A Roman Stroll through Zaragoza, Spain

One of the things I love most about Europe is that you don’t need to go to Rome (although you should…always and often) to experience what life was like back in Roman times. Even the tiniest cities and towns all over the continent hold evidence of the Roman footprint on their land. Zaragoza is certainly no exception. 

From the early settlers in the Iberian peninsula through to the Christians, Spain has been transformed many times over, which has contributed to its rich and diverse history. Living in Zaragoza, I was able to take a journey through time and experience this history without ever leaving this small city, and a Roman walking tour should be at the top of any visitor’s sightseeing agenda. 

The banks of the Ebro River were originally populated by the Sedetani, an ancient tribe of Iberians. Sometime between 25 BC and 11 BC, the emperor Caesar Augustus used this location to settle army veterans from the Cantabrian Wars and named the city Caesaraugusta (the name Zaragoza is derived from this ancient name – see what they did there?). The Romans would occupy this area until the 5th Century AD when the Goths swept in and peacefully captured the city. It would seem there was no dramatic fall of Rome here. 

The Roman history of Zaragoza is evident from the moment you enter the city’s old town centre, which is where the hub of Zaragoza’s main attractions lie. The Plaza del Pilar-Murallas tram stop on Avenida César Augusto is a great place to begin a Roman walking tour. Murallas means walls or ramparts in Spanish so, naturally, you will find remnants of the old Roman walls here. Built with alabaster and chalk slabs and filled with hard mortar, these walls once encircled the city standing 33 feet tall and 23 feet wide. While there is little of these walls left standing today, visitors are still able to get a sense of the imposing structure that these walls once were. Would one expect anything less from the Romans? 

Remnants of the Roman walls bordering the Plaza del Pilar
 
In front of these walls stands a bronze statue of Caesar Augustus, guarding the city in his famous stance. This statue was given to Zaragoza in 1940 by Mussolini’s Italian government and is a replica of the original which can be found in the Vatican. Take a closer look on his breastplate to find the symbols of places conquered by Caesar Augustus and on the frontispiece to see the four names which Zaragoza has gone by over the centuries. While not part of the city’s Roman history, but since you are here, check out the medieval Torreon de la Zuda, which houses a tourist information centre, exhibition and viewing platform, and the beautiful Mercado Central, which reopened in pre-Covid 2020 after an extensive renovation. The walls are free and open to visit day or night. They are especially beautiful illuminated after dark. 

Entering into the Casco Antiguo, Zaragoza’s old town, visitors will be met with numerous distractions during a walk to hunt down Roman ruins – The Plaza del Pilar, two magnificent cathedrals, the Goya Museum, churros at La Fama – so allow lots of time to make your way through this area. Entering the Plaza del Pilar from the walls, you will see the Fuente de la Hispanidad (The Hispanidad Fountain). Cross the plaza keeping the Cathedral del Pilar on your left and head towards La Seo, the Goya statue and numerous fountains. On your right, you will find a modern square building which houses the Museo del Foro de Caesaraugusta. Nothing about this looks very Roman, but upon entry, visitors are led underneath what is now the Square of La Seo and met with the magnificent archaeological remains of Emperor Tiberius’ Roman Forum. There are also remains of a market, sewer system, pipes and shop walls from the time of Augustus and Zaragoza’s founding. I especially love the mosaics. Take time to learn about the history of what you are seeing with informative audio/visual displays.                            

Plaza La Seo, 2 

The Museo del Foro – The treasures lie underground
 
Upon exiting Plaza del Pilar area, wind your way through the beautiful old streets, stop at one of the many bars in El Tubo for a glass of vino and some croquettas and head to the magnificent Museo del Teatro de Caesaraugusta. A Roman amphitheatre is one of my favourite ancient treasures and Zaragoza’s is a good one, without Ephesus or Verona tourist crowds. Built in the 1st Century AD, this theatre had a capacity of 6000 for a city of only 18,000. It was modelled on the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome and was active until the 3rd Century. It is Zaragoza’s best-preserved Roman structure which still holds small festivities to this day. Begin your visit in the museum to learn all about the history of this theatre which was accidentally discovered in 1972 and subsequently excavated, before heading outside to take a stroll along the walkway through the ruins. Although the theatre and museum are not open to visitors at night, the theatre is still fully-visible from the street and is a delight to see when the sun goes down and the flood lights turn on. 

Calle San Jorge, 12

The ruins of the ancient amphitheatre
 

A short stroll from the amphitheatre is another popular sight along the Roman route, the Museo del las Temas Públicas de Caesaraugusta, the public baths which were in use from the 1st Century BC to 4th Century AD. This site originally housed changing rooms, hot, warm and cold rooms and a gymnasium. Men and women bathed separately, alternating between hot and cold baths, but also used the space as a social and cultural centre and somewhere they could play sports, read and listen to poetry and music. An ancient community centre with a spa. Sounds good to me!

Calle San Juan y San Pedro 3-7

The final archaeological stop on this tour of Roman Zaragoza is the Museo del Puerto Fluvial de Caesaraugusta, the River Port Museum. Being located on the Ebro River, ancient Cesaraugusta was an important centre for trade and maritime activity. This area was the main distribution centre for goods from the interior, such as wheat, wood, iron, skins and linen, and from the coast, wine, fish, ceramics, marble and jewellery. This museum will help paint a complete picture of Roman life here in Zaragoza. 

Plaza San Bruno, 8

On the periphery of Zaragoza’s old town, in Plaza España, a great place to end your Roman tour and refuel is in the Puerta Cinegia gourmet market. Similar to San Miguel in Madrid and La Boquería in Barcelona, this space contains 20 food stalls, a wine bar and brewery and is a great place to relax, eat, socialize and listen to music. It is popular with visitors and locals alike. All of this and 2,000 years of history is celebrated under a colossal statue of the city’s founder, Caesar Augustus. 

Calle del Coso, 35

Caesar Augustus getting into the Christmas spirit
 

Of course, with the pandemic being an ongoing crisis to travel and tourism, make sure to check the tourist information website for all opening times and prices. Although affordable all year round, there is free entry to all municipal museums on the first Sunday of the month as well as a variety of tours and passes which can be purchased online and at any TI. 

Despite being a small city, off the beaten path as far as Spain itineraries go, Zaragoza holds a rich collection of sights for any Roman history lover to enjoy and gives visitors an authentic glimpse into ancient and modern Spanish life. If you are in Spain and time won’t allow for a visit to Italy, Zaragoza makes for a wonderful stop to indulge in all things Rome.