Seville, capital of Andalucia, lies on the mighty Guadalquivir — one of Spain’s longest rivers — and is an enchanting city of leafy parks, mosaic-paved riverside promenades, winding medieval streets and grand squares lined with spectacular buildings and studded with fragrant orange trees.
Its history dates back 2,000 years and is displayed in a dazzling array of buildings from Roman ruins and Moorish minarets to magnificent Baroque palaces, Gothic and Renaissance churches, and more recently constructed futuristic extravaganzas.
Although it is proud of and eager to preserve its past, modern-day Seville — which gained eight new river bridges, super-fast rail links and a vast international fan base after hosting the 1992 World Expo — looks forward as well as back.
Since 2007, the city has gained a bike-sharing scheme and new tram and underground metro links, as well as more high-speed train services and even a trial electric car program. Major upsides have been fewer traffic fumes, more pedestrianised streets and cleaner buildings.
But that’s not all that recommends this fabulous city. For us, what makes Seville really memorable is its quintessential Spanishness.
Heartland of the flamboyant Flamenco and — more controversially — the bloody sport of bullfighting, Seville is also notable for the spookily spectacular religious processions that take place during Semana Santa (Holy Week), when living tableaux re-enact the Easter story, elaborate statues are carried from churches and sinister-looking white-hooded “penitents” process through crowded streets.
A more joyful festival takes place after Easter, when the Guadalquivir’s west bank plays host to the Feria de Abril (April Fair, which oddly enough is sometimes held in May). This weeklong funfest involves around-the-clock feasting and dancing. Then in June locals deck the streets with flowers and whoop it up again to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi.
If you love tapas, those tasty tidbits that go down so well with a glass or two of ruby Rioja, Sevilla (as the Spanish know it) will be your idea of seventh heaven. Grab a glass of wine, chilled sherry or ice-cold beer; whistle up a few plates of tasty local delicacies like jamon Iberico, olives, salty anchovies and puntillitas (fried squid) and then lap up the atmosphere of this lovely city.
Gape in awe at the fabulous mosaics and general gorgeousness of the Alcazar, a grand 14th-century Moorish palace that — although it was built a century after Moorish rule ended — gives Granada’s Alhambra a run for its money (and has fewer crowds and arguably even lovelier gardens). It is the home of Spain’s Royal Family when they are in Seville, but it’s open daily for visits by lesser mortals.
Take in the grandeur of Seville’s splendid Gothic 15th-century cathedral, the world’s third largest church. It is near the Alcazar and has a Moorish aspect, as it incorporates some elements — including a courtyard filled with orange trees — from the ninth-century mosque that formerly occupied the site. Of particular note is the cathedral’s massive wooden altar, hand-carved over the lifetime of one craftsman with 45 scenes from the life of Christ.
Puff your way to the top of the 14th-century Giralda (the cathedral’s bell tower), which is a World Heritage Site and rewards the energetic with magnificent views across the city.
Stroll around Barrio de Santa Cruz, the city’s exquisite Jewish quarter, which dates back to the 17th century and is a heavenly mix of historic whitewashed houses, intriguing cobbled alleyways and beautiful plazas. It’s a lovely place to spend a lazy morning or afternoon, as you’ll find plenty of good cafes and well-stocked antique shops. The glorious mansions along Caledon del Agua are also worth a look.
Don’t miss a visit to one of Seville’s key museums, the Museo Arqueologico on Plaza de America, featuring numerous Roman artifacts from the region.
Savor the art of the Spanish grand masters — including El Greco and Velazquez — at the Museo de Bellas Artes, which is housed in a 17th-century convent building in Plaza del Museo.
Maria Luisa Park is the city’s largest and rated one of the loveliest parks in Europe, filled with waving palm trees, fragrant pines and orange groves. It’s a delight to explore its pavilions and secret bowers. It has the grandiose Moorish-style Plaza de Espana — which was built for the 1929 Expo — at its heart, and from here you can hire a horse and buggy for an hour-long ride around the park (there is room for four adults onboard, so cut costs by booking with friends).
Explore nearby Cadiz. Almost as charming as Seville, Cadiz is one of Europe’s oldest cities, and its narrow winding streets are filled with excellent food, wine and craft shops. It also has a beautiful 18th-century Baroque cathedral and a well-stocked Fine Arts and Archaeology Museum. If you don’t have your own car, you can reach Cadiz by train or bus in about two hours.
Rent a car if you have time and head along Spain’s Atlantic coast to the lovely beaches of Costa de la Luz, which are famed for their soft sands, rich wildlife, and great bird and whale watching. Another option is to book an excursion to nearby Jerez, where you can discover the joys of Spanish sherry without the worry of having to drive back.
Seville is THE place to enjoy tapas, and the locals love nothing more than to spend an evening drifting from bar to bar, often standing at tall tables to enjoy a conversation over tapas washed down with beer, wine or sherry. Follow their example — and your instincts — and simply stroll around the old town to find a tapas bar that takes your fancy.
A small plate of tapas typically costs between two and four euros. If you’re hungry, or like that particular food so much you want plenty of it, ask for a media racion (a medium portion) or a racion (a plateful).
Recommended places for tapas include Casablanca tapas bar, on the river side of the cathedral. Specialities include whisky tortilla, marinated monkfish, “fried milk” (a Spanish delicacy made from whey) and chestnut pudding. Bodeguita Romero also has a good reputation. Oysters are a house speciality.
For traditional Andalucian cooking Modesto is a good bet, as it has a lively bar and a rather fabulous dining room, its walls half tiled and half embellished with traditional Spanish artwork. There is also an outside terrace. Specialities include roast shin of lamb and clams with prawns and wild mushrooms, while pastel lemon meringue (cake made with thin layers of sponge cake, lemon cream and meringue flambeed) is a pudding to write home about.
For a splash-out stylish meal, Taberna del Alabardero (the Beefeater Tavern) is set in a grand and elegant mansion with a culinary school on site. The menu changes seasonally, but includes a selection of excellent seafood and meats — as well as delectable desserts.
Shopping in Seville
Any little senoritas in your family will love the multi-frilled, flamenco dress-style children’s craft aprons you’ll see hanging in the shops (alongside full flamenco outfits if you really want to go over the top). Seville also has a thriving arts and crafts scene, so look out for finely worked silver and leatherware and stylish hand-painted ceramics. You can also pick up one of the spooky penitente figurines in any religious shop.
Keep in mind that most stores close for an afternoon siesta, so you’ll want to shop in the morning or early evening. One exception to the siesta rule is is El Corte Ingles, a Spanish department store, which is open all day and has not only clothing and housewares but also a supermarket and a gourmet food section.
The main shopping street in Seville is Calle Sierpes, where you’ll find clothing boutiques, jewelry stores and much more. Tetuan, a parallel street, has a number of shops as well.
El Postigo is a covered market where you can browse arts and crafts such as pottery, paintings, silk textiles and more.
–written by Maria Harding