Spain is hardly a new, hidden travel destination that you can still uncover secrets in, given how many people now take their holidays there on a yearly basis, but there are still a few places that have avoided the influx of tourists, and offer you a little taste of the much elusive “real Spain” that seems to be nothing more than a fabled myth.
Zaragoza is a place that, despite having seen a huge boost in 2008 during the year that the city hosted the Expo, remains relatively authentic, but still has much of what you’d expect to find in a big city. The city is the capital of Aragon, one of the autonomous regions in Spain, and combines the charm of a less well-travelled spot with much of the flare of a metropolis twice its size.
With no direct flights from Ireland, your options become a bit more complex and slightly limited, but you can travel to Madrid or Barcelona and hop on the AVE, Spain’s high-speed rail network that is a pleasure to travel on. There are regular trains, and the journey takes just under an hour and a half. However, you can also fly Ryanair to London, and then get a flight to the Zaragoza airport, which is hardly a hub of activity, but you should still be able to grab a taxi.
Where to stay
If you plan on going in the summer (which lasts through to September) and your budget allows, shell out for the Palafox Hotel, keeping an eye out for deals online. There’s a pool on the roof, and it’s a pretty swanky place too, but you will need to seek shelter in the waters there as the temperatures will regularly get above 40° during the day, and drop to a cool 30° during the evening. In other words, air conditioning will be important. Other options include the Melia, which is as reasonable as you’ll get for a four star hotel, or the rather pleasant right on Calle Alfonso, one of the city’s thoroughfares. Of course, Airbnb is always an option to find something a bit more quirky.
The temperatures will regularly get above 40° during the day, and drop to a cool 30° during the evening. In other words, air conditioning will be important.
What to do
Zaragoza has an interesting history, and much of its effects can be seen through to today: the Romans built the city, hence one of the main streets is named after Caesar Augusta (the name Zaragoza itself derives from it too), and both their walls and one of the forums still remain. The Moors also managed to get that far north and left behind a breath-taking palace in the shape of the Aljafería, which is well worth a visit, even just to sit in the surrounding grounds and take it all in.
Pic via Zaragoza Turismo/Flickr
You could hardly miss the basilica of Pilar, one of the main sights of the city. It is beautifully lit up at night (best observed from across the river, drink in hand), and home to one of the largest open squares in Europe just outside it. It was recently refurbished and the sheer scale of it is nothing short of amazing. The La Seo cathedral is also worth a visit, while a pleasant walk along the Ebro river, which dominates the city's geography, is perfect for a warm evening.
There's plenty of shopping for those who enjoy picking up some holiday purchases, including a dedicated football shop selling jerseys from all over the world for the sports fanatic in your life. There are several branches of the large department store El Corte Inglés, who also have a café and restaurant at the top floor where you can relax and peoplewatch the day away, while the throughfare of more upmarket brands off Paseo Independencia has plenty to offer. Grancasa in the Actur district across the river is also a good spot for the brands you know from home, such as H&M, Pull and Bear and the like.
Food and drink
The food is one of the reasons that you should visit the city, and you simply cannot leave without spending a weekend (or at least a Thursday night) in the Tubo. Located just off Calle Alfonso, this is the home of tapas in the city, and is reasonably priced too. Hop from one spot to another and find your favourite, from El Champi, a bar where they only serve garlic mushrooms on bread (seriously, that’s it) to the inventive croquetas on offer in the area, including black rice and aioli and goats cheese and apple.
Pic via Stephen Walli/Flickr
Vinos Nicolas have a great selection of wine on offer and, like most places in the city, are friendly and welcoming, so much so that they remembered us and even bought us a round when we stopped in for our second visit of the trip. Be warned though, a tapas experience here will ruin all the restaurants back at home for you, as they simply don’t compare in the slightest.
Pic via Zaragoza Turismo/Flickr
Those are cheap and cheerful options, but if you want innovative, modern takes on some classic dishes, then Restaurante Vetula and La Prensa should top the list, with the former offering some pretty decent value too. Ric 27 is the hipster's spot of choice, but don't let that put you off, the food is good and the décor is fun.
Malabares does a fine gin and tonic, some tasty tapas, and a huge selection of beers. If Isi is behind the bar, tell him you’re Irish, we’re well loved in there. If you need to go somewhere where you want to speak a bit of English (very few people speak much of it in the average bar, shop or restaurant) try Bull McCabes or Gallaghers, where you’ll probably find an Irish Erasmus student behind the bar and get tips on what to see that you can’t miss.
If you want to experience the city at its most vibrant, then travel during the Fiestas del Pilar, which take place on the week of the 12th of October and see the streets fill with people celebrating, drinking and there are often special gastronomic events that will make it worth dealing with the colder weather.