It is its Roman and Mudéjar roots that make Zaragoza a surprising city. You can’t possibly take in all of its two thousand years of history in just one 48 hour visit, but you’ll be left with a clear image of the city’s beauty and the qualities of its people. A desire to preserve the past has not prevented this capital of the Aragon region from taking a giant leap into the modern world and becoming a city that looks to its future. It proved this at the 2008 International Exhibition, which promoted the sustainable use of water.
To start your visit to Zaragoza, plunge into one of the most interesting walks around the city, the Caesar Augustus walk. It links four archaeological sites, offering a historical view of the city during the Roman period, over two thousand years ago. The route includes four remarkable museums, where you can not only see the remains of the city’s important buildings, but you will also discover the political, social, commercial, leisure and religious life of the city during the Roman era. If you want these visits to work out a little bit cheaper, you can buy a combined entrance ticket for all four museums for €7.
The first stop is the Museo del Teatro de Caesaraugusta (Roman theatre museum), at 12, Calle de San Jorge. You’ll find yourself right in the heart of the historic centre. The museum building itself is right next to the Roman theatre. On the lower floor you can see the remains of what was once, in Roman times, a popular social entertainment venue. The over 2,000 m2 of exhibition space, covering three floors, means you can easily spend an hour and a half wandering through the museum, learning more about the early beginnings of the city and how it has evolved to become the modern urban environment it is today. To make learning about Zaragoza’s history both stimulating and fun, the museum uses computer graphics, projected images, mock-ups and models.
Exit the theatre and head towards the next museum, the Roman public baths in the Museo de las Termas Públicas de Caesaraugusta, at 3, Calle de San Juan y San Pedro. Here you’ll discover that modern spas actual base their philosophy of hydrotherapy on customs imported by the Romans and their thermal baths. The treatment facilities you find in modern spas are much the same as these Roman ones: changing rooms, hot, warm and cold water treatment rooms, gymnasiums, and even a library. For the ancient citizens of Caesaraugusta (the Roman name for Zaragoza), the spa baths were more than just a place for looking after the body, they were also a centre of social and cultural life. Virtual reconstructions based on some of the architectural remains, and reproductions of objects that were used in the Roman baths, give a clear image of how these places functioned and the importance of these spaces for modern Zaragoza’s forebears.
Next, yet another museum, the Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta, at 2, Plaza de la Seo, where you will find the ancient Roman forum. The floor of this square hides a site housing the archaeological remains of the market and forum. Both areas are considered to be of enormous importance to the life of the city, so a visit here will give you a better understanding of how ancient Zaragoza functioned.
Finally, visit the Museo del Puerto Fluvial, the Caesaraugusta river port installations at 8, Plaza de San Bruno. You’ll start by watching a video recounting the importance of the River Ebro to this area, and the changes it has undergone throughout history. Water was the essential element in the birth and development of this city, and here you can view several examples of amphorae, the main type of container used in trading foodstuffs in Roman times.
You’ll be exhausted after following this route, so head towards a good restaurant in order to sample Aragonese cuisine in all its splendour. The Patio de Don Julián (8-10, Calle de Don Teobaldo) is right in the heart of the city’s historic old town and is one of the loveliest places in Zaragoza, decorated in traditional style with an entryway that emulates a bodega. You can choose from a selection of starters such as fresh vegetable stew, or corn-infused crispy cannelloni stuffed with txangurro (spider crab); for a main course you can choose between veal cheeks, pig’s trotters stuffed with foie gras, duck confit with Pedro Ximénez sherry, or Iberian pork tournedos infused with truffles. You’ll be absolutely delighted with whatever you choose. For a final sweetener, let yourself be seduced by the cheesecake, the rice pudding or the tiramisu, all of them home-made.
For a calm and beautiful place to walk after lunch, go to Aljafería park, which you can stroll blissfully around before finally admiring the Palace Aljafería, both inside and out, nestling in the grounds. This fortified palace will help you understand the Arabic presence in this capital of the Aragon region, and you’ll be enthralled by the decor and the fine detailing, such as the engravings spelling out fragments of verse from the Koran. You can book a free, guided visit to learn more about the origins and uses of this imposing building, which currently houses the Autonomous Regional Parliament and the Cortes de Aragon.
Before heading off to dinner, turn down Calle de Don Jaime I, and point your feet towards the Nuestra Señora del Pilar basilica. This Baroque chapel, one of the most important of its age, was built on the site where James the Apostle and a group of Christians swore they had seen the apparition of the Virgin Mary on 2 January, in 40 A.D. This religious building houses a major art collection, and you’ll find Goya frescoes on the vault of the main cupola and the Regina Martyrum (Queen of the Martyrs) cupola. Apart from the building’s cultural and architectural interest, you’ll also enjoy the calm, serene atmosphere that envelopes you. As the afternoon draws to a close, breathe this calm, listen to the pigeons flapping their wings, and see how the city winds down as the day ends. This contrast with the noisy bustle of the day, will offer you a chance to relax and to take in everything you have learnt during the day. Don’t be startled when the Pilar bells, chiming above, break the silence.
Your first day is drawing to a close, and you’ll be looking forward to the chance to rest and gather your strength. Why not go to Casa Dominó in Plaza de Santa Marta, one of the best places in the whole of Zaragoza to eat tapas. There are over 200 options to whet your appetite on the menu - just in case those long walks didn’t work up a hunger. Try chopped serrano ham with mayonnaise, longaniza spicy pork sausage with cheese and piquillo peppers, tuna and peppers, various types of cheese, a wide range of cooked meats... You’ll feel like you’re in another era because of the unusual decor and those family touches which you’ll surely appreciate and that are often lacking in other places. In addition, because of its location in a really busy square, you’ll also get a view of Zaragoza’s nightlife.
If you still feel like some fun, you could head for the Oasis theatre club and disco (28, Calle de Basilio Boggiero), whose fame extends beyond Spain’s borders. The city’s major fiestas are celebrated here, and it is where the hottest DJs are to be found.
During the week, Zaragoza hums along like any other city. However, on Sunday mornings, or holidays, you’ll find you have the streets to yourself. It does have some charming meeting places, and as you listen to the peace and quiet of Plaza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, why not pop into one of the cafes popular with the locals, and have a quiet breakfast as you wait for the city to wake up. You could, for example, go to El Real (40, Calle de Alfonso I, on the corner where it meets Plaza del Pilar). The cafe itself is located in an incredibly beautiful late 19th century building. Its fresh coffee and selection of homemade cakes and pastries will help you enjoy your second day right from the start.
Yesterday you were immersed in the Roman world; today you’ll see the city’s Mudéjar remains from the time when the Arabs ruled most of Spain. In the old part of town visit the tower of the Santa María Magdalena parish church (14, Calle del Doctor Alejandro Palomar). You’ll be surprised by the spectacular Arabic structure and details. View the outside of the building from Calle Mayor, then go inside to see the group of sculptures that make up the main altarpiece. As you leave the church, you are only a few steps away from the Zaragoza History Centre (2, Plaza de San Agustín), where entrance is free. This former convent has been restored and converted into a major source for artistic and cultural displays and mounts some very interesting temporary exhibitions.
Next, take Calle Mayor, and head towards the parish church of San Gil Abad (15, Calle de Don Jaime I). It is a fortified religious place, with a rectangular floor plan, a single aisle and a ribbed vaulted ceiling. From outside you can see the imposing Mudéjar tower, while inside is the main altar, dedicated to San Gil Abad, and a major example of Aragonese Roman sculpture.
Before going for lunch, why not visit two locations of great cultural interest. The first is the Museo Provincial (6, Plaza de los Sitios), which houses many of Goya’s religious works. Goya had strong links to Zaragoza from his childhood. The second is the Arguillo Palace, at 3, Plaza de San Felipe. This 17th century building was declared a national monument in 1943, and currently houses a museum dedicated to Pablo Gargallo, the famous Aragonese sculptor. It houses sculptures made from bronze and other materials, drawings and etchings, and it also contains an important collection of documents.
After visiting these last two places, you’ll be ready for lunch, and it’s only five minutes away. You’re off to a traditional carvery, where you can see how they cook the meats in an open oven. The restaurant is called Abuela Basilia (14, Calle de Santiago), and you’ll feel right at home. For starters there are Santoña anchovies, or grilled wild asparagus of artichokes with ham and foie gras. The house speciality is baby lamb roasted over a wood fire and served with roast potatoes. Just the smell of such succulent meat cooking over the embers will lift your spirits. To add a sweet touch to your banquet, try the tart made from orujo (a type of distilled liqueur).
Your visit is coming to an end but you still have another of the city’s well-known religious building to visit, the Salvador Cathedral, commonly known as “La Seo”. Despite its location, this basilica is often overlooked, because traditional events and fiestas tend to centre on the Plaza del Pilar and its church. La Seo sits on what was once a Roman forum, which then became the main mosque when the Arabs ran the city. The building is interesting because it combines elements from different architectural styles, starting in Roman times, and passing through Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance up to the neoclassic era.
Spend a couple of hours viewing this complex and beautiful building as a way of winding down your visit around the city before you decide it is time to take the road home. Gazing out onto “Pilarica” square, as the locals know it, you’ll probably feel that, despite this being your first visit to this city so deeply rooted in history, it won’t be your last.