Forget the coast – if you love unravelling the culture of a country then you have to head to its cities. In Spain, many of us tend to stick to the major cities. The likes of Barcelona, Madrid and Seville have long grabbed the attention of travellers with a voracious appetite for city life. But Spain is a country with lots of great smaller, lesser-visited cities, such as Zaragoza. And with a chequered history, fantastic food, renaissance and modern art, and more there are many great things to do in Zaragoza that make this one of the country’s smallest unmissable city break destinations.
I recently visited Zaragoza for the first time as part of a challenge set by Spanish Tourism, which also took me by train to Tarragona, Madrid and Seville. I say first visited because I really enjoyed my time in Zaragoza, and as it was far too short a visit, I’m already plotting my return.
Many people who travel by train in Spain will miss Zaragoza. It’s a stop on one of the main routes in the country – the journey aboard one of Renfe’s AVE high-speed trains from Barcelona to Madrid is very popular.
But if you don’t get off to stretch your legs for a few days in Zaragoza you’ll be missing one of the most stylish and historic of cities in northern Spain.
If Tarragona is Spain’s testament to its Roman history, Zaragoza picks up this historical thread and pulls it right the way through to modern-day Spain, bending and transforming with the times and changing beliefs as it goes.
If you thought Madrid and Barcelona were the height of Spain’s cultural encounters and the homes of the country’s greatest artists, Zaragoza has surprises in store. And if you feel that only Andalucían cities like Seville have Moorish tales to share, think again.
Hopping the rails in Spain
Here are some highlights of my whole trip across Spain by train to whet your appetite…
Next stop: Zaragoza where Moors make way for the modern
Hopping on an early morning train from the Roman city of Tarragona to Zaragoza was easy, and I was soon arriving at the shiny Zaragoza Delicias AVE station.
When you think of northern Spain, you rarely consider the Moors. Moorish arches and Hands of Fatima door knockers are a feature of Andalucia, or so I’d thought until I arrived at Zaragoza’s Aljafería Palace.
Spain’s finest Islamic-era edifice north of Andalucía the fortified palace was built in the 11th century, but, as is so fitting of the transformative nature of Zaragoza, its architecture also reveals that it sat on the cusp of a revolution in Spain’s history.
The palace is one of a number in the city that make up Zaragoza’s UNESCO World Heritage Centre focused on Mudejar architecture – a result of the political, social and cultural transformation that existed in Spain following the Reconquista.
This art form was influenced by Islamic tradition but was reflective of the move towards Christian beliefs and European styles of art and architecture at the time, especially Gothic. The palace, which was first used for parties and fun by its Islamic rulers, fell into the clutches of Catholic kings by the 15th century, who put it to more puritanical uses, and much of this is represented by the various faces of the building.
Walking through its thick walls and into its original central courtyard, Patio de Santa Isabel, I paused to take in the scene. Sunshine streaming into the garden area of the courtyard created long flashes of warm light that danced among the shadows of Moorish-style pillars and ornate archways.
It was a wondrous place to spend time, sitting, soaking up the history you could almost picture medieval life moving around you.
Further inside the story of conversion continued as I discovered many examples of its fusion of religion-led styles, from ornately decorated ceilings to heavy wooden doors that secreted away its many jewels.
The Aljafería Palace may be Zaragoza’s standout attraction when it comes to Mudejar’s fusion of styles, but along with the nearby region of Teruel it shares nine other examples of this movement. In Zaragoza you should also see the tower and parish church of San Pablo de Zaragoza, and La Seo de Zaragoza.
Built between the 12th and 17th centuries the cathedral – the second in the city – has a smorgasbord of styles from Romanesque to baroque, but its exterior wall is a Mudéjar masterpiece where brickwork and colourful ceramics create complex geometric patterns. And completing the story of transformation and a historic up-cycling it’s important to note that it stands on the site of Zaragoza’s main mosque, which was once the temple of the Roman forum.
A few steps through time to Zaragoza’s cathedral
Just a few feet away, but hundreds of years through time, I reached the city’s second cathedral. But don’t let the idea that it’s the second cathedral make you consider it “lesser” in any way.
The Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar was everything I expected from a stately cathedral in a grand city.
First of all, it was huge – imposing its teetering towers (or pillars) and decadent baroque styling over Plaza del Pilar. But inside and high up on its roof is where its features really shine brightly.
One of Zaragoza’s most famous sons stands proudly overlooking the cathedral, and two of artist Francisco Goya’s finest work is on display inside the building.
With blurry impressionist styling, his work Regina Martirum was hugely controversial at the time for not bringing the religious figures in the piece into sharp focus. But La Adoración del Nombre del Dios, on the ceiling of the small choir at the church’s far east end is more classical in nature. Later, as I learned more about Goya at a museum in the city I realised that the first piece was perhaps more in his nature – courting controversy and startling idle viewers with challenging ideas.
Two more things stole my attention in the cathedral though. The first being the shimmering main altar, and what lies on top of the basilica.
After taking a lift and a stairway up to the top roof, I found myself faced with the most rewarding 360-degree views of the city.
Art on the streets
Despite all these grand historic sights, don’t let Zaragoza fool you into thinking it’s a city living off the fruits of its past.
Zaragoza’s love for art and architecture have transformed the city once more in recent years with a festival of modern forms and canvasses.
First at the Expo 2008 site just outside the city I was introduced to its fanciful forward-focused architectural highlights. The expo was held to showcase the city and several new constructions were built along the Ebro River including the Water Tower, a sculpture called Alma del Ebro or Soul of the River Ebro, and famed architect Zaha Hadid’s curvy Bridge Pavilion.
The Expo site happily revels in Zaragoza’s modern side where the concept of journeys and the fluidity of water along the river courses through its structures and buildings.
Back in the city, artists have brought a wide range of concepts to the Zaragoza’s streets as part of an annual street art event.
Festival Asalto brings in artists to create murals in neighbourhoods organisers believe would benefit from their creativity. In some of the poorer areas of the city, the works are bringing about an increased a sense of pride and belonging.
And all over Zaragoza, you’ll find transformative pieces – artwork, sculptures and buildings that show how this city with an ancient heritage is embracing its future.
More things to do in Zaragoza
There are many more attractions and places to visit in Zaragoza. Don’t miss:
- Goya Museum to learn more about the famed artist and see some of his essential works from paintings to controversial illustrations.
- Discover Aragon dishes and feed your imagination with a great cooking workshop at La Zarola.
- Eat tapas – Zaragoza has a surprisingly extensive selection of tapas restaurants.
- Visit Fantoba for the best sweets in the city. The confectioner has been making chocolates and slathering it onto glacéd fruit since 1856.
- La Jamoneria is a fantastic dining experience in Zaragoza. Not only does it sell simple platters of jamón ibérico and creative dishes made with Spain’s most popular cold meat, you can also learn how to carve the ham there yourself.
Where to stay in Zaragoza
Travelling to Zaragoza
- Zaragoza’s airport has direct flights from London and is a short 15-minute drive from the city.
- Want to know just how to get the fast train to/from Zaragoza and elsewhere on the AVE network? I’ve covered this a detailed guide to travel by train in Spain.
- Zaragoza is on the AVE line from Barcelona to Madrid. Its AVE train station, Zaragona Delicias is less than 10 minutes drive from the city centre. You can find train timetables here.