Lisbon is Europe's second-oldest capital (after Athens), once home to the world's greatest explorers like Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Prince Henry the Navigator, becoming the first true world city, the capital of an empire spreading over all continents, from South America (Brazil) to Asia (Macao, China; Goa, India).
The former launch pad for many of the world's greatest voyages is now where modern travelers discover. Lisbon is one of Europe's most soulful, captivating and picturesque capitals, built on a series of hills with scenic vistas from every angle. It is the city of the oceans, the only European capital with sunsets on the sea, so close to sandy beaches and with one of the world's largest state-of-the-art aquariums.
WHAT TO SEE:
Built in 1515 as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon's harbor, the Belem Tower was the starting point for many of the voyages of discovery, and for the sailors it was the last sight of their homeland. It is a monument to Portugal's Age of Discovery, often serving as a symbol of the country, and UNESCO has listed it as a World Heritage monument. Built in the Manueline style, it incorporates many stonework motifs of the Discoveries, sculptures depicting historical figures such as St.
Vincent and an exotic rhinoceros that inspired Dürer's drawing of the beast. The architect, Francisco de Arruda, had previously worked on Portuguese fortifications in Morocco, so there are also Moorish-style watchtowers and other Moorish influences. Facing the river are arcaded windows, delicate Venetian-style loggias, and a statue of Our Lady of Safe Homecoming, a symbol of protection for sailors on their voyages.
The Jeronimos Monastery is the most impressive symbol of Portugal's power and wealth during the Age of Discovery. King Manuel I built it in 1502 on the site of a hermitage founded by Prince Henry the Navigator, where Vasco da Gama and his crew spent their last night in Portugal in prayer before leaving for India. It was built to commemorate Vasco Da Gama's voyage and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for its success.
Vasco da Gama's tomb was placed inside by the entrance, as was the tomb of poet Luis de Camões, author of the epic The Lusiads in which he glorifies the triumphs of Da Gama and his compatriots. Other great figures in Portuguese history are also entombed here, like King Manuel and King Sebastião, and poets Fernando Pessoa and Alexandre Herculano.
CALOUSTE GULBENKIAN MUSEUM
Northeast of Eduardo VII Park is the Gulbenkian Museum, one of the world's great museums and one of Europe's unsung treasures. Part of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, it houses a magnificent collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Asian, and European art. It was substantially renovated and modernized in 2001 (many of its masterpieces were on display in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art during renovation), and can't be missed during a visit to Lisbon.
This is one of the world's finest private art collections, amassed over a period of 40 years by oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian, who was one of the 20th century's wealthiest men. In his later years he adopted Portugal as his home, and donated all of his stupendous art treasures to the country when he died in 1955 at the age of 86.
Lisbon's Oceanarium is one of the world's largest aquariums. Designed by American architect Peter Chermeyeff, it rises from the river and is reached by a footbridge. It is a deep-sea diving experience without any of the risks, with about 25,000 fish, seabirds, and mammals in an enormous central tank that is the size of four Olympic-sized swimming pools.
But it's the design rather than the size that makes it outstanding. It is the first aquarium ever to incorporate world ocean habitats within a single environment, with impressive recreations of various ocean ecosystems -- the Antarctic tank containing penguins, and the Pacific tank with otters playing in rock pools. They are all separated from the main tank by invisible acrylic walls, giving the impression that all the creatures are swimming in the same space.
PALACIO DA PENA
Before the great Bavarian fantasy that is Neuschwanstein, there was fairytale Pena just outside Lisbon. It was a dream-come-true for the king, found up on a hill in Sintra, mixing several architectural styles which make it one of Europe’s finest Romantic constructions.
IGREJA DA PENA
Considered the first example of gilding in Joanine baroque (style during the reign of João V) in Lisbon, this church has a remarkable main altar dating from 1715, and all of its interior was a model for other churches at the time.