Though it is the capital of the province of Aragón and one of Spain's largest cities, Zaragoza is still slightly off the beaten tourist path. Far quieter in summer than anywhere on the Mediterranean coast, the city’s broad avenues and interesting little backstreets make a fascinating stop for travelers who like to explore. And it boasts prime examples of Mudéjar, or Moorish-influenced, architectural style.
Zaragoza’s Casco Viejo (old quarter) contains most of the city’s historical gems—the Murallas Romanas (Roman Walls), the Catedrál del Salvador (the Cathedral of the Savior, known commonly as “La Seo”) and of course, the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar Basilica). These iconic structures hem in the main plaza on three sides, with one side being dominated almost entirely by the basilica.
All of the monuments in this plaza relate part of Zaragoza’s history, but the basilica is probably its most important landmark. It has been the site of religious veneration for centuries. Tradition has it that St. James the Apostle had a vision of Mary near the Ebro River during his time as a missionary in Spain. The story says that he then built a shrine to honor the event, which gradually grew and changed as architectural style evolved over the centuries. Today it is a fascinating blend of Romanesque, Mudéjar and Baroque, with vaulted ceilings and tiled cupolas, beautifully grand inside and out. Like the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the basilica is floodlit at night to stunning effect.
Moving away from the plaza and down the Casco Viejo’s wide central avenue, Zaragoza looks like any other Spanish city, with plenty of shops and cafes. But turn left near the end of the road and you suddenly find yourself in a maze of tiny streets collectively known as “El Tubo.” Patrons come here for tapas, drinks and nightlife. Be sure to try Bar Fenicia, a cozy, welcoming spot serving drinks and a myriad of different empanada varieties. The owner is extremely kind and friendly.
About a half-hour walk from the city center lies the Aljafería, a remnant of long-ago Moorish control over Spain. Parts of the palace date from the 11th century, when a local dynasty ruled the area, but other sections were added later after the Reconquest. It is not as lavish as the Alhambra in Granada, another Moorish palace, but it is still impressive. Highlights include a courtyard lined with orange trees and a throne room with an intricately carved ceiling. The palace is also the current meeting-place of Aragón’s parliament, which might explain its rather updated feel.
There are quite a few other sites to see around the Plaza del Pilar and further south in the Casco Viejo, including La Seo (a must); La Lonja, a Renaissance-era money-changing house; several museums dedicated to Roman ruins (all ending in “Caesaraugusta”); the churches of Santa María Magdalena, San Gil and San Pablo; and the Museo de Zaragoza.
For more information on things to do in and around the city, visit http://guides.travelchannel.com/zaragoza and http://aragonguide.com/. Zaragoza is about equidistant from Madrid, Barcelona, Bilbao, Valencia and Toulouse and is easily reached by bus, train or plane.