I arrived in Zaragoza yesterday morning and immediately fell in love with this beautiful city. Since I had some time to kill before checking into my Airbnb, I told the taxi driver from the train station to just drop me in Casco Antiguo which ended up being a fantastic starting place for my Zaragoza exploration.
The center of Casco Antiguo is the Plaza de Pilar, which on one side has beautiful stately buildings (mostly restaurants and cafes on the bottom level) and on the other side houses the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, which is a fantastic and massive cathedral complex that rivals those I’ve seen in Rome.
As I arrived on the cusp of siesta (the 3-hour period during which museums, sites, etc. close for lunch and relaxation in the middle of the day), I figured I’d stop for a bite to eat, check into the Airbnb, and then do a small walking tour to orient myself.
I popped into a little restaurant called Cafe Botanico, where I had a lovely pan con tomate, which they enhanced with jamon and avocado. It was a great introduction to Zaragoza’s food scene, and it wasn’t even a recommended or top-rated restaurant!
After checking into my Airbnb, I headed out on my walking tour, starting by orienting myself around the Plaza del Pilar. In addition to the cathedral and storefronts, there are a couple other sites of interest: on the far end, towards the Mercado Central, are the remains of the Roman city walls from back in the first century BC when Zaragoza would have been “Caesaraugusta” (named, of course, after the Roman emperor at the time).
There is also an interesting little fountain and pool which adds kind of an artsy vibe to this side of the square.
On the other side, there are a cluster of important sites and museums. To start, there are more Roman ruins, displayed in the Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta (aka the Museum of Caesaraugusta’s Forum) – and just around the corner is the Museo del Puerto Fluvial de Caesaraugusta, which displays a variety of remains from the ancient port. Right next door is the Catedral del Salvador de Zaragoza, which is absolutely beautiful (more on that later – it also includes a fantastic tapestry museum!). There are also a variety of statues.
Wandering through the little squares, I also saw the lovely old Roman bridge.
Since it was siesta and most things were closed, I decided to head to lunch and stopped at a lovely cafe right next to the Goya Museum called Bermellon. It offers a very reasonably priced lunch menu featuring Aragonese cuisine that was delicious. I had a lovely salad of tomatoes, onion, salt and delicious olive oil, grilled lamb chops with potatoes and red pepper, and watermelon drizzled in delicious chocolate. It was well worth the 12 Euros.
Then, I was on to the one museum that appeared to be open: the Museo de los Faroles y Rosario de Cristal. I had no idea what to expect, but it completely blew my mind. Every year, each city in Spain has a series of festivals related to their patron saint, and Zaragoza’s festivities in October include carrying more than 300 beautiful glass lamps / lanterns / dioramas through the city as night falls as part of their devotion to the Virgin of Pilar. I can only imagine its a spectacular parade, as seeing the pieces on display was incredible in and of itself.
Then, I wandered back towards the Plaza de Pilar through a few of Zaragoza’s beautiful streets.
Along the way, I stumbled upon the Anfiteatro romano de Zaragoza – while I didn’t go to the museum itself, there is a lovely cafe which has a direct viewing area outside that I enjoyed.
I also passed a couple other lovely churches, although they were unfortunately closed as well.
Ultimately, I ended up making dinner back at the Airbnb and headed for bed, as I’d been up super early to catch my train from Salamanca. This morning I woke up and headed back towards the Plaza del Pilar, as I had a reservation to go to the top of the cathedral’s tower to view Zaragoza from above. Since I had a bit of time to kill, I ventured inside. It’s a beautiful cathedral and absolutely massive. Pope John Paul II called it the “Mother of the Hispanic Peoples” and there is a commemorative area inside, so there was a large line of pilgrims waiting to touch and pray at the site. The ceilings are covered in frescoes by Goya, who was born in Zaragoza. Overall, well worth a stop!
The church is absolutely immense and very impressive from the outside as well.
From above, the cathedral is equally impressive, with expansive views across the gorgeous tiled domes stretching from the Roman bridge to the outskirts of town.
After my 15 minutes at the top of the cathedral tower, I headed across the plaza to the Catedral del Salvador de Zaragoza / Iglesia Parroquial de la Seo / the Tapestry Museum.
If anything, it’s almost more impressive inside than the Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar. It has unbelievably ornate ceilings, a variety of gorgeous tiles / paint choices, and is incredibly rich in terms of historically significant architecture. According to the audioguide, the original building was converted to a mosque during the Al-Andalus period, and later was expanded into the cathedral structure it is today.
Especially of interest is the “Mudéjar” architecture present throughout the cathedral and most visibly on its facade. Essentially, after the Second Inquisition in Spain, several elements of Muslim and Jewish architecture and art were still included in Aragon’s architecture. This represented a new type of design sense, in which Christian and Muslim art coexisted harmoniously; often, this style of architecture includes Gothic elements as well.
After the cathedral visit, I visited the Tapestry Museum which was truly one of the most incredible collections of tapestries I’ve ever seen. In near perfect condition, they have at least ~30 (displayed) Flemish tapestries from Belgium and France from the 15th and 16th centuries, which a ton of information about the tapestry design, development and weaving. Interestingly, they also showed how the tapestry design changed over time – for example, borders became thicker as the tapestries became more complex, with the border even comprising up to one third of the tapestry.
Then, I wandered up to my next site: the Goya Museum. It’s a lovely museum with a great collection of Goya’s works and a variety of other works from Spanish artists before and after Goya’s time. Photos weren’t allowed, but it was a good collection and worth a visit. Next, I visited a couple sites on my walk south toward the Museo de Zaragoza.
On the way I passed a couple sites: Iglesia Parroquial de San Gil Abad, and then the Palacio de Armijo, which both had lovely architecture.
I also passed the Plaza de los Sitios, which is a beautiful park.
The Museum of Zaragoza has a great collection and is free! On the first floor, they have a fantastic exhibit of Roman artifacts, and on the top floor they have fine art from a variety of time periods (including more Goya, for free!) and small exhibit on Asian ceramic arts, which included some lovely red-toned celadon. The Roman art was great and included a couple things I hadn’t seen before, including a very shapely statue and a recreation of a Roman villa sitting room.
Then, I headed to my last museum of the day, the Ibercaja Patio de la Infanta. I was under the impression that it was a museum in and of itself and found myself wandering the area around the building (which is the bank Ibercaja’s headquarters) looking for a historic property and was incredibly confused. On a bright side, I got a good view of the surrounding neighborhood in the “centro” portion of Zaragoza!
Then, behind a construction sign, I saw a small note saying that the patio was inside! So, I entered the building and discovered a little treasure: the Patio de la Infanta! It was a small exhibit, but a fascinating one.
Basically the Patio is a typical Aragonese building from 1550 which was in use until the mid-1700s. At some point, there was a terrible fire that damaged most of the building and the facade was largely deconstructed and sold. The remainder of the patio itself was shipped to Paris. In the mid-1900s, a higher up at Ibercaja discovered the patio was for sale and purchased it, bringing it back to its native Zaragoza and installing it in the bank! It’s now used as an attraction and an area for exhibitions and such.
Then, I headed to lunch at a cute (although possibly problematic) restaurant called Asian, which offered a lovely lunch menu. I had a poached egg with asparagus and jamon, and then bacalao with mashed potatoes and jammy onion. It also came with a delicious “tarta de queso” which I assumed would be a Portuguese-style cheese tart but was actually a very delicious take on cheesecake. They also included wine in the menu as is normal – what wasn’t normal is they brought out a whole bottle for me to self-pour during the meal!
After lunch, I wandered back through Zaragoza to the Airbnb for siesta. Tonight, I’m heading to one of Zaragoza’s acclaimed restaurants, Maite, for dinner.
The restaurant was great – oddly there were only two tables, clearly tourists (early on, the other table “cheers”-ed me in English), but the experience was overall fantastic. The food was creative, delicious and really playful for the most part, and the service was impeccable with several freebies (including a free “chupito” of scotch from Malta, which I was surprised about).
The degustation menu (only 53 Euros!) consisted of several interesting ideas:
- An olive chip with tomato puree and peppers, accompanied with a delicious fish croquette and trout roe
- Burrata with home-grown arugula and a cucumber gelato
- Calamari tartar with cocoa and cauliflower puree, served with a fish broth colored with squid ink
- Eggplant with parmesan cheese, shrimp, fennel and lemon flowers as well as bearnaise sauce
- Sauteed fish with black trumpet mushrooms and a broth
- Absolutely delicious seared iberico pork with mango puree and fresh mango (this was the highlight for me!)
- Primer postre of strawberry gelato and blueberry foam with fresh versions of both fruits
- The “formal” dessert was a delicious brownie with both sesame and orange ice creams, as well as a sesame crumble
- Petit fours and coffee, as well as a Maltesian whiskey (I had no idea that Malta created scotch, but it was delicious) – they also served this with a non-alcoholic gin and tonic that legitimately tasted like the real deal and I wish I’d learned what 0.0 beverage they used since it was fantastic and would be a great substitute for days followed by an early morning!
At the end of the day, I’d absolutely recommend Maite! Overall, a fantastic couple days in Zaragoza so far!