Ok, so I’ll just say it. If you know where to go, every night in Porto can be a party. With a large Erasmus student population and a continued increase in tourism, several parts of the city are filled with people drinking, chatting and partying late into the evening. But something special happens during the Festival of São João. The entire city becomes a party! Every part of the city fills with revellers…from the very old to the very young, nobody escapes the festivities of São João.
Very basically, the Festival of São João celebrates the summer solstice (or midsummer festival) that began out of pagan rituals but was later adopted by the Catholic Church. Due to the annual festival, São João (or Saint John) is sometimes incorrectly credited as the patron saint of Porto (actually, in its history, Porto has had 3 patron saints: Our Lady of Vandoma, Saint Pantaleon and Saint Vincent). But the massive overnight party is named for São João, and has been celebrated for over 700 years.
So what is one to do during the festival?
Many restaurants offer a special festival dinner set, so it’s a great idea to start the night with a good meal with friends or family. That said, many locals choose to crowd the public parks or set up tables right on the street. A slew of pop-up food stalls pepper the streets, with typical fare including: grilled sardines, caldo verde (or traditional Portuguese potato stew) and porkily delicious bifanas! Super Bock draft beer flows like a mighty river, and partygoers dance to spirited music blaring from varying speaker systems throughout the streets.
In selected areas of the city, carnival rides are set up for both children and parents to enjoy, with a wide selection of sweets and treats nearby. At midnight, the fireworks begin, and the crowds collect by the riverside to watch the Dom Luis I Bridge come alive in a sea of colour. Afterwards, many of the celebrants walk along the river toward Matosinhos, an area of town situated on the Atlantic coast, laughing, drinking and hammering people on the heads with plastic mallets all along the way.
Full disclosure: if you don’t want people bonking you on the head with plastic mallets, don’t even think of attending this festival! The spirit is generally one of merriment, and the night of São João is perhaps the noisiest night of the year. Festivities go on until dawn, and sometimes even later!
We love festivals, and recommend this very special event for visitors to the city. The spirit of happiness is utterly infectious. In fact, it’s almost impossible to leave Porto after São João without having had a raucous and delightful time!