Kathryn Moxhay spends a couple of days in this relaxed Spanish city
With the Pyrenees to the north and Barcelona to the east, this relaxed and effortlessly cool city in northern Spain is often overlooked. Situated on the banks of the Ebro river, pretty Zaragoza entices visitors with excellent tapas bars, vibrant nightlife, stunning architecture and a laidback vibe. And although it’s the capital of the Aragon region, its atmosphere is more reminiscent of a large Spanish town — albeit one with a host of world-class museums, galleries, shops and sights. With the grand Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar and the Palacio de la Aljafería, the city’s skyline is a stunning reminder of the city’s Roman and Moorish heritage. By day, take in one of the many museums to learn about Zaragoza’s rich history or head to one of the city’s lush, green spaces to relax in peace. A large student population ensures the evenings here are never dull, with the tapas bars and restaurants of El Tubo coming alive when the sun goes down.
Arrive in early October and your visit will coincide with the Fiestas del Pilar, a celebration of the city’s patron saint, the Virgin Mary. Officially on 12th October, the festivities take place either side of this date, with thousands heading to the streets for parades, dancing and live music.
Start the day with a cafe con leche and a churro or two before wandering over to the stunning Palacio de la Aljafería. This UNESCO-listed, 11th-century Islamic palace is a beautiful example of Mudéjar architecture, combining elements of both Islamic and Christian design. Inside the palace, be sure to look up above you at the spectacular wooden ceilings carved by Moorish artists, before strolling outside to discover the courtyard gardens.
Escape the afternoon heat with a visit to the Museo Goya – Colección Ibercaja, a museum of fine arts. Born in nearby Fuendetodos, Francisco de Goya is one of Spain’s most celebrated artists and this fantastic museum holds a collection of his work, along with temporary exhibitions. Entry is free.
Head out to the vibrant El Tubo district late in the evening. The winding, narrow streets are crammed with top-class tapas bars and restaurants; do as the locals do and sample a few dishes at each.
Beat the crowds and head off for an early-morning trip to Catedral-Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. This baroque masterpiece, completed in 1754, is an impressive work of architecture, with eleven cupolas and four towers. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to St James here and told him to build a church in her honour, resulting in what’s now believed to be the first church dedicated to her. There are also excellent artworks by Goya and Bayaeu to be seen.
Grab a picnic and saunter over to one of Zaragoza’s many green spaces. A popular, central spot is the Parque Grande José Antonio Labordeta, which offers botanical gardens, sculptures and fountains along with bikes for hire.
Before heading out for dinner, add a modern twist to your culture-packed day with a visit to the striking Aragonese Institute of Art and Contemporary Culture, open from 17.00-21.00. Featuring over 140 sculptures and drawings by acclaimed artist Pablo Serrano, the museum showcases his finest works alongside those of his wife, plus a vast collection of contemporary graphic art. The building’s distinctive design makes it a sight in its own right.