Seville is an exotic city, even by European standards, with its round Moorish arches decorated in swirling arabesques and glittering colored tiles, its sizzling flamenco music and dance, its colorful pageantry and festivals and its pervading scents of orange blossoms and jasmine.
Seville, Historic and contemporary
But it’s also a modern and exciting European city and cultural center of southwest Spain, filled with history and a dazzling variety of architecture. Seville’s ability to bridge those two worlds makes it one of Europe’s most exciting cities to visit. And its main sights are all within easy walking distance.
Treasures of the City core
Begin with the three neighboring buildings that form the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the heart of the old city: Seville Cathedral, the Alcazar and Archivo de Indias. Included in that count is the cathedral tower, a Moorish minaret called La Giralda, one of the tallest towers in Europe. Climb to spectacular city views by a ramp, not stairs – after the reconquest of the city from the Moors in 1248, King Fernando III rode his horse up this inclined spiral to survey his newly acquired lands.
Measured by volume, Seville Cathedral is bigger than St Peter’s in Rome, with five lofty naves and a staggering main altar almost 120 feet tall. It’s not just the size that boggles the eye – the altar is covered in carved statues and entirely coated in gold. Following the discoveries commissioned by Fernando and Isabela, Seville’s trade monopoly with the New World lasted nearly 200 years and supplied the city with gold and silver for its churches. Further reminder of those giddy years is the tomb of Christopher Columbus, held high by four giants.
The Alcazar looks the quintessential Moorish palace – but is it? Yes and no. Begun by the Moors in 712, building was resumed in the 1360s by King Pedro, whose Castilian tastes seem to have been tempted by the lush Moorish styles. This is not the only example of this Moorish revival style known as Mudejar architecture, but is the finest. The garden and several of the many richly decorated salons and courts are part of the original palace.
Exploring the back streets and parks
Seville’s charming narrow streets are among its greatest attractions, best enjoyed in leisurely strolls punctuated by stops in sidewalk cafes to watch others stroll. North of the cathedral, Calle Sierpes lives up to its name as it snakes through a maze of little streets that also offer good shopping. Head east into Santa Cruz, the former Judaria (Jewish Quarter) now gentrified into a hot residential neighborhood of whitewashed homes, their iron balconies romantically dripping with flowers.
On the other side of the Alcazar, Parque Maria Luisa, like New York’s Central Park, paints a huge green swath in the city center, but filled with palms, lush gardens, orange trees and pavilions and overlooked by the elegant buildings that were built for an ill-fated 1929 fair. At one side, the Plaza de Espana, is an almost overwhelming array of towers and colonnades with a moat, bridges and grand stairways, decorated in colorful painted tiles.
Finding Carmen in her element
Just as the fictional Juliet has become Verona’s ambassador to the world, Carmen – Bizet’s fiery Gypsy has come to symbolize Seville. To visit the scenes of the opera, stroll past the former Tobacco Factory on the way to Parque Maria Luisa; it’s now part of Seville’s University. Carmen’s final scenes take place at La Maestranza Bullring, one of Spain’s most famous and still a very active bullfight venue. It’s a leisurely stroll along the river, past the Torre del Oro, a 13th-century Moorish tower that later welcomed the ships returning from the New World laden with riches.