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Tarragona, formerly the Roman city of Tárraco, is the former capital of the Roman province of Hispania Citerior. It was also the first Roman city in the entire Iberian Peninsula. It was visited by such notable named of antiquity as Julius Caesar, Augustus, Pompey the Great, and Hannibal. Unlike other notable Roman ruins, the city of Tarragona was built upon over the centuries, and today the modern is intermeshed with the ruins of the Roman colony which came before it.
Because of its close proximity to Barcelona, it is one of the easiest Roman ruins to visit outside of Rome itself.
The Archaeological Ensemble of Tárraco, the official name of the world heritage site, is one of 48 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Spain. It was inscribed to the list in 2000. This archaeological site is located in what is now the modern-day Tarragona. This site features archaeological monuments from the first and oldest Roman settlement along the Iberian Peninsula. The city was used as the initial colony in Iberia from which the Romans proceeded to conquer the rest of the peninsula.
The city of Tarragona, which was called Tárraco by the Romans was, was founded in antiquity and its exact date of creation is unknown. One tradition has that it was founded by a grandson of Noah. Another says the name and creation were by a 7th century BCE Egyptian Pharoah named ‘Tearcon the Ethiopian’.
The recorded history of the town dates back to the brothers Publius Cornelius Scipio and Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Calvus, who fortified the existing city during the Second Punic War against Carthage.
During the second Roman civil war, the city was renamed Colonia Iulia Urbs Triumphalis Tarraco by Julius Caesar after his defeat of Pompey’s forces in 49 BCE.
The city later became the first city to establish a temple to the god Augustus after his death. The location of the temple is where the cathedral is today.
What to see / Sights
Roman Theatre of Tarraco: This is unquestionably the most iconic of the Roman ruins in the city. It is located just outside the walls of the old city, between the location of the circus and the sea. As of 2020, there is no fee to access the theater, but you can only get as far as the upper rim. Entering the stands or the flood of the theater is forbidden.
Provincial Forum of Tarraco: This site encompasses 18 hectares of land area and is the heart of the Roman part of the city. This forum was built in 73 AD as commissioned by Emperor Vespasian. The forum remained in use until the 5th century. The Provincial Forum of Tarraco consists of many buildings such as the provincial council, state treasure, curia, audience hall, and the temple of Imperial worship.
The Circus of Tarraco: The Circus of Tarraco was built in the 1st century CE. Today only some of the stands and tunnels underneath the original circus remain. The interior raceway is now built over and consists of housing.
Walls of Tarragona: The Wall of Tarragona consists of the original Roman walls and later editions to the wall. You can clearly see where the early wall ends and the later wall begins, based on construction techniques. You can enter the walls near one of the gates in the north of town and walk along its length for approximately a kilometer. There is a fee to walk the walls (see below.
Les Ferreres Aqueduct: The Les Ferreres Aqueduct is an ancient bridge that forms part of the Roman aqueduct that was built to supply water to Tarraco. This site is also known as Pont del Diable. This part of the aqueduct is made up of two levels of arches: the upper and lower section. The aqueduct is located several km north of town.
Arc de Bera: This triumphal arch was built following the result of the will of Lucius Licinius Sura. This arch was erected during the time of Augustus’ reign in 13 BCE. It is located approximately 20 km northeast of Tarragona along the N-340 road.
Tarragona Cathedral: While not a Roman ruin itself, it was the location of the original temple to Augustus. It is a cathedral that is significantly larger than a city of its size should warrant. One of the things to look for inside are the romanesque paintings on the walls. The current building dates back to 1154 CE.
The ruins in Tarragona are scattered about the city, often in bits and pieces. You will find parts of columns, and tombstones embedded in building walls. Zoom in on some of the detail that if you can find it in the buildings.
The amphitheater is probably the most photogenic and iconic Roman monument in the city. If you photograph it with the sea in the background, try to do so in the afternoon. In the morning, the sun can be shining directly at you and the light reflecting off the water can overwhelm the image.
If you visit the circus, the large Praetorian tower has access from the museum, and there are stairs you can take to the top. The tower offers the best view of the entire city and of the visible remains of the circus.
You can wander around the city at any time of the day. Other attractions within the city will have operating hours.
The Tarragona History Museum (MHT) – The museum operates many of the Roman ruins across town. They all have similar operating hours:
Monday (3 June-26 August): 9 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Tuesday to Saturday: 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Sunday and bank holidays: 9:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Tuesday to Friday: 9 a.m. – 7 p.m.
Saturday: 9:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Sunday and bank holidays: 9:30 a.m. – 2:30 p.m.
Cathedral – The cathedral opens at 10 am and closes at 8 pm or 7 pm on most weekdays, staying open longer in the summer. On Sunday, it opens to the public at 3 pm.
Costs and Fees
There is a pass you can buy to enter all the Roman ruins in the city which are run by the Tarragona Museum of History (MHT). The pass costs €7.40 and can be purchased at any of the ticket booths at the various venues.
Each of the venues in the city which can be entered with the pass can be entered individually at a cost of €3.30 each.
Amphitheater – The parts which are open to the public are free. You cannot go inside the amphitheater itself, but you can go to the upper rim and look down.
Cathedral – The cathedral costs €5.00 for adults, €4.00 for students with student ID and people older than 65 years old, and €3.00 for children 7 to 16. The pass is not valid at the cathedral as it is operated by the MHT.
Where to stay
Many people will visit Tarragona on a day trip from Barcelona. There are many options for lodging in and around Barcelona.
Within Tarragona, there are several hotels in close proximity to the Roman ruins:
How to get there
Tarragona is approximately 100km (60 miles) southwest of Barcelona along the Mediterranian coast. It can be easily visited on a day trip from Barcelona.
The nearest major international airport is Barcelona El Prat (BCN).
Reus Airport (REU) is a smaller airport located approximately 8km from Tarragona. It primarily handles seasonal flights in the summer and discount airlines like Ryanair.
You can reach Tarragona easily by car. It is connected to Barcelona via major highways. Take the C-32 to the A-7 from Barcelona and you will reach Tarragona in approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes.
There are several trains each day which go from Barcelona to Tarragona. You can reach Tarragona from the Barcelona Sants or Franca stations. You can go check online or at the station when the trains will be leaving.
There are two different train services which run between the cities. Make sure you are on the right train, as the tickets for one are not valid on the other. One is a regional train, and the other is the Spanish national train service (Renfe).
Tarragona sits on the Mediterranian Sea and usually has a mild climate year-round. Temperatures seldom dip below freezing in the winter. You might need a light jacket in winter months.
View the complete list of the 400 UNESCO World Heritage sites I have documented around the world.
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