WHAT draws travelers to the northeast of Spain? Cutting-edge food, of course. To Barcelona? Modernist architecture, perhaps. Along the coast, the beaches. And to Tarragona, a laid-back city about 60 miles south of Barcelona, the ancient ruins. On our first afternoon there, my husband and I headed from our hotel down the broad promenade of the Rambla Nova, the city's main artery. We stopped at one of the outdoor cafes along the way, mixing with a crowd that seemed more local than tourist, and ordered gin-and-tonics.
The boulevard ends at a palm-fringed terrace overlooking the beach and the sea beyond. Right below was a second-century Roman amphitheater that once hosted up to 15,000 spectators. By now it was early evening, but the sun had not set and the site was still open. We descended a staircase to the entrance.
Despite the occasional aqueduct, vestiges of ancient Rome are rarely the primary attractions for visitors to Spain, which makes the wealth of ruins in Tarragona, a city of about 140,000, so exceptional.
Though Tarragona has been anointed with Michelin's top rating for sightseeing -- three stars -- and was named a Unesco World Heritage site in 2000, even Spaniards don't consider it a top-shelf destination. "People travel north from Barcelona, not south," said José Andrés, the award-winning chef who grew up near Barcelona and is now based in Washington, D.C, when I asked him about Tarragona.
"It's not a big destination, even for Spaniards," agreed Elisabeth Pujol, who was behind the desk in one of the tourist offices where we picked up a brochure, though she added that the Unesco designation has helped. During our visit, in late April, we encountered few Americans.
And that's a shame. Tarragona's rich array of sights are all within about 15 minutes' walk from one another. Excellent maps are provided by hotels and tourist offices, and large burgundy signs labeled "Tárraco" -- one of Tarragona's ancient Roman names -- point the way, with maps and explanatory text in several languages.
The amphitheater, a minimally restored elliptical arena with banks of seats built into a sloping hillside. By the third century A.D., Christians were martyred there and a commemorative basilica was built. The basilica, in turn, became a church -- Holy Mary of the Miracle -- then a convent and a prison.
It was a vivid reminder of the richly layered history of Tarragona, most of which is situated above the amphitheater, within the Old City's ancient walls.
Where the Rambla segues into the historic district there is a stunning praetorium and circus complex, built by the Emperor Domitian for chariot races -- once a part of the immense main forum of the city. The circus is said to have been the largest in the Roman Empire and is considered one of the best preserved in Europe. (Even with a good map, though, navigating its confusing network of tunnels and walkways was a challenge.)
Within the circus is a massive tower from the first century B.C., that was turned into a Gothic-style palace during the Middle Ages. A handsome sarcophagus with reliefs of the legend of Hippolytus is on display in one of the vaulted rooms. Throughout are written explanations in several languages.
Of course, there's only so much history one can take in over the course of an evening. It was time for dinner.
We made our way to Degusta, a fairly high-end restaurant in the Old City; a 9 p.m. reservation made us early birds. The tasting menu was satisfying, with some inventive touches, like a paper cone of crisp dried cuttlefish, and violet ice cream for dessert.
While Tarragona is not where you will find the culinary enterprise for which Spain has become known, it's easy to dine well and enjoy the local wines. Knowing some Catalan or at least Spanish is helpful in decoding menus, because English translations and English-speaking servers are not universal.
"Tarragona has very few tourist restaurants," Ms. Pujol had said at the tourist office. "Our restaurants cater to the locals; if they had to depend on tourists they would go out of business."
In addition to restaurants and tapas bars in the lovely historic district, some of them with ancient walls incorporated into their décor, there are others scattered throughout Eixample, the city's modern neighborhood, and also a cluster of seafood spots at the fishing port, El Serrallo.
The next morning, we returned to our tour of the ruins, starting at a gate in the ancient walls. There, at the Plaça del Pallol, there's a model of the city in its Roman heyday, starting in 218 B.C. It was then, during the Punic Wars against Carthage, that the Romans began building the walls and paving the forums to create a major provincial capital and their base of operations for conquering the Iberian peninsula. Around the first century A.D., the city had a population many times greater than the present. Between conquests, emperors like Caesar Augustus and Hadrian lingered there. It fell into decline in the fifth century. Today, fortified walls run along the perimeter of about a third of the historic district, with a park-like promenade on top.
Inside the Old City, the National Archeological Museum of Tarragona is housed in an elegant building behind the circus and holds marble and bronze sculptures, a number of stunning mosaics and other artifacts.
For some, though, the ruins, including vestiges of the forum and the theater -- which can even be found among the office buildings and apartment houses that line the avenues of Eixample -- have not been effectively spotlighted.
"There are beautiful ruins, but there's too much stuff that's been built up around them," said Pere Mateo, an olive oil dealer who lives near Tarragona.
For example, at the edge of the city, in the shadow of a big shopping mall and near a public park, is an early-era Christian necropolis featuring tombs and crypts from the Romans to the Visigoths, and parts of a Christian basilica. (Many of the finds from this dig are on display in an adjacent museum, the Museo Necrópolis Paleocristiana.)
Ruins worth a visit don't end at the city limits. If you head about five miles outside Tarragona to the Aqueduct de les Ferrers, nicknamed the Pont del Diable, you'll quickly forget that you just passed the entrance to the autoroute that leads to the city: the aqueduct is a knockout. Some sections of this marvel of Roman engineering that once stretched for 25 miles are wreathed in scaffolding. Really doing it justice means spending a few hours hiking along nearby marked trails.
Another excursion, southwest on the road to Valencia, is the remains of the so-called Roman Villa de Centcelles, actually a mausoleum dating from the early Christian era. It's not in great shape, but offers an impressive dome and fragments of tawny mosaics depicting some biblical and hunting scenes.
Yet another side trip, back toward Barcelona along the coast, leads to the Torre de los Escipiones. Another nine or so miles farther along on what was once the Via Augusta, is a triumphal arch from the first century A.D.
We left Tarragona feeling as though we had been let in on a wonderful secret that told not only of the reach of ancient Rome, but of other historic periods, layered within and around the city. And that the secret was meant to be shared.
Roman Antiquities and Spanish Classics
By car, Tarragona is a little over an hour's trip from Barcelona on the A-7 Autoroute, or slower on the more picturesque coastal road, the E-240. Another option is to take the train from Barcelona -- about 30 minutes by fast train, about 50 minutes on the slower train -- with fares from about 14 to 96 euros per person ($19 to $132 at $1.38 to the euro), round trip, depending on the train, day, time and class of service. There is also regular bus service, about 90 minutes, for 12 euros round trip.
Tarragona, laid out in a grid, is compact enough to make for enjoyable walking to and from all tourist areas, even outside the Old City. The Tarragona Card, 15 euros, good for 48 hours, offers admission to the Roman sites and to guided tours, as well as discounts for taxis, more than a dozen restaurants and many shops. It is sold at most hotels, the tourist offices and at tarragonaturisme.cat. To see the Roman sites, there is also a pass for 10 euros that allows free admission to all but the necropolis and the museums. Buy it at the first one you visit.
WHERE TO STAY
The sleek, modern AC Tarragona hotel (Avinguda de Roma 8; 34-977-247-105; ac-hotels.com) is in the new part of the city, easy to reach from the highway, steps from the bus station, and is a 15- to 20-minute stroll down the Rambla Nova to the Old City. Service is excellent and there is a parking garage. Rates are 64.80 to 129.60 euros (includes free nonalcoholic minibar, fitness center and Wi-Fi; parking is extra).
The venerable Hotel Lauria (Rambla Nova 20; 34-977-236-712; hotel-lauria.com) is just a couple of blocks from the Old City. Rates start at 49 euros, depending on the day and season, but it pays to book one of the renovated "executive" rooms for about 20 additional euros. There is a swimming pool and parking.
WHERE TO EAT
Tarragona's restaurants are varied, emphasize seafood and are reasonably priced. And there is a wealth of wines from nearby regions -- Priorat, Penedes, Terra Alta and Tarragona itself -- on their lists.
In the Old City, on a square filled with restaurants, Sentits (Plaça de la Font 25; 34-977-22-26-26) is one of the best choices for tapas. There are tables inside and out. The menu features classics like anchovies on tomato bread, baby eels with garlic, and seared green pimientos del padrón. About 40 euros for two, with wine.
The most creative food we found in Tarragona was at Degusta (Cavallers 6; 34-977-25-24-28; degvsta.com), a somewhat formal restaurant, with various dining rooms and vestiges of ancient walls. A five-course menu might include crispy cuttlefish, gratin of turbot with leeks, and roast lamb. About 100 euros for two, with wine.
The fishing port area, El Serrallo, is dotted with restaurants specializing in seafood, the most desirable of them on Trafalgar, with shaded tables spilling onto the street closest to the docks. L'Ancora (Trafalgar 25; 34-977-24-28-06) has a vast menu and dishes of high quality. About 55 euros for two, with wine.
Not far from the Mercat Central, the Roman Theater and Forum is Barquet (Gasometre 16; 34-977-24-00-23; restaurantbarquet.com), where the chef and owner, David Solé, interprets the local specialty, romesco sauce (made with nuts, tomatoes, chilies and olive oil), in various dishes, even whisking it into fish stews. There are set menus for 29 to 46 euros. An à la carte meal is about 70 euros for two, with wine.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .