If we were to take a birds-eye view of Portugal, starting from the north downwards, we will find little in this most fabulous of countries that will not fascinate both the seasoned and amateur traveler. Whether it is luxurious beaches, historical remains, modern architecture or exhilarating nightlife, Portugal offers all a plethora of activities that will leave many wishing they did not have to leave.
Lisbon (or Lishbowa to the locals) has since 1256 played the part of capital of the Portuguese side of the Iberian Peninsula. Upon arrival, the visitor will feel a general warmth and level of comfort provided by the city that is so often lost by European capitals. Lisbon plays host to a vast number of intimate cathedrals, quaint squares and bustling street cafes, all which blend marvelously with the more modern additions to the scenery. Amongst the homes of Lisbon’s residents, built around the seven hills in a variety of Mediterranean styles, we find a variety of scenic and colorful landscapes that will endear the city to even the most critical of eyes. The Torre De Belem provides such an example. The beauty and harmonious symmetry of the structure stands proud amongst the turbulent waters of the river Tejo. Built in 1515 for Manuel I by the Arruda brothers, the structure (today a UNESCO heritage site) retains its formidable essence as a barrier of protection for Lisbon’s harbour. From this point, which the locals affectionately refer to as Belem (Bethlehem), the tireless traveler Vasco da Gama began his voyage to round the Cape of Good Hope and marked the beginning of the great Sea-Empires of the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Padrao dos Descobrimentos (The Monument of Discoveries) is too a striking feature of the city and an undoubted must-see for any visitor to the capital. The limestone work of art was inaugurated in 1960 during celebrations of the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry the Navigator whose presence is featured at the front of the monument. A brief glance will find not only the representation of Prince Henry, but also of Vasco da Gama himself, as well as other poets and painters whose birth signified the cultural ascendancy of Portugal.
Belem is also home to the great Mosteiro dos Jerenimos, another UNESCO heritage site. The building of the monastery was completed in 1541 by order of Manual I who dedicated this masterpiece to Portugal’s navigators who frequently sought guidance from the monastery’s monks, and prayed here. This masterpiece of Manueline architecture is dramatic in its height reaching a lengthy 25 meters and much like many other Portuguese monasteries, its Gothic design is the most visible theme as one enters the grand work of art.
We have to travel a mere six kilometers away from Belem to find Rossio Square, a hub of activity blending eager tourists with Portuguese culture and cuisine. Based around the statue of Dom Pedro IV, who ruled Portugal between 1826 and 1828, the visitor will find numerous cafes, restaurants, shops and fountains. Here is the perfect opportunity to delve into Portuguese culture by relaxing in one of the cafes or restaurants and experimenting with Portuguese cuisine. The national dish, bacalhau, a sun-dried salted piece of cod, does not seem neither appetizing nor appealing to the tourist, yet looks can never be more deceiving! The dish is certainly a favorite amongst the Portuguese, and once the braver tourists venture forth, they will understand why. One should also make the most of the successful combination of fresh seafood and Portuguese recipes whilst here. In addition, indulge in the delicious custard tarts known as Pasteis De Nata, which make the perfect ending to a Portuguese meal.
In terms of modern architecture, Portugal has benefited immensely from the 1998 EXPO, the same year in which the longest bridge in Europe was completed. Named after Portugal”s favorite voyager, Vasco da Gama, the bridge is over 17 kilometers long and seems never-ending for those driving over the Tejo River. If more examples of gripping modern architecture are what you are looking for, head towards the Parque das Nacoes that was also built for the 1998 EXPO. This offers an array of works by modern architects as well numerous shops, bars and restaurants, a riverside park and riverside cable-car, as well as an aquarium home to over 450 species from the seas of the world. This urban development project has proven to be a successful family hotspot for the Portuguese and tourists alike.
A strong contrast to the modernization of Parque das Nacoes, is Lisbon”s oldest district, Alfama. Alfama (originally meaning hot spring, coming from the Arabic al-hamma), maintains the subtle essence of Arabian influence which speaks volumes for Portugal’s past as part of Muslim Iberia. From the Kasbah style streets and the architectural undertones, a long and winding walk in the area will lead to a far-more fulfilling experience than a brief visit. During your walk, you may more often than not find yourself listening to the melancholic music of the Portuguese in one of their loved Fado bars.
Lisbon reflects Portugal’s attraction as a whole, no visitor is ever left wanting. The attractions, the activities, the stunning panoramic views and the history will be fascinating to all, making all of Lisbon like a Pasteis De Nata, a small, strange and but compact flavor that leaves you with the sweetest taste in your mouth.