Christmas and New Year in Portugal. Julie Dawn Fox

What Happens At Christmas And New Year In Portugal?

If you’re going to be spending Christmas and New Year in Portugal, either as an expat or on holiday, 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 (scroll down if you’re most interested in these).

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. In Portugal, Christmas 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 and head back to your people?

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.

Christmas tree in Lisbon, Portugal
Christmas tree in Lisbon, Portugal

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.

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. However, you won’t 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 spotted whole turkeys in Continente last year 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 brussel 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.

Port wine, of course, is plentiful. 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 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 often put on a special Christmas or New Year meal so look for these and book ahead.

Portuguese family Christmas

The Portuguese do things differently. Whereas in the UK, and the US, the main celebration of Christmas takes place on December 25th, it’s different here. The family dinner 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.

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 tradition has been banned for health and safety reasons. Whoever gets the slice with the broad bean provides the cake for the following year.

Stacks of Bolo Rei, Portuguese Christmas cakes
Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without a Bolo Rei. It’s more bready than cakey but filled with nuts and candied fruit.

Visiting Portugal at Christmas and New Year

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. 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.

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 so book ahead. January 1st is another day to work around as almost all museums, shops and businesses will be closed.

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.

Snow-covered tree and rocks, Serra da Estrela, Portugal
Snow-covered tree and rocks, Serra da Estrela

Christmas lights and decorations in Portugal

Although they were pared down due to the crisis, Christmas lights are a big thing in Portugal, especially in the cities, and most will be switched on by the end of November. São Martinho do Porto launched Europe’s biggest floating Christmas tree last year and celebrated with fireworks over the bay. 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 square, along with the tree.

Umbrella Christmas decorations
Creative Christmas decorations in Portugal

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 markets between the beginning of December and the 10th of January (check exact dates for specific events).

Óbidos transforms into a winter wonderland each year and the medieval village of Penela and Monsaraz become living nativity scenes (presépios). Time it right and you might catch a typical Portuguese festa in action while you’re there!

This is the video for the 2015 Penela Presépio:

If you’re in Lisbon, 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 is hosting Natalis, a massive Christmas market from 7th to 11th December 2016, as it does each year. As well as entertainment for all ages, there are workshops, competitions for best nativity scene and decorations and a Santa race. There’s also a series of classical music concerts in the city’s churches. Check out the agenda for Christmas concerts in Lisbon for 2016. The tree will be in Praça do Comércio and the best lights can usually be found along Rua Augusta and in Rossio.

Porto‘s got two ice rinks, one in Avenida dos Aliados, where the main Christmas tree and New Year celebrations will be and another in Praça de Mouzinho de Albuquerque. Support local artists by buying handmade crafts and art as gifts and decoration from the Artesanatus fair in Praça D. João I. If you shop here, or at other local shops, you’ll also get a voucher for free parking or the ice rinks. Porto’s 2016-2017 festive agenda (in Portuguese).

This agenda (in Portuguese) has all the activities planned for the festive season in Coimbra. The ‘tree’ will be in Largo da Portagem, although there’s a better one in Dolce Vita shopping centre.

As for the Algarve, various websites have information about Christmas markets, concerts and other events over the festive period, such as Algarve 24 and the Algarve 365 cultural events programme.

New Year’s Eve 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. Make a toast and wash them 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 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 offers some great New Year’s Eve celebrations too. 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. They haven’t had permission from the council yet but sometimes Castelo de São Jorge 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.

For the third year running, Porto is offering a free street party in Avenida dos Aliados with fireworks, DJs and big name musicians. In Coimbra, there’ll be a similar party going on in 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.

Many hotels and restaurants will offer packages for New Year’s Eve with meals, drinks, music and raisins included, or you can celebrate on a river cruise in Lisbon, Porto or the Douro Valley.

How will you be celebrating Christmas and New Year?

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23 Comments

  1. Amazing!! Thank you Julie this was very well written I’m looking forward to spending Christmas in Lisbon!

  2. Hi Julie. We are heading to estrela for new year 2017! Booked whilst flights are cheap as we will have family living out there by then. Was just wondering on the off chance if anyone knows of any good restaurants that can cater for gluten free as my son is coeliacs. Would be really grateful of any advice. Thanks x Tracey

  3. I was looking for expats’ take on Christmas in Portugal to pass on to my British friends and fortunately stumbled on Julie’s blog.
    Can I first apologise for the two nasty comments posted here by two people with (apparently) Portuguese names. They clearly did not understand the appreciative comments made by everybody else. And even if those comments had not been appreciative, maybe asking Santa/Jesus for a more robust ego that can take and learn from criticism could be a good idea. In any case, visitors to Portugal know that the average welcome here has absolutely nothing to do with that nastiness.
    Julie, I found your comments very insightful. Though less frantic than the likes of London, I find Xmas here in Lisbon frantic enough, but the fairy lights in the streets are beautiful this year, and there’s a videomapping show on the Terreiro do Paço façades again.
    One “correction”: the fava bean hidden in the bolo rei tradition lives on, you get it, you pay for next year’s cake. Only the trinket was banned for health & dafety reasons (children could choke on it – makes sense, though I never heard of a single case ever). And not only because of abstract EU. We don’t need the EU to come up with over-the-top H&S regulations, we can be very creative with our own (like bread in plastic bags in restaurants – thankfully scrapped in the meantime) – something I’m sure you can totally understand coming from the UK.
    Happy Christmas / Feliz Natal
    Rui

    1. Hi Rui, Thank you for taking the time to comment and for your support and corrections. I am glaf to hear that the fava bean tradition lives on. I prefer Bolo Rainha so perhaps that’s why I haven’t found one yet 🙂

  4. Hi Julie,
    A date/temperature display at Restauradores, Lisbon, while waiting for the Aerobus, showed 23 degrees at 4:15pm last Tuesday afternoon 15 December. Hot enough to give a north European a tan on some days. Besides the winter hot chestnut vendors, there was a family-oriented Christmas market on the Praça do Município, with entertainers, food and drinks, at affordable prices. Coffee at 80c, for example. At nearby Praca do Comercio the evening son-et-lumiere was a jaw dropping experience. I’ve never seen anything like it before. The ice rink installed there contained just water. Possibly too warm daytime for it to freeze. A treat perhaps, waiting for those visiting over the New Year. My usual jazz and blues venues in Bairro Alto, and meeting friends, just made this Lisbon visit a perfect seasonal break. Everywhere people were well behaved, even in the night-economy district of Bairro Alto. Low-key by British standards, yes. But all the better for that, I say. Garry

    1. Author

      Hi Garry, Thanks for sharing your experience. I also saw the melted ice rink but wasn’t able to catch the video mapping show in Praça do Comércio, unfortunately. It sounds as though you had a great time!

  5. Julie, thanks for your well-written and insightful articles. I am lucky enough to be able to hit Lisbon and surrounding areas for four days at the end of this year. This Texan loves to experience other cultures and will try the bike tour and hopefully take about 500 pictures. I was fortunate enough to have just completed a Viking River Cruise on the Rhine, so I can actually say that I have had my fabulous fill of Christmas markets (numbering in the dozens), I want to soak-in Portugal and it has taken me way too long to get there. Cheers, or Howdy from Texas!

    1. Author

      Hi John, I’m sure you’ll thoroughly enjoy it! And the light is often great for photography in Portugal.

  6. Hi Julie, thanks for your timely greeting here.
    I’m really looking forward to the low-key break, and to meeting my Alfacinha, Brazilian and Philipino friends sometime during next week. The Christmas emphasis in Portugal, as I see it, is on spiritual and family celebration, rather than the commercial razamataz that characterises much of the season in UK. This is to the greater credit of Portuguese people, I’d say. Your similar remarks on this matter chime for me. More broadly, I follow the political, economic, and social affairs of Portugal closely, and hope that my frequent visits contribute in a small way to the greater benefit of its economy, and to social inclusion there. Unsolicited remarks from residents and business people I’ve met with in Funchal, Lisbon, Porto and elsewhere, suggest I have indeed done so. I see some cultural and economic similarities between Portugal and my native Wales, and this interests me, compelling me to be an advocate for both, particularly with regard to economic development and cultural exchange.
    Season’s greetings to you Julie, Mike, your children, dog, and all bona fide bloggers. Garry

  7. Julie, I too share your disdain for Chrismas in UK. As a boy I was spoilt, and couldn’t wait for Christmas’s and birthdays. Now, as a retiree, I prefer to avoid both. I’ll be in Lisbon again next week, my fifth to Portugal this year, and look forward to the ‘low-key’ way that Portuguese people celebrate this event. I’m also planning a visit to Coimbra next February, or more likely March. Following a recent meeting with a postgrad student friend, where we talked about Portugal and our respective study journies, he too is planning a visit to Coimbra University next year. When I next email him I’ll bring your website to his attention.

    1. Scrooge Gary, get the hell out of our country, we don’t morons and idiots who want to destroy other people’s joys!

      1. Author

        Pyla, I think you’ve very much misunderstood Garry’s comment and there is absolutely no need for such a nasty response. It’s hardly an example of the joy and Christmas spirit you seem to want to protect!

    2. Author

      Hi Garry, Hope you’re having a great time in Lisbon, with or without the Christmas cheer 😉

  8. I spent 10 days last winter, just after Christmas, in Madeira to catch their New Years Festivities. I will admit I booked my flights 9 months in advance as I had to secure them. Being from Canada, I found that I was able to reap the savings! And we did. The total cost for 2 was what would have cost for one person, had we left it for last minute (and that’s if there are any seats) May I recommend renting a condominium, as we did. We were right on the main road, just up from Reids Palace. We walked every day, but bus service is frequent. Highly recommend New Years IN Madeira. Sure in Dubai, London etc, it may be more jolly, but for a small island, I tell you, I was amazed! This years will be so boring in comparison to 2015!

    1. Author

      Thanks for your suggestions, Hilda. It’s great to hear from those who’ve had first hand experience of these things. Like you, I’ll book way ahead of time if I do decide to go there for NYE.

  9. Thanks for the holiday info and links, Julie. I’m pretty Grinchy myself and really like the low key approach to Christmas but I also appreciate seeing how the holiday is celebrated in various countries. The artesan markets sound like a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to going to several. Anita

    1. Author

      I hope you enjoy them, Anita. You’ll find some great gifts, for sure.

  10. Lets be honest here – there’s bugger all to do in Portugal over Christmas! If you don’t want to experience Christmas, Portugal is a good place to go, but IMO, that’s a pity. Best get into the Christmas spirit in a different country. If you don’t like buying gifts for friends, an easy modern solution is to buy food and drinks from some of the nice shops that already offer them packaged nicely.

    1. Author

      Hi Eddie, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’m quite happy to ignore Christmas altogether so the low-key approach suits me just fine. But you’re right that those who are used to and like more activity will find it somewhat underwhelming.

  11. Wow! I really enjoyed this article, Julie. Crammed full of information about Portuguese Christmas traditions. Sounds to me like they have the right idea – one gets totally disillusioned with all the hype we’re fed in the UK, starting many weeks before the great event!

    1. Author

      Hi Vivienne, I’m quite a bah humbug so I like that Christmas doesn’t intrude too much in Portugal. Although I end up going back to the UK most years, it’s only because of family and not because I want the hype. Last year was lovely!

      1. Get a life woman!
        Cynics should leave Portugal, we don’t need any more!

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