Mid-June's St. Anthony Feast beckoned us to the Portuguese coastal capital as the first destination of our 3-city tour.
I had no idea what this festival was all about, but I rested assured with the notion that Shana wouldn't base an itinerary around it unless it was worth it. St. Anthony is Lisbon's patron saint, or the city's most regarded Catholic priest, from centuries past. The city honors the good St. Ant annually with a remarkable, incredibly turned up, 3-day long holiday in Alfama, Lisbon's most historic quarter.
One of the many wonderful things about our hostel was that it offered a free walking tour, letting us feel out the European gem on our first full day before partaking in its biggest holiday. Led by one of the hostel staff members, we ventured by foot to the quaint, vintage neighborhoods that give Lisbon so much character. I quickly came to appreciate how breezy & harmonious it felt. We were in the heart of the city, yet there was no frenzied hustle & bustle like you'd find in NYC or I imagine London.
We were guided through Alfama's winding streets and hills while we learned interesting Portuguese stories. The mini maze of a neighborhood is lined with never-ending colorful little shops, restaurants, and apartments. I loved the classic European architecture, the cobblestone streets, the hidden mom & pops tucked away in pockets and around corners...I was strolling through a scene from a story book without a care in the world.
Even the simplest things like walking through a foreign city, leaving my footprints along its paths, and learning the unique culture of its people gives me that addicting travel rush; it was euphoric just to soak it all in.
Does anyone else feel that way when traveling?
I learned more about St. Anthony of Padua when our tour brought us right outside the old priest’s birthplace, the Church of Saint Anthony. Our knowledgeable guide explained that he is regarded by Portuguese as the romance/matchmaker saint, who women pray to in hopes of finding love. She prepared us for what to expect from the Feast, and for the seaside city's quirky obsession with sardines -- which would apparently be in abundance during the grand occasion.
Towards the end of our tour, we sauntered onward and upward to the top-of-the-hill Graça district, where the story book landscape came to a picturesque height. We took in the tranquil views overlooking all of Lisbon for a few moments of admiration and picture snapping before heading off to browse Feira de Ladra, the world infamous antique market.
Lisbon’s lanes in old-town Alfama became adorned with more festive ornaments as the day continued. Bright streamers draped overhead across second and third story balconies. Shop owners set up their multicolored mini bar stations for tap pouring and sardine grilling right outside their storefronts. We could tell that locals were ready to bring on the festivities!
I'd done a bit of research, but nothing could have given an accurate depiction of St. Anthony's Feast anywhere near like being there for myself in the flesh.
Both later that night and all over again the next night, nearly everyone in the hostel - guests and staff included - headed to Alfama in a huge group to hit the decorated streets and party like the Portuguese. It was a celebration that NO ONE in Lisbon missed out on. What had just appeared as a relatively easy going and uncrowded city by day had transformed into a massive parade by nightfall as people flocked to the city center.
We stopped at one particular bar stall upon our arrival, where one of my hostelmates (pictured below) bought a round of shots about 12 feet long for all of us to get us started. He stood on the table and shouted a toast and instantly turned up everyone who stood near -- he was such a character.
We wandered through the Feast going any and every which way with the army of Lisbonites. There were festival stands outside nearly each street-side restaurant, where they were also blasting Portuguese fado music, serving plenty of beer on tap, and grilling various edibles, including LOTS of sardines. Everywhere we turned, from the wide avenues to the narrow alleyways, there were people surrounding us, happily conversing, dancing, laughing, and swimming in a sea of jubilation.
We ducked into a cafe and tipsily chatted with locals. I met a nice Portuguese guy who renamed me Cristina. We swapped stories about my life in the US and his life in Portugal. He said America was a scary place that he'd never want to live in -- let's just say his perception of Americans wasn't the most positive, but he took a liking to me at least.
Back outside, we infiltrated the masses once again. Stoked crowds gathered around to cheer on a group of young magicians, erupting into a round of applause in awe of their illusions and fire tricks. I couldn’t believe the amount of people that had filled the entire district. Imagine a block party on steroids (with lots of sardines). There was so much LIFE reverberating throughout the community, and it went on for hours! We lost ourselves (we were literally lost inside the twist-turny streets, but it was okay because anywhere we walked, the party was all around us), soaking in the festival’s joyous energy.
Although this took place for me over a year ago, I can easily close my eyes and let the memories induce my spirit. With the city’s rich history, appealing architecture, laid-back dynamic but unbelievably energetic alter ego during the holiday, it’s so easy to fall in love with Lisbon.
I suggest everyone add a visit to Portugal and attending this festival to their travel to-do list. Thank me later!! It’s an experience you will never forget.
Of course my stay was all too short; I have no doubts that I’ll return to explore a whole lot more of Lisbon and be sure to add the south of Portugal this time around.
A few other highlights include:
A little beach escape, 30 minutes by train just outside of Lisbon.
On our way back, we stopped at the Belém Tower along the Tagus River, and marveled the “Monument of Discoveries” - statue of explorers by Leopoldo de Almeida.
A late afternoon trip to Sintra,
a very charming UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here in Sintra is an extension of Portugal’s intriguing culture & history, in a less urbanized environment than its capital, Lisbon. It’s home to palaces and a huge (very authentic) castle -- unfortunately, Shana & I got there too late in the day to visit. The history geek in me would have loved it, I’m sure. I still enjoyed wandering around Sintra as well as having a delicious salmon steak dinner at a local cafe that we had all to ourselves.
True to its old town feel, classic trolleys clatter up and down Lisbon’s hills. We took a breezy round trip ride on Tram 28, its most popular route, to enjoy the capital's best sights.
Have you got any city-specific festival memories? Now I'm excited to go to more around the world!
Read the full story: My Graduation Escapade: Traveling Across the World with a Stranger; Budget Breakdown: What Two Weeks in Europe Cost Me; Checking in: Becoming Acquainted with Hostel Life (Yes! Lisbon); Bar-Say-Lona Lovin' | Sónar Music Festival; Beaching, Biking, and Basking Barcelona; Island + Party Life: Ibiza Style