Far away from the sea and midway between Barcelona and Madrid, Zaragoza – the capital of Aragon province – is seemingly unaware by many travelers. Many have never even heard of its name. However, Spain’s fifth-largest city is worth a detour thanks to its impressive heritage and monuments.
For the last 2,000 years, the Romans, the Moors, and then the Christian kings came and built their civilizations along the mighty Ebro River. There were rises and falls, but the vestige of the glorious past is still vivid in monuments, churches, and palaces around the city. For instance, the centuries-old Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar or the Moorish palace, Aljafería. These days, Zaragoza is Spain’s fifth-largest city and one of its most desirable living places, with great air quality, low density of population, and low living cost.
1. Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar
Completed in 1754, Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar (in short El Pilar Basilica) is Zaragoza’s most prominent landmark. Standing next to the river, the multi-domed Cathedral in Baroque style was the first church devoted to honoring the Virgin Mary. It was groundbroken in 1681 but was consecrated as early as the first or second century.
Legend said that on the 2nd of January AD 40, the apostle Saint James the Greater was praying on the bank of the Ebro River when the Virgin Mary appeared to him. She gave him a small statue of herself and a column of Jasper. Then, she instructed him to erect a church called Our Lady of the Pillar on the exact spot.
As guided, Saint James built a chapel around the column. It was followed by a series of expansions, resulting in today’s enormous basilica. The building is home to several artworks. Yet the most valuable (and holy) object is the statue of Our Lady of the Pillar, located in the Holy Chapel.
First basilica devoted to the Virgin Mary.
2. Aljafería Palace
Hundreds of years under the Moorish rule, Spain was filled with many outstanding Islamic architectures. While most of them are gathered in the country’s southern part, Aljafería Palace was built in the northern state of Aragon. With ornate Arabic arches and intricate carvings, the palace is counted as Spain’s finest example of Moorish architecture outside Andalusia. The palace was originally designed as a residence for the Moorish rulers, reflecting the splendor attained by the taifa (an Arab Muslim state in Moorish Aldalucía) of Zaragoza at the height of its grandeur.
After being reconquered by the Christian army in 1118, Aljafería Palace became the residence of the Kings of Aragon. It underwent an extensive refurbishment which transformed the Islamic building into the palace of Catholic monarchs. New decorative features are attached, while many of the Islamic architecture was left intact, including the magnificent Golden Hall. This is a rare case because the conquerors spared very few Moorish-style buildings.
Tips for visiting Zaragoza
- Zaragoza is easily accessible by high-speed train AVE from both Madrid and Barcelone. The trip takes approximately 90 minutes.
- Located outside the city centre, Zaragoza’s central station is connected to the city by bus Nr. 34. It cost around 3€.
- Entry to the cathedral is free. However, the lift at the northern tower cost 3€.
- The admission fee to the Aljafería is 3€. It costs only 1€ if you can provide an international student card.
- As Spain’s fifth-largest city, Zaragoza boasts a vibrant nightlife. Restaurants, bars, and pubs are concentrated around Calle del Temple, southwest of the Plaza del Pilar.