Aggiornato il: 25 nov 2020
The city of Lisbon is likely to conjure images of narrow alleys, crumbling ancient buildings and old yellow trams, ascending slowly steep streets. First-time tourists usually spend most of their time in the Baixa/Alfama area, where the only open space is the Praça do Comercio, a sort of unofficial meeting point for foreign visitors and slightly notorious for its tourist-traps restaurants and bars. It is definitely worth a visit, but once you get that out of your system there is also another Lisbon, more open and modern to be visited and cherished.
Moving north from the centre of Lisbon there is the newish area of the Feira International de Lisboa, built in 1998 for the World Fair and to the south-west the more historical Belém district.
You can get easily to the World Fair neighbourhood by metro, with the red line, direction Airport. The stop is Oriente, which is also a railway and bus terminal. Once outside the modern station you will face the Parque das Nações, a 5 km-wide strip which includes among other features: the shopping mall Vasco da Gama; several exhibition pavilions; the Altice concert Arena; a marine museum (Oceanário de Lisboa) and a panoramic cable car.
If you want to stay in the area, several high-raising, high-end hotels are also available around Oriente station, some boasting top floor bars with spectacular view on the bay.
The year 1998 was selected to host the World Fair in Portugal to mark the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India in 1498 and the theme was “The Oceans, a Heritage for the Future”. The fair was a huge success, attracting over 10 million visitors. Another permanent reminder of the event is the bridge across the Tagus river, not surprisingly named Vasco da Gama. With its 12,3 km the bridge is the longest in Europe and one of the main features in the Parque’s landscape.
Taking a stroll along the marina from south to north, you might be tempted to visit the Oceanario and then proceed towards the gardens Jardim Garcia de Orta, enjoying the sights of the deep blue water and the many seagulls flying around. A tour on the cable car is strongly recommended. You can then stop for a drink and a bite in one of the several bars along the bay and then visit the shopping centre. You can start the evening sipping a cocktail on a sky bar and then go for dinner to one of the many international restaurants in the area.
The Belém district has been standing way longer. From the terminal metro station of Cais do Sodré you can catch a local train which will cover the 5km of distance to Belém from the Baixa in 7 minutes and three stops or you can take tram n. 15, which will however meander slowly for at least twenty minutes to cover the same distance. Even slower but cheaper is bus 728, which usually gets very crowded by locals.
Travelling by train you can stop at Alcantara-Mar to visit the Museum of Oriental Art. It is usually not very crowded because outside the main tourist path, but you can find in display some wonderful artefacts from the whole Far East, inclusive of a large collection of Inro, the traditional Japanese cases for holding small objects, to wear suspended from the obi.
Once in Belém, take a minute to breath in the magnificent landscape on the Tagus river, then walk from the gardens to the Palacio de Belém, the pink building which is the official residence of the President of Portugal. A little further on, you will find the unmissable Fabric dos Pastéis de Belém. A long queue of tourists is usually waiting patiently to enter and taste the special pastéis. If you know Portugal even just a little you are probably familiar with the national cake, the pastel de nata of which the Pastéis de Belém is a more aristocratic version. You need to taste at least one to acknowledge the difference between the ordinary nata and this more exclusive pastéis.
When you are done with filling your stomach, you will probably feel strong enough to visit the Jeronimos Monastery. Its construction started in 1501, funded by the 5% tax on the import of spices and its completion took around a hundred years. Since the project started under King Manuel, the ornate style incorporating maritime themes is known as Manueline. The remains of the above mentioned explorer Vasco de Gama, after whom so much of the Oriente zone is named, lie in the southern lateral chapel of the monastery.
This sprawling masterpiece survived the terrible 1755 earthquake and it is classified a UNESCO World heritage Site. Being such a symbolic location, it was chosen for the signature of the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, which lay down the reform of the European Union.
Finally and as a further proof of Portugal’s maritime vocation and contribution to the age of discovery, walking a little further away from the monastery, you will see the Padrāo dos Descobrimentos, one of Lisbon’s most iconic monuments. Inevitably, it supports a statue of Prince Henry the Navigator (Don Henrique), that ubiquitous prince those effigy can be found throughout Portugal. Henry is well known for being a keen sponsor of cartographers and explorers. Funnily enough, for someone whose nickname is the Navigator, Henry did not sail anywhere in his whole life, spending all his time in Portugal, as governor of the Algarve.
Photos by Daniela Giusti
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