While classic tourist cities like Paris, Venice, Madrid and Amsterdam are practically travel porn to the vacation planner, don't underestimate the warm charm and underdog spirit in the surrounding cities. If your goal is to have an authentic experience and perhaps experience this fabled thing called "relaxation", consider the blessings of reduced traffic, lower prices, real regional food, and welcoming smiles in medium-sized European cities.
In my case, I'm spending serious quality time in Zaragoza, Spain. This is the capital of the region, Aragon. It's rich with thousands of years of history, and peppered with relics and ruins telling the story of the region (Game of Thrones, eat your heart out!). There is no lack of European flair, and to be honest, this city is clean, accommodating, and simple to navigate.
So here are my top 12 reasons you'll love it here:
1. Riverside Paths & Stunning Overlooks
Walking: Zaragoza is a pedestrian dream. It's flat, clearly marked, and architecturally rich.
Biking: It's also extremely bike friendly here, with safe, clearly marked paths along most main throughways, and many connecting streets.
The Rivers: The main river running through the city is Rio Ebro. There are four or five unique bridges that cross the river in the city, and it's flanked by not one... not two... but THREE separate paths on both sides for walking, biking or seeing nature. Rio Huerva is a smaller, picturesque river with beautiful rustic pathways on both sides, and several footbridges. Follow these paths from where it meets Rio Ebro all the way to Parque Grande. I like to walk there and bird watch!
2. Vino, Cerveza y Tapas
WINE: Zaragoza is seated in the heart of some of the most beautiful wine regions. Aragon is home to four D.O. regions: Campo de Borja, Calatayud, Cariñena, and Somontano. You can hardly go wrong with the local wine. Most table wine and house wine is nice, and what costs €4-7 per bottle here would be comparable to a $12-18 bottle in the US.
BEER: Ambar is the local draft beer of choice here, and as with the wine, it's extremely affordable. At most restaurants, you can expect to pay less than €2 per drink, making a leisurely night of bar hopping quite a frugal choice.
BITES: And not to worry! You can soak up your drinks with lovely tapas–traditional Spanish bar snacks artfully crafted from local meats, cheeses, breads and sauces. Often the tapas come with an additional side of bread, and select places offer a complementary tapas dish with an order of drinks. For a lively slice of life and amazing tapas, visit "El Tubo", a group of five or six bustling streets just north of Plaza España boasting menus and atmosphere from traditional and fancy to eccentric and artful.
3. Learn the Language (or Teach a Language)
Zaragoza has the most independent schools for learning English that I've ever seen, but it's also a fantastic place to learn Castilian Spanish properly. The locals speak a fairly straightforward Spanish, free of dialect-specific twists and turns. Aragonese is also spoken here, but Spanish is easy to come by. There are several schools and universities here where one can take private or classroom lessons with or without college credits.
4. Parque Grande
The park on the south side of the city is wonderful and enormous. Inside there are bike rentals, numerous fountains, walking and biking paths, picnic benches and sitting benches, as well as a number of restaurants and stands where the refreshments flow. My favorite is El Corazon Verde - an artsy and fashionable terrace with outdoor and stylish indoor seating overlooking the Rio Huerva, as well as music, a great menu and very friendly staff.
5. Outdoor Events
Since arriving, there have been no less than a dozen outdoor events, parades, book fairs, celebrations, block parties and special days. Bonus: the weather is dry, sunny and breezy! There is a regularly updated list of events at the tourist center across from El Pilar.
Even on a regular day, there are talented folks entertaining with music, human statue, mime and magic acts in the streets and near the pubs. Many of the musicians are classically trained, performing along Paseo Independencia or around El Pilar or Calle de Alfonso I. In El Tubo, you might be serenaded by an accordion player or, at times, the locals themselves (after a few drinks)!
6. Minutes from Mountains, Deserts & Vineyards
A short drive in any direction from the city can lead to wildly varied surroundings. There is a coach bus company called ALSA that offers rides ranging around €15-25 to other parts of Spain. Due north toward Logroño you'll pass through Rioja wine country - while the other Aragonese D.O.s are just to the northeast of the city (Somontano), and to the west (Calatayud, Cariñena and Campo de Borja). Madrid is about 3 hours southwest, and Barcelona is about 4 hours northeast.
7. Smooth Public Transit
This city has an extremely clean and smooth Tram (Tranvía) which runs through the heart of town. Many of the stops are named after old Hollywood films. The bus system runs on the same fare card, and is equally clean. Public transit runs until about midnight, and at times later for holidays. There are also reasonable taxis, city bikes, and tourist buses.
8. Cathedrals, Cathedrals, Cathedrals
It's as though you've barely rounded the corner from the last cathedral, and there is another stunning cathedral to feast your eyes on! The most notable, of course, is the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. This is a classic Southern European style Basilica, with very beautiful, very Gothic and very symbolic ceilings, alcoves and exterior design. It's flanked by the sun-drenched Plaza del Pilar, and faces Rio Ebro on the other side. A must see, if you're in town!
9. Roman Ruins & Moorish Palaces
All throughout the city, you may find Roman walls ...and they're right next to modern walls. It's awesome. There are underground Roman ruins across from El Pilar with a cool and modern entrance. Also notable is the Roman amphitheater which is accompanied by a museum with a lovely cafe and restaurant overlooking the ruins.
For another slice of history, visit the Aljaferia, an Islamic palace built in Medieval times and transformed many times thereafter during the ever-changing reigns of Spanish and Aragonese rulers. Much of the building is original, and other parts are reconstructions or restorations.
10. Inexpensive Hostel Stays
Stays in the city are easy to come by at a reasonable rate. There are numerous hostels in the city center near El Tubo, and throughout the surrounding neighborhoods. Good rates range from €12 to €18 per night, and usually include the basics. Some offer a simple Spanish or continental breakfast as well.
Safety: Zaragoza is a very safe city. As always, it's best to use caution, research places you will stay, protect your passport, cash and keep valuables out of sight. But, compared to many of the cities I've seen around this size, it feels relaxed, friendly and harmless. Good to know: there are always about ten pharmacies open 24 hours, on a rotating schedule, and with the late night culture here (9 or 10pm is standard dinner time!), it's quite safe to walk in the streets after dark.
11. The abandoned Expo buildings
So Zaragoza hosted a water and sustainability themed Expo in 2008, and they literally built a micro-city along the river, with its own transportation system, parking lots, bridges, gondola, astonishing and futuristic architecture as well as walkways and art installations.
Today, the Expo is long gone, but the structures still remain - some open, and most others closed off. Tough economic times in Spain made it impossible to keep the structures open without the flow of commerce and tourism to bring in money. So there they are. It's an amazing day of exploring and walking, and there are some restaurants still open on the premises. We went to a rooftop restaurant called Terraza which overlooks the whole park. Definitely worth checking out.
12. Movie theaters show films in original English at a cut price!
My friend had to explain this to me, but it's awesome... Cines Aragonia (a short tram ride from city center) show movies in "original" (with Spanish subtitles, but without Spanish overdubs) for just over €5! As an English speaker learning Spanish, this is a great treat for me–I can absorb the Spanish translations while enjoying the film in my native language. If I am truly wowed by a film, I might see it again at full price with Spanish overdubs to test my language skills!
A note or two for the wise traveler:
- If you are willing to learn some Spanish for the trip, your experience will improve exponentially.
- There is a paper mill here which sometimes casts a smell of sulfur but it isn't really a big deal, and I've only smelled it twice in about two months.
- Ocean lovers, this city landlocked. However, it's flanked by rivers and awesomeness.
- If you are a passionate American coffee drinker you will need to get very creative, as there is only espresso here. You can ask for an Americano (a small cup of espresso pulled with more water than usual), but it will still be different from what you are used to back home. Cream is hard to find.
- Vegetarians and vegans: be very careful when ordering in restaurants. This is a meat-centric culture, and you may find either ham or fish in your dish, even if it's marked vegetarian. On the plus side, there is amazing produce in the markets here, so if you cook, it won't be so bad.