Zaragoza lies in the northeast of Spain, around halfway between Barcelona and Madrid. It’s the capital of the region of Aragón and is Spain’s fifth-largest city. One of the most underrated cities in the country, it’s filled with a wealth of historical architecture and museums, from old Roman theatres to Moorish fortresses. Here’s our pick of the 15 must-visit attractions in Zaragoza.
The Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta explores the history of the heart of the old Roman city of Caesaraugusta, which once stood where Zaragoza stands today. The ancient city is believed to have been founded in the year 14 BC and is the only Roman city to have featured the full name of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. The museum forms part of the Route of Caesaraugusta, which also includes the Public Baths Museum and the Caesaraugusta Theatre Museum.
One of the most famous sights in Zaragoza is the Aljafería Palace, which is a fortified Islamic palace, and one of the best examples of Hispano-Muslim architecture in Spain. Built in the 11th century, it’s decorated with elegant Arabic arches and intricate carvings and contains some of the best Mudéjar elements outside of Andalusia. Throughout the years, it has also been used as the palace of the Catholic Kings, and then as a military barracks. Today, it’s the headquarters of the parliament of the autonomous region of Aragón and can be visited on a guided tour.
A dramatic baroque cathedral, the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar was built on the spot where it is said that Santiago, one of Jesus’ disciples, saw the Virgin Mary ascend to the top of a marble pillar. Head inside to look around its splendid interior, then take the elevator to the top to enjoy some of the most spectacular views of the city. It was originally designed in 1681 by architect Felipe Sánchez y Herrera, but was modified greatly during the 18th century by Ventura Rodríguez, who added the Santa Capilla and 10 mini-domes surrounding the larger one.
The futuristic Aragonese Institute of Contemporary Art and Culture (IAACC) is a centre dedicated to modern and contemporary art and showcases a vast collection of pieces by Aragonese sculptor Pablo Serrano (1908–1985). The building it’s housed in was designed by Julio Bravo in the early 20th century, but has been redesigned several times since. The museum that stands today was inaugurated in 2005 and also features other artists’ work, including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol.
The Caesaraugusta Theatre stood in the ancient Roman city of the same name and could seat 6,000 people. Today, visitors can see the ruins of this theatre, which was excavated in 1972. On the ground floor, visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the excavation process, while in the basement, audiovisual presentations and 3D models illustrate what the theatre would have been like back in Roman times. On the top floor, another audiovisual presentation offers visitors information about the various cultures that have lived around the theatre throughout its lifetime.
The Zaragoza city museum is housed in a grand neo-Renaissance building built for the Hispano-French Exposition of 1908. The museum is one of the oldest in Aragón and features collections on archeology, fine arts, ethnology and ceramics. In the fine-arts section, visitors can see works by Spanish painters such as Pradilla and Goya.
The Museum of Pablo Gargallo showcases the works of the celebrated Aragonese sculptor, Pablo Gargallo, who lived from 1881 to 1934. It’s housed inside an elegant 16th-century building and displays the artist’s sculptures, as well as his drawings, sketches and engravings. One of the most notable works on display is the brass sculpture of Kiki de Montparnasse, called ‘The Great Prophet’.
The Museo de Goya in Zaragoza is one of the best places to find out all about the life and works of one of Spain’s most famous artists, Francisco de Goya, who was born not far from the city. It displays a collection of 15 of his most prominent paintings that range from his life in Zaragoza (1762–1774) to his time in Bordeaux, where he died in 1828. The other part of the collection features 48 famed works by other artists.
The Catedral del Salvador de Zaragoza, more commonly known simply as La Seo, was built on the site of the temple of the Roman forum, a Visigoth church and a Muslim mosque, and features elements of all these styles and more. These include Mudéjar, gothic, Renaissance, baroque and neoclassical. La Seo was finally completed in the 16th and 17th centuries with the addition of a elegant baroque tower and a classical doorway. Head inside to see the beautiful altarpieces, including the main altarpiece, which dates back to the 15th century.
The Museum of the Public Baths of Caesaraugusta sits between the Forum Museum and the Caesaraugusta Theatre Museum, and was part of the ancient Roman city which once stood here. The public baths are thought to date back to the 1st century BC, and visitors can still see remains of structures such as latrines and pools. Inside the museum, guests are taken on an audiovisual tour of the baths to see what they used to look like and to find out all about the hot and cold pools, steam room, sauna, massage room and gymnasium. The museum also displays some of the original old marble tiles that were once in use around the pools.
Zaragoza’s Mercado Central is the city’s main public market. It’s a grand space, filled with columns, archways and cavernous spaces. It was first opened in 1903 and has since been declared a National Historic Monument, so it’s definitely worth a look, even if you don’t need to buy anything. The market features a range of stalls from seafood and meat to vegetables, cheeses and baked goods. It’s the ideal spot to pick up some ingredients for a picnic in the city’s Parque Grande.
You may expect to find an origami museum somewhere in Japan, or even elsewhere in Asia, but in Spain? In fact, the Museo Origami is the first of its kind in the whole of Europe. It comprises six galleries which display the art of paper-folding through both permanent and temporary exhibits. The work here is of an extremely high standard, and is known throughout the world by origami fans. There are also origami workshops and classes.
Located in the former episcopal palace, the Alma Mater Museum was once the residence of the saints, popes, bishops and kings of Aragón. Today, it’s a religious museum, which was inaugurated in 2011. It features information on the history of the Aragonese church, delivered through a series of sleek and modern multimedia exhibits.
One of the most recognised symbols of Zaragoza is the Puente de Piedra, which means ‘stone bridge’. It crosses the River Ebro from the old town to the more modern part, and offers one of the best views of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. The bridge has been rebuilt several times, and there was even a wooden bridge at this very point, dating all the way back to Roman times. The current bridge, however, was built in the 15th century and is gothic in style, but has also been remodelled over time. In 1991, the sculptor Francisco Rallo added bronze lions to the bridge.
La Lonja was built between 1541 and 1551 and was used as the city’s centre for commercial exchange. The finest example of Renaissance style in the city, it was influenced by both Florentine and Mudéjar architecture. Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, it has been Zaragoza’s most important exhibition space, hosting the biggest and best art exhibitions from all over the world.