Where the Francoli River spills into the Mediterranean, Tarragona sits on a high hill. It’s been a favored location for city building since prehistory, but the first time it’s mentioned is when the Roman generals Publius Scipio and Gnaeus conquered it in 218 BC. It became the first, and for a long time most important, Roman stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula. At one point, Julius Caesar renamed it Colonia Julia Victrix Triumphalis in celebration of his victories; fortunately, the name was changed to Tarragona again after the Romans left.
Tarragona’s fertile plains and abundance of sunlight help it to generate its most famous and important export for much of its history: wine. Tarragona was famous throughout the ancient world for its excellent vinyards.
The Spanish branch of Christianity, according to tradition, was founded in Tarragona by St. Paul himself. The Moors eventually took the city, and it passed hands a few times before it finally wound up in the hands of the Christian Spanish kings.
Its old quarter preserves a surprising amount of its Roman history, with houses often built partially with Roman masonry, and with Roman walls and towers still circumscribing parts of the town. The Roman ruins of Tarragona include a theater, circus (where the Archaeological Museum is today), forum, amphitheater, and necropolis. The amphitheater also holds the remains of a church in memory of Sant Fructuos, dating from the seventh or eight century.
You’ll also find the remains of an aqueduct, the Tomb of the Scipios, and the Triumphal Arch of Bara. A few Moorish buildings remain, but most have been razed. The cathedral is both Romanesque and Gothic , and hosts a cloister, a technical school, and an archaeological Christian museum that includes an excellent collection of 4th and 5th century religious documents. It was built over the ruins of the ancient Roman temple, and in fact parts of the temple have been incorporated into its design. Probably it was used as a mosque as well when the Moors held sway here.
If you love history, be sure to visit the Archaeological Museum, home of world-famous treasures like the Roman busts of Trajano and Luci Vero. In the Diocese Museum of the Cathedral, more than 50 tapestries of varying ages are preserved.
If you go to Tarragona today, try to go during September, when the Festa of Santa Tecla is celebrated. Fireworks, human towers called Castellers, and vibrant crowds of people make this a real experience. La Festa Major de Sant Magi, in August, is also very nice, with concerts and cultural events. Or you can go to the Universal Port Aventura, one of the largest amusement parks in Europe and only a short drive away.
For more outdoors pursuits, the Rambla Nova, main street of the city, ends in a fantastic lookout called Mediterranean’s Balcony, where you can gaze out over wide and welcoming beaches. When you get hungry, follow the Rambla Nova back into the city and check out the Placa de la Font, the city’s main restaurant and bar area. Here you can have a seat at one of several outdoor cafes and enjoy the sun, watch people, or simply soak up the atmosphere.