Just an hour from Barcelona, Tarragona’s historic center spills down the hillside to the sea. As the former capital of the Roman Empire’s largest province, it holds several thousand years of construction. In the Part Alta, or old town, Roman walls slice through medieval streets, presided over by an unusual early cathedral. Along with UNESCO Roman sites, Tarragona also provides easy access to the beaches along Spain’s Costa Dorada (“Gold Coast”). We found the city refreshingly free of crowds in late June.
Tarragona’s historic center is compact enough to explore in less than a day, although it’s atmospheric enough to enjoy for much longer. Our guide covers the Part Alta’s main Roman and medieval sites, with suggestions for rounding out a full day trip at the end. All sites can be found on our Google map.
The Part Alta is an easy 10-15 minute walk from Tarragona’s train station. The route runs along the coastline, with especially scenic views at the Balcó del Mediterrani. Wrought-iron railings complement the Art Nouveau structures along the Rambla Nova, which runs into the center of lower Tarragona.
From the Mediterranean Balcony, the pedestrian Passeig de les Palmeres skirts behind the Roman amphitheater and up to the Plaça de la UNESCO at the edge of the historic center. The major Roman ruins cluster around this area, with more medieval structures further up the hill.
a military colony
Tarragona began as a Roman military base in 218 BCE, occupying an ideal spot for interrupting the march of Hannibal and his elephants towards Rome. Scipio Africanus, who would defeat Hannibal in the Second Punic War, was the son of one of Tarragona’s founding brothers.
Tarraco, as the Romans called it, became the principal colony of Hispania Citerior, the “near” portion of the Iberian Peninsula. The settlement hosted a number of famous commanders such as Pompey and Julius Caesar, but didn’t become a major city until the reign of Augustus.
Tarragona’s ancient walls are one of its most impressive features. Some sections appear to be built on megalithic foundations, with the bulk of construction taking place in the second century BCE.
About a third of the walls still stand today; the best-preserved sections are on the Passeig Arqueològic, which offers stunning views from the top. Some alterations were made to the three remaining towers during the Middle Ages.
An Imperial City
Augustus stayed in Tarraco for two extended stretches, both of them momentous. In 26-25 BCE, fresh from his defeat of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, he came to recuperate – and plan his transformation of the Roman republic into an empire. In 16-15 BCE, the newly-anointed emperor oversaw a complete overhaul of the peninsula’s administration and infrastructure. Because he brought the most of the imperial government with him, Tarraco actually eclipsed Rome during this period.
Augustus made Tarraco the official capital of Hispania Citerior, which occupied over half of the Iberian Peninsula. The Part Alta sprouted an array of monumental and apparently rather opulent structures.
Tarragona’s amphitheater stands out from its cousins elsewhere for several reasons. It’s neither the biggest (holding a ‘mere’ 14,000 spectators) nor the oldest (dating to the end of the first century) – but it’s hard to imagine a more spectacular site. Positioned just below the Part Alta, it hovers near the edge of the sparkling sea, which would have been even closer in Roman times.
The amphitheater dates to the reign of Trajan or Hadrian, two of Rome’s greatest emperors who both happened to come from Hispania. Tiers carved directly out of the bedrock gave spectators a view of gladiator battles, wild beasts, and public executions.
This particular amphitheater is also famous for its role after the Romans. In January 259, Bishop Fructuosus and two deacons had been burned at the stake inside the amphitheater. Once Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the structure fell into disuse. In the sixth century, locals built a church there to honor the three martyrs, using stones pilfered from the amphitheater walls. Rebuilt in the 12th century, it was later used as a convent before becoming a prison in 1780. Today, little remains besides the church’s foundations, which feel nearly as ancient as the amphitheater itself.
Tickets cost a few euros. For hours and pricing info, see the Tarragona tourism website.
Provincial Forum and Circus
By the second half of the first century, Tarraco’s provincial forum and circus made up the largest complex of its kind in the Empire. An upper-level terrace surrounded the temple dedicated to Augustus-as-Jupiter, traces of which have been discovered in the cathedral’s foundations. Porticos around the square led to meeting areas for the provincial government.
Remains of the Provincial Forum’s huge lower level pop up all over the place. It’s not always easy to understand why certain pieces survived and others have not, but it can feel like a treasure hunt.
Besides the amphitheater, Tarragona’s circus gives a sense of Roman public space. Even though much of it remains buried under newer buildings, the exposed areas make up one of the best examples of a venue for racing and other games. A ticket to the ruins includes the circus façade and spectator areas, but this is only the tip of the structure. To get an idea of how far the chariot races ran, look for the excavated vaults in the Carrer Trinquet Vell and the Plaça de la Font.
One ticket (about €3) covers access to the circus and adjacent tower. For more info, see the Tarragona tourism website.
Most of Tarragona’s cathedral is considered Romanesque, a catch-all label for anything built in the Middle Ages before the Gothic style emerged. Thick, defensive walls and a reliance on rounded Roman arches are hallmarks – as are idiosyncratic bursts of creativity rather than adherence to a formal system. Romanesque buildings made up the rules as they went along, adopting elements from any and all available sources.
The Cathedral of Tarragona benefitted from multiple layers of history right on the site. In Roman times, the area held a temple dedicated to Emperor Augustus. Visigoths destroyed the temple in 382 and erected a basilica in its place. When Moors assumed control of the area in the eighth century, they turned the basilica into a mosque – which in turn was converted back into a church during the Christian Reconquista.
Perched at the highest point of the city, the cathedral is a strange sight. Begun at the end of the 12th century, the main façade features a monumental arched portal nearly blocking an equally huge rose window, all crowned by a pair of small trapezoids. It’s unfinished: in 1348, the Black Death interrupted construction and afterwards, only the rose window was added.
Behind the white façade, the rest of the structure stretches back in a golden stone, with tiny cupolas topping a squat bell tower and elevated crossing area. In fact, the longer one looks, the more curious all the different parts seem. Unified and elegant it is not, but this cathedral has plenty of beauty anyway.
Traces of the site’s past linger in the Roman sarcophagus set into the wall above the portal on the right, carved with scenes from the life of Christ. Islamic influences show in patterned wall sections and some of the column capitals. The baptistery chapel, dedicated to Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins, features an intricate star-shaped vault. In 1592, a chapel was dedicated to Saint Fructuosus, the local bishop persecuted by Romans in earlier times.
The cathedral cloister showcases Romanesque architecture at its best. In a surprising combination, the arcade features smaller rounded arches within larger pointed ones, capping each unit off with a pair of intricately-carved circular openings. Along with the frieze running over the arches, the circles show an Islamic influence.
The cloister’s stone carvings are like a form of medieval entertainment. The monumental doorway from the late 12th century sticks with Biblical themes, but all audiences can enjoy the zoomorphic portrayal of Gospel writers – Mark the lion, Luke the ox, and John the eagle. Other sculptural pieces throughout the cloister draw from folklore, such as the famous Procession of Rats described on the cathedral website.
Streets and Plaças
The mingling of structures from so many eras makes Tarragona endlessly fascinating. One of our favorite spots, the Plaça del Rei, combines Roman and medieval buildings with the neoclassical National Archaeological Museum and the curiously-patterned Church of the Nazareth.
The Plaça de la Font’s long, narrow shape evokes the original Roman circus, while the buildings date to the early 20th century.
More remnants of ancient Rome are scattered in and around Tarragona. Besides the National Archaeological Museum in the Part Alta, the lower city holds remains of the colonial forum and a theater. The Romans also built two aqueducts, including a spectacular stretch across a gorge about 1.5 km outside of town. Officially, it’s part of the Les Ferreres Aqueduct, but a local legend gave it the nickname the Pont del Diable, or Devil’s Bridge. For a complete list of Roman sites in the area, see the UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Visitors interested in architecture might want to stop in nearby Reus – our post on Gaudì’s hometown features a number of notable Modernisme buildings. We also have posts on Barcelona’s Ruta del Modernisme and Hospital de Sant Pau.
If the sea’s lure proves irresistible, Tarragona has no less than five beaches within city limits and countless others along the adjacent coast. A ramp near the train station bridges the tracks for the most immediate access to the beach.