If you’re going to be spending Christmas in Portugal, or New Year, and don’t know what to expect, this post is for you. Find out how and where to celebrate, how the Portuguese do things and what events are going on during the festive season, updated for 2021.
Portuguese family Christmas
The Portuguese celebrate Christmas differently from the traditional turkey lunch that you or I might be familiar with.
Whereas in the UK, and the US, the main celebration of Christmas takes place on December 25th, it’s different here. So is Portuguese Christmas food.
The traditional Portuguese Christmas dinner (known as consoada or Ceia de Natal) of bacalhau (cod), special cabbage and potatoes plus a mountain of cakes and sweet things happens on 24th, as does the exchange of gifts and deliveries from Santa/Jesus. For Portuguese families in the north of Portugal, octopus may be the main Christmas fare, rather than cod.
Note: You can learn how to make 5 traditional Portuguese Christmas desserts, including my favourite, Rabanada, from a 5th generation baker. Find out more.
At midnight, those that want to can attend a Christmas mass where they admire the nativity scene and kiss the baby Jesus.
The 25th is a day to sleep late, have another family meal, this time with a meat dish, and relax as almost everything is closed (museums, restaurants, shops). By the 26th, it’s business as usual.
Portuguese Christmas cake
Known as Bolo Rei (King Cake), this is a far cry from the heavy brandy-laced fruitcakes I grew up with. These are a ring of brioche pastry with port wine, filled and topped with dried and crystallised fruit.
They contain a broad bean and used to hide a little good luck charm but that Portuguese Christmas tradition has been banned for health and safety reasons. Whoever gets the slice with the broad bean provides the cake for the following year.
I much prefer the Bolo Rainha (Queen cake), which substitutes the Bolo Rei’s dried fruit for nuts.
You can learn how to make both of these traditional Portugeuse Christmas cakes via an online baking class run by an authentic Portuguese bakery.
Visiting Portugal at Christmas and New Year
Normally, if you’re holidaying in Portugal over the Christmas period, you’ll find the only disruption to your sightseeing and shopping will be on 24th and 25th December and 1st January. On 24th, businesses will close early, if they open at all, and almost everything will be closed on 25th.
If you’re in Lisbon, Porto or the Algarve, you should be able to find a few Indian or Chinese restaurants open but it would be wise to plan and book ahead rather than leave your evening meal to chance. 5-star hotel restaurants will be open, and some 4-star but it always pays to check.
Either book into a hotel with an onsite restaurant or consider self-catering if you’ll have time to stock up on groceries before supermarkets close, ideally on 23rd.
I’ll go into more detail about New Year’s Eve celebrations later but suffice to say that restaurants will likely be more expensive and busier than usual on 31st and many will have a set menu and include the sultanas and espumante (Portuguese sparkling wine) so book ahead.
January 1st is another day to work around as almost all museums, shops and businesses will be closed.
For more information about visiting Portugal in winter, see this post.
White Christmas in Portugal
If it’s not Christmas without snow for you, you need to be heading for the Serra da Estrela in central Portugal, the country’s only ski resort.
The hotels here will have special packages for the festive period so you can snuggle up in front of a log fire and gaze out at the white wilderness.
Otherwise, you’d be better off heading to somewhere like Austria for a white Christmas.
Christmas lights and decorations in Portugal
Christmas lights are a big thing in Portugal, especially in the cities, and most will be switched on by the end of November.
Águeda, the town in central Portugal that’s become known for its umbrellas in the streets during the summer months, boasts the world’s biggest Santa (in lights, not human).
Elsewhere, decorations vary from the sublime to the ridiculous with many smaller towns proudly displaying the recycling feats of local schoolchildren. As you might expect, the biggest and best lights will be in the main squares and shopping areas, along with the tree.
Christmas in Lisbon is usually a twinkly affair. Lisbon’s biggest tree is usually in Praça do Comércio, aka Terreiro do Paço with a smaller one in Rossio and the best lights can usually be found along Rua Augusta and in Rossio square.
The main Christmas tree in Porto is usually outside the City Hall at the top of Avenida dos Aliados and will be switched on on 1st December.
Coimbra’s ‘tree’ tends to be in Largo da Portagem, although there’s usually a better one in Alma shopping centre near the stadium. The whole downtown area is alight and shimmering with colour.
Christmas concerts and events in Portugal
I said that Christmas is relatively understated in Portugal but by no means is it ignored. Several places around the country go all out with fairs, events, nativity scenes, ice rinks and Christmas markets between the end of November and around the 10th of January (check exact dates for specific events).
Christmas markets and events in Lisbon
If you’re in Lisbon at Christmas, seek out some of the 17th and 18th century nativity scenes made for the aristocracy at Estrela Basilica, Mártires Basilica, Lisbon Cathedral, the National Museum of Ancient Art and the National Tile Museum. They’re not to my taste at all but are remarkably detailed.
Lisbon‘s exhibition centre hosts Natalis, a massive Christmas market, between 24th and 28th November 2021. As well as entertainment for all ages, there are workshops, competitions for best nativity scene and decorations and a Santa race.
The main Christmas market this year is in Campo Pequeno in Lisbon (29th November to 2nd December 2021)
There are usually a couple of candlelight concerts in December so check Lisbon’s Cultural Agenda nearer the time to see what’s on.
Wonderland Lisboa is a massive Christmas fair with free entry in Eduardo VII park open from 1st December to 2nd January with music, fun fair rides, food and drink, ice rink and a cave plus other seasonal entertainment. Monday to Thursday Noon to 9 pm, Fridays midday to midnight, Saturdays and Holidays 10 am to midnight, Sunday 10 am to 10 pm, December 24th and 31st 10 am to 4 pm, December 25th and January 1st 4 to 10 pm.
Christmas in Porto
Porto usually officially lights up on 1st December 2021 with a city-wide party to mark the occasion, with most of the fun happening in Avenida dos Aliados where the main Christmas tree is.
Porto usually has two ice rinks, one in Praça Dom João I and another in Praça de Mouzinho de Albuquerque. As for Porto Christmas markets, there are usually three main ones to choose from:
Mercado da Alegria, in front of Santo Ildefonso church and Praça da Batalha is open with various stalls selling crafts and Portuguese products as well as entertainment. For hand made arts and crafts, head to Largo Amor de Perdição, in Cordoaria between December 8th and 23rd 2021.
Christmas events in other parts of Portugal
There are ordinarily too many Christmas markets and fairs to cover them all in detail but 2020 has changed all that! There are still a few, carefully managed events taking place though.
Cascais Christmas Village transforms the gorgeous Parque Marechal Carmona into a festive scene with stalls, rides, live nativity scene, ice rink, giant Christmas tree and performances.
As for the Algarve at Christmas, various websites, such as this events listing (in Portuguese) have information about events over the festive period.
Óbidos transforms into a winter wonderland between 30th November 2021 and 2nd January 2022 – you can buy tickets online.
The medieval villages of Penela and Monsaraz become living nativity scenes (presépios).
This is the video for the Penela Presépio in central Portugal, to give you an idea of what would normally happen:
Many smaller towns and cities in Portugal have Christmas activities. This website (in Portuguese but if you use Chrome, you can rightclick to translate into English) has details of what’s likely to be on offer this year.
Expat Christmas dilemmas
Compared to the UK, Christmas celebrations in Portugal can seem rather short and low-key, leaving some people unsatisfied and others relieved. Christmas in Portugal really is a family affair so if you’re away from yours it might seriously affect your enjoyment of it. For good or bad!
So, should you stay in the relative warmth of your adopted country or wrap up warm (depending on where you’re from) and head back to your people, assuming that’s possible?
My own family commitments have meant that I’ve spent most Christmases back in the UK, in a whirl of visits to family and friends. I’m not a fan of the festive period and find the whole experience quite exhausting and stressful. I would much rather see my loved ones at different times of the year but it’s not entirely up to me.
If you do plan to travel back to your home country, all I can say is book your flights/transport well in advance to get a good deal and keep your fingers crossed that snow doesn’t interfere with your travel plans.
Have a British Christmas in Portugal
If you’re staying in Portugal and want to celebrate the way you’re used to, it’s possible to get most things here. Especially if you’re willing to order online or get friends to send you things like crackers. Now that Amazon.es do free delivery to Portugal (if you order over €29 or €19 in books), it should be much easier to stock up on all your Christmas needs.
Real Christmas trees are available in Portugal but you have to be quick to nab one. They tend to go on sale relatively early so don’t leave it until the last minute. You can buy all the tinsel, baubles and other Christmas decorations you could ever want from high street stores. Christmas cards, however, are still a novelty, although they are becoming more available.
Nor will you find crackers, cranberry sauce or mincemeat/mince pies readily available, except perhaps in the expat enclaves in the Algarve or ‘foreign’ grocery stores in larger cities/’food for Brits’ style market stalls. Order these online from British Corner Shop if needs be.
I have seen whole turkeys in Continente and other supermarkets but you could just buy smaller pieces from the butcher if you don’t need that much.
You may be lucky enough to track down some fresh Brussels sprouts, although they are most likely to be frozen ones. Parsnips are a rare find and you’ll be lucky to find frozen ones if you don’t plan ahead. We tried growing some one year but they were rubbish. Other people have been more successful though. Try your local market.
Port wine, of course, is plentiful and delicious so don’t limit yourself to traditional rubies – read more about Portuguese drinks. and use the occasion to try some new flavours. If you want mulled wine, you’ll probably have to make your own.
Stilton is usually available in places like El Corte Inglês or larger supermarket chains. There are plenty of other blue cheese alternatives and Portuguese cheese, especially the runny stuff, is wonderful so why not make the most of it.
If you feel like mixing in a few other Portuguese Christmas treats, this list of traditional festive fare may help.
If you’re alone or would prefer a larger group of people to celebrate with, expat-oriented restaurants and fancy hotels often put on a special Christmas or New Year meal so look for these and book ahead.
How to celebrate New Year in Portugal
The Portuguese way to bring in the New Year is by eating 12 raisins, one for each month, and making a wish with each one. What you won’t see is another tradition which is based on the colour of your underwear. Depending on what you most desire for the coming year, choose your knickers with care:
- Red for love and passion
- Yellow for good fortune and prosperity
- Blue for good health
- White for peace and happiness
- Black brings bad luck!
Many hotels and restaurants typically offer packages for New Year’s Eve with meals, drinks, music and raisins included. These are usually advertised from early December.
These set dinners can be quite expensive so what many local people do is buy a bottle of bubbly and pack of raisins (or sultanas) beforehand and gather in a public square (see below) to join in the celebrations and watch fireworks.
Whoever you’re with, this is how you celebrate the Portuguese way: on the stroke of midnight, make a toast and wash the raisins down with some espumante (sparkling wine) then enjoy the fireworks before dancing, and eating, the night away.
Funchal in Madeira has the most famous firework displays in Portugal but last time I looked, hotels in Funchal were pretty much booked up although more flights have been laid on. Your best bet if you haven’t booked way ahead is to try the travel agents to get a package deal.
Mainland Portugal usually offers some great New Year’s Eve celebrations too so hopefully you can enjoy one of these while you’re here.
Update December 2021: Given the rise in Covid cases, many towns and cities are cancelling their NYE celelbrations to avoid large crowds gathering so check before basing any travel plans around this.
People gather in various parts of Lisbon for fireworks and DJs. Praça do Comércio offers great views of the fireworks over the River Tejo but you can also have fun in Parque das Nações, near the Torre de Belém or across the river in Almada.
Sometimes Castelo de São Jorge (St. George’s Castle) opens its gates to allow revellers to see the firework displays from all across the city. If you want to party the first few hours of the new year in the streets, Bairro Alto and Cais do Sodre are the places to be.
Porto puts on a free street party in Avenida dos Aliados with fireworks, DJs and big name musicians. In Coimbra, a similar party spreads out around Largo da Portagem.
The place to be in the Algarve is Praia dos Pescadores (Fisherman’s Beach) in Albufeira, where the fireworks are followed by a concert, although there is plenty of fun to be had in Tavira, Portimão, Faro and other major towns.
Further up the coast in the Alentejo, you can join outdoor revellers in Vila Nova de Milfontes, Sines and Porto Covo.
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