Roman Caesaraugusta, Moorish Saraqusta
Completing a guide for another great city in Spain, it’s time for Zaragoza. One of the long pending guides for a proper upgrade and revamp since it was one of the first generation bunch of blog entries when I started this site; now there was no further excuse after the most recent trip here, in coincidence with one of the largest festivities across Spain, El Pilar. Already the 4th time in the city, and for sure not the last. Nowadays it’s not any longer about sightseeing there, but visiting my great friends the priority in this case.
It was back in the year 2002 when I first came to Zaragoza, to visit and to be with friends, and of course, enjoying El Pilar party. Returning for a couple more times in between, and 17 years after the first time, the most recent trip here. That’s a long time for a city to reinvent itself and showcase more than ever the architectural wonders and countless sights so neatly restored and refurbished. Plenty of new areas and revamped streets, modernised and pedestrianised after the re-introduction of the tram through the core of the historical centre and beyond.
New landscaping and re-structure of some buildings, squares and streets led to the discovery and recovery of more Roman remain now beautifully set on display for anyone to enjoy. Let’s not forget an entire Roman city lies beneath the current modern layout of Zaragoza. That’s the ancient Caesaraugusta.
Yet among the ancient ruins and shiny new blocks of offices and apartments and entire new neighbourhoods, lie much more of the city’s rich history, as is first the Moorish Saraqusta and then the Kingdom of Aragon, one of the former original 4 kingdoms that came together to form the Spain as we know it today.
The vast Moorish legacy is easy to recognise visually: the architecture. There are places where you could say you are in Marrakesh and people would believe you, notoriously at the 11th century Aljaferia Palace from where the kingdom of the taifa of Saraqusta was self-governed. Old mosques now converted into Christian churches do still have their minarets, yet acting as bell towers. Intricate brick palaces and various structures, all of which now listed by the UNESCO as World Heritage Sites as part of the Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon.
Lot’s to see and do where a weekend can be too short, yet feasible. And with an ongoing growth of national and international tourism, new flight routes and such a perfect location at a critical rail and road intersection in Spain; it has never that easy to reach the city.
Now something I mentioned at the heading of this guide, El Pilar. If you happen to be or plan to be for the week of the 12th October, then you will be at one of the greatest festivities anywhere in Spain. It is the celebrations of the city’s patron, therefore expect countless activities of any kind, from cultural to gastronomical, full of traditions; beautification of the city with special lighting, offerings to the Virgin with millions of roses and great concerts where the top most famous Spanish and international bands will come and play. For further information about it you can follow this Wikipedia link.
Talking about food…oh well, you are never far away from great quality, generous portions and countless places. Remember, you are in Spain, and there is a said that “a bar will be not farther than 200m from wherever you are”. The best way to enjoy the gastronomy as locals do is going from bar to bar getting tapas. Each bar is famous for a tapa, that could be croquettes, Spanish omelette, fine Spanish cuts such as jamon serrano and cheeses, and of course plenty of meticulously elaborated ones that seem as works of art. Extremely recommended is the area called El Tubo. Absolutely gentrified, the amount of bars over these tiny narrow streets is just vast. To name the very best where we keep going and repeating are Dona Casta for the incredible croquettes, El Champi for a delicious grilled mushroom on a bum, and Meli Melo for the most intricate delicacy, a pasty-like with a quail egg that explodes in your mouth as you eat it.
When going to a restaurant instead, try to get some of the local cuisine such as Bacalao al Ajoarriero (cod-fish with garlic and eggs), Huevos al Salmorejo (eggs with cold tomato cream), Pollo al Chilindrón (chicken in a sauce of cured ham, tomatoes, onions and paprika) and Migas a la Aragonesa (a dish made of crumbs scrambled with an egg and chorizo).
For more information about the city check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Spain’s currency is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Zaragoza
- Our Lady of El Pilar Square Without doubt, the neuralgic centre of the city in the sense of landmark sights
-Torreon de la Zuda The only remaining structure of the Zuda Palace, the ancient Moorish alcazar (castle).
-San Juan de los Panetes Church At the western side of the square next to Zuda Tower. Built in Baroque style between the 17th and 18th centuries. Its inclinated bell tower is one of the most recognisable landmarks.
-Roman Walls Next to Panetes Church, visible from the excavation now a monument left in-situ. Belongs to the western walls of the ancient city.
-Fountain and Ball of the World Monument Quite a distinctive sculpture, also by the western side of the square.
-Basilica Nuestra Senora del Pilar Spanish for The Shrine to Our Lady of the Pillar. This Cathedral is the main sight of the city, right by the banks of the Ebro River. Listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site as part of the Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon.
-City Hall By the east side of the Basilica, believe it or not it dates from 1965. It was meant to be designed in a monumental style to match the already old structures surrounding it.
–Lonja The next building after the City Hall. It’s the most important Renaissance building in the whole region of Aragon, the former merchant’s tradings site, nowadays an exhibition hall.
-Alfonso I Street The main thoroughfare connecting El Pilar Square and the river with the west of the city across the old town, towards El Coso Street next to Plaza de Espana.
-Caesaraugusta Forum Museum At the east side of the square you have the entrance to the underground museum. It is here where the main Roman Forum once stood.
-Cathedral of San Salvador While not directly on the El Pilar Square, it is greatly visible from it, just behind the Roman Forum Museum. Commonly known as simply La Seo, was built over the main mosque, and consecrated in 1318 in Romanesque style. An UNESCO site as part of the Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon listing.
- Stone Bridge Just by the northeast side of El Pilar, right at the opposite facade; links the old town with the new city across the River Ebro. It is from here where you will get the best views of the entire El Pilar Basilica.
- Fluvial Museum of Caesaraugusta Next to the Stone Bridge, another archaeological site located underground the current layout of the city.
- Roman Walls Another great section, right by the northeastern corner of the former enclosing.
- Santa Maria Magdalena Church One of the churches listed World Heritage Site as part of the Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon. Built in the 14th century, its most precious element is the bell tower, a former minaret of the mosque that was in place.
- Calle Mayor – Espoz y Mina – Manifestacion The next major street full of sight along its way, parallel to El Pilar. One of the ancient streets during the Roman times. It starts right by the Magdalena Church, which is where the eastern Roman walls and gate would be, and changes name as it heads west.
-Roman Thermae Museum Along Calle Mayor, intersection with Calle Refugio. Another museum showcasing the ancient Roman town underground the current street level.
-Roman Theatre While only half of it has been unearthed and on display, it is good enough to give you an idea of the size and what used to be the Roman living. It’s located just south of the Thermae on the parallel street to Mayor, Calle San Jorge.
-El Tubo Although it involves more streets, it is an entire neighbourhood sandwiches between Calle Mayor and El Coso Street. This is the main going out area for tapas. Countless bars and restaurants, terrifically gentrified and beautiful. Coming here is one of the principal reasons why to come to Zaragoza.
-Santa Isabel of Portugal Church Located at the westernmost end of Calle Mayor, meters south of the western side of El Pilar Square. Completed in 1704 in Baroque style.
-Central Market Creating the corner with Santa Isabel Church and Cesar Augusto Avenue.
- Torre Nueva Street Parallel to Calle Mayor, starts by the southern end of the Central Market. More beautiful architecture and cosy squares along its way.
- Cesar Augusto Avenue Links Santiago’s Bridge along the western side of El Pilar Square towards Puerta del Carmen at the southwest of the city, crossing along what would be the western edges of the Roman city.
- San Pablo Church At just two blocks west from Cesar Augusto Avenue, is another of the UNESCO listed churches. Built in the 13th century.
- El Coso Street The next one parallel to Torre Nueva and Calle Mayor, with plenty of sights.
-Los Luna Palace Completed in 1559 in renaissance style, it is home to the High Court of Justice of Aragon.
-La Adriatica Building One of the most impressive art-nouveau buildings in Zaragoza.
-Sastago Palace One of the finest renaissance constructions in the city, dating from 1574.
-Plaza de Espana Full of cafes, bars and restaurants all around, and beautiful architecture.
-San Gil Abab Church While not directly along the street, it’s just on the side perpendicular street Don Jaime I, a block away from Plaza de Espana. Built in the 14th century in Mudejar style.
-San Miguel de los Navarros Church Towards the easternmost side of El Coso Street, another great example of Mudejar architecture.
- Paseo de la Independencia One of the widest avenues in Zaragoza, built in the 20th century at the time of the expansion of the city.
- Plaza de Aragon The largest square in the city together with El Pilar, but this one created at the beginning of the 20th century as a new heart of the expanded city.
-Old Military General Captaincy Building At the southwestern edge of the square.
-Museum of Natural Sciences The largest in Aragon, along the southern side.
- Puerta del Carmen Just few meters along Paseo Pamplona that starts by the southern edge of Plaza de Aragon. One of the former 12 city gates built at the end of the 17th century.
- Aljaferia Palace The old great Moorish palace from where the kingdom of the taifa of Saraqusta was governed. It is like the Great Mosque of Cordoba and the Alhambra Palace of Granada, a priceless example of the independent kingdoms during the Islamic era. Listed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It is located towards the west of the city, if you continue along Paseo Maria Agustin right after the Puerta del Carmen heading west, you will come to it in few minutes walking.
- Las Delicias Railway Station The major transit hub for both trains and buses. Whether you are heading towards the Mediterranean coast, the north of Spain, Madrid or the south, you have high-speed trains everywhere. It’s at the west side of the city, in an entirely new and recently redeveloped district.
- In the region So much to see and do that you could spend weeks visiting idyllic villages, towns, churches, monasteries, palaces or simply the stunning beauty of the nature. The incredible mountains leading towards France, the sky resorts where the rich and famous spend their winters and countless activities. It’s also fascinating to admire the many buildings part of the UNESCO listed Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon.
-Huesca Half way between Zaragoza and Canfranc, the border with France. Very historical city with a castle and one of the very first Romanesque cathedrals in Spain.
-Canfranc Famous for the massive international railway station, once upon a time when built, the largest and longest in the world. You can take part of a tour and get inside, really worth it for the amount of history you will learn, such as the famous German gold coming from Hitler into Spain in return of exchange for precious metals.
-Candanchu Almost by the border with France, it is the place where plenty of sky resorts are located, some of the most famous among the rich and wealthy.
The fastest way to get into the city is by just flying here. The airport is in constant expansion with more and more routes and airlines yearly. The Airport Bus costs just 1.60 Euros and stops at Los Enlaces, Delicias train station, Avenida de Navarra 12 and Paseo de Maria Agustin. Very reliable and good timetable 7 days a week.
Coming overland from elsewhere in Spain is now faster than ever. Zaragoza lies in between both terminus of one of the main high speed railway lines in the country, the Madrid to Barcelona. You can get a train at least every hour or even less, taking merely an hour to reach from any of the terminus. All way through high speed trains from Malaga to Barcelona do also call at Zaragoza, although generally spiking Madrid. The cost for such trains, however, can be quite high compared to the conventional railway. If that falls in your case, get the slower trains, it will be approximately 2.5 hours from Madrid, and so from Barcelona at the other end.
Long distance buses from most of the major cities in Spain are great, very comfortable and generally frequent. That can be another good option considering the much lower cost.
As for the city itself, it is perfectly walkable and there won’t be need for taking any public transportation unless when heading to sites well outside the tourist area. Plenty of buses and trams criss-cross through all the neighbourhoods.
Many hotels are everywhere in the city, and for sure it should not be difficult to find a great deal on a good one, specially if in low season, and overall, not by the main festivities of the city where the prices will definitely be higher than expected and skyrocket during El Pilar. Try to get somewhere walking distance to the historical centre as this will save you the necessity of taking any public transportation. Having a look at some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers is the best way to start. Then, if your budget is still not met, there is a good selection of properties through airb&b and the likes of course.
In the most recent trip we went for a really nice place meters away from every major sight and the most important areas to go out for entertainment and gastronomy. This is the Hotel Alfonso, on Calle Coso. Located at prime location it was great in every sense, from the great and friendly staff, to the beautiful spacious rooms, decor, comfort and care. Two swimming pools, one in the rooftop (opened during the summer months) and another in the basement opened all year round is a great treat too. Very large breakfast and great quality of every product. Definitely a must! Highly recommended.
At a previous visit we stayed the Horus Hotel at Calle de Escoriaza y Frabro 45. A simple and quiet hotel with very friendly staff just outside of the city centre core, only few minutes’ walk to the Aljaferia Castle and no more than 20 minutes to the heart of the city centre.