For a town founded two thousand years ago in honor of the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus, the Spanish city of Zaragoza swings to a surprisingly modern beat. Here Moorish palaces and stately churches share city streets with dazzling modernist structures, religious festivals alternate with raucous street theater, and classic Spanish dishes are being reinvented by enterprising young chefs. Zaragoza, long a second-tier city in Spain, is moving into first-rank status with its unique blend of history and hipness, innovation and tradition.
Much of the credit for Zaragoza’s rising profile is due to its hosting of the World’s Fair in 2008. The city launched an ambitious building program that revitalized its riverfront and upgraded its tourism infrastructure. The investment is paying off handsomely: 5.6 million people from around the world came to Zaragoza for the fair, and the flow of visitors has continued even after its end.
The major landmarks of the World’s Fair remain here on the banks of the Ebro River, most connected to the fair’s theme of water and sustainable development. Among the most striking are a sinuous bridge/pavilion over the Ebro designed by architectural superstar Zaha Hadid and a glass-walled Water Tower by Enrique de Teresa Trilla that is the new visual icon for the city. Nearby, the Zaragoza Aquarium (one of the largest in Europe) is home to 300 freshwater species from around the globe.
The city continues to benefit from other World’s Fair upgrades, including an expanded network of walking and bicycling paths that wind through Zaragoza and along the Ebro River. The city’s popular bike-lending program, which allows visitors to rent bicycles for a modest price, allows easy access to the scenic network.
Perhaps the most inviting aspect of Zaragoza is a quality of life that is increasingly rare even in Spain. Though Zaragoza is home to 700,000 people, it feels surprisingly small and intimate, with all major landmarks within an easy drive, bike ride, or trip on the city’s Tourist Bus. The city pulses with a zest for living and love of sociability, especially as evening falls and the streets fill with families pushing strollers, elderly couples, students, and well-dressed young professionals, all enjoying the welcome coolness that follows the heat of a Spanish afternoon. The sidewalk cafes and bars soon fill with chattering groups savoring plates of tapas and glasses of wine.
Thanks in part to this city-wide appreciation for life’s pleasures, Zaragoza’s culinary star is rising. Many aficionados consider its tapas bars to be among the most charming in Spain, particularly in the area known as El Tubo. To sample the best in traditional cuisine in a full meal, visit La Jamoneria (Calle de Bruno Solano, 16), a renowned eatery specializing in the glories of salt-cured Spanish ham. Owner Felix Jose Martinez wields his carving knives with the skill of a surgeon, happy to demonstrate his time-honored craft to guests.
For a meal that showcases contemporary Spanish cuisine, visitors head to Novodabo in Zaragoza’s university district (Calle Juan II de Aragón, 5). The restaurant is owned by David Boldova, who served under several Michelin-ranked chefs before returning to his home of Zaragoza a year and a half ago to open his own restaurant. The restaurant is known for its inspired re-workings of traditional Aragonese dishes and has already won awards as an up-and-coming restaurant.
After a busy few days of touring, the best way to end a stay in Zaragoza is to visit its Plaza del Pilar in the evening as the spires of the city’s two cathedrals make dramatic shadows across the pavement. In this place where the Romans once walked and where countless pilgrims have journeyed, the warm spirit of Zaragoza shines most brightly. As it has for many centuries, this city continues to invite visitors to enjoy its charms.