If someone asked me which Spanish city would be my first to visit, I would have probably had said Madrid or Barcelona. These after all are the most popular and well known cities that most Americans choose as their first adventure in Spain. Little did I know that my first adventure would be in neither of these cities.
In 2015, my cousin married a Spaniard from the city of Zaragoza, Spain. They planned a nice big Spanish wedding and even got married in the Basilica del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar) – which is the centerpiece of the city. While my family and I unfortunately could not go to the wedding, we were able to make the trip the following year. From Madrid, it’s a 3 hour drive to Zaragoza, however there is also a train you can take which cuts the time to 1.5 hours.
Little did I know, Zaragoza was quite large, ranked the 5th biggest city in Spain! The city’s Old Quarter (known locally as Casco Viejo) sits just north-east of the city center and is home to an abundance of history, art, and local culture. We got to explore this area with the guidance of my cousin and her husband.
One of the first places we visited was Zaragoza’s Mercado Central. The Mercado Central is a historic marketplace housed in a stone, iron, and glass building that dates to 1903, however the market itself has been in the same location since the 13th century! Walking through the colorful and lively market, we could see that you could find almost anything you wanted in here. From fresh seafood consisting of clams, squid, prawns, octopus, salmon, and more, to various cheeses, meats, fruits, and vegetables, the market had quite the selection. My favorite meat you could purchase here of course was the jamón, which is a dry-cured Spanish ham that is delicious. While similar to prosciutto which is a salty Italian cured ham which is popular in my family – jamón had a unique flavor of its own, and to me is spectacular on some crisp French bread with fresh tomatoes rubbed in – a trick my cousin-in-law taught us.
Basilica del Pilar
After the market, we strolled over to the majestic Basilica del Pilar, which I mentioned earlier. The Basilica is the “crown jewel” of the city and deservingly so. With its Aragonese Baroque style consisting of 4 stunning pillars, and a unique multi-colored Byzantine roof, it’s absolutely stunning from near and afar. And the inside is just as stunning. While I was unable to take photos of the inside due to the “no photos allowed” rule, I was able to use one taken at my cousin’s wedding to share some of the splendor of the interior with you.
Plaza del Pilar & the Fiestas del Pilar
The Basilica sits beside the river Ebro to the north (which makes for really nice photos), and the Plaza del Pilar on the south. The plaza is massive, and is one of the largest in all of Europe! The size makes it a perfect place for festivals and concerts. We were lucky enough to be there for the Fiestas del Pilar, which is an annual festival held in Zaragoza in honor of the patron saint of the city, the Virgin Mary of the Pillar. Being there for the festival was an experience in itself. The streets and plaza were crowded with locals, vendors, local artists and performers, and of course tourists. At night it was so crowded you could barely move in some spots! The festival has a unique little custom to it which is known to the locals – which is the wearing of a “cachirulo”. A cachirulo is a traditional Aragonese (Spanish region of Aragon) handkerchief which is red and black checkered in design. During the fiestas, the baturro (Aragonese person) wears the cachirulo either on their head, or neck. While we are not Aragonese, our cousin-in-law is and was nice enough to provide cachirulos to everyone in the family. It made for an even more fun experience!
The Old Quarter
Walking around the Old Quarter was a lot of fun. We strolled in and out of shops and took in much of the local culture which is everywhere! Zaragoza is the first place I’ve been in Europe that puts good use to its graffiti. All around the city you will find really elaborate avant-garde style graffiti that is actually pleasant to look at! From small walls to whole sides of buildings, the colorful artwork is everywhere! The artists responsible come from all over the world for another festival Zaragoza is famous for called Festival Asalto. The festival is the oldest urban art festival in Spain and seeks to provide a unique way for artists to showcase their talents across the city – literally. The city becomes essentially one giant art gallery – with the everyday pedestrian serving as its audience! Below are a collection of photos I was fortunate enough to use for display on my site. All credits for these photos goes to Festival Asalto.
Besides walking, we traveled around the city on the Zaragoza Tram system, which was extremely convenient. The kids especially enjoyed it!
Throughout the city streets (much because of the ongoing Fiestas), were street performers which were fun to watch. Merchants were also set up along the streets selling all sorts of crazy looking candy, and many other things. Even if you happen to visit Zaragoza when the Fiestas are not happening, there is still plenty to do and see.
Zaragoza is home to many museums, such as the Pablo Gargallo Museum which features artworks by this famous Spanish sculptor, and the Goya Museum which features many paintings by the famous artist Francisco de Goya. The Caesar Augustus Museum is home to one of the largest theatres of the Hispanic-Roman period. The archaeological remains of the 6,000 seat ancient theatre is on display along with the remains of a market from the time of Emperor Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD)
Zaragoza even had its own version of the Leaning Tower of Pisa! The tower, known by its Spanish name as Torre Nueva was a Mudéjar leaning tower located in the Plaza de San Felipe. The tower was built in 1504 and became an icon for the city after it started to lean shortly after construction. The tower stood until 1892 when the city decided to tear it down – regardless of much opposition to the decision.
During the 1990’s, a memorial was dedicated where the tower once stood. The memorial consists of the tower footprint, which is outlined in the pavement, and a sculpture of a boy sitting on the ground looking at the tower as if it still existed.
While Zaragoza doesn’t officially have a leaning tower anymore, the tower of the Iglesia de San Juan de los Panetes is leaning slightly if you look carefully. This baroque style church is located in the Plaza de César Augusto which is close to the to the Plaza del Pilar.
Zaragoza also has a number of unique entertainment venues. We weren’t there for long, so we didn’t get to experience many of these, however on one evening, my cousin and her husband treated us to a magic show in town at El Sótano Mágico (The Magic Basement). Even though the show was in Spanish, and I couldn’t understand much of what was being said, the show was hilarious and very entertaining! While the show we saw was geared for children (for our kids), there are adult shows available.
We stayed in Zaragoza for a total of 3 days, and had just enough time to hit on the highlights of the city. I’m hoping on our next visit we will get to see some of the other things I mentioned and explore further into the city. If you have any questions or comments feel free to leave them below. While I may not be able to answer all of them, I know people who can!