A trip to Lisbon always invariably starts with my screeching as we approach the 25 Abril bridge, frantically trying to work out which of the lanes I am supposed to make my way into, and then clenching the steering wheel, white knuckled, as we bump over the bridge while trying to avoid moving further than a centimetre left or right in my lane. For whatever reason, I have always been heading to this side of town when coming from the Algarve so a trip to the other side of Lisbon was like discovering the city for the first time all over again.
I have been to the Parque das Naçoes before, usually as I wait to catch a train back down from the Gare do Oriente, nipping into the shopping centre to grab some junk food, or to go and watch a concert at the Altice Arena (do you remember those?) but I have never really taken the time to explore this area of the city in full.
I visited Lisbon in May time, so we still had plenty of restrictions in place but were able to discover a lot that was on offer. The first thing that struck me was the lack of foreign tourists around. Usually it is hard to find a Lisboeta actually in Lisbon but general travel restrictions meant that we were some of the very few out of towners rocking up for the weekend. This meant that I felt like a small time celeb a lot of the time, with people genuinely interested in where we had come from (and then genuinely being a little disappointed that we had only come from the Algarve).
The best way to get to the Parque das Naçoes is to come in over the “new” bridge (and thus avoiding the bone rattling passage across the 25 Abril bridge). The Vasco de Gama bridge is Europe’s longest bridge and spans an impressive 12.3km, or 7.6 miles in old money, and sweeps across the Tagus river, offering wonderful views of the city ahead. It is the pricier of the two toll bridge options with tolls starting at €2.85 but you get what you pay for and if you are a passenger then it really is quite an impressive way to enter the capital.
After crossing the bridge, checking into the hotel and getting rid of the car, it was time to start exploring the local area on foot - always by far the best way to see what is really going on.
The Parque das Naçoes is a bit of a mouthful, so that’s probably why people tend to call it Expo instead, this also ties in nicely with the history of the area as it was all redeveloped to host the 1998 Lisbon World Exposition, which also explains some of the quirkier features of the area. Once the Expo moved on it was then transformed into residential and commercial buildings.
The first thing that you notice in the area is that the architecture is very different from the older parts of the city. Gone are the quaint streets, which have instead been replaced by wide boulevards, and the hodgepodge of buildings have been exchanged for striking architectural designs, reaching for the skies and paying homage to the influences of the sea.
Perhaps the most strikingly obvious design feature of the area is the train station, Gare do Oriente, which was developed for the Expo and designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and stands proud while also acting as an entrance to the Vasco da Gama shopping centre.
Shopping is not really my thing and anyone who knows me will know the shudder of fear and trepidation that comes over me anytime “I need to go to Primark” is muttered by a small member of the family, however if you have to go to a shopping centre then you may as well chose a pretty one, which this is. It has all of the usual high street favourites, a decent sized food hall, is bright and airy and ticks all the boxes that a shopping centre should.
There is always a time and place for some high street fast food but I wanted to see what else this area could offer in terms of eating and drinking and I was pleasantly surprised. It turns out you don’t need to seek out those little hidden away cafes and restaurants to find somewhere good to eat and drink. Granted, the places along the water front do not have that quaint old school feel but they do offer a great mixture of cuisines, from your standard pizza and pasta to more exotic offerings which even included a Korean barbecue place – something I have been looking for in Portugal forever!
Back to the 90’s
Once you have eaten then take a stroll along the waterfront area to let the food digest and take in the gardens and art works along the route. These often Expo throwbacks have still retained their charm and with everything 90’s now back in vogue then they no longer look dated but instead a little bit retro – it’s amazing what a couple of decades can do to your street cred. A walk along the riverside is genuinely enjoyable thanks to the cool breeze coming off the river, the wide boulevards and the flat terrain – as very different prospect compared to lots of areas of the capital!
There is of course far more to discover in the Parque das Naçoes, including probably most famously the Lisbon Oceanarium, which had been the centre piece for the Expo and is reportedly the largest indoor aquarium in Europe. Inside this striking building, built on a pier in an artificial lagoon, you will find a collection of general marine species but it is the central tank that is the most impressive exhibit and worth the entry fee alone.
Another feature that you can’t fail to notice is the cable cars that skim along the skyline in the local area, this is a lovely way to get an overview of the area and really does show just how developed the Parque das Naçoes is and all it has to offer.
So if you are looking for a different side to Lisbon, one away from the picture postcard images of yellow trams and vertigo inducing hills, then why not take the time to discover the Parque das Naçoes.