Capital of Hispania Tarraconensis
Just a week after being in Barcelona and Girona, we returned but this time with the main objective of spending Saturday sightseeing another city we’ve not been before: Tarragona. This is one of the great advantages of flying to Barcelona, and it’s that the entire autonomous region of Catalonia is filled with history and sights everywhere, hence it’s a perfect place to keep returning year after year. Not only to be with my Catalan friends, but also for going together to the many places around. After all they are also great guides since they’ve been many times before in these cities.
Tarragona was in our agenda for a long time. It is one of the few Spanish cities where so many Roman remains can be visible and integrated in the new city that constantly grew since the fall of the Roman Empire. Nowadays the ruins of Tarraco are listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. I can only recall the city of Merida, in Extremadura, as one of the best examples in the whole of Spain for the largest amount of monumental structures greatly preserved from the Roman times.
Once again as it was last weekend in Girona, the city is not too big and it is perfect for a day visit. Majority of tourist are day-trippers from Barcelona or the coastal resorts, and so we were coming for the day from Barcelona where we had our hotel. I cannot imagine however, any longer in the city should be your plan only stay here as you will end up with nothing else to do on your second day.
The best way to plan your visit is getting a city map either online or at the tourist information where they can suggest you and mark a route for you to follow the sights in order saving you possible back and forth time. In any case when visiting the Roman remains you will also be visiting the entire of the old town since this has been built on top of the Roman structures; to be precise, the Provincial Forum. When seeing a map of ancient Tarraco pay attention at this Forum. It occupies a very large portion of the former city, and it is shocking that an entire medieval town was raised within this space!
Don’t forget one of the best preserved and finest Roman aqueducts in the Iberian Peninsula lies only 4 kilometres away from the Rambla Nova Avenue, and if I must say, it is terrifically recommended. Don’t leave the chance to see one of the very few ancient aqueducts that you can actually walk end to end along the former water channel!
For more information about Tarragona check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The currency in Spain is the Euro (EUR). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Tarragona
- Ancient Tarraco Designated by UNESCO a World Heritage Site under the name “Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco” it contains many structures from the Roman times, among them the most important:
-Amphitheatre From the 2nd century located right by the Mediterranean coast outside of the former Roman walls. This is the most celebrated site in the city coupled with the Aqueduct. Either you can get a ticket for this place alone for 3.5 Euros or the combined ticket to visit 4 sites. I totally suggest you get the combined ticket which costs 7.5 Euros.
-Walls Many of the originally enclosure of protective walls still in site. Now musealised in what is named Archeological Walk (Passeig Aqueologic). It costs 3.5 Euros on its own, or 7.50 Euros if getting the combined ticket as mentioned before.
-Circus Although a small portion is visible and restored it is one of the best preserved of its kind in Spain while also being the only one in Europe retaining an original front arcade entrance and staircase. Many corridors and vaults, however, are perfectly conserved and fully accessible, right under the current buildings. You will find it by Plaça de la Font, but the entrance is at the Pallot Vault building, on King’s Square.
-El Pallol Vault It is still unknown for what purpose this building was used during Roman times, but through the centuries and with many changes it was used as a church, convent, store and for almost 400 years a weighing house. Nowadays the lower levels and foundations are very well preserved from the Roman times, while the upper structure is a clear example of Catalan Gothic architecture. Located in King’s Square.
-Archaeological Museum For those interested in knowing the whole story behind Roman Tarraco this is your best bet. Not only about the history but about the thousands of items recovered from the excavations. Located in Plaza del Rey (King’s Square).
-Forum Constructed in 73 AD by order of Emperor Vespasian The entire old town is within the former Forum limits hence giving you an idea of the large size this once was. Newer structures as the Cathedral occupies part of the former space.
-Colonial Forum To the west from the core of Tarraco and often unknown to the tourist it offers nice remains from what once was the administrative and commercial centre of the town, being the basilica the most important.
-Theatre Not far from the Colonial Forum, very little remains today.
-Necropolis Museum Located at the Roman cemetery of the city it displays many marble sarcophagus and stelaes. The entrance is via Avenida de Ramon I Cajal.
-Aqueduct 4 kilometres to the north of the city it spams over 200 meters, with 2 tier of arches reaching 26 meters in height. It is also known by the name of The devil’s Bridge. To reach it you need to take bus number 5 or 85 from Avenida de Andorra. That I can recall, one of the very few Roman aqueducts you can walk side to side via the former water canal at its top.
-Farther from ancient Tarraco Not belonging to the city itself, but important and essential sites that made Tarraco such important and powerful in the empire, all of them included in the UNESCO listing “Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco”.
-Torre dels Escipions To the north of the city in direction towards Barcelona, in the road N340, accessible by public bus N12 minutes walking from bus stop Mas Rabassada, or by bus N1 from bus stop Monnars and then walk. It is one of the best preserved funerary monuments in the Iberian peninsula.
-Quarry of El Mèdol Located nearly 10 kilometres to the north of modern Tarragona it is the main and largest quarry used for building up Tarraco.
-Arch of Berà Located 20 kilometres northeast of Tarragona over the ancient Roman road Via Augusta, built in the year 13 BCE.
- Old Town Commonly known in Spanish as Casco Antiguo, is a maze of small streets and old colourful buildings, one of the nicest and largest after Barcelona. Small squares, palaces and buildings from many eras occupy what was the ancient Roman Forum of Tarraco which lies beneath.
-Cathedral Dating from the 12th century with Romanesque elements and clearly influenced by Catalan Gothic.
-Old City Hall Built in the 16th century was in use until the 19th century. It has free access and the patio and staircase are worth the visit. Located down the main staircase of the Cathedral.
-Saint Paul’s Chapel A bit hidden to find, behind the Cathedral and inside the patio of another building, the Seminari. If this building is open ask in reception to get access.
-Hospital of Santa Tecla With construction started in 1171 and rebuilt in 1580 is a great example of Catalan Gothic. Nowadays the Regional Council of Tarragona. It can be found in Carrer de les Coques.
-Canals Palace Donated to the city by the last lady Canals was built into the Roman walls. Although it might be difficult to locate since there are no informative plaques about it existence, a map from the tourist office should point the location.
-Plaza del Rey The King’s Square as it translates is one of the many squares scattered around the old town. Apart from the Archaeological Museum and Roman constructions as mentioned above, you will also find 2 old churches:
-Holy Trinity Church
-Jewish Quarter Not much is there now bearing some narrow streets and the arches of a 13th century medieval building. Behind the King’s Square.
-City Hall Square From the shape of this square and knowing on the side streets is full with Roman remains from the circus, you can well guess this was the arena of the former circus. Nowadays beautiful buildings encircle the entire square, with the New City Hall at one of the sides.
-Rambla Nova The main avenue in Tarragona dividing both the old and new towns. It runs from Plaça Imperial Tàrraco towards the sea at the Balcon del Mediterraneo, with a viewing point overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Fountains and monuments embellish it through its length.
-Arena Plaza The former bullring, since the prohibition of bull fights in Catalonia region has been converted to a concert hall. Like almost every bullring in Spain it has a beautiful exterior architecture.
The city is served by the Reus International Airport, barely 8 kilometres from Tarragona, and 100 kilometres south of Barcelona. Frequent buses in coincidence with the arrivals/departures of planes leave to/from the city centre of Tarragona taking around 15 minutes. It is 1 hour by bus to Barcelona with also frequent buses.
The majority of flights are served by Ryanair across many European destinations, and together with the not so far Barcelona International Airport it makes extremely easy to arrive to the city from countless international destinations.
Tarragona is well linked by rail on the Mediterranean corridor making it very easy, fast and comfortable reaching cities in the south as Alicante, Valencia, and north to Barcelona, Girona and further north in France with Perpignan, Marseille or Montpellier. Train-Hotels do also call in Tarragona en-route to Zurich and Milan. And of course, easy and frequently linked to Madrid. The same applies if coming by long distance buses from any capital city of province across Spain or southern France.
You will need to remember that Tarragona has 2 train stations, one for the conventional trains, named Tarragona alone and within the city centre right by the coast; and the more modern serving only high-speed trains, named Camp de Tarragona, which located in the north on the outskirts of the city. Frequent public buses link the station with the city centre along Rambla Nova.
Within the city and due to its compact urbanism and not so large size, the best way to move is on foot. This is in fact the only way to explore all the sights since majority of the streets around the Old Town are pedestrianised, therefore there is no need for taking any public transportation which in any case is formed of buses only.
Considering it is a very touristy place, majority of people do not stay overnight but instead are day-trippers from Barcelona or the coastal resorts. In our case we did not stay overnight in the city either, as we came from Barcelona where our hotel was based. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms, Ebookers or TUI.
There is however, a great choice of hotels and anytime during low season months it should not be difficult to find a good deal. Should you wish to check some of the hotels we’ve been in the past years and this weekend in Barcelona, have a look at this very complete travel guide here.