Nestled between Madrid and Barcelona, skipping a visit to Zaragoza en route means missing out on ones of Spain’s most artistic and underrated cities. I’m glad I got to jump off and explore on an AVE train journey from Tarragona to Madrid, feeling like I’d stumbled upon a Spanish secret.
The capital of mighty Aragon, Zaragoza is the gritty and urban mixed with the ancient and decadent, held together by a historical thread of architecture and art, and a heritage showcasing a continuous turnover of design and expression.
– UNESCO World Heritage Zaragoza
Native to Aragon, Mudejar art blends Islamic and Christian elements from a time during the 12th and 17th centuries when both faiths coexisted. A core part of Zaragoza’s architectural heritage, the sheer amount of Mudejar art earned it a UNESCO World Heritage title, with the Ajafería Palace being the most symbolic.
This 11th century medieval Islamic palace remains one of the most beautiful and important of all the sights in the city as well as the seat of the regional parliament. It’s an open museum of the residential structures of the Taifa kingdoms. By 1118, it became a Christian Palace and the residence of Aragonese monarchs, who added extra layers and extension to the existing design, as did the Catholic monarchs with the Throne Room in 1492. Modernisation into the fortress style we see today came in 1593. Each room is like a puzzle piece of this architectural timeline, and while it draws the crowds, it’s a place where you can easily get lost in its detail, most notably in one of the main halls with these mesmerising archways.
For those with a keen eye, it can be found all around the city. The Roman past is interlaced with Mudejar art like at the Lonja Market, or at the Parish Church of San Gil Abad – a Romanesque temple destroyed in 14th century to make way for the now Mudejar church. El Salvador Cathedral was built over the main mosque of the old Muslim city, where Mudejar art can be found on the outer wall of the parish chapel and the Church of Mary Magdalen is Mudejar in style with a tower and intricately patterned tiles.
Plaza del Pilar Display
– Zaragoza and the Discovery of the New World
One of its defining features of Zaragoza is the stunning Cathedral-Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar – a Roman Catholic Church in the heart of the Plaza del Pilar (the largest of all in Spain).
It provides one of the best-elevated views over the multi-domed dreamscape and a better perspective on the artistic plaza and its water features. Controversial, but central to Aragon’s history, it’s here where you will see how the Fuente de la Hispanidad (fountain) is shaped like Latin America in reference (amongst other symbols) to Columbus – Ferninand II of Aragon being the monarch who commissioned him for the ‘discovery of the New World’.
A Design Legacy of 2,000 Years
– Roman Zaragoza
Zaragoza’s Roman legacy is mostly found in the many archaeological museums, preserving a prominent layer of the city’s design, even if modern elements built over them, like the San Pablo church that was built to replace the old Roman hermitage of San Blas. The Caesaraugusta Theatre Museum (Museo Del Teatro De Caesaraugusta) is one of the largest theatres of Roman Hispania that once held 6,000 spectators. Ruins from a market can be viewed at the Caesar Augustus Forum Museum and you can still view an 80 metre long section of the old roman walls.
Street Art & Regeneration
– Urban Zaragoza
We were able to wander beyond the opulent centre of Zaragoza, where there is an interesting contrast in its abundance of street art. It’s all a part of an annual urban regeneration drive, Festival Asalto (the International Festival of Urban Art), bringing an artistic new life to forgotten neighbourhoods.
Since it’s inception in 2005, the city has filled with over 70 artworks using mural, graffiti, templates, posters and installations as the medium of expression by local artists and groups. You can embark on a self-guided walking tour to find them all using the handy online map (a printed version is also available).
2008 Expo Architecture
– Modern Zaragoza
Ultra-modern architecture adds to the multi-layers of artistry here, which you can see showcased at the Zaragoza Expo Zone, constructed in 2008. My two favourite designs were the Alma del Ebro sculpture that stands outside the Congress Palace and made especially for this International Exhibition by Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa, and the Bridge Pavilion designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.
Homage to Goya
– The Artistic Son of Zaragoza
In the home of Goya, it’s no wonder that art plays a central role in the city’s persona. The dedicated Goya Museum (housed within at the 16th-century Renaissance building, Calle Espoz y Mina 25) showcases works from 15th to 20th century, with rooms dedicated to Goya’s self-portraits and etchings – the only museum which has the entire six series on display.
Gastronomic Cultural Expression
– The Art of Cuisine in Zaragoza
Much like art, people are reinventing old recipes and adding modern twists to traditional establishments and food customs. Zaragoza’s restaurant and culinary establishments are filled with local produce, and the love for tapas lines every corner and alley, such in the El Tubo district known for attracting the hungry crowds and Plaza de Santa Marta for café culture.
Mixing old and new in the form true to our daily historical wandering, we attended a tapas workshop at the modern gastronomic space that is La Zarola, later followed by a masterclass of jamon carving by Félix Martínez at La Jamoneria (it’s not my forte, but eating it is) and a little indulgence of candied fruits and chocolates at the vintage 1856 confectionary shop, Fantoba.
Things to Know About Zaragoza:
- Tarragona to Zaragoza is a mere 1 hour and 30 minutes journey on the train, landing you right in between Madrid and Barcelona. Zaragoza is also 90 minutes from Madrid by train and just under two hours from Barcelona.
- If you are looking to visit a lot of museums and monuments, and make use of public transport, consider getting the Zaragoza Card. From €20 for 24 hours or €23 for 48 hours, you’ll have access to all major sites, buses and tram lines, as well as discounts for listed shops and restaurants.
How to Book a Renfe Train Ticket in Spain – AVE Guide
I have a full Spain by train AVE guide, with suggested routes and top tips for travelling around the country, but here’s some quick fix tips for planning your rail adventure.
- You can book tickets via the Renfe website in English here, and specific high-speed network tickets here. All tickets have to be pre-booked (payable by Visa, Mastercard and Paypal), since you can’t turn up on the day and book at the station.
- The AVE trains have nine classes if you count the overnight trains with sleeper/bed options, but there are two main ones to consider – Turista (a second class option with 2 x 2 seating rows) and Turista Plus, which is a little more spacious (with 2 x 1 seating rows). I travelled to each destination with a Turista ticket – comfortable and great value for money.
- If you are looking to book a multi-stop trip, consider getting a ‘Spain Pass’. This means you can travel using just one ticket for the AVE and other long distance trains. You must reserve a seat before every trip, as limited space is assigned for Spain Pass holders.