It’s no coincidence that more than a dozen operas are set in the city of Seville, including Carmen, Don Giovanni, Fidelio and, of course, The Barber of Seville. The Andalusian capital has a vibrant spirit and is rich with history, making it an endless source of inspiration to artists and tourists alike.
Perched on the Guadalquivir River, Seville is the fourth largest city in Spain but retains a charmingly quaint atmosphere, making it the ideal choice for a cultural weekend adventure.
Much of the city’s appeal comes from the layers of history evident in the architecture, food and art that are the result of multiple waves of historic influence. Said to be founded more than 3000 by the Greek god Hercules, Seville remained under Roman rule for centuries before undergoing periods of Moorish and Castilian control.
The so-called Golden Age followed, in the 15th and 16th centuries, with the increase of trade thanks to Christopher Columbus’ expeditions into the New World. Thus Seville became a major centre of trade, despite its inland location, due to the navigability of the river and the city flourished, both commercially and culturally.
These days, it’s still a vibrant hub, especially during the springtime when the city is surrounded by the sweet blooms of more than 14,000 orange blossom trees, and the festival season is in full swing.
First things first
Let's start with food. There is really only one way to eat in Andalusia: tapas, tapas and more tapas. The small bar snacks started out as a practical way to protect drinks from roaming fruit flies but developed into a way of life. From small, dry pieces of bread the concept has evolved into a wonderfully complex cuisine and there are many restaurants in Seville offering up their own clever versions. The city’s oldest bar El Rinconcillo has been serving drinks (and, later, tapas) since 1670, making it a good option. But there are plenty of other newer additions to the scene serving more inventive morsels including La Brunilda and the award-winning Espacia Eslava.
There are two main festivals celebrated in Seville: Semana Santa (Holy Week), which takes place in the week leading up to Easter and features a series of elaborate processions and parties, and La Feria de April, the city-wide fair which occurs two weeks later and offers six days of bullfighting, as well as all-night festivities and events that take place in a make-shift town of casetas (individual and highly decorated marquee tents pitched for the occasion).
The festivals really do take over the city, meaning both tourist numbers and hotel prices are high during this time, so it is perhaps advisable to consider visiting a few weeks later in May, or towards the end of the year between September and November (avoiding the fiercely hot summer months when temperatures regularly soar to over 40°C) to give you a better chance of exploring Seville’s many beautiful sites.
The Real deal
The city’s greatest jewel is the spectacular Real Alcázar, a lavish and sprawling architectural summary of the city’s deeply layered history (that might look familiar to Game of Thronesfans). Originally built as a fort in 913 by the Moorish rulers of the time, it has been a work in progress ever since. It has served as the official residence of various monarchs over the centuries and still holds rooms used by the current Spanish royal family. There is plenty to see and endless examples of Mudéjar architecture (created by Moors working under Christian rule) to admire, but make sure you save time for a stroll around the magnificent gardens that give the Alhambra in Granada a run for its money.
See the Cathedral
The other unmissable site in Seville is the imposing Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See at the heart of the old town. It is an extraordinary example of Gothic architecture, built in the early 16th century over the top of the existing 12th century Almohad mosque by the Castilian King Ferdinand III after it was damaged in an earthquake. He was determined to build a cathedral of epic proportions, and certainly succeeded, creating one of the largest Christian churches in the world. It is filled with chapels and breathtaking architectural features, as well as an extensive art collection and the tomb of Christopher Columbus. There is much to see, but it’s worth making time to climb the Giralda, which is the former minaret of the mosque that was turned into the cathedral’s bell tower and offers a glorious view of the city, especially at sunset.
There's still more...
While the Alcázar and the cathedral are the two must-visit spots on a trip to Seville, there are plenty of other places of interest to consider (depending on time) such as the Plaza de España, built for the Ibero-American Exposition World's Fair and nestled in the midst of the Parque de María Luisa. This grand semi-circular building, designed to celebrate the various regions of Spain, is suitably awe-inspiring and features a large moat with boats for hire.
Also worthy of consideration is the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla, a stunning 12,000 seat arena and one of the oldest and most famous bullrings in the world, which really comes into its own during La Feria de Abril, when they hold daily events. The Maestranza holds bullfighting displays from March through to late September, but tours of the venue and its attached museum are available all year long.
Discover some art
For visual art, visit the Hospital de los Venerables Sacerdotes, a former residence for priests that has been transformed into a museum celebrating the work of the famous Spanish painter Diego Velázquez. And the Archivo de Indias (or General Archive of the Indies) containing millions of precious documents outlining the history of the Spanish Empire in the Americas and the Philippines is a good option for history buffs.
To immerse yourself in the city’s operatic history, consider joining a personal walking tour such as the one offered by The Magic of Seville. It will give you the chance to visit all of the city’s key operatic locations (or their nearest approximation) including Carmen’s tobacco factory, Rosina’s balcony and Don Giovanni’s favourite tavern. If you time it right, you can pair this with an evening performance at the city’s opera house, the Teatro de la Maestranza.
A touch of the new
For a taste of modern Seville, make time to visit the Metropol Parasol building, fondly know to locals as “the mushrooms” (or “las setas”), and the self-proclaimed largest wooden building in the world. The controversial creation of German architect Jürgen Mayer, the structure consists of six connected honeycomb-like parasols, perched above La Encarnación square in the old quarter and features a walkway along the top that offers excellent views of the city.
Finally, a visit to Seville wouldn’t be complete without experiencing some flamenco, the vibrant art form that was born in this city hundreds of years ago. There are numerous venues throughout the city where you can enjoy the famous fusion of singing, guitar playing, dancing, hand-clapping and finger-snapping, but the best option is to stop by the Museo del Baile Flamenco where you can explore detailed displays of the history of the music followed by one of their hour-long nightly performances encompassing the various styles, best enjoyed with a glass of local wine in hand.
All in all, it’s the perfect way to finish up a visit to the truly vital and energetic city of Seville.