Welcome to Tarragona where the warm waters of the Mediterranean meet rich Roman history.
Tarragona’s calling card is its clutch of first-rate Roman ruins, earning it coveted UNESCO World Heritage site status. But this vibrant port city is so much more than this.
With its grand plazas, narrow medieval streets and show-stopping cathedral, its Old Town (Part Alta) is made for wandering. Throw into the mix sandy beaches that stretch for miles and fantastic places to linger over freshly grilled seafood and you have a perfect short-break destination in one of Spain’s most appealing cities.
Discover all these and more fabulous things to do in Tarragona.
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A Short History of Tarragona
One of the reasons to visit Spain is for its rich history, which is perfectly encapsulated in Tarragona.
Settled by the Iberians in the 5th Century BC, Tarragona was captured by the Romans in 218 BC. Known as Tarraco, it was transformed into the earliest Roman stronghold in Spain.
Legend has it that St. Paul, with a little help from St. Thecla, founded the Christian church in Tarraco in 60 AD.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Tarraco was captured by the Visigoths. This Germanic tribe held the city until the Moors’ invasion in 714 AD.
The city languished in obscurity until 1119 when it was reborn as a key city in the new Spanish kingdom of Aragon.
Best Things to Do in Tarragona, Spain
Explore Tarragona’s Roman ruins
As an ensemble, Tarragona’s ruins paint a vivid picture of the city’s grandeur as a provincial Roman capital. Follow this Roman route to discover more of the city’s past.
Model of Tarraco (Maqueta de Tàrraco)
Begin your exploration of Tarragona’s Roman past at the reconstruction of the Roman city of Tarraco.
This model shows Tarragona in its Roman heyday. Made to a scale of 1:500, and at 18m3 in size, it is the second-largest model of the Roman world in Europe.
Tarragona’s Roman Walls (Passeig Arquelògic)
The Roman city of Tarraco was fortified by a wall that was around 4km in length. Just over a kilometre of this wall remains, bordering Tarragona’s Old Town.
The best-preserved section of the surviving wall is that along the Passeig Arqueològic or Archaeological Promenade.
Initially made from stones, wood and earth, this was replaced by a sturdier wall of large uneven stones (megaliths) reinforced with towers. Three of these towers remain: the Archbishop, Capiscol and Minerva towers.
In common with other Spanish cities, many of Tarragona’s museums and attractions are closed on Mondays.
The Provincial Forum
The lively Plaça del Fòrum is the site of Tarraco’s Provincial Forum, the administrative nerve centre of the Roman city.
The forum was a huge rectangular space, surrounded on three sides by an intricate portico, extending beyond the current Plaça del Fòrum. Several of its inscribed pedestals and walls also survive along Carrer Merceria, and in Plaça del Pallol and the Praetorium.
Tarragona’s Roman Circus & Praetorium
Visiting the Roman Circus and Praetorium is one of the unmissable things to do in Tarragona.
This first-century Roman circus must have been quite something in its day. Measuring over 1,000 feet long, this horse-drawn chariot racing track could host around 30,000 spectators.
Although much of the site remains hidden under 19th Century buildings – a corner of the track and seating area are all that remain – Tarragona’s circus is one of the best conserved in the Western world.
Its underground tunnels, connecting the circus to the Praetorium, are impressive. The Praetorium, or Praetorian Tower, was built to house a staircase linking the lower city to the provincial forum.
Climb to the top of the tower for a 360-degree view of the city.
The Roman Amphitheatre (Amfiteatre romà)
Whereas residents of Tarraco got their chariot racing fix at the circus, the amphitheatre was the place to go for public executions and gladiatorial fights.
Tarragona’s Roman amphitheatre was built at the turn of the 2nd Century AD and is estimated to have accommodated 12,000 bloodthirsty spectators. Its 221 AD alterations are recorded in a 140-metre inscription on its podium, the longest such inscription in the Roman Empire.
The amphitheatre is another example of the layering of the ancient with the more modern in Tarragona.
In 259 AD, the Amphitheatre was the site of the martyrdom of Saint Fructuosus and his two deacons. When the Visigoths arrived in Tarragona at the end of the 6th Century, they built a basilica on the site to commemorate the event.
Fast forward to the 12th Century and the Romanesque church of Santa Maria del Miracle was built over the Visigoth basilica. In subsequent years, the site was home to other structures, including a prison and holiday apartments, before its Roman roots were laid bare.
The Local Forum (Fòrum Local romà)
The last site on Tarragona’s Roman route is the Local Forum.
Located in the residential part of the city, Tarragona’s local forum local was the hub of daily life. Originally a vast square, this was lined with shops, temples and public buildings.
Sadly, much of the forum was the victim of urban expansion in the 19th Century. Today, we can see a portion of a Roman basilica, a cistern and some fine Corinthian columns.
Wander around the Old Town of Tarragona
Tarragona’s Roman footprint is planted firmly in its Old Town. Formally known as the Upper Town (Part Alta), this is where the city’s entire population lived until the late-middle ages, separated from El Serrallo, Tarragona’s seafront community.
This medieval maze of narrow shaded streets of sand and ochre is made for wandering. Throw away your city map and just go where your feet take you.
And when your feet are sore, stop for a meal at one of the restaurants in the Old Town’s squares.
Visit Tarragona Cathedral and take time out in its cloisters
Tarragona Cathedral is the latest in a series of sacred sites to be built at the highest point of the Old Town
This site was previously occupied by a temple dedicated to Augustus, around which Tarraco was developed. In 475 AD, the Visigoths built a cathedral here which was demolished during the Muslim invasion in the 8th Century. A mosque was then established on the site.
Work on the current cathedral started in the 12th Century and it was consecrated in 1331. Tarragona Cathedral is considered to be the finest in Catalonia.
Its main façade features three superb portals and, above the lintel, there are intricate stone carvings of scenes from The Last Judgement.
To get the most out of your visit, follow the audio tour which you can download to your phone from the QR code displayed inside the cathedral.
Highlights of Tarragona Cathedral
Chapel of Saint Thecla
This Baroque chapel featuring carvings hewn from pinkish jasper and Carrara marble was built to house the reliquary containing the arm of St Thecla, to whom the cathedral is dedicated.
Chapel of Saint Mary (Tailors’ Chapel)
With its rich architectural, sculptural and pictorial detail, this was my favourite chapel in Tarragona Cathedral. It owes its popular name to it being bankrolled by the city’s Guild of Tailors in the second quarter of the 14th Century.
Chapel of St. Olegarius
Occupying the right-hand apse bay underneath the cathedral’s bell tower, this 13th Century chapel features expressive carvings of angels playing musical instruments.
High Altar and the main altarpiece
This magnificent white marble altar is carved with scenes depicting the life and martyrdom of St Thecla. The Gothic altarpiece features delicate alabaster carvings on a large limestone base.
Tarragona Cathedral cloister
One of the main highlights of Tarragona Cathedral is its cloister.
Completed in the early 13th Century, this is one of the oldest parts of the cathedral. It was a place to read, stroll and meditate, today as much as in the past.
Its four galleries enclose a small garden with resident fish and tortoises.
Pick up a present in one of the oldest candle shops in Europe
A stone’s throw from the cathedral is Casa Corderet. This tiny candle shop is not only the oldest shop in Catalonia but also one of the oldest in Europe.
Its doors have been open for business since 1751. In addition to its waxy delights, it has a secret doorway leading to the basement and four gravestones with Roman inscriptions.
Casa Corderet is located at 17 Carrer Merceria.
Check out Tarragona’s street art
Make sure that you check out the street art when you are in Tarragona’s Old Town.
Start at Plaça dels Sedassos (you can also see some remains of the Roman circus here). The 24-year old trompe-l’oeil style mural on the façade of the central building is a Tarragona must-see.
Tarragonan painter Carles Arola has created an optical illusion that the figures and objects are real; you can almost believe that the figures are hanging out of the balconies.
A few minutes’ walk will bring you to Carrer d’en Mediona and Carrer dels Cavallers where the walls and bricked-in doors of some of the building façades have been used as canvases for brightly painted murals.
Walk along ‘Pilon Street’
Running parallel to Carrer d’en Mediona is Carrer del Comte, also known as Pilon Street.
This moniker is thanks to the street’s colourful array of painted parking pylons, which inject doses of vibrant colour into the muted palette of the Part Alta. On the first Saturday of July every year, organisations, groups and individuals repaint the 47 posts on the street with prizes awarded to the best.
Stroll along the Rambla Nova
Southwest of the Old Town is Tarragona’s answer to Barcelona’s Las Ramblas: Rambla Nova.
Linking the Balcó del Mediterrani with the Plaça Imperial Tarraco Square, this pedestrianised strip is the beating heart of Tarragona. Over a mile in length, it is home to shops, stalls and restaurants and is a popular place to hang out, particularly at night.
P.S. I prefer it to Barcelona’s busier and more touristy Las Ramblas
Take in the view from the Mediterranean Balcony (Balcó del Mediterrani)
At the southeastern end of Rambla Nova is the Balcó del Mediterrani.
This is another popular hangout spot for locals and tourists alike, and offers wonderful views, particularly at sunset.
Stop for lunch at the Central Market of Tarragona (Mercat Central)
I was tempted to skip visiting Tarragona’s Mercat Central. Thank goodness I didn’t.
Two of the things that I love when travelling are beautiful buildings and local food, and the Central Market of Tarragona ties these up into one stunning bundle. Opened in 1915, this hallmark Modernist building, located just off Rambla Nova, is home to almost 70 food stalls.
It’s the perfect place to stop for lunch.
Gawp at the superyachts in Tarragona’s port
One of the most under-the-radar things to do in Tarragona is to visit its port and El Serallo district.
From the Rambla Nova, it’s a pleasant 15-minute walk along the pedestrianised promenade under the shade of palm trees. The port area is home to some of the city’s best fish restaurants in town and the swankiest yachts that I have ever seen.
Chill out on Tarragona’s beaches
More chill-out time is never a bad thing. Right?
Although Tarragona has urban beaches, better ones are to be found out of town.
The best of the bunch is Platja Llarga. Over 600 meters of fine golden sand, studded with dunes and sheltered by pine forests make this the ideal getaway from the tourist crowds.
More Things to Do in Tarragona
If I had another day in Tarragona, I would have ventured to the city’s outskirts to check out these other Roman attractions.
Visit Tarragona’s Aqueduct
Popularly known as Pont del Diable (Devil’s Bridge), the aqueduct was built in the 1st Century AD to supply the city of Tarraco with fresh water from the nearby River Francolí.
Rivalling the magnificent Pont du Gard in Provence, this masterpiece of Roman engineering is 249 meters in length and supplied Tarragona with water until as recently as the 18th Century.
Tarragona’s aqueduct is located in a wooded park 4km north of the city.
Visit Tarragona’s Paleochristian Necropolis
The Paleochristian Necropolis is one of the lesser-visited members of the UNESCO Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco.
Located on the outskirts of the city, this paleo-Christian necropolis was used from the Roman era until the 7th Century. Excavations of both pagan and Christian burial sites offer an insight into how Romans at the time dealt with death and the afterlife.
Plan Your Visit to Tarragona, Spain
When is the best time to visit Tarragona in Spain?
The best time to visit Tarragona is from May until October.
Tarragona enjoys a subtropical climate. Winters are mild and summers are hot and humid. The highest rainfall is in autumn and spring.
Visit in September to see castells at the city’s annual Santa Tecla Festival. In this dramatic display of Catalan culture, people join together to build castells, or human towers.
The next Santa Tecla festival will take place on 23 September 2022.
How long do you need in Tarragona?
Although it is very easy to visit Tarragona as a day trip from Barcelona, I recommend spending at least two days here.
Visiting its Roman ruins merits the best part of the day, and an overnight stay will allow you to enjoy the restaurants and bars of Tarragona’s Old Town at night.
Getting from Barcelona to Tarragona by train
Tarragona is an easy train ride from Barcelona.
The journey time is from 30 minutes on a high-speed train to over an hour on a regional train. Services are frequent and one-way tickets are from €5 when booked in advance.
There are two train stations in Tarragona.
Estación de Tarragona Adif
This centrally-located train station serves regional train services to Barcelona and Reus (amongst others) and long-distance trains to Valencia and Madrid.
From Estación de Tarragona Adif, it’s a 10-minute walk to the city centre.
Camp de Tarragona
Located eight miles from Tarragona, this modern station serves high-speed trains. Whilst the journey time from Barcelona to Camp de Tarragona is just 30 minutes, you need to factor in getting from the train station to Tarragona.
To travel between Camp de Tarragona and the city centre, catch a taxi or the Plana service from Tarragona Bus Station at the northern end of Rambla Nova.
Buses run frequently and the journey time is 15-20 minutes. You can pay the driver the €2.10 fare.
On balance, I recommend taking one of the slower train services from Barcelona to Estación de Tarragona Adif.
Getting around Tarragona
Tarragona is a small city and you will be able to walk between its main sites. The only time that you are likely to need public transport is to get to places on the outskirts of the city, including Camp de Tarragona and the aqueduct.
The flat rate for a ride on one of the city buses is €1.50 in 2021. More information on Tarragona’s bus routes and tickets is here.
Where to stay in Tarragona
Tarragona isn’t a big city but I recommend staying near the Old Town or near Rambla Nova to be close to many of its main attractions.
I stayed in this charming guesthouse in a perfect location on Carrer dels Cavallers in the heart of the Old Town. The room was small but well equipped and there’s a communal lounge with an honesty bar.
The owners were super helpful and the music wafting from the conservatoire next door was a bonus.
Here are some other choices that I have found to suit other budgets
This four-star hotel facing the amphitheatre and the sea was my second choice of lodgings in Tarragona. A large modern property that offers a swimming pool.
Located close to Tarragona’s central train station, this guesthouse offers a range of rooms with private bathrooms and has attracted excellent reviews.
Is Tarragona Safe for Female Solo Travellers?
Whilst you shouldn’t be complacent, you don’t have to be as concerned about petty crime in Tarragona as you would in other countries, or even in some other cities in Spain. It’s generally a safe place to walk around, even at night.
Is Tarragona Worth Visiting?
If you are looking for a small and charming city, with the historical and cultural draws of a larger city, visit Tarragona.
Go there to explore its rich Roman heritage and show-stopping cathedral. Stay to soak up the laid-back vibe in its medieval core and on its fine sandy beaches.
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