By Jim Ferri
You won’t find a city quite like Seville anywhere else in Spain. Probably, also not in all of Europe, for that matter.
It’s a city of seduction. A city that seduces you not only with its beauty but also with its food, its history, its laid-back attitude.
That attitudinal aspect is what gives the city its character. Thankfully, it also allows us travelers, to peek behind the curtain and get a glimpse of Spain a century ago.
You can thank the Sevillanos’ historical resistance to change their traditional ways of making Seville the charmer it is today. Despite changes past decades have brought to other areas of Spain, in Seville you sense that time has stood still.
From the pageantry and spectacles of its Holy Week celebrations to its fervor for bullfighting, Seville remains firmly entrenched in the traditional way of life of past centuries.
Therefore, go to Seville and enjoy its laid-back attitude, its food, its beauty and lifestyle. In addition, let yourself be seduced, starting with these six experiences.
Seville Cathedral and La Giralda
The heart of old Seville is Barrio de Santa Cruz, which contains many points of interest in the city. Primary among them is Seville Cathedral, which stands on the former site of a huge mosque. It’s the city’s centerpiece, Europe’s largest Gothic building, and the third largest cathedral in Christendom. It’s a marriage of Christian and Moorish elements that is awe-inspiring.
Its designers wanted to build a cathedral so large that future generations would think they were crazy. What they attained was the largest cathedral in the world, not by square footage, but by its volume. The church is lofty and immense, so much in fact that in my awe when wandering about I forgot to look for the tomb of Christopher Columbus.
As for the Moorish elements, its huge adjacent bell tower is actually the minaret from the old mosque. After the Moors departed, the Spaniards simply placed a Renaissance cap placed atop it.
Across the Plaza de Triunfo in front of the cathedral, where pigeons and parrots flutter above the palm trees (and there are more horse-drawn carriages than you ever imagined existed), is the Real Alcázar, the Royal Palace. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s the oldest Royal Palace still in use of Europe.
Arguably, it is one of the most incredible palaces anywhere, a beautiful and sumptuous complex of stonework and colorful Mudejar tiles. It was begun in the 10th century and added onto by subsequent caliphs and Spanish kings.
There’s a lot to see in the extraordinary complex ranging from small rooms to grand halls with tapestry-covered walls. Incredible also, are the palace’s beautiful formal gardens, much of it in Renaissance style.
If you’re visiting Seville put it at the top of your list of “must-sees.” But be sure to visit during non-peak times, preferably in the morning before it gets warm. Entrance to the complex is controlled, and during peak times there are long waiting lines.
Tapas were born in Seville and today Sevillanos continue to remain serious-minded about their food. I had many pleasant and delicious meals in Seville, including one when I asked for a glass of house red wine with my dinner. The waiter brought a half-full bottle of good Spanish red to my table and left it there for me to enjoy.
Most importantly, you’ll find good fare all over the city. Start along the Avenida de la Constitución, the main pedestrian-only artery that skirts the western side of La Giralda. In the heart of the city, it connects Seville’s upscale shopping area with Calle San Fernando that passes between the Alcazar gardens and the luxury Alphonso XIII hotel before continuing towards the university.
Midway, where it skirts the cathedral and Plaza de Triunfo, a phalanx of tables sweep out across the sidewalk. The cafés draw both visitors and Sevillanos for everything from breakfast, lunch and afternoon ice cream, to tapas and drinks well into the wee hours. It is a beautiful pedestrian street punctuated by ornate lampposts and orange trees and lined with outdoor cafés and tapas bars.
Get out of the main tourist area and dig out little restaurants throughout the old city neighborhoods such as Macarena.
See Seville on foot. You’ll get a good feel for the legendary city walking through the Barrio Macarena, after entering through the Macarena gate in the old walls. The area lacks sidewalks in many places so keep your ears open for cars and motorbikes coming up behind you.
La Macarena is most famous for the 17th-century statue of the Virgin of Hope of Macarena. It’s the focal point of the famous Holy Week processions in Seville, the most fervent in all of Spain.
In the midday sun, it is so brilliant, the colors of the buildings seem to explode all about you.
While you’re walking through La Macarena, ask for directions to the Metropol Parasol, on the Plaza de la Encarnación, You;ll find it’s about a 20-minute walk but could take you over two hours if you take many detours, as I did, to wander other little streets along the way.
The Parasol is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Since its opening in 2011, it’s been controversial with locals who still refer to it as Las Setas (the mushrooms).
It’s interesting that it was built to revitalize the plaza that for years had been used as a parking lot and to unite the more popular tourist spots in the city. A 100-foot tall structure of wood and steel, it contains shops, a market, and a small venue for events. Underneath there are the remains of an old Roman neighborhood that you can also visit.
Las Setas gives vitality to what would otherwise be a “lost” neighborhood. Also, in both design and color, it contrasted with its surroundings significantly enhancing the elements of each.
“It’s fantastic,“ one merchant who I stopped to ask for directions told me. Once I reached it, I found I couldn’t agree more.
Along the River: the Bullring, Torre del Oro, and Triana
Walk south along the Guadalquivir River between the Punte de Isabel II and the Punte de S. Telmo bridges, and you’ll find the famous Maestranza bullring. People in Seville have a passion for bullfighting, and revere it like no other place in the world. Take a tour through its small museum and see the small chapel where matadors pray before entering the ring.
Further along is the 12-sided Torre del Oro, named either for the tiles that once adorned it after being constructed by the Moors in 1220 or later for the wealth from the America off-loaded into it.
I crossed the Punte de S. Telmo one afternoon and wandered through Triana, a working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Guadalquivir River, home to gypsies centuries ago. It was totally un-touristy and provided a real slice of life of the city, with its streets and little alleyways filled with people going about their everyday lives.
Museo de Bellas Artes and Plaza de Espana
One encounters so much beauty just walking about the city, though you risk becoming visually immune to it. Fight that feeling as you walk about and inhale the urban beauty you find everywhere.
Two beautiful places you should try to include on your visit are the Museo de Bellas Artes and the Plaza de Espana
Museo de Bellas Artes, the Museum of Fine Arts, is an art gallery set in a restored 17th-century convent. It is the home of the greatest collection of Spanish art outside of the Prado. Its works include works by Murillo, Zurbarán, Goya, El Greco, and Ribera, among others.
Also visit the extravagantly tiled Plaza de España, built as the centerpiece of the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition, and almost entirely covered with brightly colored tiles. Symbols of the 40 regions of Spain and depictions of historical moments throughout the country cover many of the tiles. Colorful tile footbridges cross a moat in front of the complex.
If you like, you can rent a small boat and row yourself about the moat.