Visiting Barcelona? Just an hour away is an unspoilt city with Roman ruins, labyrinthine alleyways and beautiful clear beaches
Barcelona may be one of the most exciting, culturally fascinating and socially diverse cities in the world but the Catalan capital is not the be all and end all the Spanish north-east.
If you want a break from the tourist throngs of Las Ramblas, want an escape to pristine beaches, fancy wandering through winding old towns or feel like immersing yourself in Roman history and architecture then look no further than a day trip to Tarragona, a small city on the Costa Dorada which is well off the beaten tourist trail.
The best way to get to Tarragona is definitely by train, as frequent and cheap trains run from Barcelona Estacion de Francia, stopping at Paseo de Gracia and Barcelona Sants on the way. The hour-long journey takes you right down the coast, so make sure you grab a seat on the left hand side of the train to take in the stunning coastline.
Tarragona, or Tarraco as it was once known, was actually the Spanish capital of the Roman Empire and as you approach the city you are entering parallel to the Via Augusta, the road on which Emperor Augustus made his famous entrance to the city after his Cantabrian campaign.
Tarragona is undoubtedly most famous for the incredibly well preserved Roman remains, including one of the finest amphitheatres in Europe. The modern city was literally built on top of the old Roman town and a recent effort by the local authority, including new laws on construction, means that more and more remains are being uncovered and then protected.
To avoid the midday heat the cities remains are best explored in the morning and by foot. Just go to any of the many information points located either at the entrances of the sites or along the main rambla. You can also buy a day pass to all the remains and museum, well worth the small amount of money it costs!
As Tarragona is a small city, you can reach all the Roman remains by foot. The highlights are undoubtedly the seaside amphitheatre and the centrally located circus, which were originally connected by a large tunnel. Start at the circus and see where the lions would be kept in the underground caverns and then meander down to the almost perfectly preserved amphitheatre and stand in the middle, imagining times when thousands or spectators would be roaring and baying for blood, as lions and gladiators emerged from the side passages. Do not miss the Roman museum, which has a vast array of fascinating artefacts and statues.
After all that culture and exploring now is definitely the time for a well earned rest and a typically big Catalan lunch. They say that when on holiday always follow the locals and in this case that means heading to the beach. Tarragona has three main beaches to choose from and whilst it is tempting to head to the nearest, I would recommend making your way to the Platja de l’Arrabassada, which is quieter and has cleaner sand and sea. To get here, simply get a bus on the Via Augusta or take the more scenic 15 minute walk along the coast.
There are three excellent beach bars here where you can choose from an array of tapas and seafood at reasonable prices. The arroz negro here particularly good, which is essentially a Catalan paella which is cooked in squid ink, giving it the distinctive black colour and amazingly rice taste. Wash these down with some Estrella beer and then snooze and swim the hottest part of the day away.
When the sun begins to lower there is only one thing to do in Tarragona and that is head to the old town around the Cathedral. It is now time to put down the maps and get lost in a labyrinth of alleyways, Roman ruins and artisan shops. This is where the artists of Tarragona ply their trade and you can easily stumble upon pottery and glass shops, picking up some good additions to your collection for a fraction of the usual cost. The lack of mainstream tourism in Tarragona means that the shopping experience here is free from your usual tat and you can be safe in the knowledge that the terracotta oil pourer you are buying was made locally.
There are also an abundance of bars in this area, perfect for an evening drink in one of the many small plazas. If you have some time before your train or are staying overnight and are looking for a spot of dinner then you should definitely head to La Nau (Carrer La Nau), a tapas bar in the old town which has an amazing selection of local craft beers, such as Rosita, a wheat beer brewed just outside of Tarragona.
Joel Plaja grew up in Tarragona, on the coast of Catalonia. You can follow him on Twitter at @jfplaja.