Why Zaragoza should be part of any trip to Spain

Zaragoza has a tough time getting itself noticed. Almost halfway between Madrid and Barcelona, thousands of people on the high speed AVE trains pass through Zaragoza every day as they make their way between the two Spanish giants. Yet this city of 700,000 people registers on only a few tourists’ radars as they that pass through its fancy new station.

We decided to make a stop here and had absolutely no preconceptions of what to expect. It turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.

Plaza del Pilar - Zaragoza

Zaragoza is the centre of the Aragon region of Spain and has been an important city for many centuries. Its rich history is found in the easily accessible Roman and Moorish remains that lie within the city. The historic centre of Zaragoza is a maze of narrow winding lanes, all of which eventually will lead out on the vast open space of the Plaza del Pilar. On one flank of the plaza is perhaps the most beautiful church in the whole of Spain.

Zaragoza - Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar

The Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar is dedicated to a 1st century apparition of the Virgin Mary on this site. We were struck by the intricate carvings, the lavish paintings and the vast, perfectly proportioned interior. Even to us veterans of too many Latin American and European cathedrals and churches, this one stood out as something special.

An annual festival celebrates this historic event: Las Fiestas del Pilar take place in October and culminate in a giant firework display over the adjacent river Ebro.

Catedral de San Salvador, Zaragoza

At the far end of the Plaza del Pilar is the city’s cathedral, somewhat overshadowed by its neighbour yet still impressive in its own right. Unlike the Basilica which is free to enter, you’ll have to pay 4.50 Euros to enter the Catedral de San Salvador, although this does include entry to the tapestry museum if that swings the decision for you. A large building from the outside, the cathedral has so many side chapels that the central nave appears quite modest in size.
Walls of the Catedral de San Salvador, Zaragoza
Away from the Plaza del Pilar there is plenty to admire in the heart of the old part of the city. Several impressive churches are open and free to admire both inside and out, while the excavated ruins of a Roman theatre can be viewed for free from a panoramic cafe. An audio guide provides more detail for those who wish to wander freely around the covered site, and a ticket includes entry to the nearby Roman thermal baths.
Zaragoza - San Juan de los Panetes

Not part of the historic city but perhaps Zaragoza’s great treasure is the Aljaferia. Originally a Moorish palace and over a thousand years old, it has undergone many reconstructions and reinventions, none more so than its Christianisation in the 12th century. Now a blend of styles, much of the interior remains unmistakably Arabic and rivals the Alhambra in its splendour.

Aljaferia, Zaragoza

The Aljaferia is around 1km from the Plaza del Pilar. We arrived at 7.15pm and were warned at the entrance that we would have to rush to see the site before the 8pm close. Admittedly we would have liked to have had another half hour at least to enjoy the rooms of the palace and the beautiful courtyard, but we saw enough to appreciate the beauty of the architecture in this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Aljaferia, Zaragoza

Zaragoza does not feature on many visitors’ must-see lists of Spain. Having spent only a few hours here it’s puzzling to see why it’s so frequently overlooked. Good food (I had a three course lunch for 10 euros that included a full bottle of wine!), plenty to see and do and some of Spain’s finest architecture should make Zaragoza a worthy city on the main tourist trail.

El Alma del Abro sculpture by Juame Plensa

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

3 Responses to “Why Zaragoza should be part of any trip to Spain”

  1. Oh, Andy, I am glad that someone has dedicated a full post to Zaragoza! I passed the city around Las Fiestas del Pilar in 2009 and witnessed one of the most scenic sunsets ever.

    Wouldn’t include Zaragoza to “any trip to Spain” : ) but definitely would recommend it.

    May 19, 2011 at 1:37 pm
  2. Friends and I will be making a two-day stop in Zaragoza later this year. Great article, thank you. Particularly excited about three course meals and wine for 10 euros! 😉

    May 25, 2011 at 8:18 am
  3. I guess i have to stop by on my next trip to spain in september – sounds good & the pictures make me want to go there!

    May 29, 2012 at 11:45 pm