Where the Roman past is layered with the medieval and the modern, a visit to Tarragona in Spain means being able to lose yourself in centuries of living history, preserved in its stratum of golden structures and hidden levels.
The coastal city of Tarragona in northeastern of Spain is known for its scattering of ancient Roman ruins from its days of a colony known as Tarraco that was founded in 218BC. While not the only Roman city of Spain, this was the very first Roman city beyond the Western Empire stronghold on the Italian peninsula.
A new city built on top of an ancient city, the fun of exploration in the UNESCO assemble of sites in Tarragona is in being able to piece together the old and new, the latter of which has either replaced the former or which has yet to be uncovered and preserved.
Flying into Reus airport, it was a short 20-minute drive to the very centre of Tarragona, which marked the starting point for my city-hopping adventure travelling around Spain by train.
The highlights can be seen in a day since Tarragona is a compact city. The first stop was the Tarragona Amphitheatre – one of only seven in Spain country preserved and open to the public. You can wander freely around the majority of this 2nd-century structure on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where you can only imagine how it once accommodated 12,000 eager spectators.
Historically layered itself, the amphitheatre was built upon during the 6th and 7th centuries, when the Church built a basilica in memory of the martyrs who were killed during the days of Christian persecution. Various temples and other structures were built over the top, and later a prison and holiday apartments, before it was finally uncovered for its original foundations as a Roman city to be laid bare.
A short walk from the amphitheatre, we came to the Roman Circus, which was once used to hold grand horse and chariot races. You can climb to the top for a 360 view of the city, and parts of the lower spectator archways remain.
The Tarragona of today was built on top of what was once the racing circuit and if you look closely enough at the shop fronts and some structural detail, you may see the archway resemblance where stores have been built on top on roman vaults.
A walk around the centre of town unveils the narrow alleyways and historic streets of the medieval days, but not without the Roman keeping gaze. While sampling some vermouth in the specialist store, Bodega Enric, we only had to walk out into the open square to find a chunk of the old city walls dominating the open square.
We lunched in the modern Xamfrà del Fòrum that sits next to the Colonial Forum that was once the centre of social and political life in Tarraco, marked by the ruins of a big square and a temple.
Close by, the modern-day architectural examples by Catalan artist, Josep Maria Jujol can be found. The Theatre Metropole (designed in 1908 with a cruise ship style interior in antithesis to traditional theatre design) and the Mercado Central de Tarragona (opened in 1915 with arched windows and naves, in contrast to standard rectangular market buildings) shouldn’t be missed in a retro juxtaposition to the city’s ancient foundations.
Saving one of the best until last, we found ourselves back in the very heart of the old city, looking up at the Cathedral that dominates the centre of town that stands on the site of the former Roman temple.
We climbed the spiral staircases for a panoramic view of the city from the bell tower, before climbing back down and peering down into the remains of the old Roman temple wall that is now an integrated foundation to this more modern structure.
No matter what stands before you, beneath you 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 very day.
How to Book a Renfe Train Ticket in Spain – AVE Guide
- You can book tickets via the Renfe website in English here, and specific high-speed network tickets here. All tickets have to be pre-booked since you can’t turn up on the day and book at the station. You can pay by Visa, Mastercard and Paypal.
- The AVE trains have nine classes if you count the overnight trains with sleeper/bed options, but there are two main ones to consider – Turista (a second class option with 2 x 2 seating rows) and Turista Plus which is a little more spacious (with 2 x 1 seating rows). I travelled on each of my journeys with a Turista ticket, which was comfortable enough and great value for money.
- If you are looking to book a multi-stop trip, consider getting a ‘Spain Pass’. This means you can travel using just one ticket for the AVE and other long distance trains. You must reserve a seat before every trip, as limited space is assigned for Spain Pass holders.
Things to Know About Tarragona
Visiting the Roman Sites of Tarragona
The cost for visiting the core roman sites of Tarragona is €3.30 per site that falls under The Tarragona History Museum (MHT) list. This includes the Model of Roman Tarraco, Casa Castellarnau Museum, the Walls (Archaeological Promenade), the Praetorium and Roman Circus, the Roman Amphitheatre, the Local or Colony Forum and Casa Canals.
If you are planning on visiting many of the sites, it is worth investing in the €7.40 pass which you can purchase at TarracoTicket or directly from the Tarragona Municipal Tourist Office
Tarragona Augmented Reality App
The ‘Imageen’ smartphone app (available on the AppStore and Google Play) is a super cool ‘enhanced reality’ app that brings old Tarragona to life. At designated points at local sites, you can interactively learn about history. Holding our phone screen over the Cathedral, we were able to see how the Roman Temple once looked before it.
Festivals in Tarragona
Tarragona may have built itself upon Tarraco, but it does not forget. Festivals like Tarraco Viva in May bring to life the Roman era and re-enactments from medieval days to Napoleon, aid the living history of the city. You can find out more about the calendar of events, with downloadable publications, here.
Further planning for Tarragona
For further information on planning your trip in Tarragona, from roman ruins and beyond, visit the official tourism website.
My trip to Tarragona was in partnership with the Spanish National Tourism Board as part of their #SpainbyTrain campaign and was one of four city stops. However, all excitable historical opinions remain my own.