A visit just before Christmas is the perfect time to stock up on artisan gifts, delicious wines and ports, and enjoy the festive atmosphere. Or stay for Christmas and New Year and be treated to wonderful traditions and thrilling firework displays.
- Three times awarded Best Destination in Europe
- Thousands of charms to discover in the capital of Northern Portugal
- Besides history and culture, Porto is also leisure, fun and night life
Advent Traditions and Cuisine
The streets across Northern Portugal are usually twinkling with Christmas lights by the end of November. In Porto, landmarks such as the city’s iconic baroque Torre dos Clérigos and the impressive Porto City Hall are bedecked in festive decorations and the city will be lit with colourful illuminations. The historic Avenida dos Aliados brims with festive cheer; here you’ll find one of Porto’s two seasonal outdoor ice rinks and the city’s Christmas tree.
It’s an atmospheric time of year to see the historic downtown area and wander the grand avenues and winding cobbled streets, browsing artisan shops, and admiring windows filled with seasonal delicacies, such as the glittering, fruit-studded Bolo Rei cakes. High-up on your wish-list has to be a trip to the huge and beautiful Livraria Lello, the historic bookshop said to have inspired JK Rowling’s conception of Hogwart’s library, and the boutique shops of the Ribeira district.
By mid-December Porto is bustling with street markets and the Feira do Artesanato do Porto craft market, where designers show off their artwares. Or head over the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to sample wonderful ruby ports and other seasonal tipples in one of the many historic lodges of port producers that line the waterfront, their names emblazoned across their rooftops.
In Portugal, presents arrive at midnight on December 24. On this day, families will gather together for the traditional feast of salted cod, potatoes and greens before observing the traditional missa do Galo Christmas mass. In local churches, Jesus is kissed by each member of the congregation before being placed in the crib in the nativity scene.
Elsewhere, the village of Vale do Porco in the green, mountainous Brangança region in the far northeast of Portugal celebrates with a huge bonfire on December 24. Festa do Velho has its roots in ancient Pagan celebrations and logs are collected around the village before the bonfire is lit and the celebrations begin.
You will like
- Enjoy the traditional Christmas Eve feast of bacalhau (cod), potatoes, greens, and olive oil
- Dig into warm French toasts, sweet custard tarts and other local delicacies
- Hear the traditional seasonal songs, or ‘Janeiras’, throughout early January
- Sample the traditional Epiphany delicacy Bolo Rei – cake of Kings!
Christmas Day & St Stephen’s Day
Shops, restaurants and tourist sites will close early on December 24 and won’t reopen until December 26, so if you are staying over the Christmas period make sure you stock up with groceries – or book a table in a hotel restaurant in advance.
On December 25, lunch is traditionally Roupa Velha, directly translated as ‘old clothes’. This is a dish constructed from leftovers from the night before, before meats are roasted for dinner. Traditionally, this would have been roast lamb or goat in most parts of northern Portugal, but today turkey is often on the menu. Tables heave with sweet treats, nuts and fruit for snacking as well as decorations of holly and coloured ribbons.
In some rural communities, in the forested hillsides of Portugal’s northeast, the celebrations spill over into December 26. In Trás-os-Montes, close to the Montesinho national park, the festival of Festa dos Rapazes is a lively celebration of the region’s young men, with races, dances, masks and the sharing of a loaf of bread in the town square. Other local villages, including Grijó de Parada, Parada, Serapicos, Agrochão, Babe, Rio d’Onor, and Ousilhão, celebrate St Stephen’s Day on December 26 with a festive party.
Happy New Year!
New Year is a family celebration, with parties and fireworks. Herald in a new year full of good luck by eating 12 raisins at midnight, washed down with some celebratory Espumante.
Many Portuguese cities have impressive New Year fireworks displays and, in this, Porto is no exception. Head to the Douro river to be among a crowd of thousands watching the colourful fireworks on the river, close to Ribeira. Or, on Avenida dos Aliados, there are more concerts and fireworks in Porto’s downtown area.
Restaurants will be busy, so book in advance. Or why not enjoy a river cruise up the Douro river? A perfect way to enjoy the riverside fireworks from the comfort of your own deck.
What you need to know
- Do say ‘Feliz Natal’ – Happy Christmas!
- Book restaurants in advance – many will be closed on Christmas Day and all will be busy at New Year
- Best spots for watching Porto’s New Year fireworks include the riverside in Ribeira or Avenida dos Aliados by City Hall
- Head to Porto’s Avenida dos Aliados on the first Saturday of January to hear the soul-warming sounds of traditional singing
- In Portugal, presents arrive at midnight on December 24th
Kings’ Day on January 6 is almost as important a day as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; it marks Epiphany and the arrival of the three Kings at Jesus’ side. Some Portuguese children will receive gifts on this day, to symbolise the presents given to the baby Jesus by the Kings.
This is the day to enjoy a warm, freshly baked Bolo Rei from a local Pastelaria. This heavenly-scented ring of brioche pastry with port wine and dried and crystallised fruit is a colourful delicacy, traditionally packed with symbolic goodies. Homemade versions may contain a good luck charm, and all will have a broad bean hidden somewhere inside; its finder will be tasked with baking the cake the following year.
What to do
At this time of year, Porto’s streets aren’t only full of tempting wafts of freshly baked fruity brioche dough; they swirl with the sounds of choral singing of the Janeiras, or traditional January songs.
Across the region, between January 1 and January 6, you may encounter groups of musicians in the streets, dressed in traditional garb, singing Janeiras to the assembled crowds. In Porto, head to the square in front of the historic City Hall to enjoy traditional Janeiras on the first Saturday of the month to hear the crisp January air come alive with this local tradition.