Sevilla

Sevilla is the flamboyant city of Carmen and Don Juan, where bullfighting is still politically correct and little girls dream of growing up to become flamenco dancers. Sevilla has soul — and we feel it in its lacy Moorish palace, massive cathedral, lavish royal tombs, labyrinthine Jewish quarter, and its people-filled streets.

Travel Details

Flamenco

Sevilla’s flamenco offerings tend to fall into one of three categories: serious concerts (usually about €18 and about an hour long), where the singing and dancing take center stage; touristy dinner-and-drinks shows with table service (generally around €35 — not including food — and two hours long); and — the least touristy option — casual bars with late-night performances, where for the cost of a drink you can catch impromptu (or semi-impromptu) musicians at play.

Serious concerts: I like La Casa de la Memoria, where everyone gets a close-up view and room to stretch out; the shows at the Flamenco Dance Museum, which is tightly packed but allows drinks; and La Casa del Flamenco, in a delightful arcaded coutryard right in the Barrio Santa Cruz.

Razzle-dazzle shows: These packaged shows can be a bit sterile — and an audience of tourists doesn’t help — but I find both Los Gallos and Tablao El Arenal entertaining and riveting. While El Arenal may have a slight edge on talent, and certainly feels slicker, Los Gallos has a cozier setting, with cushy rather than hard chairs — and it’s cheaper.

Impromptu bar shows: Spirited flamenco singing still erupts spontaneously in bars throughout the old town after midnight — but you need to know where to look. Ask a local for the latest.

Concepción Delgado

Concepción Delgado, an enthusiastic teacher who’s a joy to listen to, takes small groups on English-only walks. Using me as her guinea pig, Concepción has designed a fine two-hour Sevilla Cultural Show & Tell walk. In this introduction to her hometown, she shares important insights the average visitor misses. Her tour rounds out the rest of your Sevilla experience, brilliantly complements your independent visits to major sights, and clues you in on what’s new and what’s going on around town during your visit. I think it’s worthwhile even if you’re only in town for one day.

For those wanting to really understand the city’s two most important sights — which are tough to fully appreciate on their own — Concepción also offers in-depth tours of the cathedral and the Alcázar, each lasting about 1.25 hours.

Although you can just show up for Concepción’s tours, it’s smart to confirm the departure times and reserve a spot. Concepción does no tours on Sundays or holidays. Because she’s a busy mom of two young kids, Concepción sometimes sends her colleague Alfonso (who’s also excellent) to lead these tours.

Sevilla's Alcázar

Originally a 10th-century palace built for the governors of the local Moorish state, this still functions as a royal palace — the oldest still in use in Europe. Visitors can enjoy several sections of the Alcázar: Spectacularly decorated halls and courtyards have distinctive Islamic-style flourishes. Exhibits call up the era of Columbus and Spain’s New World dominance. The lush, sprawling gardens invite exploration.

To skip the ticket-buying line, reserve a time slot ahead online. Mornings are the busiest with tour groups (especially on Tuesdays). It’s less crowded late in the day — but note that the Royal Apartments can only be visited before 13:30.

Sevilla's Cathedral

Sevilla’s cathedral is the third-largest church in Europe (after St. Peter’s at the Vatican and St. Paul’s in London) and the largest Gothic church anywhere. Inside you'll find Columbus’ tomb, a treasury, and climbable tower.

Basílica de la Macarena

Sevilla's Holy Week celebrations are Spain's grandest. During the week leading up to Easter, the city is packed with pilgrims witnessing 60 processions carrying about 100 religious floats. If you miss the actual event, you can get a sense of it by visiting the Basílica de la Macarena and its accompanying museum to see the two most impressive floats and the darling of Semana Santa, the statue of the Virgen de la Macarena. Although far from the city center, it’s located on Sevilla’s ring road and easy to reach.

Museo de Bellas Artes

Sevilla's passion for religious art is preserved and displayed in its Museum of Fine Art. While most Americans go for El Greco, Goya, and Velázquez (not a forte of this collection), this museum gives a fine look at the other, less-appreciated Spanish masters — Zurbarán and Murillo. Rather than exhausting, the museum is pleasantly enjoyable.

The April Fair

For a seven-day period that falls a week or two after Easter, much of Sevilla is packed into its vast fairgrounds for a grand party. The fair, seeming to bring all that’s Andalusian together, feels friendly, spontaneous, and very real. The local passion for horses, flamenco, and sherry is clear — riders are ramrod straight, colorfully clad girls ride sidesaddle, and everyone’s drinking sherry spritzers. Horses clog the streets in an endless parade until about 8 p.m., when they clear out and the streets fill with exuberant locals. The party goes on literally 24 hours a day for the entire week.

Any tourist can have a fun and memorable evening by simply crashing the party. The city’s entire fleet of taxis (who’ll try to charge double) and buses seems dedicated to shuttling people from downtown to the fairgrounds. Given the traffic jams and inflated prices, you may be better off hiking. Arrive before 8 p.m. to see the horses, but stay later, as the ambience improves after the caballos giddy-up on out. Some of the larger tents are sponsored by the city and open to the public, but the best action is in the streets, where party-goers from the livelier casetas spill out. Although private tents have bouncers, everyone is so happy that it’s not tough to strike up an impromptu friendship, become a “special guest,” and be invited in. The drink flows freely, and the food is fun and cheap.

Restaurante El Convento

This restaurant has since closed (its owners have retired).

Script

See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.

Hi, I’m Rick Steves…back with more of the best of Europe. This time we’re deep in the south of Spain…in Andalucía. This is Sevilla. Hold on to your castanets. Thank you.

Sevilla does festivals with gusto. It’s a flamboyant city of larger-than-life lovers like Carmen and Don Juan, where bullfighting is still politically correct, and where little girls still dream of growing up to become flamenco dancers. Sevilla has soul and a contagious love of life.

Sevilla — or Seville in English — has its share of impressive sights and we’ll see its grand cathedral and plush Moorish palace. But the real magic is the city itself — with its labyrinthine Jewish Quarter, riveting flamenco shows, thriving bars, and teeming festivals.

From Sevilla, we head into the hills of Andalucía to explore the region's finest hill town, Arcos de la Frontera.

Located in the southwest corner of Europe, Spain dominates the Iberian Peninsula. Its southern province is Andalucía. And the region’s leading city is Sevilla.

From there, we travel to Arcos de la Frontera.

Sevilla was Europe’s gateway to the New World in the 16th century. It flourished during the Age of Discovery. The explorers Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Amerigo Vespucci all sailed from right here.

The Golden Tower was the starting and ending point for trade with the New World. For centuries part of the city’s fortifications, it came with a heavy chain draped across the river to protect the harbor. In the 16th century, Sevilla’s Golden Age was powered by New World riches.

In the 17th century, all that money made the city an important center of arts and culture. In the 18th century — as its harbor silted up and the Spanish empire crumbled — Sevilla’s power faded. And in the 19th century, the once-powerful-now-quaint Sevilla became an important stop on the Romantic-era “Grand Tour of Europe.”

In the 20th century, 1992 to be exact, Sevilla hosted a World’s Fair that left the city with today’s striking 21st-century infrastructure: dramatic bridges, a sleek new train system, and even a new airport. Today, with 700,000 people, it’s Spain’s fourth-largest city…an exuberant Andalusian capital.

But the charm of Sevilla is best enjoyed in its traditions — like flamenco. Spaniards consider Andalucía the home of flamenco. While impromptu flamenco still erupts spontaneously in Old World bars, most tourists attend a show like this. The men do most of the machine-gun footwork. The women concentrate on graceful turns and a smooth, dramatic step. Flamenco guitarists, with their lightning-fast finger-roll strums, are among the best in the world. The intricate rhythms are set by castanets and hand-clapping. In the raspy-voiced wails of the singers you’ll hear echoes of the Muslim call to prayer — an evocative reminder of centuries of Moorish rule.

The town square is Plaza Nueva. It honors King Ferdinand III, fondly remembered for freeing Sevilla from the Moors in the 13th century. From here, wander into Sevilla’s pedestrian-zone shopping center — which Spaniards prefer to the suburban mall. This is the place for traditional Spanish fashions. But I wouldn’t know my Manchego from my mantilla without a little local help.

My friend and local tour guide, Concepción Delgado, has agreed to be my personal shopper.

Rick: So there are all these traditional things to buy…isn’t it just for tourists that they sell these?
Concepción: No way. These are for locals. We love our things. We have preserved our traditions for centuries.
Rick: So these traditions are healthy?
Concepción: Completely. This one of my favorite shops. Buenos días.
Rick: Hola.
Concepción: Now let me show you the three most traditional accessories that women wear in Spain. Shawls, mantillas, and fans. Starting with the shawls that you can see here. A big display of beautiful colors and embroideries, which are very practical for us, too. We would use them as accessories, but they also have a function, which is warming you when you’re cold.

This is what we wear on top of the beautiful, nice flamenco dresses to attend to the April Feria. On top of the flamenco dress you cannot wear a simple coat, you have to wear something more distinguished, which is a shawl. You can leave it like that…it’s more sexy.

Here we’ve got the mantilla. The mantilla is another accessory, which can be in two colors: white or black. It’s always combined with this comb, which is incorporated in the mantilla like this… and then we wear that on our heads. The white one is for only the Feria, for the festival in April when women wear them to attend the bullfights.

Let’s have a look at the fans now. As you can see, very different colors, different materials, but they are mostly made in wood. Remember that Sevilla gets very hot during the summer and women, old ladies, use them when they attend services. Very old churches are not air-conditioned. They are cooling themselves like this. Sometimes you hardly hear the priest. Just [thumping]. That’s all around you.

In the old days, there was a language with fans which is disappearing, but in the love game it was very useful too. For example, if you were looking at someone that you weren’t very interested in…you can go away because I don’t like you much. But if you were really interested, that movement would tell him something, don’t you think? Anyway, the most common movement for a fan is…

In the year 711, the Muslim Moors swept in from Africa and conquered the Iberian Peninsula. They ruled Spain for five centuries, inspiring a Europe-wide crusade among Christians to reconquer this land. Muslim rule stretched as far as France. But bit by bit the Moors were pushed back — expelled from Sevilla in 1248 and finally pushed entirely out of Western Europe by 1492.

The Moors left a distinct mark on Andalusian culture. While in Sevilla, they ruled from here…the Alcázar.

More than six centuries later, this magnificent building still functions as a royal palace. The Alcázar provides a thought-provoking glimpse of a graceful Moorish world that might have survived its Christian conquerors — but didn’t.

What you see today is a 14th-century rebuild — done in Mudéjar style. This was a Moorish style done by Moorish craftsmen but for Christian rulers after the reconquest.

This became the king’s palace. Its centerpiece was the elegantly proportioned Court of the Maidens. It was decorated Mudéjar below, and Renaissance above. The king hired Muslim workers to give Moorish elegance to what was a stark fortress. They built what’s considered the finest Mudéjar building in all of Spain.

The intimate Dolls’ Court was the king’s living quarters. Imagine the royal family lounging around a reflecting pool in this courtyard.

The stylized Arabic script — a standard feature of mosques — created a visual chant of Quranic verses. But the decor is clearly Christian. You’ll see animals, buildings, and kings that you wouldn’t find in religious Muslim ornamentation, which forbids images.

A century or so later — just after Columbus’ New World discoveries — Queen Isabel built a more European style wing to the palace. Anticipating a big business in plunder and trade, she built this to administer Spain’s New World ventures. The chapel is dedicated to Santa Maria de los Buenos Aires. St. Mary of the Good Winds was the patron saint of navigators and a favorite of Columbus.

This altar painting dates from shortly after Columbus died and features what’s considered the first and most accurate portrait of the great explorer, on the left. It’s also thought to be the first painting of Indians done in Europe. The Virgin’s cape seems to protect everyone under it — even the Indians.

Like the palace, the gardens reflect a mix of cultures. The intimate geometric Moorish gardens lead to the later much more expansive back yard of Spanish kings. The gardens are full of tropical flowers, cool fountains, and — in the summer — hot tourists. I’m thankful we’re here in late April…beating the brutal heat of the Andalusian summer.

The Moors were relatively tolerant of other religions. During their rule, Christians, Jews, and Muslims shared the city peacefully. After the Christian reconquest, Sevilla’s thriving Jewish community was concentrated here…in the Barrio Santa Cruz. Today, only a few peaceful squares surrounded by a tangled web of alleys survives from the days when this was Sevilla’s Jewish Quarter.

Explore, wander among lanes too narrow for cars, whitewashed houses corralling peaceful squares, and wrought-iron latticework. Regardless of who lived here, the design of the neighborhood seems to have one goal — stay cool. The narrow streets — some with buildings so close they’re called “kissing lanes” — were designed to maximize shade.

Concepción: These orange trees are great for shade. They never lose their leaves.
Rick: Refreshing too, on a hot day.
Concepcion: Well, not to eat. These are sour orange trees. We just use them for vitamins, perfume, or that kind of marmalade the British like...
Rick: Oh, that bitter English marmalade, yeah…
Concepción: …it’s made with our oranges.

The Santa Cruz neighborhood comes with a timeless beauty…savor the simple elegance of Sevilla.

The delicate charms of Santa Cruz are just a few steps from Sevilla’s immense cathedral. It’s the third-largest church in Europe (after St. Peter’s in the Vatican, and St. Paul’s in London) and the largest Gothic church anywhere.

When they ripped down the mosque that stood on this site in 1401, the Reconquista Christians bragged, “We’ll build a cathedral so huge that anyone who sees it will take us for madmen.”

You could fit a soccer field in here. Everything is supersized. The towering main altarpiece is covered in gold leaf. Constructed in the 1480s, it’s composed of hundreds of figures. It tells the story of the life of Jesus in 40 scenes from his birth to his resurrection.

The choir — an enclosure within the cathedral for more intimate services — surrounds a spinnable music rack. It held giant hymnals — large enough for all to chant from in an age when there weren’t enough for everyone.

In the transept, four pallbearers carry the tomb of Christopher Columbus. They represent the four medieval kingdoms that became Spain: Aragon, Navarre, Castile, and León — each identified by their team shirts.

Columbus even traveled a lot after he died. He was buried first in Sevilla, then moved to Santo Domingo, then to Cuba, and after Cuba earned its independence from Spain around 1900, he sailed all the way back here to Sevilla. Is he really in there? Sevillanos like to think so.

All that survives of Moorish Sevilla’s main mosque is its courtyard of orange trees and a towering minaret. The tower offers a brief recap of the city’s history — sitting on a Roman foundation, a long Moorish period capped by the Christian age.

The Moors built its spiraling ramp to accommodate a rider on horseback — somebody climbed this tower five times a day to call Sevilla’s Muslims to prayer.

Today, tourists gallop up for fine city views. And the former minaret functions as the cathedral’s bell tower. It’s topped with a bronze weathervane — a statue that symbolizes the triumph of faith.

Some of Spain’s best bullfighting is done right here in Sevilla’s 14,000-seat Plaza de Toros.

Bullfights are scheduled most Sundays, Easter through October.

While bullfighting is controversial, and many believe that the patronage of tourists just helps keep a brutal spectacle alive, others see bullfighting as a real and vivid part of Spanish culture. Whether or not you actually attend a bullfight is up to you. To learn about this tradition without actually supporting it, you can tour Sevilla’s Plaza de Toros and checkout its bullfighting museum.

Your visit starts with a tour through the strangely quiet and empty arena. In the museum you’ll learn more. A few special bulls are honored here — each awarded the bovine equivalent of an Oscar for putting up the best fight of the year. This one’s missing an ear — it was awarded to the matador who also performed well. Matadors dress to kill — elegant in their tight-fitting and richly ornamented “suits of light.”

The first-aid room is where injured fighters are rushed. Hoping not to end up there, matadors pray here, in the chapel. The Virgin of Macarena is a protector of matadors and the favorite among Sevillanos.

While her images are everywhere, you can see the actual darling of Sevilla nearby at the Basílica de la Macarena. Grab a pew and study the Weeping Virgin. She’s a 17th-century doll — complete with articulated arms, and human hair — she’s even dressed with underclothes. With crystal teardrops her beautiful expression — halfway between ecstasy and sorrow — touches pilgrims.

Sevilla’s Semana Santa, or Holy Week celebrations, are the most magnificent in Spain. During the week leading up to Easter, the city is packed with pilgrims witnessing grand processions carrying elaborate floats through the streets.

The two most impressive floats of the festivities are parked behind the altar.

The biggest float, slathered in gold leaf, shows the sentencing of Christ. Pontius Pilate is about to wash his hands. His wife cries as a man reads the death sentence.

While pious Sevillan women wail in the streets, relays of 48 men carry this three-ton float on the backs of their necks — only their feet show from under these drapes — as they shuffle through the streets from about midnight until 2:00 in the afternoon each Good Friday.

This float, with the Weeping Virgin from this church’s altar placed regally in the center, is the hit of the parade. It’s festooned with wax flowers and candelabra. It seems fragile — all silver and candles. Locals explain it’s “strong enough to support the roof while delicate enough to quiver in the soft night breeze.”

Rick: Have you actually seen this one going through the streets?
Concepción: The Queen of the City you mean?
Rick: Yes.
Concepción: Of course. She even wears her crown and that day she looks absolutely beautiful. When she goes through the streets people get crazy. They can’t explain all those emotions and they clap or they cry or they throw petals from balconies.
Rick: What’s so special about this particular Mary?
Concepción: She knows everything about us because we have been telling her our problems for centuries. Her name is “hope,” which is what we all need.

Sevilla’s passion for religious art is preserved and displayed in its Museum of Fine Art — the Museo de Bellas Artes.

The top Spanish artists —Velázquez, Murillo, Zurburán — all called Sevilla home. Sevilla was Spain’s commercial and material capital — its New York City, while Madrid was a newly built center of government, like Washington, D.C. In the early 1800s, Spain’s liberal government disbanded many of the monasteries and convents and secular fanatics were looting the churches. Thankfully, the most important religious art was rescued and hung safely here in this convent-turned-museum.

Spain’s economic Golden Age — the 1500s — blossomed into the golden age of Spanish painting — the 1600s.

Artists such as Francisco de Zurbarán combined realism with mysticism. Under a protective Mary, he painted balding saints and monks with wrinkled faces and sunburnt hands. This inspirational style fit Spain’s spiritual climate during an age when the Catholic Church was waging its Counter-Reformation battle against the Protestant rebellion.

The Apotheosis of St. Thomas Aquinas is considered Zurburán’s most beautiful and important work. It was done at the height of his career, when stark realism was all the rage. Zurburán presents the miraculous in a believable, down-to-earth way.

Eventually, the soft and accessible style of Bartolomé Murillo became more popular than Zurbarán’s harsher realism. Murillo became the rage in Spain and through much of the Catholic world. This Madonna and Child shows how Murillo wraps everything in warm colors and soft light.

Murillo’s favorite subject is the Virgin Mary, shown young and pure. The painting is called The Immaculate Conception, one of dozens Murillo painted on this subject. Catholics believe that not only was Jesus born of a virgin, but that Mary herself was completely pure…conceived immaculately.

With all this religiosity, it’s no surprise that Sevilla is also famous for letting loose in vibrant festivals — and we’re here for the biggest of all: the April Fair.

For seven days each April it seems much of Sevilla is packed into its vast fairgrounds. The fair feels friendly, spontaneous…very real. The Andalusian passion for horses, flamenco…and sherry is clear. Riders are ramrod straight, colorfully clad señoritas ride sidesaddle, and everyone’s drinking sherry spritzers. Women sport outlandish dresses that would look clownish all alone but somehow brilliant here en masse.

Over a thousand private party tents, or casetas, line the lanes. Each striped tent is a private party zone of a family, club, or association. To get in, you need to know someone in the group — or make friends quickly.

Concepción’s well connected…and as a friend of a friend, we’re in.

Woman: My caseta.
Rick: This is your caseta?
Woman: Esta la caseta.
Rick: Okay.

Because of the exclusivity, it has a real family-affair feeling. Everyone seems to know everyone in what seems like a thousand wedding parties being celebrated all at the same time.

It’s time to say “adiós” to Concepción — she’s got more celebrating to do — and we’re heading an hour south of Sevilla for a dose of small-town Andalucía.

The Route of the Pueblos Blancos (or White Towns) is a charm bracelet of characteristic towns perched in the hills and mountains of Andalucía. The queen of the White Towns is Arcos de la Frontera.

Arcos smothers its hilltop, tumbling down its back like the train of a wedding dress. The old town center is a delight to explore. Viewpoint-hop through town. The people of Arcos boast that only they see the backs of the birds as they fly.

Feel the wind funnel through the streets as cars inch around tight corners. Driving is tricky — it’s a one-way system; if you miss your hotel, you’ll drive all around again. Under the castle, and facing the church, is the town’s main square, which once doubled as a bullring.

Towns like Arcos, with “de la Frontera” in their names, were established on the frontier that was on the front lines during the centuries-long fight to take Spain back from the Muslims. As the Moors were slowly pushed back into north Africa, the towns, while no longer of any strategic importance, kept "on the frontier" in their names.

The main church is a reminder of that reconquest. After Christian forces retook Arcos from the Moors in the 13th century, it was the same old story: The mosque was demolished, and a church was built on its site.

There are historical curiosities everywhere. This stone was scavenged from an ancient Roman temple — you can just make out the Latin inscription, and this 2,000-year-old Tree of Life.

But the mysterious highlight is this 15th-century magic circle: 12 red and 12 white stones; the white ones with various constellations marked.

Back then, on a child’s day of baptism, the parents would stop here first for a good exorcism. The exorcist would stand within this protective circle and cleanse the baby of any evil spirits. Then, they could proceed into the church.

The flying buttresses were added to shore up the church after it was weakened by an earthquake in 1696. Arches prop up earthquake-damaged buildings all over town. Peek politely into private patios. Cool and inviting family courtyards are typical of Arcos. While the old wells now generally hold flower pots, they’re reminders that these courtyards once functioned as water-catchment systems: They funneled rainwater into a drain in the middle, which filled the well.

Explore the narrow white-washed and flower-lined lanes of this charming hill town. And, while you’re at it, work up an appetite. We’re eating at Restaurante El Convento, where Señora María Moreno Moreno, and her husband, serve the best of traditional local cuisine.

Throughout Europe, I find that mom-and-pop places like this offer the best values, and to dine well on a budget, I eat better for less in a small town rather than in a big city. Their refreshing gazpacho, a chilled tomato-garlic soup, is a great starter. Ask about seasonal specialties. The wild asparagus dish is just right in springtime, as are the artichokes — here they’re served with shrimp.

Spanish wine has moved up on the respectability ladder lately. Our full-bodied red is mucho delicioso. This is a good opportunity for game…well, small game; I’m having pigeon.

Whether finding new ways to stay cool, checking out a new dance, learning how the Moors made their mark, appreciating a new artist, or just joining the party, travel shows me how life can be enjoyed to its fullest in ways I haven’t even considered.

Enjoying life with abandon comes easy here in the south of Spain. I hope you’ve enjoyed our taste of Sevilla and Andalucía. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Adiós.

Credits:

As the Muslims were slowly pushed back into North Africa, the towns really lost any of their strategic importance and they just lost [laugh].

…established on the [laugh]. Karel, put a veil over your face because if you’re laughing I’m [laugh]. This is stupid, this is sophomoric. I should be able to do this. [Laugh] Take 25.

Clips