10 Top Tourist Attractions in Tarragona & Easy Day Trips
Blessed with sunshine, a beautiful coastline, and interesting ancient monuments, Tarragona is a delightful detour from Barcelona (100 kilometers away). This port town hugs the golden shores of Catalonia's Costa Daurada, and much of the city overlooks the Mediterranean. The gorgeous beach of El Milagro is within walking distance from the main landmarks. Layer upon layer of history is everywhere, from the UNESCO-listed Roman ruins to the medieval alleyways and cobblestone streets, and the Romanesque-Gothic cathedral. To soak up the quaint Old World ambience while enjoying a meal, head to El Serrallo - the fishing village that grew into the big city that is now Tarragona. In this atmospheric neighborhood, tourists can take a scenic stroll and enjoy delicious fresh seafood at one of the waterfront restaurants.
See also: Where to Stay in Tarragona
The magnificent Cathedral of Tarragona was built in the 12th century on the site of a 10th-century Moorish mosque, and its construction continued throughout later centuries. With its blend of architectural styles, the building is one of the most splendid examples of the transition from Romanesque to Gothic. The main facade features two 12th-century Romanesque portals and a stunning rose window with openwork tracery. The interior, with three naves on a Latin-cross plan, creates an impression of great austerity. An octagonal dome over the crossing adds to the inspiring ambience, and in the transepts are exquisite stained-glass windows created in 1574. In the Capilla Mayor is a sensational 15th-century high reredos by Pere Johan. Crafted from polychromatic alabaster, the piece incorporates a trilogy of statues that represent the Virgin and Child, Saint Thecla, and Saint Paul. Another artistic gem is the Gothic Archbishop's Sepulcher over the high altar. The Capilla de Santa María, dating from the 14th century, is also noteworthy for its vibrant medieval windows and a lovely retablo dedicated to the Virgin Mary painted by Francesc Olives in 1536.
To visit the cloister, walk through the Romanesque doorway to the left of the Capilla de los Sastres. This 13th-century cloister is considered one of the finest in Spain. Beautifully crafted large Gothic arches, each enclosing three smaller round-headed arches, enclose a central courtyard. The open space is a peaceful area planted with shady trees. In the west wing of the cloister is a mihrab (prayer niche) from the mosque, which once stood on this site. At the northeast corner of the cloister is the Diocesan Museum (enter on on the Plaça de la Seu), which displays the cathedral's collection of religious art and objects. Visitors can admire the ecclesiastical vestments, ancient statues, and medieval sculpture. Highlights of the collection are the reredos by Jaime Huguet and a wonderful assortment of tapestries made in Brussels.
2 Roman Amphitheater
Vestiges of classical Roman buildings are dotted all over Tarragona, which after Mérida is the second most important archaeological site in Spain. The ancient Roman amphitheater is the most impressive of Tarragona's ancient remains. Built on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the amphitheater dates back to the second century AD during the reign of Emperor Augustus. The immense stadium staged gladiatorial games as well as other spectacles that entertained the Roman population. Visitors can easily imagine the excitement of attending an event at this venue during antiquity. In its sloping rows of seats, the amphitheater could accommodate an astounding crowd of 12,000 spectators. The elliptical shape of the stadium, characteristic of Roman amphitheaters, would have directed the audiences' attention to the two points of interest: the gladiators who would enter the contest at opposite sides of the stadium. Beneath the arena are pits that were used for behind-the-scenes production of the events. The amphitheater was also the scene of the martyrdom of Bishop Fructuosus in AD 259. In the center of the amphitheater are remains of a sixth-century Visigoth basilica and a 12th-century Romanesque-Gothic church. The site is open to the public (free admission) Tuesday through Sunday.
Address: Parc del Miracle, Tarragona
3 Paseo Arqueológico (Archaeological Walk)
The Paseo Arqueológico begins where the Vía del Imperio (Imperial Way) runs into the Puerta del Rosario, an entrance gate that dates from around the fifth century BC. Shaded by cypress trees, the Paseo Arqueológico is a pleasant garden path at the base of the ancient Roman wall. Built in the third to second century BC, the wall originally enclosed the entire ancient town, but only the upper area has been preserved. Several sections are still intact, including one stretch that extends for 1,000 meters with heights ranging from three meters to 10 meters in places. The amazing ancient defense structure is distinguished by its cyclopean stone masonry of massive irregularly shaped blocks. Local workers were employed to build the wall, and many of the stones bear Iberian masons' marks. Three towers of the wall have also survived: the Cabiscol Tower, Minerva Tower, and Arzobispo Tower. The Minerva tower is an excellent example of Roman architecture; the Arzobispo Tower was altered during the Middle Ages. Tourists will enjoy a leisurely stroll along the Paseo Arqueológico, while soaking up the legacy of Tarragona's two-thousand-year history. The Paseo Arqueológico also offers scenic views from each end of the garden.
Address: Avenida Catalunya, Tarragona
4 Balcón del Mediterráneo
At its south end of the broad tree-lined Rambla Nova, Tarragona's main street, is the Balcón del Mediterráneo. From this spacious terrace, tourists can admire stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea and El Milagro Beach. Steps from the Balcón del Mediterráneo lead down to the railroad station and the harbor. Several promenades begin at the Balcón del Mediterráneo and follow the coastline to the beach. The sea views are sensational. Continuing further along the beach, the scenery becomes more rugged. The seaside route going east eventually leads to the Punta de la Mora (about eight kilometers away, accessible by bus), a gorgeous beach with paths for nature walks.
5 Archaeology Museum
Tarragona's Archeological Museum has one of Spain's finest collections of ancient Roman art. The exhibits display antiquities and finds from the town's archaeological sites. Visitors are astounded by the variety of ancient Roman sculptures, pottery, mosaics, and other artworks as well as sarcophagi, amphora, tombs, and mausoleums uncovered at the Roman and Paleo-Christian Necrópolis site, one of the largest found in Europe, (located at Avenida Ramón and Cajal). Highlights of this attraction are the mosaics depicting Medusa's head and Bacchic scene. In the basement of the museum are excavated foundations of the ancient Roman walls.
Adjoining the Archeology Museum is the massive Pretorio Romano (Roman Praetorium), the Roman general's residence. Built in the first century BC, this immense tower is known as the Torreón de Pilatos because Pilate is believed to have been born here. A vaulted underground chamber links to a passageway. The tower borders the Roman Forum, just behind it.
Address: 5 Plaça del Reli, Tarragona
6 Roman Forum
West of the Rambla Nova, the Roman Forum is a monumental archaeological site that represents the center of the ancient town. The rectangular space (once a public square) contains the remains of many Roman houses, shops, and establishments, dating from the classical Roman era when the town of "Tarraco" was capital of the province. Be sure to find the House of Curia, the most remarkable ruins found in the Roman Forum. The site is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday, with free admission.
Address: Calle Lérida, Tarragona
7 El Serrallo: An Old Fishing Village
El Serrallo is the old fishing village at the heart of Tarragona. This area has retained its Old World charm, even though Tarragona developed into a modern city. The scenic seaside promenade is the highlight of Tarragona and is a pleasant area for leisurely strolls. It's also a wonderful place to have an authentic seafood meal. Numerous restaurants line the promenade, offering tourists a great selection. Most of the restaurant owners get fresh local fish daily from the fish market that's held in this neighborhood. Sample the langoustines from San Carlos de la Rápita, the shellfish from Cambrils, and typical dishes such as fresh cod dumplings, cuttlefish in its own sauce, and Pataco (a hearty stew of potatoes, tuna, garlic, and almonds).
8 Casa Castellarnau
Casa Castellarnau was built in the 15th century for aristocratic owners, one of the most influential families in the town. The elegant Gothic building is fully furnished, mostly in the style of Queen Isabella II. Interesting architectural details are the courtyard and a stairway with Gothic columns and capitals. Rooms are decorated with impressive paintings (especially those by Flaugier). The house is now open to the public as a museum and houses the Molas Collection of archaeological and ethnographic exhibits. Guided tours of the house are available.
Address: 14 Carrer dels Cavallers, Tarragona
9 Playa del Milagro
Tarragona is prized for its beautiful beaches with golden shores and calm waters. From the Balcón del Mediterráneo, scenic promenades lead to the beaches. The main beach in Tarragona is Playa del Milagro, a wide sandy shore nearly one kilometer in length right in the center of town. Ruins of the Roman amphitheater are seen in the background. El Milagro Beach features signposts of water safety and other hazards.
10 Pretty Avenues and Public Squares
To the east of the Balcón del Mediterráneo is the Paseo de les Palmeres, a beautiful avenue with attractive terraces. This avenue intersects with the Rambla Vella and halfway down is the Plaza de la Fuente, a square on the site of the ancient Roman Circus. Vestiges of the circus foundations are visible here. On the north side of the square is the 19th-century Ayuntamiento de Tarragona (Town Hall) built on the grounds of a former convent. The lovely facade features Ionic columns.
Another pleasant area to explore from the Balcón del Mediterráneo is the Rambla Nova. This wide boulevard incorporates lovely gardens in the middle. Along the boulevard are two noteworthy churches: the Baroque Iglesia de San Agustín and Iglesia de San Francisco.
Where to Stay in Tarragona for Sightseeing
We recommend these great hotels within walking distance of Tarragona's old town:
- Hotel SB Ciutat de Tarragona: mid-range pricing, comfortable rooms, rooftop pool and hot tub.
- AC Hotel Tarragona: affordable rates, friendly front desk staff, breakfast buffet, comfortable beds.
- Astari Hotel: three-star hotel, lovely pool area, spacious rooms.
- Pigal: budget hotel, fantastic location, hospitable owner, sparkling clean rooms.
Day Trips from Tarragona
Gaudí Centre in Reus
The Gaudí Centre is in the town of Reus (10 kilometers from Tarragona), where the famous Catalan architect was born and raised. This modern interpretation center is the only one of its kind, with exhibits devoted to the life and works of Gaudí. Through innovative displays and the latest audiovisual technology, the exhibits highlight the wonderful world of Gaudí - renowned for his fantastical and surreal architecture. Visitors discover Gaudí's incredible creativity and the secrets of his genius. Picnic areas and many cafés and restaurants are near the Gaudí Centre. Tourists can also wander the town of Reus to find Gaudí's birthplace on Calle Sant Vicenç and the church where he was christened, Sant Pere. Reus is easily accessible by car or train. Most of Gaudí's architectural masterpieces are found in Barcelona, a city that boasts seven UNESCO-listed buildings created by Gaudí.
Address: 3 Plaça del Mercadal, Reus
Aqueduct in Valls
About four kilometers from Tarragona, the Acueducto Pont de les Ferreres was built during the era of Emperor Augustus and restored during the Moorish reign of Caliph Abd-al Rahman III. The aqueduct is also known as the Puente del Diablo (Devil's Bridge) after a local legend. Originally the structure extended for 25 kilometers in length. All that remains now are ruins of a few hundred meters and 27 meters high.
Address: CN-240 de Valls a Lleida, 43006 Tarragona
The Beach Resort of Salou
Several excellent beaches along the Costa Daurada are easily accessible for those with a car. About 12 kilometers southeast of Tarragona is Playa de la Pineda in a pristine natural setting on the way to the beach resort of Salou (16 kilometers away from Tarragona). Further south, seven kilometers from Salou is the quaint fishing village of Cambrils. In a picturesque sheltered bay, Salou is a popular seaside resort that swells with visitors during summertime. Boasting fine sandy beaches as well as a boating harbor, Salou draws sunbathers and water sports enthusiasts alike. The beaches of Salou are prized for their sandy shores and calm waters ideal for swimming or wading. Ideally designed for tourists, Salou has many vacation rentals and hotel accommodations to choose from. Also a historic town, Salou's claim to fame is that King Jaime I sailed from the town in 1229 on his expedition to conquer Majorca.