Tarragona has been settled by a variety of peoples throughout history due to its excellent topographical and strategic location and the existence of a small beach near the mouth of the Francolí River, where low-tonnage ships could land and unload.
Greek sailors were the first to use the Port for trade; however, it was the Romans who, after occupying the natural beach, built the first breakwater along a convex rocky outcropping. They later added a lighthouse to guide ships, called the Farelló. Its ruins could still be seen in the mid-19th century. Additionally, they built a curved dam that ran from the foothills to the beach to prevent river flotsam and debris from flooding the docks.
The Port was abandoned following the invasions of the Visigoths and Moors. It remained stagnant until its resettlement in the 12th century, when interest in providing a port in good condition was revived in order to benefit from potential trade.
In the 14th century, using the ruins of the old Roman port, trade began to pick up again, driven, in part, by the privileges granted by King Peter the Ceremonious (Peter IV of Aragon). Separately, new inland roads (to Montblanc, Valls, etc.) facilitated the transport of products from the area to the Port. A privilege dating from 1484 confirmed the earlier privileges and granted the city permission to build a new pier, whilst also permanently authorising the Port for trade.
It was decided that a new breakwater would be built under the oversight of a special committee, chaired by the prelate and with members representing the town and local cathedral chapter, which was also responsible for levying taxes on meat, bread and, later, wine. All towns in the Camp de Tarragona region were required to pay these taxes to trade at the Port. When they refused to do so, traffic shifted from Tarragona to the nearby port of Salou.
In 1799, the engineer Joan Smith was named Director of Works. His plans consisted of lengthening the Llevant (or Eastern) breakwater and building a new interior dock separated from the town by a wall. Smith was also responsible for drafting and designing the plans for the new Marina district and for ensuring that the Port was supplied with drinking water under an agreement with Archbishop Mon y Velarde.
The situation was normalised through the creation, in 1869, of the Port Works Committee, which was tasked with administering grants from the city council and the provincial and national governments.
Resources were more efficiently managed and grants from the national government became a permanent source of income. This period moreover saw a sharp increase in traffic, especially with regard to exports. It was also when the engineer Saturnino Bellido built the Costa Dock and the Oeste (Western) and Transversal (Cross-cutting) breakwaters.
Over the years, construction activity takes a second role, and insfrastructres and the renovation of its use gained more importance, as well as the improvement of services, the surfacing of the docks or the installation of electrical energy.
At the same time, the Port of Tarragona participated in the construction of the ports of Cambrils, L'Ametlla de Mar and Salou, as, pursuant to a 1928 decree, Tarragona was responsible for administering and executing the works in these ports, which would thus come to form part of its own.
Ships, too, underwent major changes. Boats rigged with sails gradually gave way to steamboats, which, in turn, were replaced by large oil tankers, container ships and bulk carriers, classified according to their freight.
This diversification led to the development of new transport, warehousing and cargo-handling techniques, including grain silos, refrigerated storage facilities, automatic unloaders, etc. At the same time, the port infrastructure has been adapted to meet the needs of these new vessels, for example, by increasing water depth at the docks and building new surfaces, such as the Catalunya, Andalucía, Cantabria or future Illes Balears docks. In the same vein, each dock has been specialised to handle specific products or types of freight. To this end, major infrastructure works have been carried out since the 1990s, including the movable bridge that links the Lleida and Reus docks and the new Catalunya, Alcudia, Navarra and Andalucía docks. The last has been the Chemicals dock, finished on 2014.
Attention should also be drawn to the marked interest that the Port of Tarragona has always shown in culture and the city. The city-port relationship has given rise to the Costa (Coast) Dock, which opened to the public in 1986 and has since become a veritable landmark for local residents.
The Tarragona Port Authority was among the first in Spain to set up a space to preserve and store its documentary and graphic heritage: the Port Archive. It subsequently created a separate space for its historical heritage: the Port Museum.
Additionally, the Port has always provided exhibition spaces for renowned contemporary artists to display their work in avant-garde shows open to the interested public.