Tarragona, Spain: History, Heart on the Mediterranean

By Karina Halle

The streets have no name: The windy corridors of Tarragona's Old Town - photos by Karina Halley
The streets have no name: The windy corridors of Tarragona’s Old Town – photos by Karina Halley

Tarragona is an ancient Spanish town on the shores of the Mediterranean, about 56 miles (90 km) from Barcelona and 332 miles (534 km) from Madrid.

Why Go

Located on Spain’s pristine Costa Daurada – and just a short hop from Barcelona – Tarragona has miles of blissfully bare beaches, ancient Roman ruins, affordable accommodations and a vibrant cultural scene.

To top it off, Tarragona has stayed away from the mass tourism that frequents most of Spain, making it one of the best-kept secrets in the country. Until now.

When To Go

Tarragona is a great place to visit all year-round. In spring and fall, the weather is warm and the ocean temperatures are bearable. During the summer it can get stiflingly hot with high humidity but offshore breezes can provide a refreshing lift.

In the winter months the town slows down but the lack of tourists and mild temperatures make it a unique and pleasant experience.

Getting There and Around

Because the town is located on one of the main railway lines, it’s very accessible by train. Trains run frequently to Barcelona (about an hour, $6, €5), Valencia (3 hours, $17, €14) and down the coast to Andalucia.

When arriving at the train station, your best bet is to take a taxi into town, as the hotels tend to be at the top of the hill.

National buses run often and to more places – such as Madrid and Pamplona – but take more time. The only way to catch a flight to Tarragona is to fly into Barcelona and then take the train or rent a car from there.

There is a local bus service in Tarragona, which services the city and its environs although it runs less frequently in the evening and on weekends. Check with the tourist office for a complete schedule.

Best Attractions

Tarragona's Amfiteatre Roma
Tarragona’s Amfiteatre Roma

The town is blessed with several attractions that bring in people from all over the world, many of them listed by UNESCO World Heritage. The most famous of all these is the remains of a Roman amphitheatre.

Situated downtown and just steps from the beach, this well-preserved battleground dates back to 2 BC. Standing in the middle of it, it’s not hard to imagine gladiators fighting each other (and beasts) to their death.

There are other Roman ruins scattered throughout the city, including a jaw-dropping aqueduct called the Pont Del Diable (or Devil’s Bridge). It’s further out from the main core than most other attractions but marveling at the wonders of Roman engineering is worth the trek.

In the middle of the old town lies the majestic cathedral. Built in 1171 AD, the cathedral is a stunning example of Roman and Gothic architecture. The interior is a long, moody stretch of tapestries, carvings and a marble altar.

Best Unusual Attraction

The Museu d’Histoira de les Arms, an antique arms museum, is a compelling stop if you have any interest in old swords and guns. It’s also a perfect way to spend a (rare) rainy day.

Best Activity or Tour

From swimming and sailing to hiking and golf, there are a lot of outdoor activities in Tarragona and the surrounding Costa Daurada (Golden Coast) region.

The simplest (and cheapest) way to get your daily workout is just to stroll around the town and admire all the history it offers. Start at the western end of Rambla Nova – the main street – and make your way down until it ends at the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

The modern bungalows at Las Palmeras
The modern bungalows at Las Palmeras

From there, wind your way past the Roman amphitheatre and along the old city walls – admiring prolific statues and cannons – until you end up back in the city again. Reward yourself with a cool cup of gelato for your effort.

Best Alternative

A popular activity is spending the day at Point Aventura, Spain’s version of Universal Studios. Choose from nausea-inducing roller coasters, music shows or refreshing water-slides.

And unlike Disneyland, the churros (sticks of fried dough) in this theme park are the real deal. Trains run frequently from Tarragona to the park, which is about 7 km west of town.

Best Lodgings

The best place to stay in Tarragona is at the Las Palmeras campground, located about four miles (7 km) from the city.

While camping is an option, your best bet is to rent one of their many bungalows, which are scattered throughout their gorgeously landscaped grounds. I scored one for myself, even though it sleeps up to six people, and was enamored with how clean and modern it was.

Its large terrace – and the fact that the shore was only yards away – was an added bonus. The campgrounds also feature a reasonable beachside bar and restaurant, a mile (1.5 km) of empty beach, a sparkling swimming pool and onsite grocery store with all the amenities. Bungalows go for about $39, €32 but jump up during July and August. The campground is closed between November and March.

If you plan on coming during the winter months, or just want to be closer to town, Hotel Lauria is an affordable place to stay. It overlooks the leafy green Rambla Nova so you are never far away from the vibrant city-life. The hotel is clean and comfortable and is sprinkled with personal touches. Rates range from $46-$83, €38 to €68.

The fountain at the end of Rambla Nova
The fountain at the end of Rambla Nova

The popular Hotel Imperial Tarraco is another choice, albeit more expensive, especially during the summer months. However, its prime position – overlooking the sea and nearby ruins – range of services and tastefully appointed rooms, justify the price. Winter rates from $80, €66.

Best Eats

On Rambla Nova, Restaurante Txapela serves up affordable Basque-style cuisine. Try the Milanese veal ($12,€10) followed by their cool lemon sorbet ($3.60,€3).

Bar Toful is located within the city walls of the old town and is a great place for tapas and a couple of drinks. The bar is outfitted in a retro-modern motif and is popular with the locals, which is an indicator of its scrumptious food.

Best Entertainment

Tarragona has many festivals throughout the year. One of the most well known activities during these festivals has to be the Catalonian version of the human pyramid. These castells – or human castles – can compromise of up to nine storeys of precariously balancing people. The next championship will be held in Tarragona in October 2006.

Never misses: an ancient cannon still guards the city walls of the Old Town
Never misses: an ancient cannon still guards the city walls of the Old Town

The nightlife in Tarragona will also entertain you into the wee hours. El Candil is a laid-back establishment in the old town, a place where students like to grab a beer before heading out for the evening.

For nightclubs, many of the locals head down to the port area of town, where DJs spin crazy beats into the night. Foam parties are not uncommon here and can be a lot of fun (just don’t wear anything too nice).

Best Shopping

Tarragona is a great place to pick up local artwork, trinkets and household items. There are several trendy clothing stores in town as well as more upscale boutiques.

Tarragona is a great place to pick up souvenirs. I have often found them to be cheaper – and of better quality – than in places like Barcelona.

Practical Information

Country Code: (0034)
Currency: Euro
Language: Spanish, Catalan

Tourism Office
39 Carrer Major, ph: 977 25 07 95

Amfiteatre Roma

Ph: 977 24 25 79

Pont Del Diable

Located off of the AP7 freeway.
Take bus #5 from Hotel Imperial Tarraco


Pla del Seu, ph: 977 23 86 85
Admission €3

Remains of a Roman road jut into the beachfront
Remains of a Roman road jut into the beachfront

Museu d’Histoira de les Arms
12 Carrer de la Nau, ph: 977 22 41 84
Admission €3 Port Aventura

Ph: 902 20 20 41
Adult admission €23 – €35,
child admission €19 – €28
Tarragona with Kids

Camping Las Palmeras
155 Apartado de Correos, ph: 977 20 80 81
Bungalow rates €32 – €36, includes
terrace, two bedrooms, living and cooking

book at hostels.com

Hotel Lauria

Spanish Umbrellas: A shady respite on Platja Llarga
Spanish Umbrellas: A shady respite on Platja Llarga

20 Rambla Nova, ph: 977 23 67 12
Singles from €38, doubles from €64
Rooms include bath or shower, TV
and hair dryer. Hotel has a pool.
Hotel Imperial Tarraco

2 Rambla Vella, ph: 977 23 30 40
Singles from € 66, Doubles from €69 (low season),
Rates double during the summer months. Rooms include air conditioning, bathrooms and TV.
Buffet breakfast is available. Hotel has outdoor pool and tennis court.

Restaurante Txapela
20 Rambla Nova (by Hotel Lauria)
ph: 977 22 90 76

Bar Toful
4 Arc de Sant Bernat, ph: 977 21 42 16

El Candil
13 Placa del a Font (on the main square)

headshotKarina Halle is a freelance journalist and screenwriter who currently resides in BC, Canada and is constantly suffering from a severe case of wanderlust.

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