When I first came to Spain, I was unfamiliar with Spanish geography and culture. I thought bulls, tapas and sangria encapsulated all that I needed to know about Spain—but man, was I wrong.
I currently am in based in Zaragoza, Spain, about 2-3 hours north of Madrid (depending if you travel by bus or train) and about the same time to the west of Barcelona. I have come to appreciate my central location because it is easy to travel to larger cities for flights or trains, let’s say, but Zaragoza also has its own bus and train station in addition to an airport. So options galore to plan travel within Spain or out of the country! You can search for those bargain prices and make those travel plans go from an idea to a reality.
Zaragoza is an ideal location to visit if you are traveling from the southern to northern Spain, headed to France like I did or you want a quick weekend trip from one of the larger cities. In this post, I list want you’ve been missing out on in Zaragoza and what sites you definitely need to check out.
Route Caesaraugusta- Roman Ruins
I was unaware of the Roman, Arabic and Jewish history in Aragon, the region where Zaragoza is located, let alone in Spain in general. I thought I’d have to travel to Rome to see any Roman ruins but luckily the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus expanded his empire overseas back in the day.
The Route Caesaraugusta is made up of four parts: public baths, forum, river port and the theater, which was the most impressive to me. To see all of these sites is about 7 euros and if you have a student card there may be a bit of a discount. I personally think the price is worth seeing all of these and I enjoyed each one. Most of the written information is in Spanish but you don’t need to be fluent in Spanish to appreciate a Roman amphitheater so it is still worth your time, I’d say.
This page has information about each of the Roman museums to see.
If you need some green scenery and space to breathe, head to Parque Grande. The official name name of this park is Parque Grande José Antonio Labordeta but because that is a mouth full obviously shortening it is the way to go. It is also an accurate name for the park as well because ‘parque’ means means ‘park’ in Spanish and ‘grande’ means ‘big.’
Parque Grande has a small botanical garden, rose gardens in the spring and fountains throughout its trees and sidewalks. It is normal to meet for a picnic on the grass or at one of the restaurants (which are decently priced) within the park. The open spaces here have become my green escape here in the city and it is a great free place to relax when needed. Located next to a tram stop as well, it is easy to get to.
The Aljaferia Palace is easy to see and centrally located near the city center of Zaragoza. Initially, an 11th century Islamic palace, this structure has endured many changes as powers were transferred over the years from Islamic influences to Medieval Christian to Catholic Kings’ reigns until it was renovated for its current use as the seat for the Aragon Parliament.
A visit to the palace is quite quick but I do not suggest rushing it, especially with a 1 euro student price. The ceilings were impressive and internal structure was beautiful to see, especially considering the many shifts of power that took place within the palace’s walls. The influences by each dominating religion were evident as you walk through the passages, adding to the cultural significance each religion played while it was dominant in Spain.
The courtyard you walk through at the beginning of the tour is lined with mandarin trees and Islam-inspired columns with ornate details throughout the arches in this open space and tiled walkways. I felt like I walked into a Morocco-inspired plaza although I knew I was in northern Spain.
To get more information about the Aljaferia head to this website.
You can’t leave Zaragoza without knowing Francisco Goya. France has Claude Monet, Mexico has Diego Rivera and Spain has Goya.
Goya made it big in Spanish romantic art in the late 18th century and early 19th century because his portraits and later became a court painter for the Spanish royal family. He was born in a small town outside of Zaragoza and went to an art academy in Zaragoza in the beginning of his career. Fun fact: We share the same birthday, March 30, so I understand his Aries-ness.
The Goya Museum has more than 250 works by Goya. It was definitely worth a visit, even if it is not a rainy day outside. The museum is also centrally located in the historic area of the Zaragoza center making it easy to find and visit. The 5 euro entrance is a bit steep but I think it is worth it.
Goya was a vocal about political and social issues, and his fear of corruption in society, but these pieces were not released during his lifetime. I found his series of sketches, Los Disparates, particularly interesting because they are relevant to even our world today as we are seeing the same concerns around the globe today. This series talked about the hypocrisy of religion and government, women’s roles in society, war and destruction. Definitely still relevant today.
Goya was the principal painter for the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady Pilar, or El Pilar for short. His murals throughout El Pilar are beautiful and are reminiscent to that of other grand cathedrals of his time. He was without a doubt a talented artist with an interesting, but later very dark, perspective of the world. I talk more about El Pilar below, which is a MUST see while in Zaragoza.
Check out the Goya Museum website here.
You. Must. See. This. Cathedral. It is an iconic landmark in Zaragoza and is beautiful to see. The Roman Catholic structure is gorgeous and the ceilings painted by Goya only add to El Pilar’s elegance. When you enter into the cathedral you can even see two bombs that did not explode from the Spanish Civil War in 1936 showing ‘miraculous intervention.’
El Pilar honors an apparition of Virgin Mary that appeared while a saint prayed on the nearby Ebro River and the basilica was built to spread Christianity. Our Lady of the Pillar is actually the Virgin Mary and El Pilar is the shortened translation in Spanish (which I finally understand).
If you go to Zaragoza, try to go during October 12-19 for Fiestas del Pilar. This festival is full of parades, fairs, food, concerts and markets. People from all over Spain come to pay homage to El Pilar and enjoy the (mostly) free events. Most people dress in traditional Aragonese clothes or clothes from wherever your family is from originally. But mostly people are drinking and eating constantly during the festival so be prepared to be out until 6 am if you go out the night before.
I suggest to go to the Roman stone bridge near El Pilar at sunset for a stellar view of the cathedral and to see impressive colors over the river. El Pilar does not have an entrance fee.
La Seo de Zaragoza
La Seo is El Pilar’s co-pilot in Zaragoza, meaning these both share the title of the city’s major cathedrals. Located also in Plaza Pilar, Le Seo originally was a mosque used by Muslims but were ordered to leave when Christians gained control over the region. The building was then renovated with a Roman design and used by Christians. However, the exterior of the building has Muslim influences in its designs and layout, making it unique with such a mix of history and uses.
This cathedral looks small on the outside but I was surprised to see how large and open the interior is inside. You have to pay to enter this cathedral but it would be worth it.
Plaza Pilar, Plaza Espana and Calle Alfonso
Plaza Pilar, Plaza Espana and Calle Alfonso are main points of interest in the city and good landmarks to know to orient your visit. Plaza Espana and Plaza Pilar have a tourism office with maps and brochures, if needed.
People take tourist offices seriously in Spain and I have had gotten the best maps and booklets about areas for free or pretty cheap here. In the States, I rarely went into tourism offices in my travels, or don’t know many people who do because they usually aren’t informative, so I was surprised that so many people used this resource here. Usually there are other language versions too but not always.
Calle Alfonso is a main road full of shops and restaurants that leads to El Pilar and Plaza Pilar. You can get some cool shots of El Pilar from this street, especially at night.
Check out the tourism website at this link.
Do you like tapas, wine and/or beer? Or just food in general? I hope at least one of these categories apply to you because you are a) a robot or b) you will miss out on a stellar time.
El Tubo is the historic part of Zaragoza’s center with a bunch of restaurants, bars and dancing clubs, also known as discos if you are from 1975 or if you are translating this from Spanish to English. Discotecas are where you go out to dance at night with friends, but a club refers to a football club or a gentlemen’s club…..so that was a fun conversation I had with my host parents when I explained what I did one weekend out.
You go to this area to have a ONE glass of wine or beer and tapa at each place then move to the next place. I will explain the art of ‘tapa-ing’ in another post because it could get dangerous later in the night if you drink too much too quickly.
I love going to Champi and then go from there. Champi has one tapa, grilled mushrooms in garlic butter, and it is heaven. All the bars and restaurants are close to each other so popping into one place to the next is easy.
These are of course only suggestions and there is more to see and do here but for a weekend getaway, these cathedrals, palaces, museums and plazas definitely can keep you busy. Safe travels!