Trip dates: 2017 Jan. 22-25
Walking through the historic district of Zaragoza, Spain, is, for tourists like us, akin to a treasure hunt. Gorgeous old churches are around every corner, so many they almost seem like afterthoughts. There’s little fanfare for a beautiful 300-year-old church when there’s one twice as old and twice as big just down the street. Here’s one from the 1500s. There’s another from the 1700s. Oh, and down that way, past the magnificent old central market hall and within view of the massive Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, there’s a wall made of stones placed carefully by Roman workers centuries ago.
Zaragoza is definitely worth a visit. In fact, if we could do this trip over, we would have traded a day in Madrid for an extra day or two here. Two days in Zaragoza with kids was wonderful; more would have been better.
I mean, check out all this history on display in Zaragoza: From first-century Roman ruins to a palace built by Muslim kings a thousand years later to a number of cathedrals that began to be built after the Christians invaded and took over in the 12th century. And all this is reachable on foot, via wide sidewalks and twisty, pedestrian-dominated alleys, making for pleasant walking for families.
Zaragoza was founded in 24 B.C. as the Roman town of Colonia Caesar Augusta, and it has the Roman ruins to prove it. In the 1970s and 1980s, a large Roman amphitheater dating from the first century was discovered under several streets in the old town. The museum states that homes built on the site, most prominently by the city’s Moorish rulers around the 800s, actually incorporated the walls of the old amphitheater into their own structures.
In the 700s, long after the city’s name morphed from Cesaraugusta to Zaragoza, the city was captured by those Moors, who ruled for more than 300 years. Sometime in the 11th century, they constructed the fabulous Aljafería Palace as a pleasure retreat for Zaragoza’s Islamic kings. Then in the 1490s, at the same time as they were sending Columbus to claim the Americas, Spanish rulers Ferdinand and Isabella added their own palace onto the original Muslim structure. The whole thing still stands today as the home of the parliament of Aragón (the region of which Ferdinand was once king) and a museum.
Here are some great things to do and see with kids in Zaragoza, Spain:
Museo de la Ruta Caesaraugusta
The Ruta Caesaraugusta consists of four museums that display artifacts from Roman rule during the time of Caesar Augustus, around the life of Christ (this is the same Caesar Augustus who, as recorded in Luke 2, sent out a decree that all the world should be taxed).
You can visit each of the museums separately, for €3 to €4 per adult, or you can buy a €7 ticket that gets you into all four. Despite that we arrived half an hour before bedtime, at the ragged end of a long day, we optimistically opted for the whole tour.
The four sites — river port, forum, public baths and theater — form a line spanning only 450 meters, so it’s an easy walk to visit all four. The Museo del Foro, at the southeast end of the Plaza del Pilar, is a good place to start. There is also a fifth site, Murallas Romanas, the remnants of a Roman wall, northwest of the Plaza del Pilar.
Between the noise of our children and the imposition of the museum structures built in and among the ruins, it was difficult to sit still and imagine the history told by the old Roman stones. It was well worth the money, though.
The museums are nicely constructed and — particularly if you can speak Spanish — do a wonderful job of guiding visitors through the history to understand the position of Caesaraugusta in the Roman empire. We walked through an old Roman sewage duct, paced along what once was a tunnel through a 6,000-seat Roman amphitheater, imagined Romans talking politics in a bath house and even watched a bust of a Roman boy come to life (in rather creepy fashion) and explain some of the history.
Overall, we spent about 90 minutes in the museums, but we could have spent much longer had it not been past everyone’s bedtime.
Museo del Fuego y de los Bomberos
Zaragoza is home to a fantastic firefighter museum, the Museo del Fuego y de los Bomberos, with firefighting artifacts from the past couple of centuries and a number of well-restored old fire trucks that I’m pretty sure made our boys’ hearts skip a beat. The adult ticket was €3,20 (though I got a student discount), and the kids got in free.
A wonderfully gracious Spanish bombero gave us a guided tour of the museum, and he was forgiving of our clumsy attempts at discourse. We didn’t understand everything he said, but we knew enough to get the gist of the history of firefighting in Zaragoza, which dates all the way back to Casear Augustus, whose Vigiles were the world’s first public firefighters. These ancient firefighters used pumps that drew water from the city’s aqueducts; the boys were able to try their hand at pumping a replica in the museum. The tour began with a couple of well-produced short films that depicted firefighting in Zaragoza since the 1800s. It then proceeded to the basement, which was full of old breathing tanks, helmets, water pumps, hoses and more. The building itself, if I understood our tour guide correctly, used to house both a school and a hospital, and it — especially the cavernous basement — was interesting in its own right.
One caveat: We went into the museum expecting the boys to be able to admire the various fire trucks at their own pace, but what we got was a detailed, 90-minute tour of la historia de los bomberos de Zaragoza. It was enjoyable, to be sure, but I don’t think the boys got much out of the history lesson (which, again, was delivered in a language they don’t speak).
The Aljafería Palace
As in many of the main attractions of Zaragoza, you’re stepping far back into Spanish history when you visit the Aljafería. In this case, it’s to a time when the Muslims ruled Spain after conquering it in the 8th century. Built in the late 11th century by king al-Muqtadir of the Hudid Dynasty, the Aljafería is reminiscent of the Alhambra, in southern Spain, which was actually built a couple of centuries later. In the center stands an open courtyard brightened by a handful of orange trees and and a small waterfall. What remains of the ornate original architecture is stunning; the columns and capitals feature stonework carved in intricate geometric patterns, and the ceilings, in some places restored to their original splendor, are incredibly detailed. Our boys brought toy cars, so we were afforded a few rare minutes to read plaques and study the building while they drove on the ornate tile floors. A landscaped moat (it’s not currently full of water) surrounds the outside, offering a green space for the kids to run, if need be. There’s also a park dotted with small playgrounds flanking the palace to the north.
As I mentioned before, walking through Zaragoza is a treat. Stepping off of old town’s main streets leads you through a warren of small alleyways and cobbled streets, all with old brick and stone apartment buildings leaning (sometimes quite literally) overhead. And when you emerge from any old alley, inevitably there’s a gorgeous, ancient edifice with a clock tower or two staring you in the face.
One of the main drags is a beautiful jaunt from Calle del Coso northeast toward the Ebro River along Calle de Alfonso I. Bustling (assuming it’s not Sunday afternoon) shops and restaurants line the way, and the massive dome of the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar is always in view.
Zaragoza is a large city, with a population of around 700,000, but it’s well-preserved and easy to navigate by foot, especially if you stay near the older parts of town. An accidental detour on our last night took us into the modern city — what the locals call the city center, as opposed to the historic old town — for the first time. From Calle del Corso, which delimits the old town, walk along Paseo de la Independencia toward Plaza Aragón for a look at Zaragoza through a much more modern lens.
Family-friendly tips for visiting Zaragoza, Spain
- Take the bus from the train station. From Zaragoza-Delicias train station, it’s a simple thing to catch the 34 bus headed to the old town. Purchase tickets onboard from the driver. We paid €1,35 each.
- Pay close attention to open hours, not only for restaurants but also for museums. Aljafería and the series of Roman museums close for a few hours mid-afternoon.
- For maximum sightseeing ease, lodge in the old town. We rented a two-bedroom apartment from Auhabitat Zaragoza at Calle de Ramón Pignatelli 11. We would fully recommend it for the budget price and location.
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