Tarragona isn't the most famous tourist destination in Spain, but discovering its charms makes for an ideal weekend getaway. Join me for two days in Tarragona
Tarragona is located in the Costa Dorada region of Catalonia’s Mediterranean coast, around 70km west of Barcelona. It may not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of holidaying in Spain but, with a rich Roman history, beguiling old town, golden beach, and glorious climate (it was around 20C at the height of winter when we visited), the city really does have it all for a sun-kissed winter break.
A stroll along the tree-lined Rambla Nova is a good place to start. Ending on a cliff-top with spectacular views over the Med, this street roughly bisects the city into the old town to the east (including most of the Roman sights) and the more recently built grid-like streets to the west.
The old town is a maze of narrow cobbled lanes, interspersed with enchanting squares like the colourful Plaza la Font. Plaza la Font is lined with attractive pastel-coloured buildings, most of which house tapas bars and restaurants with outdoor seating. By far the best tapas we tried was at La Taverna (Plaza la Font 31; Tel; 977 249 540). Try the patatas bravas and llesca lomo asado - effectively pork on toast but so much nicer than it sounds! There are also some great bars in Plaza la Font serving cheap beer and wine, and the square seemed the best place in town to sink a few beers amongst the locals.
The old town is also home to the magnificent Gothic cathedral and most of Tarragona’s Roman sights. The city was a major player in the Roman Empire, and its Roman history is still evident almost everywhere you look today. Roman foundation stones crop up in unlikely places like modern day squares, and you do get the feeling that Tarragona’s Roman heritage has been lovingly cherished, preserved and often literally built around.
The Roman sights are, happily, a rare combination of fascinating and cheap to visit (€3 per site or €10 for a day pass to all sights). The Roman Praetorium (part of Tarragona’s forum) was perhaps the most interesting. The building was converted into a castle during medieval times and you can clamber up over the ramparts for lovely views over the red rooftops of the city and down to the Mediterranean Sea below. Underground things get even more interesting. Take a walk through the atmospherically lit vaults that were once used as Roman storage spaces and you’ll emerge in the Roman Circus where gladiators once went head to head in front of the baying masses.
Elsewhere, the Roman amphitheatre is perched magnificently on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. There are wonderful views of the amphitheatre from above, just around the corner from Rambla Nova on Passeig de las Palmeres. The sheer scale of the imposing Roman walls to the west of the old town are breathtaking and really give an insight into the importance of Tarragona in Roman times.
All that history can get a bit tiring though, and the Casino Tarragona (Rambla Vella, 2; Tel: 977 789 000) will bring you back to modern times with a bang. Located on Rambla Vella, within spitting distance of the Roman Praetorium, it initially seemed a bit of a shock to have a glitzy modern casino across the road from some prime Roman real-estate. But this is a city where the old and new seem to get along just fine, and the casino made for a good start to a night full of all the tapas and beer we could wish for in Plaza la Font.
After a few San Miguels too many, Tarragona’s golden beach is the perfect hangover cure. The beach was deserted when we visited and a walk along its length to the eastern end will bring you to some pretty rocky coves and an old fort sitting on a headland. The modern marina also has a few restaurants and a nightclub, though we tended to stick to the old town in the evenings.
Tarragona is a beautiful and relaxed city, largely free of tourists (in the winter at least). It was a refreshing change to visit a destination that was incredibly welcoming to tourists yet not spoilt by them, and without the famous sights of a Barcelona or Madrid you feel like you are discovering it all for yourself. So, next time you are thinking you might need some winter sun, give the obvious destinations a miss and spare a thought for Tarragona. You won’t regret it.
We stayed in the affordable Hotel Catalunya Express, near the railway station on Carrer del General Contreras. This hotel is a good low-cost option with clean, basic rooms. It is located in a quiet part of town, around a 15 minute uphill walk from the old town. The town is easily accessible on foot and you probably won’t need to take any public transport. If you’ve more than two days to spare, Barcelona is about an hour away on the train.
We took advantage of a flight promotion to bag free flights from Bristol to Reus airport (under two hours flying time), so keep an eye out for similar deals to Reus in the future. Tarragona is a short bus trip from the airport (€3 for a single trip). Taxis from the airport into town will set you back around €20.