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The best colles (human castle troupes) gather in Tarraco Arena Plaça for the longest, most contested and most thrilling performances imaginable.
© David Oliete

Tarragona and the Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco, Spain

Tarragona, Spain
Call it what you want—the blueprint for Rome's success or the showcase for historic engineering—Tarraco was a monumental architectural achievement. It was the oldest Roman settlement on the Iberian Peninsula, established in the 3rd century BC. Located in the port city of Tarragona an hour south of Barcelona, a visit here will change your understanding of the ancient world.

As the Romans expanded across Europe, the empire developed new techniques for urban design that we still use today. In ancient Tarraco, architects took a giant step into modernity when the city started using the area's natural landscape to their advantage—and altering it where necessary. The result was a series of artificial terraces with the official buildings at the top and the residential areas stretching out to the sea and the port.

Tarraco's residential design wasn't its only strength. The ancient site was a perfect illustration of overall planning—both urban and military. The defensive system of walls around the ancient city is one of the earliest examples of Roman engineering. And because of its sophistication, this model was copied by other provincial capitals in the empire. Visitors will notice the quality of the materials, the marble used for the public buildings, and the richness of the architecture and sculptures.

In the 2nd century B.C., a great wall was built around Tarraco, delineating the municipal boundaries. Today, approximately 1,100 of its original 3,500 metres remain, bordering Tarragona's Old Quarter. – © Rafael López-Monné
In the 2nd century B.C., a great wall was built around Tarraco, delineating the municipal boundaries. Today, approximately 1,100 of its original 3,500 metres remain, bordering Tarragona's Old Quarter. – © Rafael López-Monné

Ancient sites and relics fill the city, some standing independently and others incorporated into more modern development. From the triumphal arch, to an aqueduct, to the city walls, it’s easy to see Rome's influence and the effect of the city’s wealth and prestige. Travellers and historians will be in heaven here and drawn to locales and venues all over the city. There are many ancient highlights to this city, including the beachside Amphitheatre, which was built in the 2nd century AD and could hold up to 15,000 people. Don't miss the Praetorium and Roman Circus, the Cathedral and the Balcó del Mediterrani - according to local legend, touching its singular railing ("tocar ferro") brings good luck.

The Golden Coast's Legacy

Tarragona, the capital of a province with the same name, sits along the Costa Daurada (Golden Coast) in north-eastern Spain. The region has been recognized three times by UNESCO. First, in 2000, the city was awarded the distinction of World Heritage Site for its Roman archaeological legacy, including exceptional historical sites such as the city walls, the circus, and the Amphitheatre. The other two times Tarragona received UNESCO recognition were for distinctions linked to its more recent culture: the castells (human towers) in 2010, and the Mediterranean diet in 2013.

The circus was used for horse and chariot races. Here, guests visit the vault during the Tarraco Viva, recognized as Europe’s most important cultural festival celebrating the Roman era, which takes place each year in May. – © Rafael López-Monné / Tarragona Turisme
The circus was used for horse and chariot races. Here, guests visit the vault during the Tarraco Viva, recognized as Europe’s most important cultural festival celebrating the Roman era, which takes place each year in May. – © Rafael López-Monné / Tarragona Turisme

Towering Cultural—and Human—Prowess

Anyone familiar with images of the region is familiar with the castells - the human towers formed by groups of people of all ages that can reach up to ten levels in height. In Tarragona, castells play a starring role in all the city’s major festivals and are closely followed by the entire community. The teams practice in the plazas to the delight of tourists and locals, from June to September. And the city holds the largest castells competition in the world in October, in every year ending in an even number.

In Tarragona, the castells, or human castles, are a deep-rooted tradition and have been included among the traditions on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The castells competition is held in October in every year ending in an even number. – © David Oliete
In Tarragona, the castells, or human castles, are a deep-rooted tradition and have been included among the traditions on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The castells competition is held in October in every year ending in an even number. – © David Oliete

Once the human buildings have been dismantled, the cuisine keeps people entertained. The Romans called Tarragona the City of Eternal Spring. Its mild, dry winters make it an ideal growing zone all year. Try the Mediterranean cuisine, featuring traditional components like romesco, and, above all, fresh seafood and rice dishes. These culinary experiences must be paired with the local liquid specialties—namely olive oil and wine.

Mediterranean Attitude on Display

The Mediterranean climate and character of its citizens fill the city’s streets with a dense calendar of events, activities, and festivals, including: Tarraco Viva (Tarragona’s Roman festival); Santa Tecla (the fire festival); Sant Magí (the water festival); the Dixieland Festival; the Minipop Festival for families; the DO Tarragona Wine Fair; and the International Fireworks Competition.

In summer, Tarragona's Roman heritage comes alive through a series of historical reconstructions that show how the inhabitants of Tarraco once lived. You can also relive the gladiatorial battles in the Amphitheatre, which, enhanced with the latest technology, guarantees a unique and exciting experience.

Tarragona's visitors experience the city's Roman past with historical re-enactments. Relive the gladiatorial battles in the Amphitheatre through the use of the latest technology. – © Rafael López-Monné / Tarragona Turisme
Tarragona's visitors experience the city's Roman past with historical re-enactments. Relive the gladiatorial battles in the Amphitheatre through the use of the latest technology. – © Rafael López-Monné / Tarragona Turisme

A Treasure for Every Traveller

Beyond the land-based experiences, Tarragona's coast offers visitors 15 kilometres of beaches and a front-row seat for the ecosystems and natural beauty that remains virtually unaltered. The fine, white-sand beaches slope gently into the water, making them safe and fun for families.

Another major draw for visitors to Tarragona is the city's 15-kilometre coastline, dotted with beaches and coves with crystalline waters. Pictured here is Jovera Cove with its Romanesque and Gothic castle.  – © Rafael López-Monné
Another major draw for visitors to Tarragona is the city's 15-kilometre coastline, dotted with beaches and coves with crystalline waters. Pictured here is Jovera Cove with its Romanesque and Gothic castle. – © Rafael López-Monné

And there's no shortage of high-quality family-friendly accommodations. The city has a wide range of hotels for all tastes and budgets as well as beachfront campgrounds—some of which are ranked as the leaders in Europe for exceptional quality.


How to Get There

Located in the north-eastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, Tarragona is Catalonia’s southernmost capital city. If arriving by plane, the region is accessed through two airports. Reus, is 7 kilometres away. Barcelona, is 82 kilometres away. By train, the city also has direct rail links to all major Spanish and European capitals.

The city is home to one of the busiest commercial and nautical ports in the Mediterranean and a stopover for cruise ships. On the Moll de Costa pier you’ll find Port Tarraco, a modern marina for yachts.

If arriving by car, Tarragona is the junction of two major Spanish motorways: the Mediterranean Motorway, which runs from Alicante to France and the rest of Europe; and the Northern Motorway—from Tarragona to the Basque country.

When to Visit

You can visit Tarragona all year round - it has an average yearly temperature of 18ºC (25ºC in summer, 12ºC in winter), and clean, sweeping beaches with fine, golden sand.

"The climate blends and confuses the seasons singularly, so that all the year seems an eternal spring." Lucius Annaeus Florus, Vergilius orator an poeta (2nd century A.D.)

How to Visit

You can visit the Roman archaeological site of Tarraco by foot, on wheels, or by sea to experience the city’s medieval, civil, and religious architecture and its Catalan modernist legacy.

Be sure to take advantage of guided tours to discover fascinating facts and anecdotes about different places and times in the history of Tarragona. The tourist train offers visitors a panoramic tour of the city.

Or experience Tarragona on your mobile device with the Imageen app and the Accessible Tarragona app.

You can also enjoy magnificent beaches offering all the essential services, as well as a multitude of leisure activities including festivals, our unique human towers, theatre and water sports. And of course, Tarragona is the perfect city in which to do a little shopping.