The road from Barcelona to the northeastern Spanish city of Zaragoza takes the visitor through a desert of sun-bleached limestone hills. Ernest Hemingway was so struck by them, that he was inspired to write a short story, published in 1927, titled Hills Like White Elephants. Before these hills end, before we even reach the city, the spires of its most cherished symbol, the 17th-century Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, loom into view like a welcome-home sign.

Zaragoza is known for 40-degree-Celsius summers and wind-whipped winters. “They make cold weather in Zaragoza and export it to the rest of Spain,” quips Spanish comedian Leo Harlem.

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But it as an attractive city, with architectural treasures spanning 2,000 years. According to mayor Pedro Santisteve, visitors come looking for culture, art and leisure, the identity of the City of Four Cultures having been shaped by Iberians, Romans, Moors and Christians. And thanks to an international airport and high-speed AVE train connections to Madrid and Barcelona, a growing number of overseas visitors are discovering its attractions.

Last year, Chinese visitors to Zaragoza outnumbered the French for the first time, a remarkable development considering France is just a short hop over the Pyrenees. Pedestrianised areas, cycle lanes, modern trams, tourist buses and even nighttime bus tours make Zaragoza an easy city to navigate.

The Plaza del Pilar is one of the largest pedestrian-only squares in Europe. It’s home not only to the basilica – a baroque giant on the banks of the Ebro River, and one of Spain’s Twelve Treasures – but also to the city’s other cathedral, the magnificent La Seo. More properly known as the Cathedral of the Saviour and consecrated in 1318, this Unesco World Heritage Site has had on it a Roman temple, a Visigoth church, a mosque and, finally, a Christian cathedral. The result is a glorious blend of Romanesque, Mudejar, Renaissance and Gothic styles.

Following the discovery a couple of decades ago of a large Roman forum beneath the plaza and further excavations, the city now has an Augustus Caesar Route, dedicated to the Roman who founded a city here in AD14 and named it after himself: Cesaraugusta. Signposts guide visitors round the Forum, the River Port Museum, some public baths and, finest of all, the Roman Theatre Museum. The ruins of the theatre itself are in the basement of the three-storey museum, and include sections of tiered seating that held an audience of 6,000 people. In the evenings, sound and visual projection recreate the original atmosphere.

The Plaza del Pilar is also home to a bronze statue of the city’s most famous son. Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) is to Zaragoza what Antoni Gaudí is to Barcelona, the painter being a ubiquitous force, an embodiment of the dogged spirit of the local people. A pair of his frescoes decorate two of the Basilica’s domes. Other must-sees include the Goya Museum Ibercaja Collection (three floors dedicated to Goya and related themes) and the Fine Arts Museum, in which there is a room of his paintings and engravings.

Fuendetodos, the village in which Goya was born, is 40km away. It’s an odd sensation to step through the wooden door into his humble little stone house, pass the stone bench by the open fire in the kitchen and brass utensils hanging from the walls, and climb the stairs to his bedroom – a small space with rough timber beams and whitewashed walls on which a large crucifix hangs – and gaze out of the window at the fields and the dry hills beyond, just as the young Goya would have done.

Back in the city, the midday heat convinces us to seek refuge among the tranquil gardens of the Aljafería Palace, Zaragoza’s other World Heritage Site. We cross the small bridge over the dry moat, pass through the horseshoe-shaped archway into the shady courtyard of ponds and gardens, then climb the steps to the magnificent Throne Room, with its gold and polychrome wooden ceiling.

One of the most important examples of Islamic architecture in Europe, this palace was built in the 11th century for the Moorish monarch Al-Muqtadir. He named it the Palace of Happiness and it’s not hard to see why as we sit in the olive grove and take in this striking combination of Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance architecture, shimmer­ing like a desert mirage amid the urban sprawl.

In its 1,000 years, the Aljafería has also been a fort, the palace of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel, a prison of the Inquisition, and a military barracks. The Holy Grail is said to have been kept here, too. Nevertheless, it endured years of neglect and, by 1947, had become “a pitiful scarecrow, covered in rags”, according to Francisco Íñiguez Almech, the architect entrusted with its restoration.

Today, it’s a palace of happiness once more, serving as the seat of the regional government as well as a major tourist attraction.

El Tubo – literally “the tube” – was a labyrinth of delightfully dingy old streets, close to the Plaza del Pilar. Cheap tapas bars rubbed shoulders with souvenir shops stuffed with everything from statuettes of the Virgin Mary to goatskin wine bags. You could buy heavenly bocadillos de calamares – foot-long baguettes stuffed with squid deep-fried in batter – or stand at a bar, ankle-deep in discarded mollusc shells, slurping mussels doused with mayonnaise and a squirt of chilli sauce.

The remodelling of the Tubo around the turn of the millennium was controversial, with many locals lamenting the loss of the area’s colourful character. Never­the­less, something of the backstreet charm lives on in the Tubo’s lively atmosphere and wall-to-wall tapas bars. And yes, you can still buy a fantastic squid sandwich.

From El Tubo it’s a short walk back to Plaza del Pilar and down to the Ebro River. Perhaps the greatest legacy of Expo 2008, an international exposition held in Zaragoza a decade ago, was the conversion of the banks of the Ebro into a grand park stretching for more than 7km. This dry desert city that lived with its back to the river has become a greener place, with the Ebro at its heart. Zaragozans flock to the riverbanks to jog, cycle or take a stroll in the evening cool.

Upriver from the Pilar is another innovation: the Luis Buñuel Water Park (named for the surrealist film director who was a close friend of Salvador Dali, and who is another local hero, from nearby Teruel). Here you’ll find botanical gardens, a tourist train and even riverbank beaches.

Amid all this riverside development, another piece of Zaragoza’s history stands proud. The 15th-century Puente de Piedra (“stone bridge”) has spanned the Ebro for 2,000 years, and is nearly as old as city itself. It links not just the north and south banks, but also the Zaragoza of old with the modern city it has become.

Getting there 

Cathay Pacifc flies direct from Hong Kong to Barcelona and Madrid.