If someone is considering a Roman-inspired holiday in Europe, a modest-sized city in Spain is unlikely to be on the sightseeing list. Yet, enthusiasts of the Ancient Roman era take note. Consider Mérida, Spain as a destination to glimpse Roman life as one might imagine it 2000 years ago.
Mérida is the capital of the Autonomous Region of Extremadura. It is located almost in the center of the region between Caceres and Badajoz, about three and a half hours west of Madrid by car, two hours north of Seville, and close to the border between Spain and Portugal. To discover the city, it’s worth at least an overnight stay rather than a lengthy drive on a day trip from Madrid or Lisbon.
History of Mérida
Here at the western edge of the Roman Empire in 25 BC, Augustus Caesar and his army defeated the tribes of Lusitania and built an idolized version of Rome with a large Roman theater for performances, an arena for gladiator combat, a Roman Circus for chariot races, temples for worship, a Forum for conducting business, aqueducts for supplying clean water and a remarkable bridge spanning the wide Guadiana River.
Though subsequent conquests by Germanic tribes, Visigoths, Moors from Africa, and eventual domination by Christian Monarchs brought changes to the city, many of the structures built by the Romans exist today. Mérida was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site as “…an excellent example of a provincial Roman capital during the empire and in the years afterward.”
SheBuysTravel Tip: Make sure to purchase the combo Historical-Archaeological ticket for 16 Euros. The combined theater/arena fee is 12 Euros so even visiting one additional site at 6 Euros makes this a deal. Tickets are available here but advance purchase is not necessary. If you take a guided city tour that includes tickets, be sure to ask to keep the combined ticket which can be used on subsequent days.
Take the Stage at the Teatro Romano de Mérida
One of the most famous, most visited landmarks in Spain, the Roman Theatre is considered one of the 12 Treasures of Spain which includes Sagrada Familia, the Alhambra, the Seville Cathedral, and eight other top attractions. The Roman Theatre is in remarkable company. After all, this is the oldest functioning theater in the world.
Like so many ancient sites, for more than a millennium, the theater was forgotten and nearly buried in the earth. Visible for many centuries were the upper tiers of the theater’s seats, which locals referred to as “The Seven Chairs.” According to tradition, several Moorish kings sat in the chairs to decide the fate of the city.
With a renewed interest in archaeology worldwide at the turn of the 20th century, the Spanish government began a systematic excavation of the site, revealing the theater’s main structures – the cavea (auditorium), the orchestra (stage) and the scaenae frons (stage façade), which after reconstruction, towers two stories above the main stage.
The columns had toppled over time but were reconstructed largely as they were. Only the statues of Ceres, Pluto, and Prosperina, are reproductions but the originals can be found in the nearby Roman Museum. And rows of seats have been reconstructed to allow for performances including the Mérida International Classical Theatre Festival from June to August. The festival’s repertoire is primarily composed of Greco-Roman tragedies and comedies, but it also includes other types of performances, such as music concerts and dance recitals.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Make sure to walk behind the main stage to see the garden area where patrons would have socialized at intermission or after a performance. In 2018, evacuations revealed a bathroom complex that was used by performers and spectators. The thermal baths include a frigidarium (cold room), tepidarium (warm room), caldarium (hot room), and a palaestra (exercise area).
Imagine the Gladiators at the Roman Amphitheater
Built in 8 BC, this architectural marvel served as a hub for gladiatorial contests, wild animal hunts, and other public spectacles. On a smaller scale but similar to the Colosseum in Rome, the Roman Amphitheater’s elliptical shape could accommodate up to 16,000 spectators, who sat in tiers rising from the sandy arena floor.
The arena’s subterranean network of tunnels and chambers allowed for the swift movement of gladiators, animals, and stage props, ensuring seamless transitions between scenes. Gladiators, armed with their swords and tridents, would battle to the death, while fierce beasts, such as lions, tigers, and bears, were pitted against each other or against trained hunters.
There are descriptive placards throughout the arena and people are invited to wander along the floor of the arena and throughout the seating area. The arena is also known as the Anfiteatro.
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Explore the Casa del Amphitheatre (House of Amphitheatre)
Having explored the Roman Arena and the Roman Theatre, tourists are tempted to immediately walk across the street to the Roman Museum. But wait. Nearby is a low-slung roof that is covering the Casa del Amphitheatre.
It takes a few minutes upon entering the site to understand what’s happening. This is an active archaeological site where workers are discovering more and more about several connected Roman villas or perhaps a Roman house that was a forerunner of an Airbnb. These structures built in the 1st century were outside the walls of Augusta Emerita, in an area where homes coexisted with funerary and industrial spaces. The historical sites include at least two houses – the House of the Water Tower and the House of the Amphitheatre – which survived until the 3rd century. After their abandonment, at the beginning of the 4th century, a necropolis was built on them.
The Casa boasts a grand layout, featuring spacious rooms, intricate mosaics, and a central courtyard that served as a social hub for the house’s inhabitants. The walls were adorned with vibrant frescoes depicting mythological scenes and landscapes, while the floors were decorated with elaborate mosaics showcasing geometric patterns and scenes of everyday life. Walking on a clear elevated platform over these excavated mosaics, visitors have a sense of what it must have been like to live and dine in such a grand house.
SheBuysTravel Tip: For families, encourage children to discover the many animals and sea life depicted in the mosaics easily seen beneath the elevated platform.
Marvel at the National Museum of Roman Art
Rarely has a museum been designed that reflects the historic nature of its city while feeling entirely modern, a tour de force blend of past and present that is unlike anything I’ve seen in trips throughout the world. Rafael Moneo Vallés’ outstanding National Museum of Roman Art features colossal dimensions, semicircular arches, and the use of bricks and concrete that suggest the monumental buildings of Rome.
Within its walls, the museum houses an extensive collection of Roman artifacts, spanning from the 1st century BC to the 6th century AD, unearthed from the archaeological nearby site of Emerita Augusta. Start downstairs in the Crypt where among other things visitors will discover part of a Roman road that was uncovered in the building of the museum.
Sculptures, mosaics, coins, and everyday objects come together to paint a vivid picture of Roman society, from the grandeur of the imperial family to the daily lives of ordinary citizens. Intricate marble sculptures depict Roman deities and emperors, while intricate mosaics showcase the artistry and craftsmanship of the Roman artisan including almost entire mosaic floors and frescoes that can be displayed on the large walls.
The museum’s collection also includes fascinating artifacts that reveal the religious beliefs and funerary practices of the Romans. Votive offerings, funerary stelae, and sarcophagi provide glimpses into the spiritual world of the Roman people and their reverence for the afterlife.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Be sure to pick up a map of the museum which includes 10 must-see sculptures/pieces/mosaics including a whistle in the shape of a hen which must have belonged to a child in Roman Mérida.
Climb the Walls of the Alcazaba (Arab Citadel)
While visiting the city, several times people referred to the Roman fort along the river. Only later did I realize that this site known as the Alcazaba was only truly fortified by Umayyad Emir Abd ar-Rahman II in 835 AD when the Moors from Africa conquered Mérida.
The Alcazaba’s imposing walls, fortified with towers and ramparts, enclose a vast expanse of land, once home to the city’s administrative center, military barracks, and the residence of the governor. Within its walls, remnants of its former grandeur remain, including courtyards and the foundations of grand structures. Travelers and business people crossing the Guadiana River were stopped at Alcazaba to determine their purpose in entering the city and possibly to impose a tax.
The entire perimeter of the Alcazaba was surrounded by a large moat, except the side that overlooks the river. A total of 25 solid towers are distributed at specific distances, part of the wall itself.
Visitors can climb the stairs to the top of the wall for a panoramic view of the river.
SheBuysTravel Tip: In the middle of the courtyard is a small building that leads to a cistern several yards below ground. In the water, be sure to spy goldfish that have been dropped off by the locals and which have multiplied
Venture Across the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge)
At the entrance to the Alcazaba is the Puente Romano, a majestic bridge with 60 graceful arches that spans the tranquil waters of the Guadiana River. It has stood the test of time since its construction in the 1st century BC. The bridge’s impressive length, stretching over 792 meters of about half a mile, makes it one of the longest surviving Roman bridges in the world.
Today, the bridge is used by pedestrians only. Be sure to walk on the bridge until the first island in the river for the best view of the Alcazaba and spot plenty of wildlife.
Wonder at the Splendid Acueducto de los Milagros (“The Miraculous Aqueduct”)
For sheer beauty and wonder, the other must-see UNESCO World Heritage Site in Merida is the Acueducto de los Milagros or The Miraculous Aqueduct so called by locals because of its admiral state of conservation. Built in the 1st century, the Aqueduct brought water from the Proserpina Dam, about 3 miles from Mérida, across the Albarregas River, and into the city center.
The aqueduct is not easily accessed by car and the views are limited because of an elevated railroad. Park the car, walk along the river, and walk with locals beside the river.
Peer Up at the Temple of Diana
Walking through the main business district of Merida, Roman ruins appear suddenly around many corners, particularly the so-called Temple of Diana. Visitors are invited to come inside this Roman Temple and stare up at the majestic columns. Despite the current name attributed to it during its discovery, the building was dedicated instead to the imperial cult during the reign of Augustus Caesar. Its exceptional state of preservation is because, for centuries, the temple served as the foundation and shell of the Renaissance palace of the Count of los Corbos, some parts of which are still preserved.
Discover the Bustle of the City at the Portico del Foro
Turn another corner from the Temple of Diana and there appears the Portico of the Forum erected in the 1st century AD as a grand portico or entrance to the Roman Forum, the bustling center of the city.
Composed of imposing Corinthian columns, the portico was adorned with intricate decorations including representations of Medusa heads and Jupiter-Ammon, a fusion of the Roman god Jupiter and the Egyptian god Amon. The portico’s walls were graced with niches that once sheltered statues of emperors, gods, and mythical figures.
Walk under the Arco de Trajan (Arch of Trajan)
Amidst the hustle and bustle of a nearby grade school is the Arco de Trajan. The arch was erected in 98 AD to commemorate the visit to the city of Roman Emperor Trajan, who sought to improve the infrastructure of Hispania, the Roman province that included present-day Spain.
The arch is constructed from granite and features a single arched opening flanked by two pairs of Corinthian columns. Above the arch are intricate reliefs depicting Trajan’s military victories and his contributions to the city’s development.
Thrill at the Circo Romano (Roman Circus of Mérida)
The Circo Romano is one of the best-preserved circuses of the Roman Empire and also one of the most spectacular, once able to seat more than 30,000 spectators. It underwent a number of extensions and restorations, the last recorded of which was from the fourth century AD, proving it was used long after the Empire dissolved.
It was built outside of the walls of the city, next to the road to Toledo and Córdoba, taking advantage of the gentle slope that eventually leads to the Albarregas River.
Stroll in the Plaza de Espana
Since the era of the Catholic Kings, the Plaza de Espana has been a marketplace with pillars or fountains with running water. This is where the townspeople received the monarchs and members of their families during their royal visits. Government buildings were subsequently added to the square.
Today, spend a perfect sunny afternoon sipping a coffee or tea.
Walk Along the Guidana River
Merida owes its important role as an outpost of the Roman Empire to stone quarries for construction materials, farmland for food, and most important, water and transportation provided by the Guidana River on the banks of which it was built. For 62 of its 508 miles, it forms a natural border between Spain and Portugal on the Iberian peninsula.
In the main town, the walkway along the river is beautifully landscaped. Locals clearly love this area for strolling and exercising. Take a break from historical sightseeing and enjoy a walk.
Basilica of Santa Eulalia
Away from most Roman attractions but still within the Roman city is the Basilica of Santa Eulalia, an enduring monument to the city’s rich Christian heritage. Constructed in the 4th century AD, this awe-inspiring edifice is dedicated to Saint Eulalia, the city’s patron saint.
The basilica’s exterior blends a variety of architectural styles, reflecting its many transformations over the centuries. The original Romanesque structure, with its sturdy walls and arched windows, gives way to a Gothic addition featuring intricate pointed arches and rib vaults. A Renaissance façade adorns the entrance, while a Baroque dome crowns the sanctuary.
How to Get To Mérida
While there is bus and train service from Madrid, traveling to Madrid by rental car is probably the best option for most tourists. From Madrid, the train takes about five hours. The bus is a little quicker and cheaper. Book the bus from Avanzabus.com.
If driving, make sure to check with your hotel in advance to determine the best place to park, which can be several blocks from the hotel’s entrance.
Where to Stay
- Right in the center of Mérida at the Plaza de Espana is the Ilunión Mérida Palace Hotel, a luxury hotel with Moorish decoration.
- Also near the Plaza is the 4-star Hotel Aldealba
- For a unique Parador experience, try the Parador de Mérida near the Arco de Trajano. Although a convent, the hotel was been updated to include a swimming pool.
- A few blocks from Teatro Romano de Mérida is the Hotel Velada with large common areas that include a patio with an outdoor pool and an area with hammocks.
- For film fans, try the recently refurbished Hotel Paula Films, close to the train station.