Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, stayed in Tarragona when he came to oversee the campaigns in Spain. And why not, considering Julius Caesar brought splendor to Rome’s earliest Spanish stronghold, which housed a million people behind 40 miles of city walls. Of course, this took place 2,000 years ago when the Iberian Peninsula went by the name Hispania and the famed seaport by Tárraco.
To the surprise of many, the country spent about as much time as part of the Roman Empire as it has the nation kingdom of Spain, and its ancient legacy is still on display in Catalonia’s second-oldest city with ruins dating back to the second century.
A small international airport, Reus, is only five miles away, but most people arrive from Barcelona about 60 miles to the northeast. For those visiting the Catalan capital, a short trip to Tarragona offers a taste of Rome on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.
Martyrs by the Sea
Tarragona offers much more than architecture, but the one Roman highlight that attracts the most attention is its amphitheatre. Built at the turn of the 2nd century, the 427 x 335 foot structure overlooks the sea for an absolutely stunning background (as epitomized in the main image above). Tarragona Amphitheatre could hold around 12,000 spectators who, in the late third century, might’ve watched the persecution of Christians under Emperor Valerian. This ended when Christianity became the official religion of the empire, and the building later served as a prison during the Spanish Empire.
Only a handful of such structures still exist and are open to the public in Spain, and visitors are largely free to wander around the city’s centerpiece.
UNESCO collectively honored the city’s many sites as the Archaeological Ensemble of Tárraco, and other highlights include the Necropolis tombs, remaining bits of the Forum, the rampart walkways, the Roman Circus and a cathedral built in the Middle Ages at the site of a former Roman temple. You can visit all the main sites in less than a day, and information (like suggested walking itineraries) can be found all over the city, so we won’t dive deeper here. Plus, most tourist information on Tarragona reads like a high school field trip, and the city is far more than a poor man’s Rome.
Tarragona is a compact city, but before planning how to make the most of your visit, it’s important to understand its rather diverse layout. Keep in mind, this was a military-minded port city in ancient times, and part of its natural defense is the way it sharply rises up from the Mediterranean Sea. Most of the old quarter sits atop the hill, and the atmosphere truly transports visitors to another time. Sitting at the bottom of the hill, however, is a beach and port town (as well as the entry points to the city via train, boat and car) that offers a completely different experience. This is where we’ll start the journey.
Spain features about a 1,000 miles of Mediterranean coastline broken down into sections like the Costa Dorada, whose soft golden sands fall entirely inside the Tarragona province. The coastline immediately south of Barcelona (Costa del Garraf) features popular local getaways like Sitges, Gava and Vilanova i la Geltrú, but Costa Dorada is often less crowded in part because of the added distance from the Catalan capital. This helps make Tarragona an ideal spot for those seeking sand and sun rather than a scene. (Those seeking the latter should check out Sitges.)
In addition to smaller crowds, mountains help shield the beaches from northern winds, further enhancing the already calm waters with long, gradual slopes. Sunbathers will appreciate the extremely fine sand, which provides mattress-like softness, and the beaches feature showers for easy clean up. Miracle beach sits directly northeast of the waterfront train station, but additional city beaches are nestled between a series of rock formations that stretch out to the sea. About a 15-minute drive from the station, Tamarit Beach (pictured below) enjoys a stunning view of Tamarit Castle perched directly over the water.
Beaches line the northeast coast of the train station, while the port sits directly to the southwest, along with a cluster of seafood restaurants bunched together between the train tracks and the marina. This concentration of restaurants, some with marina views, typically offer the fresh catch brought into the seaport each morning. This is the ideal spot for lunch when spending the morning or afternoon at the beach.
The beach, fresh seafood and amphitheatre are all highlights, but what truly makes for a magical experience is strolling around the old quarter at night to visit different wine bars and restaurants. Much of the upper walled town offers medieval architecture with buildings still featuring some Roman masonry, and the dim, moody lights that illuminate the streets. This often transports visitors back in time as it’s like strolling through living history. Tarragona has its high season, but generally speaking, the old quarter is tranquil at night throughout much of the year.
The best way to tackle the old quarter is to roam the streets and bounce around between cozy bars for small-batch local wines (more on that later). Many serve food and some provide free tapas (e.g., cheese and ham) for those ordering wine, though exploring the streets can lead to restaurants that you feel an immediate connection with. This is how you should spend every night in Tarragona.
For those who prefer to book tables ahead of time, consider Lola Bistro in the old quarter near Forum Plaza. The long, narrow dining rooms offer a warm atmosphere with old rock walls and big comfortable chairs. This bistro-style menu features seasonal, locally sourced dishes meant for sharing and prepared with care in an Alice Waters’ slow food style. Bottles of wine start at €16, and the majority are priced under €30.
For fine-dining enthusiasts willing to travel, Deliranto is a Michelin-starred restaurant just outside the city (about eight miles) with narrative-driven tasting menus that recreate classic tales like The Wizard of Oz and The Little Prince. For a more traditional option, nearby Rincón del Diego is the spot for exceptional Michelin-level seafood.
Do-it-yourselfers who rent a home or apartment for their stay might consider trying their own hand in the kitchen. If that’s the case, visit the century-old Central Market for fresh, seasonal produce.
Let’s Talk about Wine
Thanks to Russian River Brewing, most hipsters associate Pliny the Elder with beer, but the famed Roman writer was actually the first recognized wine critic, and he wrote, “[The vineyards] Tárraco… are esteemed for the choice qualities of their wine.” Tárraco is the old Roman name for Tarragona, and vinophiles will want to explore the local, small-batch wines.
In the U.S., most Spanish imports come from two regions: Rioja and Ribera del Duero. These regions certainly have some fine wines, but many U.S. imports are large-scale, middle-of-the-road productions designed to reach a wider audience. Your goal in Spain, especially in an area with such a rich wine culture like Tarragona, is to explore options that you typically cannot find in the States. In many cases, smaller local vineyards might only produce a few thousand bottles of a specific wine, and availability is often limited to direct purchases from individuals, restaurants and bars.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to explore the many small wine bars throughout the city to try different offerings, which are often written on the wall and extremely affordable. In many cases, expect to pay about €3 per glass. Sometimes less.
Tarragona province was the center of Spanish wine production in centuries past, and it remains the largest in the Catalan region. Young red, white and rosé wines are all produced here using a section of grapes that include varietals like sumoll and carinenya in red and macabeu and xarel·lo in white. Full-bodied aromatic whites are particularly popular, but big, bold reds are the star in Tarragona’s most acclaimed wine area, Priorat, which joins Rioja as the only regions to receive Spain’s highest designation (D.O.Ca.). Grenache and carignan dominate the Priorat red lineup, and high-end vineyards include Mas d’en Gil and Clos Mogador.
Montsant, which wraps around Priorat like a horseshoe, also produces qualities wines in similar soil and elevations, but the price points are lower due to being a lesser-known region. Can Blau is one of the most-esteemed winemakers here. Heading further south, Terra Alta is the highest-elevation wine region in Catalonia at around 3,000 feet, and it’s the only place making wines with morenillo, a grape similar to pinot noir. Celler Piñol is one of the top vineyards here, with L’Avi Arrufí being one of its star whites. Finally, mineral-rich Empordà is a north Catalan wine region outside Tarragona that is on many of the wine boards and worth checking out as you work your way through all the regions glass by glass.
All of these smaller-production wines are difficult to find in your average U.S. shop, so target these regions when bouncing around Tarragona.
Where and When
Those wishing to swim in Tarragona’s golden beaches should visit between late May and early September, while others might wish to plan their visit during special events. For example, the city becomes one big costume party in February/March for Carnaval, while its Roman roots take center stage in May when the city turns the calendar way back for the Tárraco Viva festival. Other annual events can be found here in a downloadable PDF from the city tourism bureau.
Where to say depends on your preference. As a point of reference, Rambla Nova (about four blocks down from the old quarter and 10 blocks up from the marina) is the heart of Tarragona with the highest concentration of modern stores lining the 150-year-old street. For those who plan to prioritize the sun and sand, check out the hotel options near Arrabassada Beach (on the other side of Punta Grossa from Miracle Beach), which is about a 20-minute uphill walk to the old quarter. Those more focused on food and wine should look for options in the old quarter above Rambla Vella, a major street that ends at the amphitheatre. In either case, everything is still within walking distance, albeit with a bit of a climb.
Video in homepage slider courtesy of Tarragona Turisme.