Arag?n doesn't usually rank high on visitors' lists of must-see Spanish sights, but that only means that there is more breathing room for 'those in the know' who do make it out to this beautiful region. Home to soaring Pyrenean peaks, gorgeous natural parks, ancient stone towns and some of the most important Roman ruins on the Iberian peninsula, Arag?n is a varied land offering a little something for everyone.
The region's capital is Zaragoza, whose name was originally Caesaraugusta, after its founding father. The city centre is a compact place easily navigable on foot, and it's great for strolling. Your first stop will probably be the Basilica del Pilar, a breathtaking, fairytale-like creation beside the Ebro River. The Basilica sits on a sprawling plaza of the same name, and just off the plaza are the cramped, old streets of El Tubo district, home to some of the city's best restaurants and bars. Also be sure to check out the Roman ruins at the far end of the plaza. You can also visit the interesting Museo del Foro de Ceasaraugusta, a museum about Roman life here.
Beyond Zaragoza many people head to Arag?n's parks and natural areas. Just west of the city (toward Madrid) is the fascinating Monasterio de Piedra, a monastery beside the Piedra River. The main attraction here is the park surrounding the monastery, where quiet trails meander among waterfalls. You can even climb behind one waterfall to see it from the inside out.
Near Huesca, the Parque Natural de la Sierra y los Ca?ones de Guara is a protected park marked by deep gorges and numerous caves and caverns. There's great bird watching and hiking here, but the area is mainly known as an ideal place for canyoning (see Activities).
As you head into the Pyrenees, you'll find numerous tiny resort towns surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. This is a popular place for snow skiing, spring hiking, fishing and rock climbing (see Activities, below). One of the most popular spots is the Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido, a gorgeous national park where walkers of all levels will be thrilled by the well-marked trails and fantastic scenery. The park is particularly lovely in autumn, when the leaves burst into rich reds, oranges and yellows.
You can also visit Arag?n's historic towns, like Teruel, known for its striking Mud?jar buildings; Alqu?zar, a medieval village near the Sierra de Guara; or Jaca, where you can visit a 16th-century military fort, now used as an army training academy.
Arag?n's continental climate means that temperatures here can be extreme. Summers are hot and dry, with highs sometimes reaching into the 40s (degrees Celcius). This is a good time of year to head up to the Pyrenees, where the weather is notably cooler. Winters are cold, with snowfall common and skiing a popular activity. Spring and Autumn tend to be mild, and these are good months to sightsee in Zaragoza and other towns.
Zaragoza does have a small and little-used airport, but most people simply fly into Madrid (three hours away) and then either drive or take the high-speed AVE train into Zaragoza. Getting here by AVE is easy; the trip takes just two hours and costs €43, one way. Zaragoza's spiffy new train station is also connected to other towns throughout Spain, making it easy to get from here to Teruel, Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona or the Basque Country. Get more information at www.renfe.es.
To explore Arag?n it's essential to have either a car or plenty of patience to handle the long, curvy bus rides. One of the region's biggest draws is its natural beauty, and to fully appreciate it you should plan to hire a car and set out to explore.
Once you've toured Zaragoza and seen a few of the region's historic towns, it may be time for something more active. Walkers and hikers will be thrilled with the offerings in Arag?n. The region's Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido is one of Spain's most beautiful national parks. The most popular hikes begin at the western entrance of the park and follow the valley floor, passing a rushing river, numerous waterfalls and pristine forests along the way, all the while offering a view of an imposing rock wall running along one side.
The more adventurous-minded may want to head to the Parque Natural de la Sierra y los Ca?ones de Guara, whose base is in Alqu?zar. Here you can hire a guide to take you canyoning in one of the park's numerous caverns or river valleys, like the popular Vero River canyon. Canyoning is a unique sport that involves exploring rivers and canyons by any means possible: walking, climbing, swimming, diving, rappelling… It can be dangerous, so going with a guide is essential.
This park, like many areas of Arag?n, is also popular with bird watchers. You'll find a great variety of birds, including many large birds of prey.
In winter, snow skiing takes over the mountains. There are dozens of small- and medium-sized resorts sprinkled throughout the Pyrenees in Arag?n.