-hour(!) White Night party in mid-September.
In Vila Franca de Xira, outside Lisbon, check out Portuguese bull-running and bullfighting at the Feira de Outubro, which has grown beyond the bull and into an arts, food and crafts fair.
Before the Moors, before the Romans, before pretty much everyone, most of Western Europe was ruled by the Celts. And in Portugal’s remote northern Trás-os-Montes region, you can still see some of those Celtic influences, especially on December 25 and December 26, when you can experience the Festa dos Rapazes. The festa is essentially a two-day party to celebrate the winter solstice, or the beginning of the agricultural cycle, which also means the passage to adulthood for village boys. Enjoy dancing, music, masks and costumes, and food, food, food (sweet breads and roast goat and pig are specialties, as is boiled octopus for Christmas lunch).
Who knew that the Portuguese island of Madeira hosts one of the largest New Year’s fireworks shows in the world? The Guinness Book of World Records, for one, which certified the 2006 show as the largest ever pyrotechnic display. Find out what all the noise is about!