No Spanish place name promises as much mystery as Zaragoza. It sounds like a magic word, the final phonetic upswing of a witch’s spell. Appropriate, as the city feels almost summoned from the windswept moor halfway between Madrid and Barcelona.
Set on the Ebro River, this provincial capital has seen centuries of turmoil as the capital of the former Kingdom of Aragon – a domain occupied over the millennia by Romans, Islamic caliphs, Catholic monarchs and General Franco’s forces.
All have left their mark on today’s architecture, but there are few buildings more impressive than the Baroque towers surrounding the mighty Basilica of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, which marks the spot where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Saint James in the year 40 AD is said to have appeared.
Step inside and you’ll find the inner domes tinged with the art of Francisco de Goya, the artist who was born close enough to town in 1746 to qualify as a local hero. The master painter’s ubiquitous work remains a totem of Zaragoza’s enduring creative spirit, and its residents – nicknamed ‘Maños’ – have inherited some of Spain‘s richest traditions, from chocolate-making to lively folk dances.
But perhaps the greatest magic lies in the old town: a painted labyrinth of taverns, courtyards and tapas bars that pound like blood through your veins at night.
First day: tiles & tapas
Catholic pilgrims come to worship two related relics in Nuestra Señora del Pilar: a small wooden icon of the Virgin Mary and the ornate jasper column on which she rests. Believe it or not, the magnificently tiled and gilded Cathedral Basilica makes an excellent base for a visit to the city.
Across Plaza del Pilar is Zaragoza‘s other cathedral, La Seo, a marvel of hybrid styles (Romanesque, Gothic, Neoclassical) that contains the remains of an 11th-century mosque and an ancient Roman forum. Delve deeper into the city’s past at the ruins of the 1st-century thermal baths and the amphitheater of Caesaraugusta, the Roman settlement that gave Zaragoza its name.
For generations, the city’s surrounding fields have fed its citizens with produce ranging from grain to tronchon (sheep’s cheese). The signature dish, however, is ternasco, or roast lamb, which is best eaten at a leisurely pace at El Real.
The restaurant has tables on a terrace overlooking the Pilar and under the large arches of the Pasaje del Ciclón arcade. Shops here mix the usual chains with more specialized local ateliers – if you’re looking for something Aragónese, regional ceramic centers like Muel have been making vibrant purple and green pottery since medieval times, while modern iterations of the same ceramics are sold at Artesanía Aligia.
El Tubo (‘the tube’) is a dense network of lanes where old taverns and modern bars are crammed between Gothic courtyards, Renaissance houses and sections of the Roman city wall. Start the evening with a glass of Cariñena wine at Bodegas Almau or one of the 24 gins on offer at Libertad 6.8.
Small corner bar El Champi is known for its single tapa – garlic mushrooms on bread – while Lamaribel Escabechado specializes in age-old pickling techniques to create rich, dense meat stews. Also in this zone is El Plata, where comedy, acrobatics and quasi-burlesque performances take place in a 1920s cabaret hall.