Sited on a rocky hill, sheer above the sea, TARRAGONA is an ancient place. Settled originally by Iberians and then Carthaginians, it later became the base for the Roman conquest of the peninsula, which began in 218 BC with Scipio's march south against Hannibal. The fortified city became an imperial resort and, under Augustus, Tarraco was named capital of Rome's eastern Iberian province – the most elegant and cultured city of Roman Spain, boasting a quarter of a million inhabitants. Temples and monuments were built in and around the city and, despite constant sacking and looting ever since, this distinguished past still asserts itself throughout modern Tarragona.
Time spent in the handsome upper town quickly shows what attracted the emperors to the city: strategically – and beautifully – placed, it's a fine setting for some splendid Roman remains and a few excellent museums. There's an attractive medieval section, too, while the rocky coastline below conceals a couple of reasonable beaches. If there's a downside, it's that Tarragona is today the second-largest port in Catalunya, so the views aren't always unencumbered – though the fish in the Serrallo fishing quarter is consistently good and fresh. Furthermore, the city's ugly outskirts to the south have been steadily degraded by new industries which do little for Tarragona's character as a resort: chemical and oil refineries and a nuclear power station.
The city divides clearly into two parts: a predominantly medieval, walled upper town (where you'll spend most of your time) known as La Part Alta, and the prosperous modern centre below, referred to as Eixample, or the Centre Urbà. Between the two cuts is the Rambla Nova, a sturdy provincial rival to Barcelona's, lined with fashionable cafés and restaurants, culminating at its southern end with the lovely Balcó del Mediterràni, overlooking the sea. Parallel, and to the east, lies the Rambla Vella, marking – as its name suggests – the start of the old town. To either side of the rambles are scattered a profusion of relics from Tarragona's Roman past, including various temples and parts of the forum, theatre and amphitheatre.