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Should You Get Hammered in Porto?

Lit paper balloons, balões de São João in the evening sky over buildings in Porto.
Lanterns dotting the sky above Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto, and the Dom Luis 1 bridge.

How do you get hammered in Porto, Portugal? By partying with the locals on June 23rd at the Festa de São João. That’s how. No binge drinking is required, though we do recommend imbibing some sangrias, local wines, or Super Bock beer that night because they’re delicious. 

Festa de São João (St. John’s Festival) is Porto’s biggest party of the year and its most anticipated. Traditional foods like sardines, bifanas, and caldo verde, are on most menus along with the above-mentioned libations. There’s music, dancing, and revelry befitting a celebration that honors the patron saint of love, loyalty, and friendships*. 

As dusk takes the sky, a few lit paper balloons, balões de São João, hover above the city, making it feel as if you’re in a fairytale. At midnight, fireworks light up the night. When you go to São João, be sure to hydrate and arm yourself with a hammer.

Arm yourself with a hammer?

Yes, arm yourself with a hammer. You’ll need it. When I told my daughter about the hammering that goes on at São João, she worried about Chris and me. “Be safe out there.” 

The hammer used on São João is soft, with two faces, and it squeaks as you tap others on the head with it. Some people bow their heads slightly when receiving a tap to the head, but most do not – they’re too busy doing the same to others, dancing, and having a grand time. 

Melissa outside the WOW museum in VIla Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro River from Porto. She has two martelinhos de São João, or St. John’s hammers sticking out of her grey backpack.

Festa São João originated in the 14th century. Over the years, the celebration has evolved. For example, it started out pagan and became Christian. People didn’t always hit one another with martelinhos de São João, or St. John’s hammers. For centuries people hit one another with leeks and cloves of garlic. Somewhere between the 1960s and 1970s, a plastics manufacturer sold the hammers to university students, and voila – hammering and getting hammered became part of one of Europe’s biggest street parties. That’s the story. 

Chris and I tend to be shy travelers, and we are doubly shy when we aren’t confident in the local language. Being tapped on the head with hammers and returning the taps made us feel connected to strangers. It was a kind of dance of being seen and seeing that required next to no coordination. We loved it.

How to Prep for Porto’s Biggest Party - São João

Beyond arming yourself with a martelinhos de São João, which you can pick up at a wide variety of shops throughout the city, there are a few things you need to do if you plan to visit Porto during São João (prior preparation prevents piss-poor partying):

  1. Book your hotel or vacation stay well in advance. São João in Porto is one of Portugal’s biggest celebrations. Hotel rooms and vacation rentals will be hard to come by if you procrastinate.
  2. Make dinner or party reservations at least a few weeks in advance.
  3. When you make your dinner or party reservations, make them for the same side of the Douro River that your hotel or vacation rental is on. It’s easy to do. Porto is on one side of the river. Vila Nova de Gaia is on the other. They’re two separate cities, but if you’re a tourist in Porto during São João, they feel like the same. Trust me, you don’t want to make the same mistake we did. We lived on the Porto side, but I made São João reservations on the Vila Nova de Gaia side.  If we are lucky enough to return to Porto for São João, I hope to stay at The Yeatman

How We Celebrated São João

We booked tickets to the WOW (World of Wine) Cultural District’s  São João party because we thought it’d be a tourist-friendly way to ease our way into celebrating São João. We also thought there would be more expats and tourists there. It was tourist-friendly in the way that most everything in Portugal is – people in Porto are incredibly kind, open, and social. We didn’t encounter any expats or tourists that evening, which surprised us.

You can see how we celebrated and how our night went in our video:

São João in Porto is a bucket-list-worthy experience that offers a glimpse into the heart and soul of Portugal. Feel free to share your own São João stories with us or ask us any questions about our experience. You can connect with us on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for more travel and food inspiration. 

Happy travels!

*São João (Saint John) is also the patron saint of authors. 

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