On the map it looks like Zaragoza is far away from Barcelona.. too far for a day trip. But it’s not true. Nowadays it’s just a 1.5 -2 h train ride separating the two. Ticket prices are not even that bad, especially when you book them early.
So what is there to see in Zaragoza?
It’s the first one on our list simply because we would recommend to go there first as early as possible. It’s the only place in the city where we faced a bit of a crowd. Quite unusual considering that we went there before they even opened.
To be fair this 11th century Islamic palace is really worth the crowds and the detour walk from the center. Normally for that type of architecture you would have to go to Cordoba or Granada. From outside it looks like a fortress but inside there is a fine courtyard surrounded by delicate arches geometrically spread through the building. Further there is a praying room with Arabic inscriptions from the Quran and contrasting with it there is a Throne Room with a very European-looking, wooden ceiling. Some interesting facts, plans of the site, prices and opening times are available here.
Basilica of our Lady of Pillar
It’s one of the biggest churches I have ever seen, it looks impressive with its many towers, ornaments and colorful tiles on its roof. Unfortunately I have to admit that I was not impressed with the inside of the cathedral. Maybe it’s because I have seen soooo many churches already that they all look the same to me. But I would definitely recommend seeing the building itself from the main square and from two other points that I mention below.
Pillar Elevator (Ascensor del Pillar)
One of the towers of the Basilica has an elevator that brings you right up there, to a viewing point 80 m above the ground. From there we were able to see the kaleidoscopic tiles on numerous roofs of the cathedral as well as the urban landscape of the whole city spreading on both sides of the Ebro River. From the elevator there is just a short way to the very top of the tower with a modern, impressive staircase that should be seen anyway. Up there on a sunny day you get a free sauna as you experience how plants feel in greenhouses… but the views are worth every drop of sweat.
TIP! Make sure you go there in the morning or in the afternoon since there is siesta break from 13.30-16.00.
The other side of the river
Crossing the Stone Bridge (Puente de Piedra) we got to the other side of the city where we could chill out and have some lunch in the shadows of trees in a pretty spread park. But we didn’t only go there for that. From there we could admire the Basilica in its full glory, with all its towers and copulas. Accompanied by the Stone Bridge it looks almost medieval… if you overlook the cars passing on the bridge.
Getting lost in the old center
Zaragoza is one of those cities where you just have to walk around and enjoy little streets that you discover, little cafes hidden somewhere in the back alley and little patches of shade that you can find to rest a bit. When in doubt you can always go back to the main square which is truly spectacular with its fountains and numerous cafes.
Grab some lunch at the Mercado Central
Designed and built in the XIX century this Market brought us back in time. Steel, glass and stone work in perfect harmony and create (in my opinion) the most beautiful building in the city.
And there is nothing more Spanish than to squeeze in between screaming people to get your cherries, olives and some bread. If you speak Spanish you can definitely join into the conversation and tell the story of your life to any of the sellers.
How to get to Zaragoza?
There are frequent trains going between Zaragoza and Barcelona and depending on which one you pick it takes between 1.5 to 2 hours. It's best to book the tickets in advance, the more upfront you buy them, the cheaper they get. The cheapest one way ticket I saw was 15 euros. You can check the times and prices here on the renfe site. Once bought, the ticket can be downloaded in their mobile phone application which is very handy if you don't have anywhere to print it.