As a traveling couple, we like to avoid crowded tourist spots by exploring lesser-known sites and attractions. So when we were driving around Southern Spain, Andalusia and the mountains of Sierra de la Grazalema, we gave a miss to Granada and Seville. Instead, we chose to spend 3 days in Mérida as it had older relics and monuments from Roman times and was less about Moorish history.
During Roman rule, southwestern Spain was named "Provincia Hispania Ulterior Lusitania", and Emerita Augusta, today's Mérida, was the administrative center of this province. As can be expected, the Romans went through great efforts to make Merida worthy of its status.
For the Romans, that meant beautiful houses for Roman aristocrats, water supply for toilets and baths, grand temples and theaters, and of course, a mini colosseum. Some of these sites have survived for 2,000 years, which is why Mérida today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You can get to Merida from Madrid by bus (3 hrs 35 mins) or train (4 hrs 20 mins), but it took us just over 3 hours by car. There are many hotels of different types and for varying budgets available here. We stayed a little bit further away from the town center to have access to the hotel's parking.
If you catch a bus or train to get here, it is better to find a hotel at or near the town center. Either way, as you will have to walk to most of the attractions in the city, comfortable and sturdy shoes are a must.
A major plus point is that most of the Roman monuments are located close to one another. This provides the convenience of short walking distances so that in 3 days you can easily explore Mérida's popular attractions on foot. We have included some of these top sites in our Merida itinerary below.
As we drove into the city, we were welcomed by the huge "el toro" bull overlooking the highway. Since we only had the afternoon on the first day, we could only take in what is probably the most famous sight in Merida - the Merida Amphitheater and Roman Theatre - and a bit of the city.
You will notice that many of Merida's streets are lined by orange trees laden with fruit – a lovely feature that is seen in much of southern Spain. The Plaza Constitución, for example, is a cheerful, sunny square with orange trees and flags at the Ayuntamiento – the Town Hall. A pretty sight!
The Amphitheatre is one of the oldest archaeological sites in Spain. It is oval-shaped and designed to seat around 15,000 spectators. What people watched here in the olden days would rightly be considered gruesome today – gladiators, blood spill, and excitement, like at the Colosseum in Rome - but back then, it was entertainment!
The 2000-year-old Roman Theatre, located right next to the Amphitheatre, is in a much better state than its neighbor thanks to several renovation projects. This incredible structure hosted outdoor plays. Now a historical site, it is home to the Festival of Classical Theatre of Mérida, which is where ancient Roman theatre practices are kept alive.
Over the centuries, the theatre slowly became submerged in the earth until only the top rows of benches remained – referred to as “The Seven Chairs”. Local folklore says this is where seven Moorish kings sat to decide the fate of the city.
Excavations began in 1910, when the equipment and methodology first allowed for it, revealing beautiful structures, statues and architecture the likes of which hadn’t been seen in hundreds of years. The theatre has an impressive half-moon amphitheatre seating style and a massive 17m high stage complete with Roman columns and arches - a site not to be missed!
We were also impressed by the immaculately-designed gardens with a huge well and a side portico behind the theatre.
In the evening, we wandered around the bustling city streets where delicious smells of food wafted through the air, and most people were smiling.
Dinner was another little exploration which turned out to be very nice. We highly recommend trying Paella Valenciana and Fideua!
We sought out the better-preserved ancient structures that would give us a glimpse of Roman culture as well as the famed Roman engineering, with a little bit of the Moorish past thrown in.
The Temple of Diana is the only religious building from Emerita Augusta still standing in its original location. Six Corinthian-style granite columns elegantly support what remains of the hexastyle portico. A Moorish structure looms in the background, but thankfully the temple remains.
We found it quite impressive and took some excellent photographs.
The Roman Bridge of Mérida dates back to 25 B.C. and spans across the Guadiana River. Fortunately, it has remained in superb condition thanks to the Romans’ consistent efforts in maintaining it.
At 2,600 feet (800 m) in length, it is the longest-surviving Roman bridge in the world. The heavy rectangular stones and thick pillars were designed to withstand winter flooding and strong currents.
The bridge features 60 (originally it had 62) towering granite arches and has been used as a footbridge since 1993. It is a 2-minute walk from Plaza de España, and the gorgeous river and surroundings present great photo opportunities.
The Alcazaba is an Arab castle (one of the few Moorish structures in Mérida) located at the north end of the Roman Bridge. It was built in 835 A.D. and is now entirely in ruins.
We got some lovely expansive views beyond the bridge and the gardens below from the top of the defence wall.
In the afternoon, we took in the Acueducto de los Milagros.
The Aqueduct of the Miracles is an extraordinary example of Roman masterwork and a marvel of ancient hydraulic engineering. This 6-mile (10 km) structure was built to supply Emerita Augusta with water collected from the Proserpina cistern located just 3 miles (5 km) from the city.
The water flowed along the aqueduct and collected in a large square tank called castellum aquae. This elaborate scheme of arches cleverly used the natural ground elevations to move water without any pumps. Nowadays, the arches are home to dozens of nesting storks.
For incredible pictures of the site, visit an hour before dusk and save time for a pleasant walk in the surrounding large green area.
Our Merida visit would remain incomplete unless we viewed how the Romans used to live, for which a museum housed in an ancient building was just perfect.
But wait! Where did the Romans get the water for their renowned baths from? We found the answer to that one, too!
La casa del Mitreo took up the next morning. We wanted a glimpse of how the top brass of the Roman administration used to live, and this was the place.
Among all the museums, buildings and historic sites in Merida, do not miss La Casa del Mitreo. It is centered around a 2nd-century, well-preserved Roman house whose rooms are beautifully decorated with mosaics and mural paintings.
The many rooms are full, but not cluttered, with beautiful statues and urns. One can spend many hours just wandering around these remnants of an ancient people.
It is definitely worth visiting the Proserpina Dam, a 9.5 km drive from the city. We found it quite by accident while driving on the city outskirts, but it was a beautiful drive with literally no cars on the road.
The Proserpina Dam is a Roman gravity dam dating back to the 1st or 2nd-century A.D. It was built as part of the infrastructure which supplied the city of Emerita Augusta with water. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Milagros Aqueduct leading to the city fell into decay, but the earth dam with a retaining wall is still in use to this day!
We walked around the well-kept property of expansive greens and found a perfect local club restaurant facing the beautiful dam to have some good Spanish wine and authentic tapas in.
I think we should be grateful that despite ruling Spain for centuries, the Moors did not destroy the remnants of Merida’s Roman past, such as the Temple of Diana. They left mother nature to decide how much of this ancient history would be preserved for us.
As we had started our tour from Madrid, where you can easily get by with English, we did not anticipate that communication would not be easy in Merida. English speakers are far and few in between, and even our hotel staff didn't understand English, so we were not prepared with an App on our phones that translates English into Spanish.
For our very first meal, we also struggled with the Spanish menu. There was nobody around, not even a customer who spoke English. But good old Google came to our rescue, and we finally settled for fish Piri Piri – barbecued fish with a red pepper-based Piri Piri sauce.
Once we got the hang of things, we found it fun to try out various Spanish delicacies. We carefully ordered two different main courses every time. This gave us a chance to taste more dishes, and we could share one if the other dish was not quite to our liking.
To sum up though, Mérida is the perfect destination for anyone with an interest in Roman history, art history or even ancient civil engineering.
This article was edited by Loredana Elena.
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