In its golden age, Lisbon gained a reputation as the eighth wonder of the world. Travelers returning from the city boasted that its riches rivaled those of Venice. As one of the greatest maritime centers in history, the Portuguese capital imported exotic wares from the far-flung corners of its empire.

Treasures from Asia -- including porcelain, luxurious silks, rubies, pearls, and other rare gems -- arrived at Indian seaports on Chinese junks and eventually found their way to Lisbon. The abundance and variety of spices from the East, such as turmeric, ginger, pepper, cumin, and betel, rivaled even Keats's vision of "silken Samarkand."

From the Americas came red dyewood (brazilwood), coffee, gold, diamonds, and other gemstones. The extensive contact signaled a new era in world trade, and Lisbon sat at the center of a great maritime empire, a hub of commerce for Europe, Africa, and Asia.

In the first decade of the new millennium, and after a slumber that lasted for most of the 20th century, there is a new Lisbon awaiting you today. Some of that is good news and some of it isn't -- at least for traditionalists. Although some medieval facades and old palaces have been restored, others have given way to modern office blocks and more impersonal structures, which have replaced many of the 19th-century Art Nouveau buildings that were so much a part of the cityscape. Some of the famous old trams from years ago are still seen on the streets, but they are gradually being replaced by newer, more streamlined, and much faster trams. If you're visiting Lisbon for the first time, you'll find that the Vasco da Gama Bridge of the Tagus, dating from 1998, has sped up access to other areas of Portugal, including Alentejo province, and also made it easier to reach Spain.

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