Exploring the labyrinthine old city of Seville, Spain, might give you a clue as to how Sevillanos in the 1500s developed the skills to become masters of global navigation. Even with today's GPS apps, finding your way through the maze of narrow winding streets can pose a challenge. But you'll know it's worth the effort when you glimpse a plant-filled patio with a trickling fountain or stumble upon a lovely plaza alive with people enjoying drinks and tapas.
Seville offers plenty to see and do. First there are the adapted Moorish gems and the Gothic and baroque trophies erected during the centuries when the city was a dominant commercial hub. Then there are the sights maintained from the two international fairs hosted in the 20th century when Seville reclaimed its place on the world stage. And if you're lucky enough to witness a Semana Santa procession, or see Sevillanos decked out in their flamenco finery at the Feria de Abril, or catch a whiff of orange blossoms and jasmine, then you'll truly understand what it means to be in the capital of Andalusia.
Seville is in southern Spain in the western half of the state of Andalusia. By train, it's about 90 minutes to Cadiz on the Atlantic coast, at least two hours to Malaga on the Mediterranean coast and three hours to Granada in the east. The metropolitan area lies in the fertile plain of the Guadalquivir River. Upward of 70% of the tourist sights are found in the old city (casco antiguo
The old city is a large district along the eastern bank of the river, further divided into barrios (neighborhoods). Starting in the south and moving counter-clockwise around the edges are the barrios of Santa Cruz, San Bartolome, La Macarena (at the top), San Lorenzo, Museo and El Arenal. At the center of the old city are the barrios of Alfalfa (south) and Encarnacion-Regina (north). Though it's not officially a barrio, most Sevillanos use the designation centro to refer to a central rectangular slice of the old city that overlaps with parts of Santa Cruz, Alfalfa and Encarnacion-Regina. It encompasses the Cathedral and Real Alcazar, the Ayuntamiento (town hall), the main shopping areas around calle Sierpes and calle Tetuan, the small square known as la Campana and Plaza de la Encarnacion.
Familiarizing yourself with the location of the city's main squares and using them as points of reference will also help you a great deal in terms of orientation. The main squares, moving from south to north, are Plaza del Triunfo (cathedral), Plaza Nueva and Plaza San Francisco (the Ayuntamiento sits in the middle of those two squares), la Campana and the adjacent Plaza del Duque, Plaza de la Encarnacion (where the umbrella-shaped structure called Metropol Parasol is) and la Alameda de Hercules.
The names of streets often change in midcourse, but there are a few principal thoroughfares. Paseo de Cristobal Colon runs along the river from the Torre del Oro to the Maestranza bullring. Avenida de la Constitucion runs from Puerta de Jerez in the south, skirting the western side of the Cathedral and arriving at Plaza de San Francisco. North of there it's called calle Sierpes, which takes you to la Campana. Traveling to the east, Martin Villa, later becoming Larana and then Imagen, takes you to Plaza de la Encarnacion. Traveling to the north from la Campana, Tarifa becomes Amor de Dios, which leads you directly to the Alameda. You'll no doubt become disoriented at some point, but chances are you won't become hopelessly lost. And because much of the old city is pedestrianized, you won't have to worry too much about cars.
On the western side of the river is the popular neighborhood of Triana. It's connected to the old city by three bridges: Puente del Cachorro in the north, Puente de Isabel II (also called Puente de Triana) in the center and Puente de San Telmo in the south. To the north of Triana is an area known as la Isla de la Cartuja, which was redeveloped for Expo '92. It's also connected to the old city by three bridges: Puente del Alamillo in the north, Puente de la Barqueta in the center and Puente de la Cartuja in the south. To the south of Triana is another residential neighborhood called Los Remedios, where the annual Feria de Abril is held.
Moving back to the eastern side of the river, to the south of the old city and the Real Alcazar is a very green neighborhood dominated by Parque de Maria Luisa. It was laid out for the 1929 fair, and many of its pavilions are still in use, most notably the Plaza de Espana complex. Farther to the north and to the east of the old city is the neighborhood of San Pablo-San Justo, where the main train station, Santa Justa, is located. Just south of there is the neighborhood of Nervion, which has a large soccer stadium and the city's main shopping mall.
Artifacts and structures tell the story of Seville's rich history. A hoard of gold jewelry and other finds unearthed near Seville called the Treasure of Carambolo are an indication that either Phoenicians or Phoenician-influenced Iberian people were settled in the Guadalquivir valley as early as the eighth century BC. Pottery found around Seville and nearby Carmona also points to a later Carthaginian presence. More substantial are the Roman remains from the third century BC onward, when Seville was known as Hispalis. Five tall columns from a temple, sections of an aqueduct, and the footprint of streets and houses are still visible in the city. The nearby ruins of the Roman city of Italica, the birthplace of Trajan, are also well-preserved.
Germanic groups such as the Silingi Vandals and Visigoths migrated into the Iberian Peninsula in the fifth century AD, eventually wrestling control from the weakened Roman empire. Hispalis came to be called simply Spalis. Isidore of Seville was bishop of the city 600-636, and he compiled an influential encyclopedia of knowledge handed down from late antiquity called Etymologiae, recorded the history of the Goths, Vandals and Suevi, and was influential in converting the Visigoth rulers from Arianism to Roman Catholicism.
In 711-712 an army of Arabs and Berbers conquered nearly the entire Iberian Peninsula in the name of Islam. Ishbiliya, as Seville became known, remained a predominantly Muslim city for more than 500 years. For the first centuries it was overshadowed by Cordoba, the Umayyad capital of Muslim Iberia (al-Andalus). When Cordoba fell to the Castilians in 1031, Ishbiliya emerged as an independent taifa, or emirate, under the Abbadid dynasty. Al-Mutamid is a well-known ruler (and poet) from that period.
After a string of successes by Christian armies pushing down from the north, the taifa rulers turned to a Berber dynasty from Morocco—called the Almoravids—for military assistance. Their support turned into domination of what remained of al-Andalus (1091), and then they too were overtaken by another Berber group called the Almohads (1172). Examples of the Almohad's defensive structures still stand in the Torre del Oro and a segment of the old city walls in the northeastern part of the old city.
In 1248 the King of Castile and Leon, Ferdinand III, captured Seville. The city underwent a significant demographic shift, with Muslims and Jews departing in large numbers and an equally large number of Christians arriving from other parts of Castile. In the mid-1300s, King Pedro I set about rebuilding the Real Alcazar. He enlisted the service of many builders and artisans from Muslim areas, which resulted in a symbiotic style called Mudejar.
While seeking approval for his overseas venture, Christopher Columbus lodged in Seville's Carthusian monastery. For Seville, Columbus' "discovery" of the New World meant great prosperity. The Seville-based institution Casa de la Contratacion controlled all trade to and from the new colonies, and many of the ambitious explorers of the day, including Ferdinand Magellan and Amerigo Vespucci, met in the trade council's chambers in the Real Alcazar to map out and launch their endeavors. A merchants' exchange, called the Lonja, was established at the end of the 16th century and attracted traders from all over Europe. Additionally, most of the gold and silver hauled back to Spain from the Americas was minted in Seville. With so much wealth available in what was then Spain's largest city, the real estate market boomed. In addition to grand private homes, many public buildings were erected over the next two centuries in Gothic, Mudejar, Renaissance and baroque styles.
In the mid-1600s, a steady string of wars took their toll in and around the Hapsburg domains, as did devastating epidemics and the silting up of the Guadalquivir River. Cadiz took over as Spain's main center of international trade, but the cultural and arts scene in Seville continued to flourish under the influence of such artists as Velazquez, Murillo and Zubaran, whose works can still be seen in the Museo de Bellas Artes and other local buildings. Even Spain's greatest author, Miguel Cervantes, resided in the city for a time.
In 1728, construction began on the huge Real Fabrica de Tabacos, where tobacco was processed into cigars. In 1785, the process of converting the now decrepit merchants' exchange into the central archive for all documentation related to Spain's exploration and colonization of America began.
With revolutions occurring in the American colonies and then the Peninsular War (1808-1814) brought about by Napoleon's invasion, the early part of the 19th century brought economic hardship and political instability. But by midcentury Seville began to develop once again. A British entrepreneur named Charles Pickman established a ceramics factory in the former Carthusian monastery in 1841; the first Feria, originally organized as a livestock fair, was held in 1847; and the first fixed bridge spanning the river, the Puente de Isabel II, was completed in 1852. Rail links with other cities were established, and the old city walls were dismantled, allowing a new network of roads to be laid out. By the end of the century, Seville was supplied with electricity.
Near the beginning and again at the end of the 20th century, Seville organized two important international fairs. The Ibero-American Exposition of 1929 had the aim of improving relations with Spain's former colonies in the Americas, as well as showcasing the city's progress; and the Universal Exposition of Seville (Expo '92) commemorated the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the Americas. Both fairs had a lasting impact on the city's infrastructure.
The Spanish Civil War occurred 1936-39. In 1931, during the last local elections held prior to the outbreak of the war, Republican politicians won 57% of the vote in Seville. Nevertheless, in the early days of the war, Nationalist forces gained control of the city and eventually used it as a bridge to transport Franco's Army of Africa to the mainland before launching attacks on other parts of the country and finally gaining control. Political reprisals and repression also ensued, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives in Seville. After the civil war, development continued during the dictatorship with several new residential areas being constructed, including Los Remedios, where the Feria was moved in 1973.
Following the death of Franco in 1975 and the restoration of democracy, Seville continued to develop its infrastructure, thanks in huge part to projects associated with Expo '92. One in particular was the high-speed rail link with Madrid. In 1982, Seville was named capital of Andalusia, and local politician Felipe Gonzalez served as president of Spain from 1982 to 1996.
In 2003, the construction of Line 1 of the Seville Metro, which was paralyzed in the 1980s, was reinitiated. In 2009, the first metro line was inaugurated and serves more than 15 million travelers annually.
Despite the millions of euros in economic aid, via subsidies, granted by the EU in recent decades, the per capita income in Andalusia is still below the Spanish and European average.
To help you organize your sightseeing in Seville, it's a good idea to focus on a particular theme or geographic area and let that guide you. Of course, there are some things that every visitor to Seville should see, namely the Cathedral, which is impressive in terms of both size and decorative detail, and the Real Alcazar, a palace complex spanning the city's Muslim and Christian eras. The city's third UNESCO World Heritage site is the Archivo de Indias. Its exhibits will appeal primarily to people interested in the history of Seville's role in the Americas, but the general public will no doubt appreciate its handsome architecture. Fortunately, all three sites are close to one another, forming a veritable epicenter of sightseeing. That's where you should start.
Of course, sightseeing can involve more than just museums and monuments. For some fresh air and exercise, you could explore by foot or on bike the lovely Parque de Maria Luisa with its many pavilions and the grand Plaza de Espana. A stroll or bike ride along the river, crossing the various bridges, is also recommended. There are some nice gardens along the riverbank on the Isla de la Cartuja side as well.
If your interests are more general, then you could go about seeing the city neighborhood by neighborhood. The centro is not just the commercial heart of the city: It also has some lovely buildings and beautiful squares where you can relax and people-watch. Santa Cruz is perhaps the most picturesque neighborhood, but El Arenal (especially the bullring), Encarnacion-Regina, La Macarena (especially around the Alameda) and Triana all have their own character.
Finally, if you prefer to be guided around the city, then there's a wide range of tours available, including walking tours, bus tours, boat tours, Segway tours, tours by bike and even tours by kayak.
Seville is a nocturnal city, and the nightlife scene revolves around a large number of traditional and contemporary bars and clubs. In general, finding a place where you can enjoy a glass of beer or wine and tapas won't be a problem in any barrio, or practically on any street, but there are some neighborhoods that have a higher concentration of options than others.
The Alameda area in the north of the old city is a popular spot. The plaza is lined with bars, cafes and restaurants, and there are even more places to choose from in the streets branching off of it. Once considered an alternative hangout, and still the city's main LGBTQ area, the Alameda attracts people of different ages, tastes and backgrounds. El Arenal has a trendier feel, with its bars and clubs catering to a late-20s to early-40s professional crowd. The centro, especially around Plaza Nueva, Plaza del Salvador and Plaza Alfalfa, offers many options, ranging from traditional tapas bars to ultramodern gastrobars to chic cocktail lounges.
With pleasant weather nearly year-round, a lot of nightlife in Seville takes place outdoors. Chairs and tables, or just wooden barrels, are often set up on the sidewalks and squares in front of businesses. Even without those props, crowds of patrons often spill out of popular bars and into the street (perhaps the ban on smoking indoors has something to do with this, as well). Terrazas are also incredibly popular. The terrace at Calle Betis in Triana stands out thanks to its wonderful views of the old city lit up at night across the river. On the other side of the river, Muelle de Delicias on the edge of Parque de Maria Luisa has great terraces, too. Rooftop terraces at hotels are yet another popular option when it comes to enjoying a drink with a view in an open-air setting.
Live music comes in many forms, with a special emphasis on flamenco. In addition to the professional, albeit touristy, tablaos, there are plenty of bars with scheduled and impromptu performances. Pop, rock and jazz are performed at both small and large venues.
Apart from the customary aperitivo before dinner, nightlife in Seville usually kicks off late. Typically a stop will be made at a cerveceria for beer and tapas, either after dinner or in lieu of dinner. After that, things might move on to a wine bar or cocktail bar, and then, no earlier than 1 or 2 am, it's time to head to a dance club, where the fun can continue until the early hours of the morning. Of course, there's no reason why you can't end the evening in the same spot you started.
Andalusia renders a bounty of high-quality meats, fresh produce and seafood that is showcased in Seville's restaurants. In fact, dining out is one of the best things about visiting Seville. Other cuisines, particularly Italian and some Asian, are available, but the overwhelming emphasis is on local and regional specialties.
Some of the most common meat items on the menu include jamon de jabugo (air-cured ham from black Iberian pigs), rabo de toro (stewed oxtail), solomillo al whisky (pork tenderloin in a whiskey sauce), albondigas (meatballs) and chuletas de cordero (lamb chops). Chacinas are cured meats, such as jamon or lomo, along with sausages, such as chorizo and salchichon. Morcilla is black pudding. Ropa vieja, literally "old clothing," is made with shredded meat, and pringa is a dish with slow-cooked meats that is usually eaten with bread.
Popular seafood dishes include bacalao (cod, usually in the salt-preserved variety), chipirones (small squid), chocos (cuddlefish), gambas (shrimp), langostinos (larger prawns), sardinas (sardines, usually grilled) and boquerones (anchovies, usually fried). Pescaito frito is either a single variety or an assortment of small fish or fillets. Croquetas are ubiquitous, made with different ingredients such as bacalao or ham and cheese, or whatever cooked meats happen to be on hand.
Some of the more popular vegetables include espinacas (spinach, often paired with garbanzo), berenjenas (eggplant) and alcochofas (artichokes). Traditional cold soups include gazpacho, salmorejo (a thicker version of gazpacho topped with chopped hard-boiled egg and pieces of cured ham) and ajo blanco (a puree of almonds, water, garlic, olive oil and vinegar).
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of el tapeo. Enjoying tapas is practically an institution in which the line between dining and nightlife is often blurred. For instance, you'll find tapas bars, or bodeguitas or cervecerias, where you can enjoy a full meal, and more formal establishments that reserve an area where tapas can be enjoyed. So, a tapa doesn't have to be a mere snack; several different tapas, or larger portions called raciones, can be ordered, making them a filling lunch or dinner. Sevillanos, like many other Spaniards, regard tapas in both gastronomical and social terms, with groups of people often ordering together and sharing dishes.
Another addition to the dining scene is gastrobars, which have sprung up everywhere in Seville. They can range from casual to quite stylish, but the emphasis is always on carefully prepared, innovative food. That may involve updated versions of local and traditional dishes or daring fusions with international accents.
Beer and wine are the most common drinks to accompany food. Rioja and Ribera del Duero (tintos, or reds) and Rueda (blanco, or white) are standard Spanish wine choices, but regional varieties are gaining more and more attention. Sherry wine is also a popular aperitif, and it is made in the nearby Sherry Triangle.
Breakfast is usually a light affair consisting of coffee or tea, freshly squeezed orange juice and toasted bread (tostadas) topped with either tomato pulp and olive oil or butter and marmalade. Sweet baked goods are also popular. Generally speaking, breakfast is served in any bar or cafe. Another option for first thing in the morning, or last thing at night, is churros y chocolate.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 15 euros; $$ = 15 euros-30 euros; $$$ = 31 euros-60 euros; and $$$$ = more than 60 euros.
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