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São João Festival in Porto: a celebration of tradition and joy

Photo by Euro Dicas Turismo

The Festa of São João, which takes place in Porto, is a major popular festival held from June 23 to June 24 in the city of Porto, Portugal. It is a Catholic holiday that commemorates the birth of Saint John the Baptist, celebrated with a mass and the procession of Saint John. Originally a pagan festival celebrating the summer solstice, it also celebrated fertility, harvest joy, and abundance. Later, much like Carnival, the Church transformed it into a Christian celebration by declaring Saint John the Baptist its patron. Historical records from the 14th century mention the festival, notably when Fernão Lopes, tasked with preparing a royal visit to Porto, arrived during São João and described the grand festivities in the city. However, the festival is likely much older. The event is rich in traditions, such as the use of leek-garlic to hit people’s heads, or lemon verbena twigs used by women to rub men’s faces, and the launching of hot air balloons. Originally, the leek-garlic symbolized male fertility, while the lemon verbena represented female pubic hair. Since the 1970s, plastic hammers have been introduced and become popular, although phallic-shaped bread with two testicles is still sold, giving the event a clear connotation of a fertility celebration.

Photo by Agenda Cultural do Porto Photo by Negocios

During the festivities, traditional jumps over bonfires, especially in neighborhoods more anchored in tradition, can be witnessed, along with the spectacular midnight fireworks that light up the Douro River. The fireworks are set off from boats in the river, creating a breathtaking pyrotechnic display, accompanied by music in a captivating multimedia show. While the celebrations involve the entire city of Porto, the neighborhoods of Fontainhas, Miragaia, and Massarelos are the places where this traditional festival is most felt. Numerous popular gatherings take place here, featuring concerts with various popular singers, all accompanied by food, particularly roast kid, grilled meats, and sardines. The festivities continue late into the night, with most participants eventually heading home, while the more resilient, usually the younger ones, walk along the waterfront from Ribeira to the mouth of the Douro River, where they stop and wait for dawn on the beach.

The night of São João in Porto usually begins with a dinner among friends or family, in a restaurant or at home with a barbecue in the garden. Typical dishes of this night include grilled sardines (which you’ll find outdoors in all the alleys and streets of the city), grilled peppers, and fresh, well-seasoned salads. Meat lovers often opt for grilled ribs or delicious steaks in bread. Everything is, of course, abundantly washed down with red wine or the local beer, Super Bock. It's important to avoid drinking Sagres, the typical beer of Lisbon, at São João in Porto! Given the large crowds, it's advisable to book a table in advance if you choose to dine out. Many people choose the restaurants in Ribeira, the neighborhood right next to the Dom Luiz Bridge, in Foz, or restaurants along the Douro River on the Gaia side because they offer a splendid view and are the best places to admire the mentioned fireworks, the highlight of São João night. This sparks a friendly rivalry between the Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia municipalities on the southern bank of the Douro River, each vying to offer the best pyrotechnic show, sparking passionate discussions among residents.

Photo by Sapo Another authentic experience during São João night in Porto are the "bailaricos" (Portuguese folk dances) spread across every neighborhood, where you might end up dancing with strangers. The streets come alive with traditional Portuguese music, and people, moved by the joy of the festival, dance in a relaxed and festive manner. Besides the bailaricos, you will find numerous food stalls on the streets, offering delicious steaks, fresh beer, and doughnuts. The streets turn into real gastronomic markets, offering a variety of local delicacies that contribute to the unique experience of São João night.

São João night is known for its relaxed atmosphere and festive spirit, offering moments of fun and laughter that will be remembered for a long time. The advice, therefore, is to let yourself be carried away by the dance, enjoy the delights of street food, and have fun with friends and new acquaintances you will meet on Porto's lively streets during São João. After all, the magic of this night lies in the shared celebration with others, making it truly unforgettable.

And to conclude, an important tip if you find yourself in Porto during this festival: since it attracts thousands of people, it is highly recommended to purchase an Andante card with multiple trips (at least two or three) in advance, thus avoiding long queues, especially at three in the morning. The presence of police and public transport inspectors is common in metro stations, so it's important to act responsibly and ensure you travel with a valid ticket.

So, would you like to celebrate Saint John in Portuguese style?


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