The Roman colony of Emerita Augusta (modern-day Mérida) was founded in 25 BC and became the most important city in the Roman province of Lusitania and one of the largest in Hispania. Standing on the Guadiana River, its strategic location allowed it to control important trade routes which contributed to its prosperity and influence. Today it is home to the finest Roman ruins in Spain which are a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida. Exploring these ruins is top of the list when it comes to the top things to do in Mérida Spain, along with visiting the city’s remarkable Museum of Roman Art.
History of Roman Mérida
In the 1st century AD during the rule of Emperor Augustus, Mérida flourished as one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Roman Empire. Many of the iconic Roman structures still standing today like the theatre, temple, circus and aqueducts were built during this period of rapid growth. Mérida was granted the coveted status as a Roman colony in recognition of its privileges and importance.
As the capital of the Lusitania, Mérida was considered one of the four capitals of Hispania during the Roman era along with Tarraco (Tarragona), Corduba (Cordoba) and Bracara Augusta (Braga). It served as an administrative and economic centre, producing olive oil, wine, marble works and metal objects using its strategic location on trade routes. Mérida minted its own coins to facilitate regional commerce.
When the Roman Empire began to fall in the 5th century AD, Mérida was overrun by Germanic tribes. Though the city fell into decline and ruin after the end of Roman rule, its architectural legacy remained. An abundance of structures like the bridge, temples, aqueducts, amphitheatre, circus and gateways have survived the centuries as testaments to Mérida’s crucial role in the Western Roman Empire.
Getting to Mérida from Madrid
Mérida lies 340km south-west of Madrid in the region of Extremadura. Renfe operates regular train services from Madrid-Atocha Cercanias which take around 4 hours. Various bus companies offer service between Madrid and Mérida which take a little over 5 hours. Alternatively, you can rent a car in Madrid and drive to Mérida in around 3 hours and 30 minutes.
Top 10 Things to Do in Mérida Spain
The Spanish city of Mérida contains the most impressive and expansive collection of Roman ruins in the entire country. When founded in 25 BC, Mérida was one of the most important cities in the Roman province of Lusitania. Many structures from its days as Emerita Augusta still stand. Here are ten must-see ancient Roman sites and ruins in Mérida:
The Roman Theatre is Mérida’s most famous site, constructed around 15 BC. This magnificent stone amphitheatre could seat up to 6,000 spectators and its semi-circular design provided optimal acoustics and views. The theatre was used for plays, poetry readings and gladiatorial combats with wild animals. Visitors can still walk among the tiered seats and imagine the drama that once took place.
The Circus Maximus was an enormous venue for chariot racing, one of the most popular Roman spectator sports. Built in the 1st century AD, the circus could accommodate around 30,000 cheering fans. The long oval track and stone seating on one side are partially intact, making it the only surviving Roman hippodrome in Spain.
The Romans were renowned builders of aqueducts, bringing fresh water from afar to supply their cities. Mérida contains two impressive ancient aqueducts. The 730-meter long Aqueduct of Los Milagros is the most noteworthy, with dual tiers of arches spanning the valley. The variety of bridge designs attest to reconstruction after damage over the centuries.
Temple of Diana:
The Temple of Diana was a Roman place of worship dedicated to the goddess of the hunt and moon. Built in the 1st century AD, the ruins include Corinthian columns and detailed carvings. Only one wall remains fully intact, but the temple’s grandeur can still be envisaged. Diana was highly venerated – she even appeared on Roman coins from Mérida.
The Puente Romano is Mérida’s famous Roman bridge. Originally spanning 792 meters across the Guadiana River, it stood on 60 granite pillars. Though damaged by floods, part of the bridge remains in use as a pedestrian walkway. This engineering marvel connected the city over a vital river crossing for centuries. From the bridge you should look further down the river to see the remarkable contrast with the Puente Lusitania, a modern creation designed by the celebrated architect, Santiago Calatrava.
The Alcazaba is a 9th century Moorish fortress that incorporates the crumbling remains of Mérida’s Roman walls. Its strategic position on a hill provided scenic views of the city below. Visitors can also discern the form of a Roman gate and tower integrated into the later Moorish design.
Smaller than the main theatre, Mérida’s Roman Amphitheatre could hold around 15,000 people. A venue for gladiatorial combats and wild beast hunting shows, the amphitheatre is extremely well preserved. A maze of tunnels and chambers where gladiators waited beneath the arena can be explored.
House of the Amphitheatre:
Adjacent to the amphitheatre stands an excavated Roman elite townhouse known as the House of the Amphitheatre. Its rooms feature intricate mosaic floors and frescoes, as well as an intriguing shrine to pagan deities. This aristocratic home provides insight into the lavish lifestyle of wealthy Romans.
Arch of Trajan:
The Arch of Trajan was one of the key entrances to Augusta Emerita, built around 112 AD. The ceremonial archway was erected in honor of Emperor Trajan’s victory over tribes in the region. An inscription commemorates the quelled rebellion. Though stripped of its statues, the arch stands as an imposing example of Roman architecture.
Mérida’s National Museum of Roman Art:
Last but by no means least is Mérida’s National Museum of Roman Art which contains a treasure trove of artifacts uncovered locally during the city’s Roman era. It is considered to be one of the greatest museums in Spain which is home to a priceless collection of statues, mosaics, coins and other historic treasures. It is housed inside a large modernist building near the archaeological zone which provides the perfect starting point for learning about the Roan hisitory of Mérida.
Highlights of the Roman Art Museum include:
Imperial Portrait Gallery: One of the most striking spaces displays larger-than-life marble busts of emperors, aristocrats and their families. These piercing sets of eyes provide an intimate glimpse into Rome’s elite ruling class. Don’t miss the immense statue of Emperor Augustus who founded Emerita Augusta.
Precious Metals: This exhibit dazzles with gold and silver jewellery, utensils, coins and religious objects showcasing fine metalwork. Elaborate necklaces, rings and bracelets paint a rich picture of elite fashions. The coins on display help date different eras of Roman rule.
Mosaics: Some rooms of the museum showcase intricate mosaic floors rescued from Mérida’s lavish Roman villas. Mythological scenes, landscapes, geometric patterns and a famous mosaic depicting a dolphin rider reveal amazing artistry. The shades of tiles even indicate fashions and influences shifting over time.
Sarcophagi, Stelae and Sculptures: Here stately sarcophagi tombs carved from stone and marble rest alongside funerary stelae. Sculptures depict Roman gods and important historical figures like Hadrian. The famous Trajan stelae carved in 100 AD celebrating the emperor’s victory stands out as a rare portrait sculpture from his reign.
Everyday Objects: Utensils, glassware, toys and other artifacts provide a fascinating insight into the daily life of Romans from all social classes. Highlights include exceptionally preserved wood and leather objects rarely seen from ancient times and a reconstructed Roman kitchen.
Other Mérida Tourist Attractions
If you have enough time, there are a few lesser-known Roman sites and ruins in Mérida which are worth a visit including the following:
The Municipal Forum: This was the administrative and religious center of Emerita Augusta during the Roman era. The site features the remnants of temples, a basilica and the monumental Arch of Augustus.
Casa del Mitreo: These are the ruins of a Roman mansion which contained a mithraeum, a temple for the mysterious cult of Mithras. The complex mosaic floors and mithraeum are highlights.
House of the Fountain: A Roman domus named for its central fountain and well-preserved mosaics. It provides insight into a wealthy family home during the 1st century AD.
Basilica of Santa Eulalia: Built in the 4th century AD, these remains of a paleo-Christian basilica contain both Roman and Visigothic elements. It honours Mérida’s patron saint.
Roman Walls: Sections of the original Roman walls that fortified Emerita Augusta can be seen across the city. The best preserved stretch runs along the northern side of the city.
Roman Reservoir: This underground water storage system dates back to the 1st century BC. It demonstrates Roman engineering used to supply Mérida with fresh water.
Summer Festival of Mérida
The Festival of Mérida is a classical theatre festival which takes place annually during the months of July and August. The main venue for the festival is the Roman Theatre of Mérida (Teatro Romano de Mérida) which dates back to 15 BC and has a capacity for 6,000 spectators. It is an extraordinary ancient structure which showcases Greco-Roman plays with its magnificent colonnaded buildings providing a stunning backdrop.
Some events also take place at the nearby Roman Amphitheatre (Anfiteatro Romano) which dates back to the 8th Century BC when it hosted all kinds of gladiator fights. Its grandstand has a seating capacity of 15,000 spectator. As well as hosting classic plays the venue is also home to a range of music and dance events during the festival. If you’re planning a visit to Extremadura during the summer months, attending a performance in the Roman Theatre is one of the best things to do in Mérida Spain.