The Parque das Nações – or Park of Nations - was created for the 1998 Expo in Lisbon and quickly became a major tourist attraction. Whilst many locals will still refer to it as the ‘Expo site’, its official name was adopted after the Expo ended and it took on a new identity of its own. Prior to the development of the Expo site, this had been a run-down and unattractive industrial area like much of the Lisbon waterfront. Once you’re out of the most central parts of Lisbon, the banks of the Tejo (a.k.a. Tagus) river are lined with old cod salteries (I’m sure that’s not the word), warehouses and row after row of shipping containers that always remind me of the opening scenes of the film Wall-E. Most capital cities understood the tourist value (and the benefits to the human spirit) of exploiting their waterfront areas but Lisbon is a city with water on two sides but one which doesn’t put its poshest houses and fanciest places next to the water. I suspect that the Portuguese remain nervous about being too close to the water. After all it’s only 258 years since the Lisbon earthquake and the tsunami that followed wiped out tens of thousands of residents. That might make you think twice about the charms of a sea- or river-view.
The Parque das Nações – I’m going to call it the PdN from now on - is situated in the north east of the city of Lisbon and sits on the waterfront beside the Tejo. The PdN has evolved into an upmarket residential area which is now home to around 15,000 people as well as a place for hotel accommodation, shopping, eating, drinking, strolling around, going to concerts and – best of all – visiting the city’s famous Oceanario aquarium. The best comparison I can make (which will only be relevant if you know both places) is that it’s a little like Lisbon’s equivalent of the Olympic Port in Barcelona.
I go to this area several times a year as it’s only a 10 minute drive from the Lisbon office of the company for whom I work and within spitting distance of the hotel where I usually stay. My colleagues often use the restaurants of the PdN waterfront or the Vasco da Gama shopping centre for lunch. It’s a beautiful spot to sit in the sunshine, look at the river and watch the world go by.
My most recent visit was with my husband, my sister and her girlfriend in the week before Easter. We’d been warned about the Spanish Holy Week invasion of Lisbon and decided to prioritise our visit to the Oceanario and do it at the beginning of the week before too many of these tourists hit the city. I’d read reports of scary queues at the Oceanario and one thing I won’t do on holiday is wait patiently in line.
We took the Metro to the PdN, using the red (vermelho) line and getting off at the station called Oriente. Before you rush off to see the Parque, stop and take a look at the station as it’s a bit of an architectural marvel. The station is a wonder of steel and glass and is ‘supposed’ to look like a forest of trees but I’ve always thought – given the location – that it looks like the sails of a flotilla of yachts. Directly between the station and the riverfront you’ll find the Vasco da Gama shopping centre. This is a light, bright place with features that remind me of a giant ship. They have portholes in the lifts and water runs over the outside of the roof. Even if shopping isn’t your thing – and it’s not really mine – the food court on the top floor offers plenty of choice and good prices. If you’re lucky and can get a seat outside on the terrace, it also gives great views across the Parque. Most of the staff in the food outlets are used to foreign tourists and you should be able to get by in English if you’re patient.
The PdN runs in a strip beside the river. The most southerly of the attractions is the aquarium and the most northerly is the Vasco da Gama tower, which looks like a cross between the tower in Dubai and the one in Portsmouth, like a giant sail. Between the two points there’s a boardwalk and waterfront walks or you can take the riverside cable car.
Heading north from the Oceanarium, the next big building is the Atlantic pavilion, a large egg-shaped building which is used for concerts and performances. My colleague told me it’s where Cirque du Soleil always perform and that Justin Bieber had turned up recently, only a couple of hours late for his show. My sister commented that the whole place looked like it could do with a zap with the jet wash, and I’d have to agree with her. Perhaps it was the dull grey weather we had but I suspect that the economic crisis in Portugal means that the PdN isn’t getting quite as much care as it used to. Passing the Atlantic pavilion you come to the four giant exhibition halls which were used for the Expo. I think these are still used for trade shows now but it’s unlikely you’ll have a reason to go inside. If you pass these halls from the road, they are quite interesting to look at. The architect designed them with a wavy profile which sadly now looks rather a lot like the whole lot is falling down. Tourists will most likely walk along the front of the pavilions where there are lots of bars and restaurants. Again, we weren’t there at the best of times as the weather was poor, but on summer evenings, this is an area full of visitors eating and drinking. Between the restaurants and the water there are several small parks – one with instruments for children to play, another a basin of water with statues of bathing ladies lying in the water.
The number one reason people go to the PdN is the Oceanario which is also rated as Lisbon’s top tourist attraction and which I reviewed when I visited it several years ago. The aquarium is housed in a large square building which appears - appropriately enough -to float on the water. Inside you’ll find one of the world’s best aquariums and certainly one of my favourites. My sister and her girlfriend were initially sceptical about my claims of greatness because they’d loved the Sydney Aquarium which we had visited together a few years before. By about half way round they’d changed their minds and agreed that the Oceanario is even better. There’s a central big tank with plenty of sharks, rays, sunfish, and others and four ‘zone’ tanks around the outside representing different climates.
Theres’s currently a temporary exhibition on turtles which is well worth a look and a ticket to see both the permanent and temporary exhibits costs €16. Knock off €3 if you want to skip the turtles. The stars of the aquarium are not the enormous sharks, the impressive manta rays or any of the big boys. Instead what keeps people captivated are the penguins (just little ones, very cute) and the sea otters. I fell in love with Eusebio, the now sadly deceased boy sea otter, many years ago. He was a squeaky fellow but the current trio of sea otters are quieter and I think they are all girls. I remain to be convinced that there is a sea creature cuter than a sea otter and it’s easy to waste 30 minutes just watching them grooming themselves as they lie on their backs in the water.
If you aren’t too gooey after visiting the aquarium and can deal with the irony of eating sushi, I highly recommend the lunchtime ‘all you can eat’ (and with Portuguese people that’s a LOT) sushi buffet at Arigato. My sister vetoed it on this occasion and we went for a sandwich in an Italian café on the riverside of the Oceanario. Whilst there having our lunch we noticed that lots of children were renting small go carts to travel around the PdN. Thankfully I was able to persuade my sister they weren’t for ‘grown ups’.
After lunch we took a trip on the cable car to the other end of the park and then headed back past the restaurants and the little parks as it started to rain. The PdN is a really lovely place to visit but you really do need a good sunny day to make the most of it. This is a place to sit with a glass of beer and watch the world go by, to look at the sun on the river and to take things easy.