Many visitors to Portugal head straight for the Algarve resorts of the south or the capital city of Lisbon, on the Atlantic east coast. But there is much to discover besides, from the historic cities of Evora, Tomar and Abrantes to the bustling centre of Porto, set in a picturesque location right at the mouth of the Douro River.
Portuguese tradition defines Porto as the ‘city that works while Lisbon plays’, but this belies its attractions as a cultural touristic destination in its own right. Wide squares, waterfront promenades and majestic architecture characterise this historic city, which is home to one of Portugal’s oldest and most famous universities, its largest football stadium and some of the most charming bars and eateries in the country.
All these things provide reason enough to make the journey to Porto. Plan your trip for June, however, and a wealth of surprises and celebrations await you.
Porto comes alive during the month of June to mark the Festival of Sao Joao, culminating during the final week with a celebration of such large scale that it is commonly accepted to be the biggest event in the Portuguese calendar and the most significant Festival of Sao Joao to be held anywhere in the world.
The Sao Joao tradition goes back more than six centuries and is said to have its roots in the summer solstice. It is celebrated in many countries around the world, but it was during the 19th century that it grew into the large-scale party that these days consumes Porto for the best part of a month.
The Porto celebration is distinguished by a bizarre ritual that sees revellers hit each other on the heads with large, colourful, plastic hammers. No-one quite knows why, but the practice is believed to have its roots in ancient romantic pagan traditions.
The party atmosphere builds throughout the month before reaching its final crescendo on the night of 23 June with an all-night party. Attractions include street parties, open-air concerts, a series of impromptu barbecues selling freshly grilled sardines to hungry plastic-hammer wielding party-goers fuelled by Portuguese beer and Port wine and an enormous firework display at midnight.
For some this would mark the end of the night, however it is fairly common for people of all ages to remain in the streets, dancing until the early hours. For the hard core the perfect end to a perfect evening is marked by a walk along the Ribeira – the riverside walk, all the way out to the mouth of the Douro at Foz, to watch the sun rise over the sea and even take a dip in the cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
Porto is easily accessed by direct flights from all over Europe and by high-speed rail services from Spain and other Portuguese locations, and makes the perfect destination either for a long weekend break or as part of a longer stay to discover the hidden gems of the western Iberian Peninsula.