Known officially as the Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida, this extensive site is one of the most well-preserved Roman cities in Europe.
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The city was founded as Emerita Augusta in 25 BC by Emperor Augustus, making it a pivotal archaeological site from the early days of the Roman Empire. Initially meant to provide a home for retired legion veterans from the Cantabrian campaigns, the area quickly became one of the most important cities in Roman Spain. It was even modeled on the blueprint of Rome itself.
Emerita Augusta was the provincial capital of Lusitania, which covered Portugal and Western Spain. Today, the city is part of the Extremadura region. In its heyday, the city was the center of a road network that connected Emerita Augusta with other major cities such as Hispalis (modern-day Seville).
Over the centuries, Emerita Augusta's collection of buildings and monuments grew into one of the most impressive cities in the Empire. The city boasted three aqueducts, creating a prosperous environment for citizens and traders.
Emerita Augusta survived the fall of the Empire in 476 AD, playing host to a Visigoth king before being claimed by the Arabs in the Middle Ages.
The ruins of Emerita Augusta are surprisingly complete, giving visitors a clear indication of how a Roman city was planned. The impressive theater complex is one of Spain's most important archaeological monuments and was built by Augustus's right-hand man Agrippa in 16 BC.
The theater was joined by an amphitheater in 8 BC, which played host to gladiatorial combat and spectacles of warriors and slaves fighting imported beasts such as lions. The city also had a circus, built earlier in 20 BC, that was used for chariot and horse racing. Designed as a clone of Rome's Circus Maximus, it was the largest building in the city and sat just outside the defensive walls.
Only a portion of one of the city's aqueducts still stands today – the Acueducto de los Milagros. Religion had a prominent daily role in the city, and visitors can still marvel at the remains of the Temple of Diana, which dates from the 1st Century BC.
Visitors can also enjoy the National Museum of Roman Art, which is part of the Merida site and houses treasures from the various archaeological digs in the area.
Visiting information and tips
Because most of the ruins form part of the modern city of Merida, it's free to visit most of them. The Roman Theater still holds events throughout the year, which you may need to pay for.
The National Museum of Roman Art costs €3 to enter. In the summer, the museum is open from 9:30 to 20:00 from 1st April to 30th September. From 1st October to 31st March, opening hours are 9:30 to 6:30. The museum is closed on Mondays.
Merida has a train station and a bus depot, providing links to major cities like Madrid and Seville. The nearest airport is Badajoz Airport, 50 km away.