Be surprised by the diverse mix of top Portuguese festivals, celebrating sardines, religion, sand sculpture, contemporary and classical music, and more.
Most villages and towns in Portugal have their own traditional festival (festa) or pilgrimage (romaria) celebrating Portuguese history, religion and culture. There are also some great contemporary events added to mix, including music festivals, sand sculpture, gay pride events and more. Visiting the country during one of these top Portuguese festivals is an excellent way to experience Portugal’s tourism and culture.
You’ll find carnaval parades all over Portugal, with Lisbon and the towns of the Algarve having particularly spectacular celebrations. While it may seem to be all Rio-style feathers, spandex and sequins, carnaval dates back centuries to when people held huge feasts to eat up all the meat, which was forbidden during Lent. Traditionally carnaval begins on the last Friday before Lent and ends on Shrove Tuesday.
March/April: Semana Santa
During Semana Santa, or Holy Week, there are processions all over Portugal. The most magnificent are in Braga where the entire city centre is decorated with flowers and lights, and at São Brás de Alportel (the Festa das Tochas) in the Algarve. One of the largest is the Festa da Mãe Soberana in Loulé in the Algarve. In Tomar, huge flower-covered crosses are carried in the procession and then destroyed in a special ceremony.
March–August: International sand sculpture festival, Pera
FIESA, the international sand sculpture festival held in Pera in the Algarve, has been running since 2003. Artists use some 40,000 tonnes of sand over an area of 15,000sqm to create sand sculptures depicting people, places and things in amazing detail – and some of them are up to 12m high. At night the sculptures are illuminated; and by day you can attend workshops, contests and demonstrations.
May: Festa das Cruzes, Barcelos
Festa das Cruzes, the Festival of the Crosses, is the largest annual event in Barcelos, Minho. The festival has its roots in the 16th century when a cobbler saw the shape of a cross appear on the ground, which was seen as a sign of God. Up until the 19th century the festival was purely religious, attracting pilgrims from all over Portugal. Today, it’s a more secular celebration with parades of locals in folk costume, circus performances, horse races and fireworks. The 2019 festival takes place 25 April–5 May.
13 May: Fátima
Peregrinação de Fátima (in Portuguese) is Portugal’s most famous Christian pilgrimage. On 13 May 1917 three children saw a miraculous vision of the Virgin Mary in Fatima, now Leiria-Fatima. Later that same year there were other apparitions, apparently witnessed by large numbers of visitors to the site. Huge numbers of pilgrims come here throughout the year, but 13 May is the most important date. There’s a candlelight procession through the town on 12 May leading down to the sanctuary. The next day crowds become tearful and wave white handkerchiefs as a statue of the Virgin Mary is carried from the high altar to the Chapel of the Apparitions during the Adeus (farewell) procession the next day. There’s a second pilgrimage held in October.
June: Rock in Rio-Lisboa, Lisbon
This is one of Europe’s largest rock festivals and based on the Brazilian musical festival Rock in Rio. Held in Lisbon’s Bela Vista Park, the five-day music festival attracts leading international musicians and DJs as well as emerging talent to perform on the World Stage, Electronic Tent and Hot Stage. The 2019 Rock in Rio-Lisboa takes place 23–24 and 29–30 June.
June: Feast Day of St Anthony, Lisbon
On the feast of St Anthony festival on 12 June, the Alfama district of Lisbon is decked with lights and streamers and the air is filled with the smell of sardines grilling on churrascos outside houses and restaurants. The tradition celebrates the story of how a fish rose out of the sea to listen to the 13th-century saint when the locals wouldn’t. St Anthony is also known as the matchmaker saint: women fill their mouths with water until they hear a man’s name mentioned, and men give women basil plants and love poems.
June: Arraial Pride
Arraial Pride, Portugal’s annual gay pride event, has been held since 1996. Expect the usual fun and frivolity of music, food, drink and marketplace late into the night. Although it’s usually around the end of June, the exact date and the location of the LGBT event changes every year. The 2019 gay pride event in Portugal will take place on 22 June.
June: Festa de São João, Porto
This festival, which pays tribute to St John the Baptist, has been held in Porto on 23 June for the last 600 years. Street parties and music start in the afternoon and continue into the night with the release of sky lanterns and balloons and a midnight firework display, and then party-goers continue on until dawn. As part of the celebrations, people bash each other over the head with plastic hammers and young men throw garlic flowers at women who take their fancy.
July: Festa dos Tabuleiros, Tomar
The first two weeks of July sees girls parading around the streets of Tomar with piles of bread on their heads. They are part of the ancient Festa dos Tabuleiros (Festival of the Trays). Also known as Festa do Divino Espirito Santo (Feast of the Holy Spirit), the event is Tomar’s biggest and most spectacular procession and takes place every four years (the next one is in 2019). People walk in pairs with the girls wearing tabuleiros, which are headdresses made from bread stacked in rows, festooned with flowers and topped with a crown and dove or celestial sphere. There are other traditional processions alongside the main parade.
July: Festa do Colete Encarnado, Vila Franca de Xira
Festa do Colete Encarnado (Festival of the Red Waistcoat) is Portugal’s answer to Pamplona’s running of the bulls. Every year, the festival starts with a parade celebrating the campino (cowboy) in the city square and into the streets. Then the bulls are let loose to run through the streets of Vila Franca de Xira and foolhardy men try to keep out of their way. Not all of them manage to do so and there have been casualties. The three-day festival takes its name from the traditional red waistcoats worn by local campinos.
August/September: Feira de São Mateus, Viseu
Close to the Spanish border, the hilltop town of Viseu has one of the best preserved fortifications in Europe and the longest festival procession in southern Portugal. The religious Feira de São Mateus are celebrations in commemoration of St Matthew. In 2019, this festival runs from 28 August–15 September.
November: Feira Nacional do Cavalo, Golegã
Golegã is the horse capital of Portugal and has been associated with horses since Portugal’s second king, Sancho I, had a stud farm there in the 12th century. Traditionally people came on St Martin’s Day (11 November). Today thousands of visitors come to the two-week Feira Nacional do Cavalo (National Horse Fair) to celebrate the Portuguese Lusitano breed. There are competitions, food and wine. Runs 1–11 November 2019.
11 November: São Martinho
11 November is St. Martin’s Day. St. Martin was a Roman soldier who cut his cloak in half to give to a beggar to keep warm, after which the sun came out to warm him. As a result, warm winter days at the beginning of November are called St. Martin’s Summer and this is when the chestnuts begin to ripen and the first wine of the season is ready to drink. The Portuguese celebrate this time – called Magusto – with bonfires and parties, lots of chestnuts and chestnut dishes and água-pé, a weak wine made from watered-down dregs. The most traditional celebrations are in northern Trás-os-Montes, Beira Baixa (especially Alcains), Golegã and Penafiel, east of Porto.