The Living History of Tarragona – The First Roman City of Spain

My trip to Tarragona was in partnership with the Spanish National Tourism Board as part of their #SpainbyTrain campaign and was one of four city stops. However, all excitable historical opinions remain my own. 


Mercado Central de Tarragona
The ruins of Tarraco stacked with Tarragona’s more modern structures and murals.
Reus International Airport (REU) is a short 20-minute, 7km drive to Tarragona’s centre. You can hire a private transfer or take one of several Hispano Igualadina public buses between Reus airport and Tarragona.
Three people inside the Roman Circus in Tarragona, taking pictures of the square tower structure

An arial view of the golden structures, dombs and roofs of Tarragona, Spain, in a golden glow from afternoon sun
Touring the Tarragona Cathedral – views from the interior gardens

Where to Find the Monuments of Roman Tarragona 

Some Roman ruins in Tarragona city are fenced off for protection, but still visible.

Tarragona Amphitheatre 

The Cathedral on the site of the former Roman temple in Tarragona
The cost for visiting the core roman sites of Tarragona is €3.30 per site that falls under The Tarragona History Museum (MHT) list. This includes the Model of Roman Tarraco, Casa Castellarnau Museum, the Walls (Archaeological Promenade), the Praetorium and Roman Circus, and the Roman Amphitheatre, the Local or Colony Forum and Casa Canals.

The yellowing ruins of the Roman Tarragona Amphitheatre with a view to Mediterranean Sea, Spain
We wandered the sandy and ochre orange shaded streets in the most elevated part of the city known as Part Alta –  once the site of Tarraco’s ancient provincial forum, also known as the Colonial Forum. This area was once the centre of social and political life in Tarraco, and you’ll notice old Roman stone and parts of the old wall incorporated into today’s structures. 

A hand holding up a smart phone displaying the roman ruins virtual reality app for Tarragona Tourism

A man stands in the high stone doorway entrance of the yellowing stoned Roman Tarragona Amphitheatre in Spain
A walk around the town centre unveils the narrow alleyways and historic streets of the medieval days, but not without the Roman keeping gaze. While sampling some vermouth in the specialist store, Bodega Enric, we only had to walk out into the open square to find a chunk of the old Roman city walls of Tarraco dominating the open square.
Worn yellow and grey stones of the walls, archways and underground chambers of the Roman Tarragona Amphitheatre
The first stop was the Tarragona Amphitheatre – one of only seven in Spain country preserved and opened to the public. You can wander freely around the majority of this 2nd-century structure on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, where you can stand in the grounds and imagine how it once accommodated 12,000 eager spectators.

Stones of the former city wall of Roman Tarraco, next to the wall of today’s Tarragona Cathedral

Roman Circus and Praetorian Tower

For further information on planning your trip in Tarragona, from Roman ruins and beyond, visit the official tourism website.

The bold golden stone wall and column structure of the Roman Circus and Praetorian Tower in Tarragona Spain, against a blue sky
Ariel View of the ruins of the Roman Circus in Tarragona, blending with modern city structures

Remains of Roman Ruins in the streets of Tarragona
A new city built on top of an ancient city, the fun of exploration in the UNESCO assemble of sites in Tarragona is to piece together the old and new, the latter of which has either replaced the former or has yet to be uncovered and preserved.

A woman wearing a yellow backpack takes a picture of the city of Tarragona from the top of the golden stone Roman Circus building
The Living History of Tarragona – The First Roman City of Spain
Ariel View of the ruins of the Roman Circus in Tarragona – old stone archtiecture surrounded by the modern buildings of today's city
Roman ruins and the sandy yellow and orange hued low rise buildings line the coast, making up the city of Tarragona, Spain

A woman with long blonde hair stands at a metal rail overlooking the romans ruins of the Tarragona Amphitheatre in Spain

Find Roman Ruins in Tarragona

Where the Roman past is layered with the medieval and the modern, a visit to Tarragona, Spain means being able to lose yourself in centuries of living history, preserved in its stratum of golden structures and hidden levels.

Remains of Roman Ruins in the streets of Tarragona, in a public square right outside of pastel coloured apartment buildings
The sweeping view of Tarragona city from the top of the Roman Circus

No matter what stands before you, beneath you or around you, the wonder of Tarragona is in knowing that you are surrounded by 2,000 years of history. A living history of one of the most important Roman Empire cities that is still accessible to this very day.

A woman walks with her dog and people gather in the golden yellow streets of Tarragona, Spain.
Modern design and art on show at Theatre Metropole – in juxtaposition to the Roman ruins
A man stands, taking a picture, in front of a building painted with a yellow art mural in Tarragona city, Spain. On either side are narrow avenues lined with old buildings.
Shops found within Roman archways in Tarragona.
A shop entrance with caramel coloured doors within a roman stone archway in Tarragona, Spain
Historically layered itself, the amphitheatre was built upon during the 6th and 7th centuries, when the Church built a basilica in memory of the martyrs who perished during the days of Christian persecution. Various temples and other structures were built over the top, including a prison and holiday apartments, before it was finally uncovered for its original foundations as a Roman city to be laid bare.
People walk towards a tall wall of Golden stone - the old Roman city walls still visible in Tarragona, Spain
Barcelona Airport is over 80km away, and again this is where the bus routes, or shared transfer, are the best connections onward to Tarragona.

A stone Roman Column in the middle of a pedestrian street in Tarragona

A man in a white shirt walks past a parkland of trees filled with the roman ruins of a square and temple column in Tarragona, Spain
Estación de Tarragona Adif is the train station in the city centre for the regional train connections to Reus, Barcelona, Tortosa and Lleida, and long-distance Renfe trains to Valencia, Andalucia and Madrid.
A stone Roman Column in the middle of a pedestrian street in Tarragona Spain
Here’s what to see and where to find all the relics of Tarragona city’s beginnings.

Tarragona may have built itself upon Tarraco, but it does not forget. In May, festivals like Tarraco Viva bring to life the Roman era and re-enactments from medieval days to Napoleon, aid the living history of the city. You can find out more about the calendar of events, with downloadable publications, here.

A woman walks past the golden stone (lower part) and white clad (upper part) building of the Theatre Metropole in Tarragona, Spain
The Tarragona of today was built on top of what was once the racing circuit, and if you look closely enough at the shop fronts and some structural detail, you may see the archway resemblance where stores have been built on top on roman vaults.
A rounded archway exterior design, with a white clock and round white lettering signage of the Mercado Central de Tarragona Spain
We lunched in the modern Xamfrà del Fòrum that sits next to the Colonial Forum, marked by the ruins of a big square and a temple.

Roman Temple in Tarragona Cathedral

The large entrances leading inside Tarragona Amphitheatre

The white exterior of the Tarragona Cathedral of Tarragona on the site of the former Roman temple. On the left people are dining outside at a neighbouring restaurant

Spain RENFE AVE train at platform

A woman stands next to a golden stone wall looking out towards a column structure and the city of Tarragona next to the sea
View from the top of the Cathedral (former Roman temple) in Tarragona
The golden stone, glowing in sunlight, of the Tarragona Cathedral Spain. This is the exterior of the structure from the view of the gardens.
Part Alta –  once the site of Tarraco’s ancient provincial forum.
An elevated view of the old stone of the former city wall of Roman Tarraco, next to the newer wall (on the left) of today's Tarragona Cathedral
There are two train stations in Tarragona:

How many days do you need in Tarragona to see everything? For leisurely sightseeing, and the chance to enjoy the sun clad avenues, local markets, and laidback eateries and bars that this Mediterranean coastal city exudes, two days in Tarragona would be ideal. However, if you are short on time or day-tripping from Barcelona, Tarragona’s major Roman sites can be seen in a day since it is a compact city and easily accessible on foot. 

Getting to Tarragona City

By Air and Bus Connections

A woman leans on a wooden barriers in a golden stone square doorway, inside the Roman Circus of Tarragona Spain
The ‘Imageen’ smartphone app (available on the AppStore and Google Play) is a super cool ‘enhanced reality’ app that brings old Tarragona to life. At designated points at local sites, you can interactively learn about history. Holding our phone screen over the Cathedral, we were able to see how the Roman Temple once looked before it.

AVE Train to Tarragona – Booking a Renfe Train Ticket in Spain

Often, people visit Tarragona on a day trip from Barcelona or combine destinations, as I did for a city-hopping adventure travelling around Spain by AVE train. 

The Roman Tarragona Amphitheatre with a view to the Mediterranean Sea A short walk from the amphitheatre is the Roman Circus and Praetorian Tower (Circ Romà), once used to hold grand horse and chariot races. You can climb to the top for a 360 view of the city, and parts of the lower spectator archways remain.
Saving one of the best until last, we found ourselves back in the very heart of the old city, looking up at the Cathedral that dominates the centre of town that stands on the former Roman temple site.

  • You can book tickets via the Renfe website in English and specific high-speed network tickets. All tickets have to be pre-booked since you can’t turn up on the day and book at the station. You can pay by Visa, Mastercard and Paypal.
  • The AVE trains have nine classes if you count the overnight trains with sleeper/bed options, but there are two main ones to consider – Turista (a second class option with 2 x 2 seating rows) and Turista Plus which is a little more spacious (with 2 x 1 seating rows). I travelled on each of my journeys with a Turista ticket, which was comfortable enough and great value for money.
  • If you are looking to book a multi-stop trip, consider getting a ‘Spain Pass’. This means you can travel using just one ticket for the AVE and other long-distance trains. You must reserve a seat before every trip, as limited space is assigned for Spain Pass holders.

The old Roman city walls still visible in Tarragona, Spain

Things to Know About Tarragona

Visiting the Roman Sites of Tarragona

Approaching the Roman Circus and Praetorian Tower
If you are planning on visiting many of the sites, it is worth investing in the  €7.40 pass which you can purchase at TarracoTicket or directly from the Tarragona Municipal Tourist Office.

Tarragona Augmented Reality App

We climbed the spiral staircases for a panoramic view of the city from the bell tower, before climbing back down and peering down into the remains of the old Roman temple wall that is now an integrated foundation to this more modern structure.
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Festivals in Tarragona

Camp de Tarragona is the High-Speed AVE Train Station, located10 minutes from the city centre.

Further planning for Tarragona

The coastal city of Tarragona in northeastern Spain is known for its scattering of ancient Roman ruins from its days of a colony known as Tarraco founded in 218BC. While not the only Roman city of Spain, this was the very first Roman city beyond the Western Empire stronghold on the Italian peninsula.
Get up close to the Roman ruins of the Amphitheatre.
Close by, the modern-day architectural examples by Catalan artist, Josep Maria Jujol can be found. The Theatre Metropole (designed in 1908 with a cruise ship style interior in antithesis to traditional theatre design) and the Mercado Central de Tarragona (opened in 1915 with arched windows and naves, in contrast to standard rectangular market buildings) shouldn’t be missed in a retro juxtaposition to the city’s ancient foundations.