Discover the unknown and unexpected reasons to visit Zaragoza! The proud capital of the region of Aragon in Spain boasts 2000 years of history and impressive heritage enlisted by UNESCO. Zaragoza, called The City of Four Cultures, was developed and influenced by Romans, Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Its historical centre is perfectly walkable, making it easy to discover its fine architecture and excellent, vibrant tapas bars round every corner.
There’s plenty to see and do in Zaragoza, so let’s start!
1. Magical Aljafería Palace (UNESCO)
Aljafería is like a smaller sister of Alhambra. An exotic castle full of wonders, secret passages and elaborate arches makes a strong impression on every visitor.
This fortified Islamic palace was built in the 11th century when Zaragoza belonged to an independent kingdom, so called-taifa, under Muslim Arab rulers. Together with the Alhambra of Granada and the Mosque of Córdoba, the Aljafería of Zaragoza is considered one of the three most important monuments of the Hispano-Muslim architecture, the taifa art.
The palace was reconquested by Alfonso I of Aragón, a Christian monarch, in the 12th century. Later on it was used as a royal residence and military fortress.
Nowadays, the Aragonese Corts – the regional parliament for the autonomous community of Aragon, has its seat here.
The Hispano-Muslim Art of Aljafería
You can admire here the characteristic Islamic decorations including juxtaposed arches, arabesques and geometric motifs. The palace is vast, with lots of interesting parts: rooms, patios, passages, mosque, oratory, halls, Christian parts of the palace including the chapel, and Mudéjar Palace. The great advantage is that Aljafería is never crowded (contrary to Alhambra!), permitting you to really soak its exotic atmosphere.
2. Unique Mudéjar Architecture (UNESCO)
Mudéjar originally meant “domesticated” and referred to Muslims of the kingdom of Al-Andalus who stayed in the Iberian Peninsula in the late Middle Ages after the Christian Reconquista and were not forced (at least initially) to convert to Christianity. Islam was prohibited in the Crown of Aragon only in 1526.
Aragonese Mudéjar Style
Due to particularly long history of tolerance of Muslims in the kingdom of Aragon, the unique Hispano-Islamic art and architecture style developed in this area. It is called the Aragonese Mudéjar art style, and it was created between the 12th to the 17th century. There are over 100 splendid architectural monuments preserved from this era.
Mudéjar architecture for its uniqueness has been enlisted by UNESCO, which granted the World Heritage Site title to 10 most characteristic monuments. Three of them may be visited in Zaragoza: these are Aljafería, La Seo Cathedral and Church of St Paul.
3. Beautiful La Seo Cathedral
In the city of Zaragoza there are as much as 135 churches! Most of them are historical, and quite many are built in Mudéjar style, so be ready to explore and admire.
A curiosity: Zaragoza is one of very few cities in the world which has two cathedrals: La Seo and Basilica del Pilar (below).
Wonderful La Seo – the Cathedral of the Saviour – is a great example of the typical Aragonese Mudéjar art. Unfortunately, its interior cannot be photographed, so I am not able to share with you its glorious splendour. Let me just say that it is by far one of the most impressive and unique cathedrals I have ever seen.
Roman Temple / Mosque / Church
La Seo has a fascinating history: the first building placed here was an ancient Roman temple. In the early Middle Ages, in the 8th century, during the Arab reign, it was substituted by a mosque – actually one of the oldest of Al-Andalus. After the Reconquista, the mosque was destroyed, and rebuilt to serve as a Christian church.
Part of the tower preserves the old minaret shape. The cathedral has been rebuilt and redecorated in many subsequent styles: Romanesque, Gothic, Mudéjar, Renaissance and Baroque, but somehow it preserved quite a strong Mudéjar identity.
The cathedral houses the Tapestry Museum, absolutely worth visiting. It displays a rich collection of exquisite historical tapestries from several countries – mostly Flemish.
4. Iconic Basilica del Pilar
Basilica del Pilar
The city is dominated by the fairytale silhouette of the Cathedral – Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar). With its multiple towers and colourful domes and cupolas with a harmonious geometric pattern, it is truly unique. It’s rare to find so many domes and turrets on a single church!
Points of view
What makes it even more spectacular, is the multitude of sides and angles from which you can admire and photograph it. The most emblematic image is its subtle reflection in the Ebro River, which is best admired from the Puente de Piedra bridge. By night, it’s a truly magical sight, and the atmosphere it creates is just unreal. Another fascinating viewpoint is one of the towers of the Basilica, where you can appreciate its colourful tiles closer than from anywhere else, and you see its entire structure from above, at the background of the turquoise river and the old town. Splendid!
Don’t miss the view from another tower – Zuda, where you see the Pilar towers in between other church towers of the city. By day, by night, from the front, sides or from behind – the Basilica del Pilar never fails to impress with its subtle beauty.
Plaza del Pilar
The spacious square in front of the Basilica of the same name, called Plaza del Pilar, will keep on surprising you with its wonders, every step you take. It’s literally filled with monuments, fountains, sculptures and pleasant bars for a drink with a great view.
Fuente de la Hispanidad
Don’t miss the unique fountain Fuente de la Hispanidad (Fountain of the Spanish-speaking world), shaped like a waterfall and a cracking glacier – it’s truly spectacular! You may not notice it immediately, so take a second look: it is shaped in the silhouette of South America. This beautiful and creative landmark, popular with the locals and tourists, is located on the northern part of Plaza del Pilar, in front of the baroque San Juan de los Panetes church.
5. 100% authentic Spanish experience without other tourists
Zaragoza is the fifth biggest Spanish city, yet it offers you something that none of the biggest four gives you: the truly genuine Spanish experience all for yourself, without crowds of other tourists, without hearing languages other than Spanish for most of the time, without kitsch plastic tourist shops (well, except for religious souvenirs). Amazing!
Zaragoza has plenty of attractive monuments, great tourist offices with well prepared materials, enough hotels and hostels and restaurants – in other words – all you need, without the crowds (just think about La Rambla in Barcelona), queues (I still remember 50 mins spent in the queue under the scorching sun of Seville to get to Real Alcázar), and unauthentic tourist-trap restaurants. That’s priceless. Eat tapas surrounded by the locals, observing them and learning a thing or two about the Spanish culture. Enter the most emblematic city landmarks almost immediately, without waiting. Have entire museums mostly for yourself, how comfortable is that? See the authentic lifestyle of local people in their real everyday life. Personally – I loved it.
Plus, it’s a safe city with friendly, warm people – it feels good to be here.
6. Rich art collections, including Goya
Zaragoza has an impressive museum offer. Its rich, varied and interesting art collections can be envied by many cities. There is so much to see that the art itself must be counted among good reasons to visit Zaragoza.
Euroviajar’s Tip: Many museums of Zaragoza have free entrance on a specific day of the week or… always!
The highlight of Zaragozan art is its most famous painter: Goya, or to be precise: Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. He was born, raised and started his career here. Therefore, you may count on a particularly rich collection of masterpieces by Goya. The most curious ones include a huge display of his etchings, showing both extraordinary skills and strong imagination.
There is Goya Museum dedicated to the great Zaragozan master.
And we strongly recommend the very interesting Zaragoza City Museum (Museo de Zaragoza), which also presents Goya drawings. Moreover, it has great exhibitions of prehistoric, Roman and Muslim archeaological items, and fine arts from the 12th century till the modern times.
7. Fiestas – Holy Week, Fiestas del Pilar, Chrismas Market
There are no events like Spanish fiestas: flamboyant and massive, colourful and intense, rich in details, with centuries old traditions and involving entire cities. One of the best Spanish fiestas is Fiestas del Pilar in Zaragoza, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
Fiestas del Pilar, a spectacular week-long festival including multitude of events, is organized in Zaragoza every year in mid October. In 2019, the festival takes place from 5th to 13th October.
The tradition dating back to the 12th century takes its name from the patron saint of the city – Virgen del Pilar – Our Lady of the Pillar, however nowadays the celebrations go far beyond the religious festivities. Great news is that 90% of the activities take place in the streets and are completely free of charge – everybody is welcome to join the happy crowd!
Another spectacular event is the Holy Week, celebrated in extremely pictoresque style.
Zaragoza is also great in the Christmas period – it has a lively and cheerful Christmas market. Discover more about it here.
8. Some of the best tapas bars in Spain
Now, you also need food and drink from time to time, right? The most apetizing of the reasons to visit Zaragoza is exploring the narrow streets of “El Tubo” (“The Tube”), the area of the city known for its winding streets filled with tapas bars.
Some of our recommendations are:
- Bar Estudios: for delicious cheeses from all around Spain. The quality and quantity of each tapa is unbeatable. There are plenty of Spanish cheeses, most of them unknown apart from the dominant Manchego, which due to its genuine taste and easy pronunciation is more known outside Spain. In Bar Estudios you will find plenty of different ones, well documented and served with a good Spanish wine.
- Museo de la tortilla: Tortilla is one of the most Spanish snacks which you can find in every bar. In Museo de la tortilla they specialize in tortillas of any kind (pumpkin, eggplant, chorizo, jamón, brain, ears, …, whatever you want), and they made them constantly “on demand”, if a tortilla is not ready you can ask for having it made just for you.
- La Republicana: Traditional Spanish tapas bar/restaurant greatly decorated and charming. It offers a great selection of typical Aragonese and Spanish tapas and food.
This are just a few options of endless ones. In the area of El Tubo there are tapas bars one after another, each one specialized in different types of food. Some specialize in fish, some in seafood, some in wines or beers, and other in cheese. There are plenty of options and you must explore the area to find which suits you best.
9. Modern Architecture
Among the reasons to visit Zaragoza, we can’t omit its modern architecture. Zaragoza hosted an international Expo in 2008, and for that occasion a series of interesting buildings and public spaces were built. Nowadays, they are a part of a huge park by the River Ebro. In fact, the main motif of the buildings of this area is water.
Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion
The most photographed – and the most expensive of the Expo buildings is Zaragoza Bridge Pavilion designed by the world-famous architect Zaha Hadid. It is both a bridge and an enclosed bulding, and its futuristic form takes you for a few moments out of reality.
Other intersting structures include Manterola Footbridge, Aragon Congress Palace, Aragon Pavilion, Spain Pavilion, Water Tower and several other. It is a nice area to spend some time walking or biking around, with well designed public spaces along the river.
On the other side of the main street, there is the vast area of the Water Park.
The city boasts also Zaragoza River Aquarium, which is the largest in Europe and the third in the world.
10. The biggest shopping mall in Europe
Almost last, but not least… Puerto Venecia centre – easily reached by bus or car, about 30 mins from the centre (by bus), boasts to be the largest shopping mall in Europe. It’s huge enough to have its own lake with boats – well, what else could you expect from a place called “Venice Port”?
This pleasant spot offers 203 shops of the most famous Spanish and international brands of anything you can think of: clothes, shoes, electronics, jewellery, interiors, sports, whatever you need or dream of. Spanish fashion is well known all over the world, and the country’s numerous brands offer stylish and well-priced clothes and probably the greatest choice of beautiful yet definitely affordable shoes of all the European countries.
After the shopping frenzy, rest in one of 40 restaurants and bars surrounding the lake.
11. Day trips to some of the most romantic villages of Spain
And additional reasons to visit Zaragoza are its surroundings. It is an excellent starting point to explore the region of Aragon – not known enough, yet extremely rich in history. There are many wonderful little towns and villages in the area, and there is plenty to discover.
There are also natural “swimming pools” – river ponds, springs and waterfalls you can swim in during the summer.
The most recommended towns to see in the area include:
Read more about Teruel, Alcazar and Albarracin here.
Have we given you enough reasons to visit Zaragoza?!
If you feel inspired to see this captivating Spanish city, remember to share the article! Any comments and questions are welcome.