• 2018.06.26
  • The Sardine Festival
The Feast of St. Anthony is a festival held on June 12th in Lisbon. It’s also known as the Sardine Festival by the Japanese.
As the name says, sardines are grilled here and there in the old district of Lisbon. It’s a day when Lisbon is enveloped in the aroma of sardines.

St. Anthony is known outside of Portugal as St. Anthony of Padua, but that name was given in association with the fact that he died in Padua, Italy. In fact, he was born in Lisbon and is the city’s patron saint. Today, a small church stands on the spot where he was born.
Apparently, he was extremely popular in his lifetime and was exceptionally talented at preaching God’s teachings. Perhaps because of this, legend says that when his grave was dug up 30 years after his death only his tongue was still fresh like that of a living person.
St. Anthony is often depicted with a white lily to represent his purity, with a book, and holding Jesus Christ in one arm. He is also known in Portugal as the symbol of lovers/marriage, and sardines.

In connection with this, during the Feast of St. Anthony lovers exchange miniature potted plants of basil, which represents love. At the Se Cathedral in Lisbon, every year on this day a joint wedding ceremony is held for a dozen couples chosen by the city. About a week before the festival, the ban on sardines is lifted and they’re caught in the port on a large scale. Then, charcoal grills for sardines begin appearing.
This Sardine Festival is most lively in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon where St. Anthony was born. Restaurants and cafés in Alfama, the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, line the stone-paved streets with tables and grill sardines over charcoal.
Not to be outdone, residents set up charcoal braziers in entrances to their homes, grill sardines, and sell cold beers chilled in their refrigerators to people who came to the festival to make some pocket money.

From dinnertime, in an instant the rough, maze-like, narrow streets of Alfama are flowing with smoke, the smell of sardines, and the people enjoying them.

Char-grilled sardines in Portugal are simply sprinkled with coarse salt and grilled, but they’re truly delicious! If seated at a table, they’re ordered by the dozen (12 sardines) or half dozen (6 sardines). Japanese people would think that’s a lot, but 8 of them can easily be gobbled up.
When bought on the side of the road, the sardines are placed between bread to make a sardine sandwich or put on top of sliced bread. When served like that, they’re eaten in a really unique way. The thumb and forefinger are used like chopsticks to break up the sardine on the bread and eat it. Additional helpings are placed on that same piece of bread, and when you’re finished eating sardines, you eat the bread “plate” that has soaked up plenty of sardine drippings.
No sauce is used, but the sardines taste so good! Every year, the sardine season is eagerly anticipated.

The other day when I went out at night in Lisbon, preparations for the festival were already under way. Just like in the photo, it’s common for the Portuguese people to drink in the streets (shops are empty), but on the day of the Sardine Festival streets everywhere are super crowded! The entire city becomes a bar or club. In the packed streets people eat, drink, and are engulfed in smoke.
That continues all night. Yes—right up until morning…


  • Megumi Ota
  • JobConservator, interpreter, and coordinator / Insitu (restoration), Kaminari-sama / Novajika, and others

I’m a conservator and preservationist living in Portugal. I specialize primarily in paintings (murals) and gold leaf design, and am involved with UNESCO World Heritage structures as well as the interior of the Palace of Belém. I derive great satisfaction from having close ties to my community in the rural village near the Silver Coast where I live. My hobby is gardening.

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