Discovering Zaragoza, Spain

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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 the best spots not to miss during a day-trip to Zaragoza.

For those feeling particularly adventurous, you’re welcome to use our custom map at the end of the post for inspiration for your own DIY European road trip.

Find out how to spend a day in Zaragoza, home of the second largest cathedral in Spain, a UNESCO church, and so much more! Click to Tweet

Where is Zaragoza located?

Zaragoza is a city of about 700,000 people in the northeast of Spain. It’s the capital city of the region of Aragon.

Conveniently located roughly mid-way between either Madrid and Barcelona or Madrid and Andorra, it makes it a perfect stopping point on a road trip.

By car, Zaragoza is about 3 hours from Madrid or Barcelona and 3 1/2 hours to Andorra.

Saying goodbye to Alicia, the best tour guide in Spain

The morning of our visit to 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.

We were pretty sad about having to say goodbye to our friend Alicia, who had been traveling with us for the past few days. She had been the best tour guide in showing us all the Best Things to Do in Madrid as well as an unforgettable day trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of El Escorial.

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 pressed 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, a tiny country squished between Spain and France.

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.

Bull statue in Spain
When you start seeing The massive bull statues throughout Spain are an iconic symbol of the country.

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!

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

Central plaza in Zaragoza, Spain
Plaza Nuestra Señora del Pilar lies in the heart of Zaragoza.

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 – Our Lady of the Pillar Basilica

Nuestra Senora del Pilar Basilica in Zaragoza, Spain
Construction on the current Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar didn’t begin until the 1700s. The original church that once stood on this spot was much more modest.

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.

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 him to build her a fitting home where she could forever reside, she gave him a statue of her seated on a jasper column, or 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.

Length of the fabulous Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Pilar
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar is the second largest in Spain.

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 features a large central dome, four corner spires, and ten smaller domes capped with stunning blue, yellow, green, and white tiles in geometric patterns.

Colorful tiled roof of the Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar in Zaragoza
Colorfully tiled cupolas cap the domes of the cathedral in bright yellow, green, blue, and white.
Wall Art

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.

Domed interior of the Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar in Zaragoza, Spain
The high altar is dwarfed by the spacious and elegant central dome and supporting columns.

Unbeknownst to us, no photography is allowed inside the cathedral – flash or otherwise.

Travel Tip: Photos are prohibited inside the cathedral.

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.

Feeling a bit stifled suddenly and disappointed with their ban on photography, we left earlier than we otherwise would have.

Returning outside, we wandered around the shallow pools and the many statues of Goya and other famous Spanish historical figures before rounding the plaza. We were rewarded with a nice view of the Basilica.

Blue skies above the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, Zaragoza
The Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar stretches down the main plaza in Zaragoza.

Cost: Entrance to the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is FREE. A visit to the tower costs €3. The church museum costs €2.

3. Batidos at Ferreti Gelato

Ice cream at Ferretti Gelato in Zaragoza, Spain
Ice cream makes everything better at Ferretti Gelato in Zaragoza.

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.

Language Tip: Batidos is Spanish for milkshakes. Who doesn’t love milkshakes?!

Much cheered, we left a few minutes later with dulce de leche and cappuccino batidos to explore the rest of the plaza.

4. Catedral del Salvador – Cathedral of the Saviour (La Seo)

Catedral del Salvador de Zaragoza, Spain
Catedral del Salvador (Cathedral of the Savior) is often simply referred to as La Seo.

Another historic and noteworthy cathedral in the main plaza is the Catedral del Salvador, another Roman Catholic church. 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.

This cathedral is one of three structures in Zaragoza that is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its Mudéjar Architecture of Aragon. It’s a unique mixture of Baroque, Mudéjar, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance styles that span seven centuries.

Plaza of the Basilica of Our Lady of Pilar, Zaragoza
The Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is on the left with the minaret of La Seo in the distance.

From the far end of the Basilica, you can look back at the entire 130-meter length of it, which consequently is quite a bit longer than an American football field.

Not that that’s how I typically measure famous cultural sites…

Price: A single adult ticket costs €4.

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. But definitely 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 water feature 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.

6. Iglesia de San Juan de los Panetes

Church of San Juan of the Panetes in Spain

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.

It’s most notable for its octagonal tower, which reflects both Mudéjar and Renaissance styles. The church is listed as a national monument in Spain.

The nearby statue of Caesar was a gift to Spain from Italy in 1940.

Price: It’s free to enter the church.

7. Roman City Walls

Not far from the Basilica de San Juan is a section of the ancient Roman walls that once surrounded the city.

Thought the exact date of construction is unknown, it’s believed they date from the 2nd or 3rd centuries.

Ancient Roman walls in Zaragoza, Spain

The city of Zaragoza was once surrounded by Roman walls that extended for roughly 3 km, were 10 meters tall, and included 120 towers.

8. The Ebro River

The Ebro River drains more land than any other in Spain, and it runs right through Zaragoza. It borders the northern edge of the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

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.

Getting to Zaragoza

Clearly, 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 the city

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 these main attractions 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.

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 facing our direction, 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, gesticulating to us madly with his arms, his face 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 bracketed with barriers.

When the van driver abruptly slammed on his brakes and waved us over, I Pensked that b**** a full lane over 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!

Huge bull statue in Aragon, Spain
If you do opt for a road trip to Zaragoza, you’ll see bull statues like this everywhere.

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 after living for a year in the most expensive country in the world!

Know Before You Go
  • Entrance to the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is FREE. A visit to the tower costs €3. The church museum costs €2.
  • Entrance to La Seo costs €4 for a single adult ticket.
  • The Fuente de la Hispanidad is FREE.
  • The Iglesia de San Juan de los Panetes is FREE.
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Map of 10-Day Road Trip – Switzerland to Spain

The lightest blue pins mark travel for day seven, from Collado Mediano to Madrid, Zaragoza, and Ogern, Spain. The blue line roughly follows the entire 10-day map of our road trip through Spain.

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