Zaragoza is the fifth largest city in Spain, yet it wasn’t even on our radar during an entire 10-day road trip from Switzerland. How is that even possible? We realized after visiting the city how super cool it is and how much it really flies under the radar for most tourists. If you do happen to have a chance to visit, we put together a little list of a few of our favorite things to do in Zaragoza, Spain – and one terrifying thing to avoid.
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Where is Zaragoza located?
The city of Zaragoza in Spain has a population of about 700,000 people. It’s located in the northeast of the country and is the capital city of the Aragon region.
Conveniently positioned roughly halfway between Madrid and Barcelona as well as Madrid and Andorra, it makes it a perfect stopping point on a road trip.
By car it takes just over 3 hours to drive from Barcelona, Andorra, or Madrid to Zaragoza. While that might be a bit too far to drive in one day, Pamplona is only 2 hours from Zaragoza, which makes it a good option for a day trip.
Saying goodbye to Alicia, the best tour guide in Spain
The morning we visited Zaragoza, Travis and I woke up in Collado Mediano not far from Madrid. It was time to pack our things and start making our way back to Switzerland.
I didn’t really want to leave Spain, ever, and I half-heartedly stuffed clothes back in my luggage.
Briefly stopping in Madrid, we dropped Alicia off at her parents’ apartment.
We thanked her parents again for their hospitality and invited them all to come visit us in Switzerland.
On the way out the door, they gave us a glossy travel brochure for the city of Zaragoza, recommending it as a beautiful place to visit.
We decided it would be our next destination on the way home through Andorra.
Alicia walked us to our car to see us off, and we waved as we drove off down her pretty little tree-lined street in Madrid.
Stocking up on road trip essentials at Corte Inglés
Whether you’re road tripping or traveling by train, if you need to stock up on snacks, new travel gear, or gift items, Corte Inglés is a great option for shopping. Based in Madrid, it’s one of Europe’s biggest department stores. They’re all over Spain.
Before arriving in Zaragoza’s historic city center, we wanted to grab some groceries for the last couple of days of our road trip back to Switzerland. We navigated to a Corte Inglés along our route.
After passing through the seedy outskirts of the city, we finally arrived at our destination. Unfortunately it turned out to be a massive distribution center in a deserted area closed to the public. Instead of just turning around and heading back to the main highway, we thought we’d angle back that direction and “see new sights.”
Take note that an adventurous spirit doesn’t always pay off.
A series of wrong turns, dead ends, and intermittent cussing accompanied us until we found our way back to the main highway.
With relief, we were once again Zaragoza-bound.
And now finally to the good stuff!
8 of the Best Things to See in Zaragoza
The city of Zaragoza, sometimes referred to as Saragossa in English, has known a host of names throughout its long history.
Early Iberians who inhabited what was then just a small village called it Salduie. In all his modesty, Augustus Caesar dubbed it Caesaraugusta in the decades preceding the birth of Christ. When Arabs conquered the region in the 700s, it became known as Saraqusta for the next few centuries under Islamic rule.
The current name morphed from Caesar’s designation. The story goes that if you slur Caesaraugusta quickly, you hear Zaragoza.
1. Plaza Nuestra Señora del Pilar | Our Lady of the Pillar Square
The origin of the city’s name corresponds with its history of battles, conquests, and alliances between the Muslims and Christians. Ultimately, the city would be retaken by Christians and held against further Muslim invasion, but its roots were seeded from a Roman Catholic origin.
This is possibly most visible in the very heart of Zaragoza where a series of cathedrals and important historic sites line the old town square. Known as the Plaza Nuestra Señora del Pilar, it’s absolutely the first place you should visit in the city. Many of the best things to see are located in just this one square.
2. Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar | Church of Our Lady of the Pillar
The undisputable highlight of all the buildings in the main square is the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar.
The towers of the Baroque cathedral rise high above the Río Ebro just a block over from the river.
Construction on the current Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar began in the 17th century. The original church that once stood on this spot was much more modest.
As the first church to be built in honor of the Virgin Mary, locals believe that the Virgin appeared to Saint James where he was praying along the banks of the Ebro River in 40 AD.
Appealing to James to build her a fitting home where she could live forever, she gave him a statue of herself, seated on a jasper column (pillar) with the baby Jesus in her arms. She promised that if the church were constructed in her name, Jesus would grant grace to the faithful who spoke her name at this holy site.
The basilica was thus named the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar.
A series of churches – Gothic and Romanesque – has since stood in this same place, growing ever larger and more grand.
The roof is particularly distinctive. It has a large central dome, four corner spires, and ten smaller domes capped with stunning blue, yellow, green, and white tiles in geometric patterns.
The cathedral continues to shelter a small statue of the Virgin. Fervent believers claim it’s the original and that it has survived with little sign of wear for 1900 years.
Others find it likely that the original was burned in a fire in the 1400s and has been replaced.
Either way, the faithful travel to the church to kiss the statue, to ask for blessings for their children, and to pray to the Virgin Mary.
Make sure to visit the interior of the basilica, as it’s as stunning inside as it is outside.
Though we didn’t know it when we entered, no photography is allowed inside the cathedral – flash or otherwise.
Moments after we took a picture of the high altar, a “bouncer” aggressively descended on another woman photographing it. I’m not sure what he said, but I can imagine. From the expression on her face, he wasn’t gentle.
Travel Tip: All photos are prohibited inside the cathedral.
If you do decide to skip the interior of the basilica, make sure to still wander around the shallow pools and statues of Goya and other famous Spanish historical figures along the length of the basilica. From either end, it’s really impressive to take in the entire 130-meter facade, which consequently is quite a bit longer than an American football field.
Not that that’s how I typically measure famous cultural sites…
Ticket Price: Free general entry. A visit to the tower costs €3. The church museum costs €2.
3. Batidos | Milk Shakes at Ferreti Gelato
Even though the square isn’t terribly large, it packs a punch. It has enough cathedrals and museums surrounding it to keep you busy for an entire day.
Luckily, when you start feeling like you need a sweet pick-me-up, we’ve gotcha covered – with ice cream!
With numerous shops and eateries lining the plaza across from the cathedral, you’ll have a host of options.
We couldn’t resist the giant purple ice cream cone in front of Ferretti Gelato. It beckoned us inside, and the caramel and chocolate drizzled bins of gelato sealed the deal.
They offer your typical gelato or ice cream in a cup or cone, as well as batidos. We especially recommend the dulce de leche and cappuccino shakes!
Language Tip:Batidos is Spanish for milkshakes.
4. Catedral del Salvador | UNESCO Cathedral of the Saviour (La Seo)
Another historic and noteworthy cathedral worth seeing during your Zaragoza visit is the Cathedral of the Saviour. Located right in the main plaza near the basilica, it’s a bit oddly tucked behind a hotel, but you still can’t miss it at the end of the square.
The style of this cathedral is very different from the basilica. Often referred to simply as La Seo, it was built on the same site as a Moorish mosque that was partially deconstructed when the Muslims were expelled from the city in 1121.
Remnants of the minarets are still visible in the current tower.
Budget Travel Tip: For free entry, visit on one of the following days. January 1, 6, 29; March 5; April 23; May 18; September 14; October 12; December 25
This cathedral is one of three Zaragoza attractions that were granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status, all for their architectural importance. The other two on list are the Aljafería Palace and the Church of San Pablo.
These buildings are significant in their contributions to the Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon. This unique style is a mixture of Baroque, Mudéjar, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles spanning seven hundred years. Specifically, the style of construction favors colorful glazed decorative tiles, octagonal rooms, and ornamental exteriors.
For those interested in doing a guided tour, you have lots of options through the official Zaragoza Tourism site.
Ticket Price: €6 for the Cathedral + Tapestry Museum ticket, €5 for seniors (over 65), and €4 for youth (ages 12-18).
5. Fuente de la Hispanidad | Fountain of Hispanicity
Depending on where you enter the square, you may see the huge main water feature right away or before you leave.
Either way, don’t miss the Fuente de la Hispanidad!
Translation: Fountain of Hispanicity? Fountain of Spanishness?
Located at the far end of the plaza, it’s simply fantastic. Water cascades into a catch basin on one side of a walkway and a shallow pool on the other.
It’s impossible to see from the ground, but from the air or on a map, the entire fountain is shaped like Latin America. The raised portion represents the Yucatán and Central America. It’s separated from the pool in the foreground – South America – by a paved walkway, or peninsula, in between.
Perhaps it was the warm evening air, the fresh breezes mixed with the tinkling of cascading water, or the sweetness of our batidos, but the fountain surpassed all other attractions of the day for me.
It definitely topped my list of free things to do in Zaragoza.
6. Church of San Juan de los Panetes
At the opposite end of the plaza as La Seo is another church, the Iglesia de San Juan de los Panetes.
Built between the 12th and 13th centuries, the interior was destroyed by two fires during its long history. The current church is primarily Baroque and was completed in 1725 to replace the previous church after it was destroyed.
Most notable for its octagonal tower, it reflects both Mudéjar and Renaissance styles.
Though not included on the UNESCO World Heritage list, the church is listed as a national monument in Spain.
7. Ancient Roman City Walls
Not far from the Church of San Juan de los Panetes is a section of the old Roman walls that at one time encircled the city.
Thought the exact date of construction is unknown, it’s believed they date from the 2nd or 3rd centuries.
Zaragoza was once surrounded by Roman walls that extended for roughly 3 km around the town center. They measured 10 meters tall and included 120 towers.
The nearby statue of Caesar was a gift to Spain from Italy in 1940.
The Ebro River drains more land than any other in Spain, and it runs right through Zaragoza. It borders the northern edge of the Basilica of our Lady of the Pillar.
The walkways along the river are incredibly scenic, offering views of the waterway, the basilica, and the historic Puente de Piedra, a 15th-century stone bridge adjacent to the basilica. Photography buffs will want to walk out on the bridge for the best unobstructed shots of the basilica.
And that rounds out our list of the best places to visit in Zaragoza!
Getting to Zaragoza
We’re big fans of road trips and tend to avoid flying when we can, so our very biased recommendation is to visit the city by car.
That said, many European airports offer flights directly to Zaragoza, or you can fly to Barcelona or Madrid and take a high-speed train. The journey takes just over an hour.
If you fly or take the train, you’ll find that getting around the city is quite easy. Buses will take you just about anywhere you want to go, or you can hoof it if you want to see more of the city.
Parking in Zaragoza
Parking in Zaragoza is also surprisingly easy and inexpensive. Even though it’s a decent size city with a popular and compact central district, it’s still possible to park near all the places on our list and not fork out a huge wad of change to a parking meter.
We found a parking spot just a few blocks up the Ebro River. The entire way back to our car, I marveled that we’d found a spot so close for less than €2. And not per hour but for the entire afternoon we spent exploring.
Oh Spain, we don’t want to leave you.
But we had to.
A parking lot is no place to live, even if it is next to a friendly little plaza surrounded by palatial brick buildings.
When we got back to our VW, several cars were double parked behind us, waiting for a spot. They made room for me to Austin Powers my way out, then one of them wung into our spot while the driver threw us a grateful wave.
And that brings us to the one terrifying thing you should NOT do in Zaragoza.
Facing down a train in Zaragoza…
Leaving Zaragoza turned out to be less simple than finding our way in.
Using MapsMe, Trav directed me to turn right at a wonky intersection. I wasn’t immediately concerned that this put us driving directly down a set of railroad tracks since this isn’t uncommon in Switzerland. Or at least it’s not in Basel where the trains “share the road” much like bicycles do in Oregon.
However, when I realized a train was actually on the tracks up ahead and appeared to be coming right at us, I scoped out the lay of the land with a sinking feeling.
We needed to vacate our current location, and quickly.
To our surprise, paralleling us on the right was a large van with a concerned Zaragozan half hanging out the window. He was gesturing to us madly with his arms waving up and down to get our attention, his face clearly contorted in distress.
Though we had already pretty much summed up the urgency of our situation, we weren’t sure how to get off the tracks, which were bordered on both sides with barriers.
When the van driver abruptly slammed on his brakes at a small opening in the barrier and waved us over, I Pensked that b**** a full lane over out of the path of the train without even tapping the brakes.
A thank-you wave hardly seemed sufficient, but it was all I could muster.
And now you know what not to do in Zaragoza!
Is it any surprise we were relieved to leave the insanity of city driving for the open road?
With only castles and giant well-hung bull statues to keep us company, we headed for Andorra, one of the smallest countries in the world.
We were about to experience the Pyrenees for the first time and learn about the glory of duty-free shopping in Andorra after living for a year in one of the most expensive countries in the world.
Have your own suggestions for what to see in Zaragoza?