Zaragoza not only has good bones, it has great neighbours, writes Michelle Locke

Stepping out on a lazy Sunday, I stroll past remnants of a Roman wall and watch couples taking selfies with a statue of city namesake Caesar Augustus. Then I'm brought up short by the shimmering reflection of a 16th-century tower caught on the sleek glass walls of a very modern fountain celebrating the Hispanic world.

That's 2000-odd years of history in about a block, and just one of the reasons Zaragoza — known as Saragossa in English, and best known as the halfway point between Madrid and Barcelona — should be on your list of Spanish cities to explore.

What's new

The Goya Museum, which reopened in 2015 after extensive reorganisation, is a good way to get acquainted with the works of the famous Spanish painter, who was born near here. The museum is set in a Renaissance nobleman's home and includes works by Goya's rivals and mentors as well as an extensive collection of his etchings.

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Las Armas is an outdoor space that hosts everything from art and musical events to markets promoting local products.

Classic attractions

Plaza del Pilar, a huge public square, is the defining feature of Zaragoza. It's home to two cathedrals and a museum displaying remains of a Roman forum. Just beyond it is the River Ebro with its tree-lined pathways.

Basilica del Pilar, topped with brightly coloured cupolas, is a cathedral featuring ceiling paintings by Goya. You'll also find two unexploded bombs on display; they were dropped during the Spanish Civil War.

Next door is the Cathedral of the Saviour, which has a tapestry museum featuring wall-sized Flemish tapestries from the 16th to 18th centuries.

La Aljaferia, originally built as a country retreat for the city's Islamic rulers and later the palace of Aragon's Catholic monarchs, is now home to the regional parliament. It features a beautiful and tranquil garden — and a room where trials of the Spanish Inquisition were held.

Nearby

The wine region of Carinena is about a 40-minute drive from Zaragoza. Wine tourism is an emerging business here so you won't find the glitz, or the crowds, of a more developed region. Carinena refers to a grape, the region and a town, where you'll find Bodegas San Valero, which offers tours and tastings.

Also in Carinena is Grandes Vinos y Vinedos, which has tastings and English-language tours, including a take-home bottle. Book in advance.

Tips

Fancy a tapas crawl? Head for "El Tubo," the series of tubes (narrow alleys in reality) that hums with chatter and the smell of crispy fried things as darkness falls. The district is not far from Plaza del Pilar; look for Calle Estebanes and Calle Libertad, the two main streets. Don't show up hungry between 5pm and 8pm, however, as most of the restaurants will be closed.

The Zaragoza Card offers convenience and a discount. Prices start at about $22 for a 24-hour pass.

Zaragoza is easily reachable by train from Madrid or Barcelona.

Five other great Spanish destinations

1. Valencia

Spain's third-largest city has terrific culture, nightlife and cuisine, with futuristic architecture rubbing shoulders with more traditional art nouveau, Gothic and Renaissance buildings in the old quarter. It's also the original home of Spain's famous rice dish, paella, traditionally eaten at Fallas, the annual festival to commemorate St Joseph.

2. Costa Brava

At the northeastern side of Spain, and stretching up to the French border, this is known to be some of the best coastline in the country. Seaside towns, great diving, unspoiled beaches and old stone villages, the Costa Brava makes a nice change from the bustle of the Costa del Sol and has some of Europe's best Blue Flag beaches.

3. San Sebastian

San Sebastian, Spain. Photo / 123RF
San Sebastian, Spain. Photo / 123RF

This pretty beachside city is mecca for foodies, from its abundance of cheap tapas bars to its nine restaurants with Michelin stars (three of which are three starred, the highest ranking), plus it's home to the first faculty of gastronomy in the world, the Basque Culinary Centre. When you're not eating, you can soak up the sun on one of the city's three beaches, or wander the varied neighbourhoods.

4. Seville

This city is small but perfectly formed, with a lovely old town and an impressive palace (Alcazar). Famous for its orange trees, tapas bars and flamenco dancers, there's also beautiful Moorish-influenced architecture, Roman ruins, and the world's largest Gothic church.

5. The Balearic islands

There's enough to keep you busy for months on mainland Spain, but if you're heading all that way you may also want to consider a visit to one of the nearby islands. Ibiza and Mallorca have a bad rep as places where drunken Brits go to party. Yes, you will find that there if you look for it, but both also have unspoilt beauty. Menorca and Formentera, also in the Balearic group, are more subdued and rustic but shouldn't be discounted.