Nestled in northeast Spain, the capital of the Aragon region, Zaragoza, is a city known for its curious folklore, historical landmarks, and unique local cuisine. Still, if you think Spanish holidays are meant to come hand-in-hand with beach relaxation, you might be wondering, is Zaragoza worth visiting?
Although a landlocked region, Aragon is a gateway to the rest of Spain, with French medieval castles punctuating its border towns, Moorish Mudéjar architecture, and links to Barcelona, Madrid, and the untrodden northeast coast. Zaragoza might not have been on your radar before, but it’s the fifth-largest city in the country and it has a surprising amount to offer in the way of culture, shopping, nightlife, and fascinating history.
From the palaces and the art to the food and friendly vibe, our guide looks at nine of the many reasons to visit Zaragoza. Let’s get into it.
Zaragoza certainly isn’t one of Spain’s most famous cities, nor is it a particularly lusted travel destination. Its lack of beaches and inland location, close to the French border, might have something to do with the fact that tourists often choose sun-soaked Mediterannean resorts like the Costa Blanca and Mallorca for their Spanish getaways instead. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting and its undiscovered charm only adds to the appeal.
The fact you’ve probably never heard of Zaragoza is a reason to visit in itself. It might be the fifth biggest city in Spain, but it’s often overshadowed by metropolises like Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, and Seville. Still, it doesn’t try to be like any of these famous cities and it’s always exciting to say you’ve been somewhere that none of your friends have ventured.
The change in atmosphere from other Spanish cities is prevalent as soon as you arrive in Zaragoza. There are much fewer crowds and more green spaces, and you don’t get bombarded by ticket sellers and tour guides trying to rope you into overcrowded attractions. The restaurants are much less tourist aimed and the ever-extroverted Spanish locals are even more welcoming in Zaragoza.
With such a rich heritage, Zaragoza is brimming with amazing buildings from religious sites to modern galleries. The emblematic landmark of Zaragoza has to be Basilica del Pilar, the iconic baroque pilgrimage site which boasts a shrine to the Virgin Mary and a domed basilica featuring four large towers on each corner.
One side of the building faces Zaragoza’s central plaza and the other looks over the banks of the River Ebro. The basilica is named after the Virgen del Pilar, the shrine inside dedicated to the vision of Saint James, a disciple of Jesus, of the Virgen Mary over the Ebro. You can visit for free and revel in the huge organ, carved altarpiece, and ceiling dome painted by Francisco Goya. You can even enter one of the towers for €3 and enjoy panoramic views of the city and the river.
Zaragoza also has a number of Mudéjar-style landmarks, designed in a mash-up of Islamic and Gothic styles, including the Aljafería, a fortified Moorish castle, built during the second half of the 11th century. Inside its impressive walls and sturdy towers are, in fact, three separate palaces. It was originally built as a place of leisure and residence for the Taifas Kings, but later became a defensive building for Zaragoza’s Islamic rulers. The Aljafería is widely regarded as Spain’s finest Islamic edifice, outside of Andalucía.
Zaragoza’s extensive collection of architecture deserves attention and remains an apt reflection of the city’s dynamic past. Look out for Roman sites, modernist structures, and rare signs of Spain’s Jewish history, on top of the UNESCO World Heritage Mudéjar monuments.
The Ebro River
Barcelona and Valencia might be flanked by the ocean, but Zaragoza is bisected by the Ebro River and it’s a huge pull factor to the city, adding to its scenic charm. Not only is the Ebro picturesque, but it’s important to Spain and has been for thousands of years.
The Ebro has been central for trade in Spain since its first settlers occupied the lands. It is the second longest river in the country, after the Tagus, and it starts in Pais Vasco in the Basque Country and flows all the way down to the Mediterranean Sea. The Ebro is around 1,000 kilometers long and the wide, calm section that flows through the center of Zaragoza is bound to be a memorable part of any trip here.
The River is best appreciated from Piedra Bridge and visitors can enjoy spectacular reflections of the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar on its surface. Kayaking on the Ebro is also a unique and exciting way to experience the river. After, head to the lively banks, where quaint bars line the front and take in the twinkly lights of Piedra Bridge that come on at the early evening time.
With all of Zaragoza’s wonderful architecture, comes rich cultural heritage, and walking the streets is monumental enough, considering the city’s exciting and varied past. Zaragoza was first founded in 24 BC by legions who had been part of the Cantabrian War. Named Caesar Augusta at the time, after the Roman Emperor, it became an important city and prospered as a trading center thanks to the River Ebro.
With state-of-the-art sewers, a large Roman forum, and a Roman theatre that could house over 5,000 people, Zaragoza had as many as 30,000 inhabitants until the decline of the Roman Empire, when it was peacefully occupied by the Goths. The city then fell to the power of the Moors, like much of Spain, when it was invaded in the 11th century. It became known as the Taifa of Zaragoza, an independent Muslim state, and although the Moorish occupation only lasted some 100 years, the Islamic influence lingers all over the city today.
The Aragonese took the city and it continued to thrive as a trade center. During this 800-year Christian period, the Basilica del Pilar and La Catedral del Salvador were instated, and artistic talents like Goya were able to leave their mark on Zaragoza. Zaragoza survived French occupation and the Spanish Civil War, now, the city is a vibrant melting pot of culture and modern infrastructure.
The historic center is concentrated around Plaza del Pilar. Here, you’ll find the impressive Basilica, the Fuente de la Hispanidad, La Catedral del Salvador, the Roman core, and the Cesaraugusta museum.
It’s likely that you’ll have tried Valencian cuisine with its paellas and grilled octopus, and maybe even Basque Country favorites like pintxos, but Aragonese cuisine is unique and every bit as exciting as the food in other Spanish cities – if not more.
Aragon is a rich and fertile region and the food in Zaragoza heavily relies on fresh produce. Haricot beans, onions, asparagus, and plums, all thrive in Aragon and you can expect hearty stews and cured meats on every menu. Instead of the fresh seafood, you’ll find closer to the coast, Aragonese dishes involve eel and trout that have been pulled from the mighty Ebro.
Zaragoza isn’t the best place for vegetarians, but you’ll still find creative vegetable appetizers and fruity desserts. Quintessential restaurants serve up chicken in chilindrón sauce, hearty lamb stews, and mix-and-match platters of pork loin sausage, Iberian cheese, and grapes.
Tapas fans, don’t run for the hills (or coast) just yet. Zaragoza has perfected its own version of the staple Spanish plate and El Tubo is the best part of the city to try some. El Tubo is made up of a network of small alleyways, packed with tapas bars that draw crowds of locals and adventurous tourists.
The most curious thing about the neighborhood is that most of the bars specialize, meaning it’s perfect for an evening of hopping from one jaunt to the other. With croquettes and beer in one restaurant and migas and mushrooms in another, you can savor a taste of every different dish while soaking up the unique atmosphere of Zaragoza.
If you’re interested in the wide-ranging history of Zaragoza, you have to pay a visit to one of its museums, and the city is overflowing with them. Local authorities have done a great job of preserving remnants of Zaragoza’s past, and the Caesaraugustus Museum is a perfect example of this.
Located on the Plaza de la Seo, what looks like an ultra-modern, glass cube of a building is actually part of Zaragoza’s ancient outdoor Roman experience. Concealed beneath are the archaeological remains of Zaragoza’s Roman infrastructure, including the ancient canals. The Museo del Teatro de Caesar Augusta is also worth a visit. This historical amphitheater once housed 5,000 people in its heyday.
Francisco Goya is a notable part of Zaragoza’s more recent history. Up there with Madrid’s El Prado, the Museo Goya Colección Ibercaja will put a lot of what you can see in the capital into context. Goya took his early art training in the city and you’ll find magnificent paintings, as well as his less-known satirical engravings, documented within the museum walls.
The gallery is housed in Jerónimo Cósida, a 16th-century Renaissance building, and there are more than 800 works on display. You won’t feel rushed perusing the vast collection and learning about Goya’s family life thanks to the slow pace of Zaragoza. And unlike in Madrid, photography is permitted, so you need not forget what you’ve seen.
Zaragoza isn’t a shoestring destination by any stretch, but it is cheaper than many popular touristic cities like Barcelona, Madrid, and Palma de Mallorca. It’s important to remember that it is still a major metropole, but that said, the costs are unlikely to make your eyes water.
For comfortable accommodation with all the amenities and a central location, you could spend as little as €35 a night in Zaragoza, that’s around half of what you can expect to spend on budget accommodation in Barcelona. And when it comes to food, a dinner for two in a mid-range restaurant shouldn’t set you back more than €30-45, whereas the same meal would cost you around €60 in Madrid.
Without the same steady year-round stream of visitors, the attractions, travel, and parking in Zaragoza can all cost less than in major tourist hotspots too. And if you plan to stick around, you can expect 30 percent cheaper rent than in the capital, and 8 percent less than Europe on the whole.
One of the best things about Zaragoza, and a great reason to throw it onto your Spanish itinerary, is that it’s within an hour on the train from both Madrid and Barcelona. While you could easily spend a week getting to know the city, it’s equally exciting on a day trip from one of Spain’s bigger cities.
You could even stop in Zaragoza on the way from the capital to the coast for a break from the hectic crowds. Trains ferry passengers between the cities for as little as €7 per way if you book in advance. Zaragoza is also strategically located for exploring the fascinating Basque country and northeast coast of Spain, and the Aragon region even borders France is you fancy some country-hopping.
Despite being located in the northeast of Spain, Zaragoza benefits a Mediterannean climate with warm summers and mild winters. July through to September can still be stifling, and without the ocean to cool off in, this can be undesirable for some, but Zaragoza is a great alternative if you still want high-season sunshine, without the school holiday crowds.
The summer average hovers in the mid-80s, and it doesn’t tend to dip below 70 degrees Fahrenheit until mid-October. Winter temperatures can reach below freezing, but the seasonal extremities are a welcome relief to those who are all too familiar with Spain’s extreme heat.
The southern and western portions of the Zaragoza province are flanked by the mountainous Sistema Ibérica region, which includes Aragon’s highest point, the Moncayo, while the northern tip of Aragon reaches the Pre-Pyrenees. This means there is some regional variation in the climate throughout the surrounding area, but this only adds to the appeal. You can travel from snowy mountains to sun-soaked fields in less than a few hours, and Zaragoza remains a year-round destination.
How many days do you need in Zaragoza?
You can see a lot in just a few short hours in Zaragoza if you’re visiting for the day from any of the nearby bigger cities, but we recommend at least two or three days to get a real taste of the city. A few days will give you time to tour the museums, wander the historic center, relax by the River Ebro, and maybe even venture into the vineyards outside the city, all at your own pace.
Is Zaragoza safe?
Like the rest of Spain, Zaragoza is a very safe place to travel to and crime levels are much lower than in major cities like Barcelona. During the day, there’s nothing to worry about. Petty and opportunistic crime can happen, but with much fewer tourists, it’s not too likely. Stick to well-lit areas when walking around at night, but there’s no reason to seek private transport if you’re traveling with other people after dark.
How much does a holiday to Zaragoza cost?
Based on the expenses of other travelers, you should budget around €60 to €100 per day for a holiday to Zaragoza, although this does depend on your spending habits. Budget accommodation can be found for €30-40 a night, and eating out costs around €30 per day, per person. Travel, attractions, and other expenses come to around €18 a day.