A World Heritage Site, this monumental city has preserved the spirit of the Roman legionaries who founded it. Also its monuments. You can also perceive its Suebi and Visigothic past, which made it the capital of its kingdoms. The city boasts the titles of “Very Noble, Ancient, Great and Loyal”. An excellent starting point for all kinds of excursions, it is the nerve centre of the Vía de la Plata, the great north/south peninsular artery.
Plan your stay in Mérida
The visit to the places to see in Mérida can take one or two days. The heritage is quite dispersed but worthwhile. Next door is the Cornalvo Natural Park, whose reservoir is possibly the oldest functioning in Spain.
Among the nearby excursions, to the north is Montanchez, famous for its economical and tasty ham with DO. To the south, the medieval town of Alange contains a magnificent reservoir for sailing and swimming. Bordering the beautiful road around the body of water you reach Almendralejo. Finally, equally remarkable is the nearby Badajoz. Likewise, Mérida is the place from which the Vía de la Plata officially starts. The route, extended south to Seville, Huelva or Malaga, is today a Way to Santiago.
Before we move on to the best things to see in Mérida, we should know its history. The city was founded in the year 25 b.C. by order of the emperor Octavian Augustus. The aim of the place was to settle the legionaries “honorary graduates” or emeritus after the Cantabrian wars. Hence the name, Augusta Emerita. Fighters came from legions V Laudae and X Gemina. Historian Strabo mentioned it as one of the sinoicist cities, with indigenous inhabitants. This shows that there was a previous settlement in the place.
The population had an important growth, building a great theatre, amphitheatre, circus, temples, aqueducts, bridges… In the 3rd century it was the capital of the Roman province called Diocesis Hispaniarum. It was in charge of the Peninsula and Morocco. For its part, Mérida became the ninth most populated city in the Empire.
In the year 438 A.D. the Suebi conquered the city. The barbarians would make it the capital of a kingdom that included much of the western part of the peninsula. Around 456, the Visigoths displaced the Suebi, alternating Mérida with Toledo as the capital of their kingdom.
Arabs and Christians
At the end of 712, the Yemeni leader Musa Ibn Nusair, governor of the Umayyads in North Africa, attacked the city with a large army of 17,000 men. After about six months of siege, the defenders surrendered in exchange for respect for his life and property. The Christian population and some of the Muslim settlers rebelled against the leaders. For example, in 741 there was an uprising. Such was its virulence that Syrian troops had to be brought in to control the uprising.
Later, in 828, the local population took control of the city and declared themselves independent. They succeeded in doing so supported by Christian troops sent by the French Emperor Ludovico Pio. Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman II himself carried out an unsuccessful siege, not managing to recover it until two years later. Later, during 835, the citadel was inaugurated. According to an inscription, it was intended to protect the rulers from insurrections. This did not prevent a new uprising in 868.
So a tense atmosphere was maintained for some years, until in 875 a great group of citizens commanded by Ibn Marwan, “el Gallego”, left to refound the present Badajoz. Another part emigrated towards the northwest. The Berbers of the tribe Masmuda replaced them a year later, controlling the city during the following fifty years.
In the year 929, Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III appointed a governor in charge of a large cora. Finally, in 1230, Alfonso IX of Leon conquered Mérida for the Christians supported by troops of the Order of Santiago. After that, he entrusted his repopulation and defence to that order, which installed the Priory of San Marcos de León there. Around 1479 the city was governed by Beatriz Pacheco, Countess of Medellín. The noblewoman gave the city to the Portuguese army that supported Juana la Beltraneja. This collaboration provoked that the troops of Fernando the Catholic besieged it.
Between 1640 and 1668, during the War of Restoration of Portugal, it was one of the cities most affected by the continuous requisitions and destruction. This served to exempt it from taxes for years. In 1653, together with Alcántara, Badajoz, Cáceres, Plasencia and Trujillo, it bought a vote in the Castilian Parliament to better defend its common interests.
Capital of Extremadura
Later, in 1810, the Government of Joseph I Bonaparte installed in Mérida the capital of the Prefecture of Guadiana and Guadajira. This was one of the new territorial organizations that the Gaul set in motion. Almost two centuries later, in 1983, it was designated capital of the Autonomous Community of Extremadura. Finally, in 1994 the Archdiocese of Merida-Badajoz was constituted. This recovered the old episcopal tradition of the city. The change meant the passage from church to cathedral of Santa María la Mayor.
The magnificence of the ancient Roman city is evident, two thousand years later, throughout the urban layout. There is no lack of remains from that period to be seen in Mérida. The unforgettable mark of Rome can be seen even in the route of its streets.
Roman Theatre of Mérida
At the Eastern area there is the Roman Theatre of Mérida, finished by Marcus Agrippa. The son-in-law of Caesar Augustus managed to finish the work in 15 b.C. It is important to point out that the present stage front, the most interesting architectural element, is due to a reform of year 105. From its construction and up to the mid-4th century b.C. it could hold up to 6000 spectators. After the fall of the Roman Empire and with the stigmatization of the theatre promoted by Christianity, the enclosure fell into neglect. For example, the ashlar stones of the stands were used in other constructions. The hollow, on the other hand, would become covered. Once the 18th century was reached, it was used as a bullfighting ring, while in the 20th century it began to be restored. Nowadays, it is once again used as a setting for the Classic Theatre festivals.
Roman Theatre of Mérida
Amphitheatre of Mérida
The adjacent Amphitheatre of Mérida, with an elliptical layout and large dimensions, was built somewhat later (8 B.C.). Its capacity could reach 14.000 spectators. It is made of masonry and concrete, though a great part of its cover with granite ashlars is missing. It is possible to visit the place where gladiators waited (spoliaria) or the cubicles for beasts (carceres) used at shows.
Within the enclosure that protects the theatre and the amphitheatre, there is also the so-called Amphitheatre House. The Tower of Water House stands out, with a carefully designed geometric mosaic on the floor. At the same time, the house of the amphitheatre itself (1st-4th centuries) is a remarkable element to see in Mérida. It has the magnificent Grape Harvest Mosaic and the Fish Mosaic. The archaeological park is still under study and has an enclosure where the surrounding excavations can take place.
National Museum of Roman Art
The National Museum of Roman Art, housed in a building by the architect Rafael Moneo, stands on a site of Roman ruins. On the ground floor, pieces such as the tombstone of Proserpina, the veiled head of the Genius of the Colony or the mosaic referring to the god Bacchus are on display. Also, perfectly set, different types of burials are arranged. There is also a space dedicated to evoking life in the Forum, through sculptures, remains of buildings and small objects found in the ancient Augusta Emerita.
On the other hand, the first floor is intended to exhibit the collections of ceramics, bone, glass, numismatics and gold and silverware. The second floor explains the different sides of the social life of the city, with schemes about the city and the nearby villae or estates. In addition, there is a space on the Christian Mérida, from the third century A.D. The whole is thus a great enclave to see in Mérida for those who love Rome.
Walking from the theatre and amphitheatre enclosure towards the north, there are the remains of Mérida’s Roman Circus. This huge entertainment center of the city since the first century A.D. was home to 30,000 spectators. Its elongated structure consisted of two parallel major sides and two minor ones that wrapped the arena. The arena was in turn divided into two parts by a spine that was turned seven times by the chariots. Despite its state of preservation, it is the best Spanish example of its kind. Beside the circus there are three pillars of the old Aqueduct of San Lázaro.
Christian, then Moorish and again Christian buildings
Much of what can be seen in Mérida is in its old town. These are Roman spaces that were converted into Christians, then into Muslims and again Christianized. A good example of this is the Church of Santa Eulalia, built in the 13th and 14th centuries on top of a 5th century basilica. The styles of construction range from Roman to Gothic, through Visigothic and Romanesque. The Visitor Centre of the Church of Santa Eulalia describes an itinerary through the subsoil of the temple.
Another example is the Forum Portico, built in the first century. In the surroundings of Plaza de España we find the Arch of Trajan and the Temple of Diana. These are two of the most iconic sites to be seen in Mérida. Recent restoration work has exempted the columns, to which the walls of the Count of Corbos’ palace were added in the 16th century. Very close by, in the old church of the Santa Clara convent, you can see the Visigothic Art Museum.
Temple of Diana
From Santa Clara, going down towards the Guadiana, we reach the Alcazaba of Mérida. It is considered the oldest Muslim building in Spain. It was founded around the year 835. Later, the Knights of the Order of Santiago would establish their convent there. The towers, outer walls and cistern are from the Islamic period.
Many Roman remains
From the fortress you can see the Roman Bridge of Mérida from the time of Caesar Augustus. With its 792 metres and 60 arches it is the longest in the world from this period, after the one on the Danube river. Together with that of Alcántara, it is one of the best preserved from the Roman period. Pilgrims on the Via de la Plata usually enter the city through it, where they can see the Capitoline Wolf, given by Rome.
On the banks of the Guadiana is the archaeological site of Las Morerías, with necropolis, roads and houses used by both Romans and Arabs. There you can find the Visitor Centre of the Vía de la Plata, a communication route that used to run through the Roman province of Lusitania. The roadway follows a path used since before the arrival of Rome to the Peninsula, assuming a true communicative artery.
Among the monuments scattered throughout the municipality we can mention the house of Mithreo, decorated with mural paintings and mosaics as outstanding as the image of Eros and the Cosmological. Attached are the columbariums, small funerary constructions made in the open air. You can start your visit by going to the Visitor Center of the Funeral Area of the Columbarios. Also interesting are the Church of Santa María (13th to 15th centuries), the Baroque Convent of Santo Domingo (17th century) and some Renaissance manor houses.
Agriculture from Prehistory
The great majority of the fields near Mérida preserve their agricultural functions. These were acquired in prehistoric times and were improved by the Roman technique. Nearby is the Cornalvo Natural Park. Although it has been believed for many years that its reservoir was from the Roman period, it seems that it was built later. This concludes the visit for the best thing to see in Mérida.
Here are some other highlights to see in Merida. Roman Carnival of Merida (February), September Fair (first week of September), Extremadura Day (September 8). In addition, the Feria Chica (October 12th) and Mérida’s Classical Theatre Festival.