Lisbon’s Parque das Nações (Park of Nations) combines innovative, ultra-modern architecture with centuries of seafaring tradition. Built to host Expo ’98, the last World Exposition of the 20th century, the area has metamorphosed into one of southern Europe’s slickest commercial and residential districts.
First-time visitors will marvel at its unique cobblestone artwork known as calçadas decorating the pavements and promenades, many of which are embellished with nautical motifs such as exotic denizens of the deep, curvaceous mermaids, bearded Neptunes, celestial globes and the ubiquitous caravel, the lateen-rigger that Portuguese explorers risked their lives in during the 15th century to chart new worlds.
Then there’s Jardins d’Água, a verdant garden of indigenous and subtropical flora ingeniously landscaped around a boardwalk that reaches across a shallow lake to interconnect pebblestone islets crowned with colourful, fragrant shrubs.
Water features strongly in the Parque das Nações design; the entire area borders a 5-kilometre stretch of the River Tagus, and it’s this close relationship with the river that defines much of the area’s personality.
Strolling east along the Passeio Ribeirinho affords the visitor uninterrupted views of the great Tagus basin, including the Ponte Vasco da Gama which at 17.2 kilometres in length is one of the longest and most impressive road bridges in Europe.
The Caminho da Água waterway on the main Alameda dos Oceanos artery features quirky 2-metre-high ceramic volcanoes that suddenly erupt with water at irregular intervals, much to the surprise of unsuspecting passers-by and to the great joy of the many children drawn to Parque das Nações on account of its immense family appeal.
This whole area hosted Expo ’98, the last World Exposition of the 20th century. Under the theme, ‘The Oceans, a Heritage for the Future’, the event was a quincentenarial celebration of Vasco da Gama‘s epic sea voyage during which the intrepid explorer and navigator discovered the first sea route from Europe to India in 1498.
Approaching the Docas dos Olivais, the Lisbon Oceanário looms large as the principal Parque das Nações showpiece and Portugal’s number one visitor attraction. Designed by the American architect Peter Chermayeff, its aquariums represent the eco-systems of Antarctica, the Indian Ocean, Atlantic and Pacific.
Referred to as the Global Ocean, the huge central tank is the beating heart of the oceanarium and represents an underwater ecosystem brimming with sharks, rays, snappers, eels, barracudas and countless other species.
Outside the building in another contained area, sea otters seemingly hold hands and flutter their eye-lashes (another rare feature for a sea mammal) whilst floating around lazily on their backs.
There’s much more to see at Parque das Nações (indicated on the Google map below), enough for a whole day’s sightseeing in fact. Let the kids loose at the Pavilhão do Conhecimento (Knowledge Pavilion), a funtastic interactive science and technology museum that fascinates youngsters with a broad range of high-tech gadgetry and wizardry. Toddlers can even ‘launch’ a hydrogen rocket, don hard hats and build the Unfinished House before enjoying a high-wire bicycle ride.
After that, the whole family can hop into a gondola for a gentle camera-gripping ride over the river bank in the Teleférico (cable-car) which promises memorable views across the entire Parque das Nações precinct and enormous Tagus river basin.