I’m standing in an immense Roman amphitheater, looking out at an imagined crowd of thousands. How grand it must have been to have been an actor on stage. Or a member of the audience.
A short while later I’m gazing down upon an immense Roman circus. Roman circuses, or hippodromes, were large stadiums used for chariot racing, among other games. The first-century Roman circus I’m seeing is considered one of the best-preserved in the world. With seating for 30,000, it was one of the most important public entertainment buildings in the entire Roman Empire.
In Your Bucket Because …
- You’re a fan of all things Roman.
- You enjoy history and archeology. And Spain.
- Good for history and architecture buffs.
No, I’m not in Rome. Or in Greece. I’m in modest Mérida, Spain, population 56,000. Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone. And that’s a shame, because Mérida is an astonishing place.
The Ancient Roman City of Mérida
Sitting about 120 miles north of Seville in western Spain, Mérida is the capital of Extremadura and home to the Archeological Ensemble of Mérida, a UNESCO World Heritage Site so designated because it contains numerous well-preserved remains of the ancient city of Augusta Emerita.
Founded by the discharged soldiers of Augustus’s Army in 25 B.C. as a retirement community of sorts, the city was dubbed “Emerita Augusta,” or “the bachelors.” Mérida is a derivative of that Roman moniker.
Over time, Mérida became one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire, in part because of its strategic position on a popular Roman transportation and communication route, the Vía de la Plata, or Silver Way. Today, it’s home to more important Roman monuments than any other place in Spain.
A Three-Mile Walk Through Roman History (and More)
It’s easy to plan a self-guided walking tour of the city’s major gems. The backbone of your tour will be a three-mile loop around the heart of the city — perfect for a leisurely day’s stroll. Begin at the Alcazaba, the city’s only remaining Muslim structure. Constructed in 835 A.D., it was the first Moorish citadel in the Iberian Peninsula. First, purchase a ticket (about 12€) that gets you into the five or so sites that charge an admission fee; then tour the Alcazaba.
From there, head in a counter-clockwise loop, and check out these important, and impressive, sites,
- Puente Romano. Longest of all existing Roman bridges in world.
- Los Milagros Aquaduct. City landmark whose arches span more than 2,200 feet.
- Santa Eulalia Basilica. Romanesque basilica built in 1230 on site of former Roman homes and burial ground. Basilica only open in evenings for Mass, but during day visitors can tour small museum, plus tombs and archeological ruins below ground.
- Circus Maximus. One of world’s best-preserved Roman circuses.
- Roman Theater and Amphitheater. Among city’s most popular ruins.
- Columbaria. Two open-air funerary structures that once sat outside city’s Roman walls.
- Casa del Mitreo. Patrician villa with precious Roman mosaics.
On Day 2, explore inside the loop you walked yesterday, where you’ll find treasures like the Roman Forum, which includes the Temple of Diana and towering Trajan’s Arch, and the National Museum of Roman Art and its Visigothic annex. When you’re finished, kick back with some tapas and cava (a Spanish equivalent of Champagne) and toast the ancient Romans who created such a magnificent city.
- There are plenty of places to stay in Mérida. But one solid choice is the Parador de Mérida. Created from an 18th-century convent, and set on the remains of a temple to the Concord of Augustus, it’s conveniently located near Trajan’s Arch and all of the other impressive Roman ruins.
- Another lodging option is Aqua Libera, just 10 minutes north of town in Aljucén. Stay in one of its cute apartments, then take a dip in its Termas, or Roman baths. Sometimes special Roman dinners are served, too.
- To get here from Madrid, take the AeroCity shuttle from Barajas Airport to the Estación Sur del Autobuses, then board an AvanzaBus. Cost for both the shuttle and bus is roughly 45€.
- If you enjoy your time in Mérida, head north another 45 miles to Cáceres, whose Old Town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.