The entire month of June is dedicated to the city festivals: it’s time for Lisbon to celebrate Festas de Lisboa! Especially in the city’s oldest districts such as Alfama, Mouraria and Bairro Alto the evenings are extremely pleasant because of all the festivities.
The festivities go on during the entire month (and even throughout the summer). The streets are decorated with coloured garlands and the smell of freshly grilled sardines and the manjerico (basil) plants fills up the streets.
The origins of the city festivals lie in the working-class districts of Lisbon, and Festas de Lisboa is all about the city’s patron saint, Santo António.
Santo António was born in Lisbon in 1195 as Fernando de Bulhões. He was a theologian and an important church father for the entire Catholic world. On the spot of his place of birth in Alfama you will find Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa.
He died June 13, 1232 and that is the most important day during Festas de Lisboa today. His statue is carried in front of a procession and during the festivities he is honoured with poems that are hidden in the manjerico-plants.
The tradition during Festas de Lisboa is to make a newly sprouted basil plant (manjerico) in the shape of a ball. The plant is given to a (new) love or as a gift during the festive month. According to tradition, you may not smell the plant directly. Manjerico plants have a delicious aroma, it is customary to rub the leaves between your fingers and smell the fresh peppery green aroma.
During Festas de Lisboa, manjerico can be found all over the city, like cardboard pictures in a shop window or the plants on the street. The plants often contain a rhyme, for example this one, made by the famous Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa:
Manjerico que te deram
Manjerico que te deram
Amor que te querem dar
Recebeste o manjerico
O amor fica a esperar
Basil they gave you
Basil they gave you
Love they want to give you
Did you get the basil
Whether a Lisboeta is looking for love or marriage at Santo António, the city’s biggest party starts on the eve of 13 June.
The evening starts around 21:30 and the whole population of Lisbon and thousands of tourists fill the streets with music, dance and lots of food and drink. The party goes on all night, only to stop when the sun rises.
From 21:30 it’s time for the Marchas Populares, a coloured folk march in which representatives of the different districts show their singing and dancing skills in beautiful (colourful) costumes. The march starts from Marques de Pombal, continues on the Avenida da Liberdade and ends at Rossio.
These people’s marches go back as far as the 18th century. During the beginning of the dictatorship in the 1930’s the government decided to use the festivities to emphasize the poor, austere lifestyle of tradition and nationalism. Thus, in 1932, competitions between the districts of Lisbon were introduced. The winner of the best march won a prize, and the battle is just as fierce today! Planning and rehearsal begins many months in advance, with a new theme for costumes and displays each year.
Pork & sardines
In the past, Lisboetas ate pork and sardines during the festivities, which are associated with poverty. On every street corner you can buy grilled sardines or pork on a sandwich: Sardinha no Pão and Entremeada no Pão.
The sardines can also be found on the pamphlets announcing the Festas de Lisboa. Illustrators and designers from all over the world are invited to design a sardine for the pamphlets. The five best designs are displayed all over the city. In addition, the designers will receive a cash prize of 2000 euros.
If you’re visiting Lisbon in June, keep in mind that it’s very busy in the city because of all the activities surrounding the city festivals. Sometimes the streets of the city center are so full that you can’t get from one side of the street to the other. Especially Alfama is a popular place to celebrate. Every year the decorations here are the most extravagant, the food and drink the most abundant and the music the loudest.
It is a busy and sometimes even some wild party. But with all its historical and very colourful traditions, it would be a shame to miss such a unique event in Lisbon.