Just an hour away from Barcelona, Tarragona is a Medieval metropolis boasting 2,000 years of history, traditional tapas bars and some of the best beaches in Spain. Did someone say, ‘day-trip’?
It may not be as famous as some of the other day-trip destinations near Barcelona, such as Sitges or Girona, but with its awe-inspiring Roman ruins and pristine beaches, Tarragona is definitely one of my favourites. So much so, as a matter of fact, that I have often considered moving there.
Here’s how to see the best of Tarragona in one action packed day-trip from Barcelona.
Essential Things to See & Do in Tarragona
1. Roam the Roman Ruins
Founded by the Romans in the 5th century BC, Tarragona was actually the capital of the Roman Empire for two years. The walls themselves seem to whisper old tales to you as you lose yourself in the winding backstreets.
Tarragona’s Roman Amphitheatre
The real “Wow!” moment is when you arrive at the UNESCO listed Roman amphitheatre. Facing the sea, this vast, bronze-hued arena was built in the 2nd century AD and had space for some 15,000 spectators – it’s huge!
Along with the city’s theatre and circus (because the Romans believed these facilities were essential elements for good living), this was the site of all sorts of entertainment and cultural festivities.
Bishop Fructuoso and his deacons Augurio and Eulogio were burned alive a the stake here in the year 259 A.D.
There would have been gladiator battles with warriors fighting to the death and, as we’ve all seen in the films, tigers, lions and horned beasts. But it wasn’t just gladiators and animals that died here. It was also the city’s venue of choice for public executions.
Tarragona’s Iconic Cathedral
Tarragona Cathedral — currently a Roman Catholic church — is the spiritual heart of the city. Crowning the highest point, it’s one of the most pristine examples of architecture linking the Romanesque and Gothic periods. Inside, a collection of Medieval art ensures your jaw remains firmly glued to the floor.
Tarragona’s Roman Aqueduct
If you have time (and a car), the Les Ferreres Aqueduct is another perfectly preserved Roman ruin that’s definitely worth seeing. Built with pink stone, this elegant feat of engineering is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site located 4 km north of the city.
Legend has it that it earned its nickname, “Pont del Diable” (Devil’s bridge), because it was built by the devil after he won the soul of a maiden in a bet.
2. Take Part in the Local Festivities
Like a miniature Barcelona, Tarragona is positively bursting with culture. The Santa Tecla festival (every September) is the main festival of the year, when the “beasts” of the “cercavila” parade the streets. The day after, on the day of La Mercè, you will also see the death-defying“Human Towers” walking from the steps of the Cathedral to the door of the Town Hall.
The month of May also sees the arrival of the spectacular Tarraco Viva Roman history festival, which is a must for all culture vultures and history buffs.
3. Get Back to Nature on the Costa Daurada
Nicknamed “the city of eternal spring” and often referred to as “the gateway to the Costa Daurada”, Tarragona is a real treat for beach lovers.
Tarragona’s best beaches include Platja Arrabassada, which is the closest to the city centre — a 5 minute bus ride or a 30 minute stroll — and Platja Larga, a long sandy stretch where you can enjoy the El Bosque de la Marquesa (forest coastal walk) that leads to secluded beaches such as the famous Waikiki beach.
I can personally vouch for Waikiki beach. The sand is soft and clean, the water pristine. Its secluded location also makes it popular with naturists — don’t say I didn’t warn you! The perfect spot for evening out your tan lines.
4. Peruse Tarragona’s Modernist Architecture
I’m not the only one to have been enraptured by Tarragona’s old world charms and idyllic seafront location. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the city became popular with the bourgeoisie, many of whom spent vast sums of money on luxury homes designed by up and coming Modernist architects, such as Josep Maria Jujol, Josep Maria Pujol and Lluis Domenech i Montaner. Explore the Casa Castellarnau museum and Casa Canals for a double dose of decadence.
An added bonus for architecture lovers is that Tarragona is home to the first documented example of work by Antoni Gaudi, which is hidden away in the shrine of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Modernist Tarragona remains visible to anyone who strolls the leafy boulevard of Rambla Nova, where you’ll still find many of the city’s best shops, fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
5. Live the Good Life – Where to Eat & Drink in Tarragona
Eating is Tarragona is a truly Spanish affair, i.e. the aim of the game is simply to wander the narrow streets from square to square, stopping off at the liveliest looking tapas bars for nibbles and wine as you go.
If you’re short on time then head straight to Plaça de la Font, which is the main central square and packed with many of the best restaurants and tapas bars in Tarragona.
A few good places to start include:
Almosta on Carrer Ventallols, with its ecological menu.
El Llagut with its fantastic arrosejats (local rice dishes similar to paella).
And if you like your wine, head straight to Lola Tapas in Plaça de la Font.
Where to Stay in Tarragona
There are plenty of accommodation options – high-quality holiday apartments in particular – in Tarragona with excellent prices. In fact, now that I think of it, it’s probably a better idea to stay in Tarragona and do a day-trip or two to Barcelona.
Holiday Apartments in Tarragona: If you’re looking for your own little slice of home in Tarragona then you’ll be spoilt for choice. Check out the charming El Faro Apartments located right in Plaça de la Font, in the heart of the city. For something a little more luxurious (but still very affordable), check out the ApartSuits Tarragona Rambla Nova 24 on the ultra stylish Rambla Nova, just 450 m away from the Roman Amphitheatre.
Budget Hotels in Tarragona: The 3-star Astari Hotel is just a gentle stroll to Tarragona’s beautiful beaches, and boasts a gorgeous swimming pool. The 1-star Hotel Plaça De La Font is situated right in the heart of Tarragona’s Old Town and offers outstanding value for money – plus it’s only 500 m from the beach!
Mid-Range and Luxury Hotels in Tarragona: For affordable luxury less than a kilometre from Tarragaon city centre, have a look at the handsome 4-star Hotel SB Ciutat de Tarragona. If you don’t mind being a little farther out (7 km to be precise) then I highly recommend 4-star Hotel Mas La Boella, a seriously romantic country mansion set in 110 hectares of olive groves – free parking, too, which is great if you plan to explore more of the region.
Or just search through the options using the search box below to benefit from Booking.com’s best price guarantee.
Make it Happen
It’s easy to get to Tarragona from Barcelona – just take the RENFE train from Barcelona Sants Estacio to Tarragona. It takes about an hour and costs between €10 and €20 depending on what time you travel. Go for the day or, as many people do, stay a night or two and enjoy the city’s delights at a more leisurely pace.
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