Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links to carefully selected partners, including tours, outfitters and booking sites. If you click or buy something through one of them, I may receive a small commission. This is at no additional cost to you and allows this site to keep running.
Where the Roman past blends with the medieval and the modern, a visit to Tarragona, Spain, means being able to lose yourself in centuries of living history, preserved in its strata of gilded structures and hidden levels.
The coastal city of Tarragona, in northeastern Spain, is known for its scattering of ancient Roman ruins from its time as a colony known as Tarraco, founded in 218 BC. Although not the only Roman city in Spain, this was the first Roman city beyond the bastion of the Western Empire on the Italian peninsula.
A new city built over an ancient city, the fun of exploring in the UNESCO site complex in Tarragona is to bring together the old and the new, the latter of which has either replaced the former or has yet to be discovered and preserved.
Here’s what to see and where to find all the relics of the beginnings of the city of Tarragona.
Where to find the monuments of Roman Tarragona.
How many days do you need in Tarragona to see it all? If you want to leisurely sightsee and enjoy the sun-drenched avenues, local markets and laid-back restaurants and bars of this Mediterranean coastal town, spending two days in Tarragona would be ideal. However, if you’re short on time or travelling from Barcelona, Tarragona’s main Roman sites can be seen in a day, as it’s a compact city and easily accessible on foot.
Amphitheatre of Tarragona
The first stop was the Tarragona Amphitheatre, one of only seven remaining amphitheatres in Spain that are open to the public. You can walk freely through most of this 2nd century structure located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where you can stand in the enclosure and imagine how it once housed 12,000 eager spectators.
Historically stratified, the amphitheatre was built during the 6th and 7th centuries, when the Church constructed a basilica in memory of the martyrs who perished during the days of Christian persecution. Several temples and other structures, including a prison and holiday apartments, were built over it before it was finally uncovered to reveal its original foundations as a Roman city.
Roman circus and praetorian tower
A short distance from the amphitheatre is the Roman Circus and Praetorian Tower (Circ Romà), which was once used to hold large horse and chariot races. You can climb to the top for a 360º view of the city, and parts of the lower arches are preserved for spectators.
Today’s Tarragona was built over what was the racetrack, and if you look closely at the shop fronts and some of the structural details, you can see the resemblance of the arches where the shops have been built over the Roman vaults.
Finding Roman ruins in Tarragona
A stroll through the city centre reveals the narrow alleyways and historic streets of medieval times, but not without the Romans keeping an eye out. As we sampled a vermouth in the specialist shop, Bodega Enric, we only had to step out into the open square to find a piece of Tarraco’s ancient Roman walls dominating the open square.
We stroll through the sandy, ochre-orange streets in the highest part of the city, known as Part Alta, which was once the site of the ancient provincial forum of Tarraco, also known as the Colonial Forum. This area was once the centre of the social and political life of Tarraco, and here you can see ancient Roman stones and parts of the old wall incorporated into the current structures.
We had lunch at the modern Xamfrà del Fòrum next to the Colonial Forum, marked by the ruins of a large square and a temple.
Nearby are modern architectural examples by the Catalan artist Josep Maria Jujol. Not to be missed are the Metropole Theatre (designed in 1908 with a transept-style interior in antithesis to traditional theatre design) and the Tarragona Central Market (opened in 1915 with arched windows and naves, in contrast to the usual rectangular market buildings) in retro juxtaposition to the city’s ancient foundations.
Roman Temple in the Cathedral of Tarragona
Leaving one of the best for last, we find ourselves back in the heart of the old city, looking at the Cathedral which dominates the city centre and stands over the ancient Roman temple.
We climbed the spiral staircase to enjoy a panoramic view of the city from the bell tower, before heading back down and peering over the remains of the wall of the ancient Roman temple which is now a foundation integrated into this more modern structure.
No matter what you have in front of you, below or around you, the wonder of Tarragona is in knowing that you are surrounded by 2,000 years of history. A living history of one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire that is still accessible to this day.
How to get to the city of Tarragona
By plane and bus
Reus International Airport (REU) is about 20 minutes, 7 km, from the centre of Tarragona. You can hire a private transfer or take one of the several Hispano Igualadina public buses between Reus Airport and Tarragona.
Barcelona airport is over 80 km away, and again this is where bus routes, or shared transfer, are the best connections to Tarragona.
AVE train to Tarragona – Book a Renfe train ticket in Spain.
There are two train stations in Tarragona:
Tarragona Adif Station is the train station in the city centre for regional train connections to Reus, Barcelona, Tortosa and Lleida, and Renfe long-distance trains to Valencia, Andalusia and Madrid.
Camp de Tarragona is the AVE station, located 10 minutes from the city centre.
You can book tickets through the Renfe website in English and tickets specific to the high-speed network. All tickets must be booked in advance as it is not possible to turn up on the day and book at the station. You can pay with Visa, Mastercard and Paypal.
The AVE trains have nine classes if you count overnight trains with sleeper/sleeper options, but there are two main ones to consider – Turista (a second class option with 2 x 2 rows of seats) and Turista Plus which is a bit more spacious (with 2 x 1 rows of seats). I travelled on each of my journeys with a Turista ticket, which was quite comfortable and was good value for money.
If you want to book a multi-stop trip, consider purchasing a “Spain Pass”. This means you can travel on one ticket for the AVE and other long distance trains. You must reserve a seat before each journey, as space allocated for Spain Pass holders is limited.
Things to know about Tarragona
Visit to the Roman sites of Tarragona
The cost of the visit to the main Roman sites of Tarragona is 3,30 euros for each site included in the list of the Museum of History of Tarragona (MHT). This includes the Model of Roman Tarraco, the Casa Castellarnau Museum, the Walls (Archaeological Walk), the Praetorium and the Roman Circus, and the Roman Amphitheatre, the Local or Colony Forum and the Casa Canals.
If you plan to visit many of the sites, it is worth investing in the €7.40 pass that you can purchase from TarracoTicket or directly from the Tarragona Municipal Tourist Office.
Tarragona augmented reality app
The smartphone app ‘Imageen’ (available on the AppStore and Google Play) is a cool ‘augmented reality’ app that brings ancient Tarragona to life. At designated points at local sites, you can interactively learn about the history. By holding our phone screen over the Cathedral, we were able to see what the Roman temple looked like.
Festivals in Tarragona
Tarragona may have been built on Tarraco, but it doesn’t forget it. In May, festivals like Tarraco Viva bring Roman times back to life and re-enactments from medieval times to Napoleon help the city’s living history. You can find out more about the calendar of events, with downloadable publications, here.
More plans for Tarragona
For more information on planning your trip in Tarragona, from the Roman ruins and beyond, visit the official tourism website.
My trip to Tarragona was in collaboration with the Spanish National Tourist Office as part of their #SpainbyTrain campaign and was one of four stops in the city. However, all exciting historical opinions are my own.
Planning to spend a day in Hanoi but wondering where to go so you don't miss the highlights of th...
Disclaimer: This article contains affiliate links to carefully selected partners, including tour...
If you happen to stop in Iceland for a quick layover or if you plan to stay longer, you are su...
Isn't it wonderful to have tropical islands in the world as beautiful as Maui? I've been a fan ...