A Historical Tour of Zaragoza
January 1, 1970
by Alice McFarlane
The city of Zaragoza is often overshadowed by its bigger and busier counterparts. But if you have ventured into Spain before for its stunning architecture, local food, extravagant traditions and rich history then Zaragoza will not disappoint!
The history in Zaragoza is extremely varied and has something to offer for everyone. If you are someone fervently loves history, appreciates the influence of culture on architecture or simply likes to absorb the history of a city between beers in the sun: then this list will help guide you.
Here are my top three historical sites to visit during a trip to the city of Zaragoza:
1 | Basilica del Pilar
To reach the Basilica you must wander down Calle Alfonso. This street may be teaming with shops and tapas bars but the real wonder is at the end of the street. Calle Alfonso is a pedestrianised street which leads to the Plaza del Pilar so as you walk down the street the Basilica is slowly revealed to you.
Upon seeing the Basilica I was stunned that I had never heard of it. Its sheer size, baroque style architecture and colourfully patterned slates on the roof are stunning. It is rumoured to have been the first Catholic Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and was built around the 17th century. The inside itself is a marvel, with statues, stone carvings and domes painted by Goya. Furthermore, if your interests lie with Spanish history then you will not be disappointed. During the Spanish Civil War, three bombs landed on the Basilica but none detonated. Today two of the bombs are on display inside.
Festival del Pilar
The Basilica is visited by thousands of people each year, particularly during the festival del Pilar in mid-October. The plaza becomes host to hundreds of people dressed in the traditional costume, dancing the traditional dance (Jota) and offering fruits and flowers to the statue of the Virgin. It is especially common during the festival to see visitors inside cueing to see the Pilar. The Pilar is a column with an engraving of the mother of God. History depicts that it was given to Saint James during an apparition from the Virgin Mary and he was instructed to build a church around it. Therefore, it holds great significance to the Catholic community.
Views of the City
In order to get the full experience of the Basilica, you must take the elevator to the top of one of the towers. With a €3 entrance fee, you are taken in an elevator to the top of the tower where you can see across the river Ebro and the skyline of the city. If you can keep your nerve with heights then there is a winding staircase that leads you to the utmost point of the tower. My advice is to time your trip for sunset as the sky in Zaragoza often has a pink hue that is not to be missed. Also, do not go on the weekends. The tower is not spacious and it’s hard to lose yourself in the view when you’re shuffling between the railings.
If this doesn’t appeal to you, then you can cross the Puente de Piedra for a view of the Basilica across the river. On both sides of the bridge are two metal lions (the symbol of Zaragoza) guarding the entrance and exit to the city.
2 | Aljafería
Over to the west of the city is the medieval castle Aljafería. There is no doubt that this site is steeped in history as it has seen over 10 centuries since it was built in the 11th century during the Banu Hud dynasty. The Hispano-Muslim architecture is likened to the Alhambra of Granada. Entry is free on a Sunday and only €5 for an adult and €1 for student/ young person/ pensioner. But keep an eye on opening times as they vary depending on the season.
Upon viewing the castle, it was clearly built with defensive strategy in mind as a grand moat and four large towers with one small entrance portal surround it. The entrance leads to a small garden with mandarin trees and spectacular white carved arches.
While touring the grand halls I would suggest to always remember to look up as the ceilings of certain rooms display mesmerising carvings full of colour in the traditional Islamic style. The architecture throughout the castle is stunning and many of the carvings were designed to reflect script found in the Quran.
3 | Cesar Augustus Ruins
It took me longer than I would like to admit to realise the historical diversity of Zaragoza. As is evident from the previous sites there has been both Muslim and Catholic influences on the city. But it does not stop there, as under street-level there are Roman ruins scattered across the city.
The At the Plaza del Pilar, Plaza San Bruno and Calle San Jorge you can visit the ruins of the Cesar Augustus forum, Museo del Puerto Fluvial and the Cesar Augustus auditorium, respectively. The first was the nerve centre of the city where market trade, religious worship and legal proceedings took place. The second was the point of river trade into and out of the city through the river Ebro. The final site was the auditorium, where the citizens flocked to enjoy theatre and other events.
If you only have time for one I would suggest the auditorium. Discovered by chance in the 70s when digging for the construction of a new building, the structure is surprisingly well preserved, especially considering it was erected in the 1st century. While you’re roaming around keep an eye out for the resident cats, they lounge on the ruins seeking out the best spot for sunning themselves. You probably won’t see that in Rome!
You can purchase a ticket at any of the museums, entry to all three is €7 or entry to one is €3. However, if you don’t have a burning desire to pay to be in amongst the auditorium ruins it is possible to see it from the street and the café beside the museum.
Hopefully, this will guide you through the history that Zaragoza has to offer or at least help you to fill the gaps between tapas and cervezas!