While you’ve definitely heard of Spain’s other big cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Seville, Zaragoza – the country’s fifth-largest city – has probably passed under your radar. It may be thrilling to visit somewhere you’ve always heard and read about, but isn’t it even more thrilling to be totally surprised by somewhere new?
Many of your friends will have been to places such as Málaga, Alicante and Barcelona, so why not go somewhere that most of your friends have not? Not only will you seem a little more adventurous, but you’ll also be visiting somewhere with fewer crowds.
Being Spain’s fifth-largest city, Zaragoza has a lot to offer visitors, from fascinating museums to grand cathedrals and fortresses. It’s also a great city for a spot of shopping, fun nightlife and delicious cuisine.
Zaragoza lies roughly half way between Madrid and Barcelona, in the autonomous region of Aragón. It can be reached from both cities by high-speed train in approximately an hour and half. This means that it’s a great stopping off point if you plan on visiting both cities.
The Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is a grand baroque masterpiece and one of the most important Marian sanctuaries for Catholics. It is believed that it was on this spot that the Virgin Mary appeared to Santiago (St James the Apostle) in the year 40 AD. The Basílica that stands today was originally designed in 1681 and then dramatically modified in the 18th century to add a baroque chapel and 10 brightly coloured mini-domes surrounding the main one.
The best piece of Moorish architecture outside of Andalusia can be found in Zaragoza: the fantastically ornate Aljafería Palace. A castle-like fortress from the outside, inside it’s adorned with delicate carvings and Moorish archways. Built by Islamic rulers in the 11th century, it has undergone many changes over the years, and even the Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel left their mark. Today, it’s the home of Aragón’s regional parliament.
As well as a huge baroque cathedral and an ornate Moorish fortress, Zaragoza is filled with remains from Roman times. One of the most impressive is the ruins of the Teatro Romano de Caesaraugusta, which is believed to date back to 14 BC. There are also lots of other museums in the city that showcase Roman artefacts found in the area.
You may be familiar with Valencian cuisine (hello, paellas) and even Basque cuisine (such as pintxos), but you’ve probably never tasted Aragonese cuisine before. The region has some unique dishes, which use fresh produce that grows in the area, such as haricot beans, onions, asparagus, plums and peaches. The food here is characterised by thick stews, pork loin sausages, cured hams and roasted lamb.
Zaragoza sits right on the banks of the mighty River Ebro, the second-longest on the Iberian Peninsula after the Tagus. It begins in the springs of the Cantabrian Mountains and runs all the way through Cantabria, La Rioja and Aragón, before entering Catalonia and ending at the Mediterranean Sea at Tarragona.
The Monasterio de Piedra may not be located in Zaragoza city itself, but it’s worth the extra detour to visit while you’re here. It lies just south of the city, in the small village of Nuévalos, and is one of the most important monasteries in the region. It was founded in 1194 by Alfonso II of Aragón.
The celebrated Spanish painter Francisco de Goya was born very near to Zaragoza, in the small town of Fuendetodos. Other than the famous big art museums in Madrid, such as the Prado, Zaragoza is one of the best places to see the artists’ work. Head to the Collection Ibercaja Museum Zaragoza Goya, which houses 15 of his most important artworks.
Feeling inspired? Find out more about Zaragoza by reading our article on Zaragoza’s most beautiful buildings and where to find them.