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What to eat during Lisbon’s Sardine Festival… besides sardines!

If the Portuguese generally love summer, there’s one month that excites Lisbon locals and visitors the most: June! This is when Lisbon hosts the city’s largest street party, dedicated to Saint Anthony. Santo António, as he is locally known, is the patron saint for the recovery of lost things, love and marriage. And, in the Portuguese capital, he’s somehow become synonymous with grilled sardines too!

Here in Lisbon, the festival of St. Anthony is widely known as the Santos Populares, or “popular saints”, a designation that in the city of Porto is associated with St. John, or São João, in Portuguese. In Lisbon, the popular celebrations reach their peak on the night of the 12th of June, but they truly do keep Lisbon entertained all month along. During this time, you can expect a colorful parade to happen down Avenida da Liberdade. Somehow akin to Brazil’s carnival, and locally known as marchas populares, this event has the city’s several neighborhoods compete to stand out thanks to their costumes and choreographies. Besides this popular festival, a few lucky couples get to be married at Lisbon’s Cathedral, where the municipality hosts a mass wedding known as casamentos de Santo António, which is broadcasted on national TV, thus honoring St. Anthony’s link with love and marriage.

But the main attraction for the general public are indeed arraiais, that is, outdoor gatherings with music, dancing and lots of street food, that take place in some of the most iconic areas of Lisbon, such as Alfama, Mouraria, Madragoa, Bica and Graça.

If Lisbon’s street food scene is not huge during the rest of the year, at least during the Santos Populares we can feast on a lot of savory and sweet treats, as well as drinks, while enjoying the picturesque and hilly alleys of the city.

Grilled sardines are the obvious choice of food during St. Anthony’s festivities. As this is a seasonal fish locals love but that is only available fresh during the warmer months, there’s a lot of expectation surrounding the beginning of sardine season. As such, when sardines are finally available, you will certainly get to see them a little all over the city. Restaurants will serve them very simply seasoned with coarse salt and grilled with sides of boiled potatoes, salad, or roasted pepper salad with a vinegary marinade; or you can eat them out on the streets on the go, traditionally presented atop a slice of bread. During the Santos Populares parties, Lisbon tends to get so packed that it’s often hard to find a seat in one of the improvised street stalls that, amongst other foods, keep grilling sardines over charcoal thus perfuming the historical areas with a very particular smoked fish scent, which lasts for weeks! As the fish sits on top of the bread, the soft crumb absorbs the juices and fat from the sardine. The local ritual would be to first eat the fish around its bone (leaving the head behind is optional!), perhaps with a little aid of your fingertips if you’re a newbie at this kind of method, and once you are done with the fish, enjoy the bread that is now moist and tastier. Wash it all down with a chilled beer and you can almost start calling yourself a Lisbon local!

Sardines are so associated with this time of year and the Santos Populares festivities, that St. Anthony’s festival is often simply referred to in English as Lisbon’s Sardine Festival. The fish is indeed ubiquitous, not only in edible form, but also symbolically, in townsquare decorations, crafts and even merchandise such as the eye-catching sardine hats some vendors and party-goers wear to highlight the spirit of this event. But, when it comes to food, there’s more than sardines to be had in Lisbon during June’s commemorations.

These are the foods you must try in Lisbon during St. Anthony’s street parties:

Bifanas | Pork Sandwiches

The bifana is unofficially Portugal's national sandwich. It consists of tender pork steak tucked inside a crusty bread roll, optionally drizzled with mustard to taste just before you dig in. In eateries which specialize in this kind of Portuguese “fast food”, like the legendary As Bifanas do Afonso (Rua da Madalena 146, 1100-340 Lisbon) or O Trevo (Praça Luís de Camões 48, 1200-283 Lisbon) which was further popularized by Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, the pork would normally be slow cooked in a sauce prepared with lard, white wine, paprika, bay leaf and heaps of garlic. Technically, there is no one way of cooking a bifana, once the concept widely translates as cooked pork steak with bread. So during Lisbon’s street parties, you can expect BBQ bifanas, where the meat is seasoned beforehand, but later grilled over charcoal, just like sardines. This kind of bifana is still succulent, smokey and very satisfying if you feel like your hunger isn’t completely put to sleep by eating fish. Most food stalls will have mustard to add if you like your sandwiches saucy and with some extra tang, but don’t expect fancy dijon or grainy mustard here. A typical bifana will only be complete with intensely yellow regular mustard, coming out of a squeeze bottle.

Couratos | Pork Rinds

Portuguese food is rooted in peasant cooking, and that translates into a zero waste approach in the kitchen, or nose to tail use if the subject at hand is pork. Traditionally, we consume pork skin in a variety of preparations, such as pork cracklings deep-fried to crispy perfection, or torresmos, which include both skin and fat, and which can also be fried or compressed into a sliceable block somehow similar to a mortadella, to be cup up and used in sandwich making. The kind of pork rind you should keep an eye out for during Lisbon’s street parties are couratos. These consist of thick pig’s skin, which is grilled and served inside a bread bun, just like a bifana. To prepare couratos, the chunks of skin are firstly charred to burn remaining hair that may still be attached to the edible leather. Afterwards, flavor is infused via a marinade that usually involves garlic, bay leaf, salt, white wine and paprika, noting that red pepper paste, a very common item in Portuguese grocery stores, works better than paprika powder. After soaking up some flavor, the couratos are ready to hit the grill, to be enjoyed by those who don’t shy away from the type of sandwich which was once upon a time more popular, but that still packs a lot of taste, interesting texture, and some of the country’s food history too. Mustard is also optional but customary!

Chouriço Assado | Roasted Chorizo