What’s up with the sardines in Lisbon? And other June 13 FAQs answered

What’s up with the sardines in Lisbon? And other June 13 FAQs answered

It’s June 13, you’ve just reached, the city is on party mode. But what is everyone celebrating? And what’s up with the sardines in Lisbon?

You probably already know that June 13 is St. Anthony’s day.

People hang colorful threads on the streets and stick little colorful paper carnations on pots of basil.

They build improvised food stands and sell pounds and pounds of grilled sardines (with copious quantities of alcohol and bread to go with).

And they seem to be ready to dance the night away to music of questionable taste.

All I wrote above is true, and everybody will tell you that you can’t miss the santos populares (popular saints in Portuguese) on those days.

I agree it’s a must, and it’s very typical (no pun intended, nor intention of sending you into a tourist trap!).

But what’s up with the sardines in Lisbon? And these group weddings at the Cathedral? And why are people marching down Av. da Liberdade the night before?

I know exactly how you feel. When I moved to Lisbon, I wanted to know all about these local festivals and why they happened.

Surely there must be something more to it than people hanging out on the streets having fun and drinking beer, right?

Yes, there is a backstory.

Religious is the tricky word in this question. Technically, it is a religious holiday.

Lisbon celebrates the death of one of its patron saints, St. Anthony, on June 13. Celebrations include a Catholic Mass at Santo Antonio’s church (down the street from the Cathedral) and a procession through the city’s old quarters, where other saint statues join (including one of the other patron saint of Lisbon, St. Vincent).

But like many other such celebrations across Portugal, the lines between religious and pagan are slightly blurred.

I’m almost sure that most Catholics don’t celebrate this holiday as much anymore. Culturally, we are a main Catholic country. Religiously, not so much — which I think is the normal evolution of thought regarding faith notions and whatnot.

This would be a whole new post, wouldn’t it?) However, for the sake of the holiday’s origin, I will say that yes, it is a religious celebration.

St. Anthony, born Fernando Martins in Lisbon, is also known as St. Anthony of Padua (in Italy). 

The Franciscan friar died in Padua on June 13th, 1231, raising many issues about whether he should be worshiped as a patron saint of that city or Lisbon. 

But that’s more a matter of “I say potato, you say potahto,” so let’s leave it at that.

So why do you find information that St. Vincent is the patron saint? How many patron saints does Lisbon have after all? 

Well, it all boils down to being more or less territorial. You see, St. Anthony was born in Portugal in 1195. The country was 60 years old then! It was a brand new nation, so this saint is as Portuguese as it gets.

St. Vincent, however, was born in Spain. Although he was born about eight centuries before, when Portugal didn’t exist as a country yet, the Portuguese felt reluctant to have a Spanish as the patron saint of their capital. 

We have nothing against the Spanish… in theory… But since Spanish Kings ruled the country from 1580 to 1640, well, let’s just say it’s a part of History most people would like to put behind their backs. 

So, sorry about that, St. Vincent, but the people have chosen to go with a Portuguese-born saint instead. (Officially, for the Portuguese Catholic Church, St. Vincent is still the patron saint, so they celebrate both.)


People claim St. Anthony is the matchmaker saint. Supposedly, he had excellent mediating skills with couples. 

Because of that, the now-extinct newspaper Diario Popular began to sponsor group weddings for 26 selected couples in 1958. Their motto was that every man and woman should have the right to a wedding (regardless of their financial situation).

The newspaper took care of everything from the clothes to the religious ceremony and the reception.

When the “carnation revolution” broke out in 1974, these ceremonies were canceled. The new democratic regime wanted to steer away as far as possible from the previous dictatorship (conservative and Catholic).

In 2004, the Lisbon City Council decided to revive that tradition. They started to sponsor new group weddings with 16 new couples every year. It usually takes place at Sé de Lisboa (the medieval cathedral in Alfama).

But is there a catch? There are a few.

The couples agree to give up image rights and let themselves be photographed, filmed, and interviewed. They do go through a long scrutiny process to make sure they are eligible.

And because it’s a Catholic ceremony, they don’t allow same-sex marriages. Only civil marriages are legal for same-sex couples in Portugal since 2010.

Sardines are the least sexy fish to eat in public (consider yourself warned). Too many little bones poking your gums and getting stuck in your throat. 

That said, they do taste great grilled. Unfortunately, excessive fishing is endangering the species. However, it’s still sold by the thousands of tons every year, and June is definitely the peak season. 

But these aren’t the only sardines I want to talk about.

I want to address the creative sardine invasion. Wandering around Lisbon in June, you’ll start noticing these colorful fishes all around, hanging from buildings and plastered on shop windows. You probably didn’t know they were sardines until now. 

Well, you’ve figured out that sardines are a symbol of these local festivities. Most Portuguese cuisine revolves around fish, and sardines were the core product varinas sold. These women began to sell freshly caught fish from door to door in the 19th century in Lisbon, and they were genuinely independent businesswomen in their time.

In the early 2000s, the sardine became a pop culture icon. 

It suddenly was more than a fish people ate between two slices of bread, pushed down with a cold beer or red wine. 

The sardine became a star, and it has had its share of renderings from all sorts of artists: locals, foreigners, famous, amateurs, students. 

Since 2009, the City Council organizes a contest to select the year’s best sardines, as voted by the public. 

Yes, buying a pot of basil (manjerico) for St. Anthony’s is a thing.

You’ll notice it’s decorated with a colorful paper carnation and a small piece of paper with a short, four-verse poem. Whoever sells it to you will also give you a set of instructions: don’t sniff the plant. Rub it and smell your hand instead if you don’t want it to die.

Remember when I said that the lines between what’s religious and what’s pagan are slightly blurred?

Basil is usually connected with a state of welfare, happiness, and love. The Romans used to call it “the herb of lovers.” Therefore, before social media came along, if a boy liked a girl, he would buy her a basil pot. Cute.

These days people buy it because it smells lovely and it’s one of those traditions everybody does for the sake of doing. Today, the poems are more of a sarcastic comment to the current political situation than actual love declarations.

Roughly translated, marchas populares mean popular marches, but they’re more of a dance parade than an actual march. 

The “tradition” dates back to 1932, created by the conservative dictatorship led by Salazar. He wanted to give the people a sense of authentic identity. Hence the references to rural Portugal, like folklore dancing and the costumes, that you still notice today. 

Marchas were a part of a well-orchestrated propaganda system, highlighting Portuguese pride in everything National. It would later include the three F’s: Fado (music), football (sports), and Fatima (religion).

But fabricated tradition or not, the truth is that Lisbon takes its marchas seriously. 

And I mean territorial, “my-marcha-is-better-than-yours”, “I’m-not-a-sore-loser-the-contest-was-rigged” seriously. 

Everyone who is part of a marcha pours all their heart and soul into this: original score and choreography, hours of rehearsing, busy seamstresses creating outfits. If they can afford it, they bring out the big guns: they hire local stars (actors, musicians, reality tv celebrities…) to lead the march.

The winner is announced after the parade down Avenida da Liberdade on June 12.

Alfama has won seven times for the past ten years, so I’d bet they’re a pretty strong contender.

Arraial is the designated area to dance and eat sardines. Think of it as a huge block party for the whole city. There can be more than one arraial per neighborhood.

But which one is the best? That’s a tough call! 

I won’t take sides, but I like Alfama. But I like Alfama any time of the year. It’s a personal choice. 

Bica is usually fun for its geographic peculiarity. I think someone at one point named it the most tilted arraial in Lisbon.

Then Graça, Mouraria, and Madragoa are also quarters to visit. The streets will be packed on the night of June 12, which’s the big day for the santos populares

Forget driving or taking public transport that night. And if you really want to feel the vibe of each quarter, you should try them all.

Here’s an idea for arraial hopping: choose one for dinner (and get there early, before the crowds arrive), one for buying a manjerico, and one for dancing (I would say not Bica… I really don’t want to see you tumbling down those rails for turning the wrong way).

Read more about culture in Lisbon:

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