With a history spanning two millennia, Zaragoza (pronounced Tharagotha by locals) is the fifth-largest city in Spain and, perhaps surprisingly, is firmly off of many tourists’ radar. Also known as Saragossa in English, the capital of Aragon has a beautiful old town, stunning architecture and a very walkable city centre, making it a pleasure to visit.
Despite the many attractions in the city, Zaragoza sees relatively few international visitors, giving travellers who venture there some insight into everyday life in this part of Spain. English isn’t widely spoken in Zaragoza compared to other major cities in Spain, so be prepared to try out your Spanish or consult Google Translate. Saying that, there are many remarkable sites in this city and it’s well worth visiting. Here are just a few reasons why Zaragoza should be on your Spanish itinerary.
Zaragoza is the capital of Spain’s region of Aragón, which was once an independent kingdom. The city is home to several remarkable grand monuments, palaces and houses. Perhaps most significant is the Moorish Aljafería Palace, a testament to the independent Muslim State of Zaragoza established during the 11th and 12th centuries.
The best example of Moorish architecture outside of Andalusia, this fortified Islamic palace is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is an absolute must-visit place in Zaragoza. Built during the second half of the 11th century, it’s filled with ornate Arabic arches and intricate carvings. The Golden Hall and the Patio de Santa Isabel are also excellent examples of Hispano-Moresque architecture. Today, the building is the house of the parliament of Aragón, but can also be visited on a guided tour.
After the re-conquest of Spain by the Christians, an unusual thing happened in Zaragoza. Muslims were allowed to stay and keep their own laws, customs and religion. The Moorish style of architectural design was given the name Mudejar and continued to flourish in the city, with many churches built in this style. Some of these Mudejar buildings include the Cathedral of San Salvador o La Seo, the Church of San Pablo and the Monastery of Comendadoras Canonesas del Santo Sepulcr.
Zaragoza was founded in the 5th century BCE as an Iberian settlement on the banks of the River Ebro. Since then, it has been successively been ruled by the Romans, Goths, the Moors, Aragonese and the Catholic Monarchs, with the remnants of each still visible in the city today.
This rich historical heritage makes Zaragoza a fascinating place to visit with several iconic buildings in the city. Well-preserved Roman ruins include the old Roman forum, the Teatro Romano and the ancient city walls. Other notable historical buildings in Zaragoza are the Aljafería Palace, the Mudejar-style churches and the baroque Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (more detail below).
Zaragoza’s Old Town is locally known as the Casco Antiguo or the Ancient District. The long history of Zaragoza can be seen while wandering along the Old Town’s paved, winding streets, the various influences very apparent in its architecture. There are also a number of excellent museums in the city.
An imposing, Baroque building. the Cathedral-Basilica of the Lady of the Pillar in Zaragoza is reportedly the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The cathedral was first conceived of in 40 CE by the Apostle James and is probably one of the most underrated destinations in Northern Spain.
According to tradition, St James prayed at the bank of the Ebro River in Zaragoza, distressed at his failure to spread Christianity in Spain. The Virgin Mary appeared to him, and said that he would be successful if he consecrated a church in her name. The cathedral is said to have been built on the spot where she appeared.
Almost 2,000 years later, the cathedral still stands and has many intriguing stories associated with it. The church is filled with art and ornate sculptures and, if you take the elevator to the top of the tower, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view over the city.
The cathedral-basilica is also the site of more modern miracles. During Civil War in 1936, three bombs were dropped on the basilica – and none exploded. You can see two of the bombs in the basilica and a plaque marks the spot where another struck the ground outside.
While Zaragoza is a fascinating city to visit throughout the year, it comes alive for the Fiestas del Pilar in October. The celebration honours the city’s patroness, the Virgin of the Pillar and begins on the weekend before 12 October and continues for nine days.
The festivities include big parades and lots of open-air concerts and street theatre. Alongside the fireworks, food and music, there are also offerings of flowers to the Virgin, with processions culminating at a small image of the Virgin El Pilar beside the Basilica del Pilar at the Plaza del Pilar. Over five million flowers are offered to the Virgin each year. Other offerings include fruit and nuts, which are later given to charities and throughout are ongoing entertainment and traditional dancers.
It’s a magical, colourful event and a wonderful opportunity to see people in the traditional dress of Aragon. If you want to visit Zaragoza during the festival, be sure to book your accommodation well in advance as many people throughout Spain head to Zaragoza just to see this festival.
Zaragoza is situated relatively close to both Barcelona and Madrid – around an hour and a half from each by fast train. As a result, it’s possible to visit Zaragoza as a day trip from either city, although it’s worth spending a couple of days there if you have the time. If you would rather hire a car, just keep in mind that the journey takes quite a bit longer by car, which could be very tiring if you’re just planning to visit for the day.
The longer drive means Zaragoza also makes an interesting stopover on the way to Basque Country or the Pyrenees. The journey from Zaragoza to Bilbao takes around three hours and while Pamplona is around two hours away. It’s a beautiful drive through the mountains to the Basque Coast and, in the summer, you can also see stunning fields of yellow sunflowers on your Northern Spain road trip.
Like most regions of Spain, Aragón has its own cuisine, and you can taste it for yourself in Zaragoza. Expect hearty stews containing meat and vegetables, and a wide variety of fresh produce which is produced locally. While many local dishes have humble roots, the cuisine has also been influenced by the city’s rich cultural heritage. Some traditional Aragonese dishes are pork loin sausage cod al ajoarriero, lamb and cured ham from Teruel. The local wine is also well worth trying.
The Central Market in Zaragoza is a great place to find fresh fruit and vegetables, freshly baked goods and deli products. Established in 1903, the Mercado Central is a two-storey covered market in a Neoclassical building. As well as giving you some insight into local life, the market is a National Historic Monument in its own right and beautifully lit up at night. You can also try local foods at the cocktail and tapas bars in the Old Town or consider joining a wine and tapas tour. More culinary-minded visitors can even learn to make their favourites themselves with a market tour and cooking class.
Planning to trip to Zaragoza? Stay at the Apartamentos Sabinas El Pilar just 20 m from the iconic Pilar Basilica with stunning views over the plaza and cathedral.
Last Updated 29 November 2022