The Living History of Tarragona, Spain – The First Roman City

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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.

The living history of Tarragona – Spain’s first Roman city.

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.

Roman ruins and low yellow and orange buildings lining the coastline, make up the city of Tarragona, Spain.

The yellowish ruins of Tarragona's Roman amphitheatre overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Spain.

The Roman amphitheatre of Tarragona overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

A woman with long blonde hair stands on a metal railing overlooking the Roman ruins of the Tarragona Amphitheatre in Tarragona, Spain.

A man stands at the tall stone entrance to the yellowed Roman amphitheatre at Tarragona in Spain

The large entrances leading into the interior of the Tarragona Amphitheatre.

Worn yellow and grey stones of the walls, arches and underground chambers of the Roman Amphitheatre of Tarragona.

Get up close to the Roman ruins of the Amphitheatre.

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.

The bold structure of golden stone walls and columns of the Roman Circus and Praetorian Tower in Tarragona, Spain, against a blue sky.

Approaching the Roman circus and praetorian tower.

A woman leans on a wooden barrier at a square golden stone gate, inside the Roman Circus in Tarragona Spain.

Three people inside the Roman Circus of Tarragona, taking photos of the square tower structure.

A woman with a yellow backpack takes a photo of the city of Tarragona from the top of the golden stone building of the Roman Circus

The wide view of the city of Tarragona from the top of the Roman Circus.

Ariel View of the ruins of the Roman Circus in Tarragona - ancient stone architecture surrounded by the modern buildings of the present city.

Ariel View of the ruins of the Roman Circus in Tarragona, mixed with the modern structures of the city.

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.

Remnants of Roman ruins in the streets of Tarragona, in a public square right next to pastel-colored apartment buildings.

Remains of Roman ruins in the streets of Tarragona.

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.

A woman walks her dog and people gather in the golden yellow streets of Tarragona, Spain.

Parte Alta – once the site of the ancient provincial forum of Tarraco.

A man stands, taking a photo, in front of a building painted with a yellow artistic mural in the city of Tarragona, Spain. On either side are narrow avenues lined with old buildings.

The ruins of Tarraco stacked with Tarragona’s more modern structures and murals.

The entrance to a shop with candy-colored doors inside a Roman stone archway in Tarragona, Spain.

Tents found inside Roman arches in Tarragona.

People walk towards a high golden stone wall - the ancient Roman city walls still visible in Tarragona, Spain.

Ancient Roman city walls still visible in Tarragona, Spain.

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.

A man in a white shirt walks past a park of trees filled with the Roman ruins of a square and a temple column in Tarragona, Spain.

Some Roman ruins in the city of Tarragona are fenced off for protection, but are still visible.

A Roman stone column in the middle of a pedestrian street in Tarragona Spain.

A Roman stone column in the middle of a pedestrian street in Tarragona.

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.

A woman walks past the golden stone (bottom) and white clad (top) building of the Metropole Theatre in Tarragona, Spain.

Modern design and art at the Metropole Theatre, in juxtaposition with the Roman ruins.

A round arch exterior design, with a white clock and round white letter signage of the Central Market in Tarragona Spain.

Tarragona Central Market

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.

The white exterior of Tarragona Cathedral on the site of the ancient Roman temple. On the left people are dining outside in a neighbouring restaurant.

The Cathedral on the site of the ancient Roman temple in Tarragona.

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.

A woman next to a golden stone wall looking towards a columned structure and the city of Tarragona by the sea.

View from the top of the Cathedral (ancient Roman temple) of Tarragona.

The golden stone, gleaming in the sunlight, of the Cathedral of Tarragona Spain. This is the exterior of the structure from the view of the gardens.

Tour of Tarragona Cathedral – views from the interior gardens.

An elevated view of the old stone wall of Roman Tarraco, next to the newer wall (on the left) of today's Tarragona Cathedral.

Stones from the ancient wall of Roman Tarraco, next to the wall of the present-day Tarragona Cathedral.

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.

Often, people visit Tarragona on a day trip from Barcelona or by combining destinations, as I did for a city-hopping adventure traveling through Spain by AVE train.

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.

Spain RENFE AVE on the platform

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.

A hand holding a smartphone showing the Roman ruins virtual reality app for Tarragona Tourism.

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.

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