At first glance, Seville appears to be a city preoccupied with beauty, with its lavish architecture, ornate religious iconography and elegant public plazas. After rising to prominence as a Roman river port, moonlighting as a Moorish capital, and then being absorbed into the Christian Kingdom of Castile, Seville reached the height of its powers when it became the gateway to the Americas in the 1500s.
It was then the grandeur of Seville’s golden age was set in stone. Today, dozens of opulent buildings from this period, including the world’s largest gothic cathedral, create an architectural feast for the modern day visitor.
Despite the appearance of decadence, Seville has a remarkably relaxed atmosphere, emphasising good company, conversation and food. In defiance of Spain’s well-documented financial woes, bars throughout the city still brim with locals discussing the day’s events and sharing a plate of tapas.
While other Spanish cities are overrun with molecular gastronomy and Michelin-starred restaurants, Seville remains fiercely proud of its grassroots tapas culture. The best way to order is to quietly glimpse what everyone else is having — and then point to the dish you like the look of.
One of Seville’s most pleasant surprises is without doubt its incredible affordability, with a range of budget to high-end accommodation options, coupled with the fact it is well connected to other domestic and international cities by both budget airlines and the AVE high-speed train from Madrid.
The historic centre is tucked into a bend in the River Guayaquil and is easily navigated on foot. While some neighbourhoods, such as Santa Cruz, are often overflowing with visitors, others, like the Triana district on the other side of the river, only tend to be explored by those willing to venture off the beaten path.
In the past three years, extensions to the metro and tram lines have improved connections to the outer barrios, while a city-wide bike hire scheme and newly established bike paths have been embraced by locals and tourists.
But not all new additions to the city have been greeted with the same enthusiasm. The Metropol Parasols (above), supposedly the world’s largest wooden structure, opened in March 2011 amid fierce criticism, with its detractors claiming it is off-scale and at odds with Seville’s architectural heritage.
While the city decides what shape it wants to take in the new century, it continues to offer visitors something few other destinations in Europe can: the convenience and warm atmosphere of a small town coupled with the attractions of a much bigger metropolis.
See & do
Tapas Tours: Seville’s tapas culture is legendary, but with over 3,000 tapas bars, it’s hard to know where to start. Steer yourself in the right direction with 20-year resident Shawn Hennessey, who runs customised three-hour tapas tours taking you to hidden bars to nibble on unusual and tried-and-tested fare. www.azahar-sevilla.com
Flamenco Museum: Experience authentic flamenco culture with a trip to the Museo del Baile Flamenco, combining three floors of interactive displays with flamenco classes — catering from beginners to professionals — and intimate nightly shows featuring guitar, song and dance. www.flamencomuseum.com
Plaza de Toros: Whether you agree with it or not, bullfighting is a key part of Seville’s culture. To find out why, visit the city’s architecturally striking 12,000-seat Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza, with its own museum exploring the history of bullfighting and its importance to the city. www.plazadetorosdelamaestranza.com
Giralda Tower: Work up a sweat on the 10-minute climb to the ramparts of this architectural marvel, originally built in the 12th century. A symbol of the power of the city, jutting out of the northeast corner of the cathedral, the Giralda was originally designed as a minaret for a mosque and the views from its crown are unmissable.
Alcazar: Lose yourself amid the private passageways, secret grottos and hidden embellishments of the Real Alcazar, the oldest inhabited palace in Europe. It’s worth investing in an audio guide or taking a tour to understand the history and scale of the palace. Be sure to leave time in your itinerary to explore its sumptuous gardens. www.patronato-alcazarsevilla.es
Santa Cruz: Abandon your map and follow your inner compass while pacing the alleyways of Santa Cruz, built as the city’s Jewish quarter in the 12th century. Filled with narrow streets, dead ends and disorientated tourists, the neighbourhood swoons with whitewashed houses and leafy squares lined with restaurants.
Museo de Bellas Artes: Wander the corridors of the Museum of Fine Arts for prized views of deeply religious works by masters such as Zurbaran and Seville-born Murillo. Home to one of Spain’s most important collections of fine art from the 15th to 20th centuries, it’s housed in a gorgeous 17th-century convent on the Plaza de Museo — and entry is free for EU citizens. www.juntadeandalucia.es
Eating out is a highlight of any visit to Seville. Be adventurous and try something new or tuck into traditional tapas, from chorizo to papas aliñas (a cold potato salad).
£ Bodeguita Romero: This is the sort of place you’d easily blink and miss, were it not for the crowds of locals feasting on some of the best tapas in town, including their signature dish: the pringa — a meaty Andalucian meal consisting of beef with sausage and pork fat. www.bodeguita-romero.com
££ Vineria San Telmo: With philosophical quotes on the ceiling, a warm outdoor terrace, modern tapas menu and helpful staff, Vineria San Telmo is a great introduction to the tapas experience and also has good vegetarian options. www.vineriasantelmo.com
£££ La Azotea: Offering tapas and a la carte dining, La Azotea focuses on a locally produced, seasonal menu giving traditional dishes contemporary twists, such as pig’s cheek slow-cooked in red wine served with melted goat’s cheese gratin. www.laazoteasevilla.es
Like a local
Feria de Abril: Get into the spirit of a Spanish soiree at Seville’s biggest street party, Feria de Abril, starting two weeks after Easter Sunday. Running for six days, this riotous event sees the erection of hundreds of casetas, or private tents, in which guests drink and dance. While it’s your best chance to glimpse locals in traditional flamenco dress, entry to the casetas is strictly by invitation only.
Plaza de Salvador: Cool off in the shade and rub shoulders with the locals as they gather in this buzzy plaza to catch up with friends. A popular spot after work and before a major football game, it’s sheltered from the sun by wide canopies, with most people ordering a cold beer at nearby La Antigua Bodeguita.
Semana Santa: Shun the crowds that flock to the city during this week-long festival, when pilgrims visit for annual religious parades through the winding streets. Look out instead for more low-key processions taking place all year round, with flyers posted throughout the city, listing a time, date and address.
Convent sweets: Indulge your sweet tooth with a bag of dulces (homemade biscuits and sweets) and support local convents who sell these sugary snacks to supplement their incomes. The sweets can be purchased by placing money in a revolving counter called a torno, which then turns to reveal a bag of candies on the other side. Ask your hotel for recommendations.
Flamenco dresses: It’s hard to miss the loud prints and billowing ruffles of the traditional flamenco dresses dominating Seville’s shop front windows. Check out stores such as Aurora Gavino on the Blanca de los Rios for a glimpse of the exquisite handiwork that goes into a professionally made frock. www.auroragavino.com
Calle Sierpes: Burn a hole in your wallet while sauntering along this pedestrian boulevard filled with speciality shops selling everything from pottery to sweets, with the bulk of Seville’s designer boutiques and European chain stores located in the surrounding streets.
Big nights are always on the agenda, whatever the time of year, whether you want to hunker down in a chilled bar grazing on tapas, or wind up on a dancefloor as dawn approaches.
Casa Morales: For a low-key drink in a traditional Sevillanos bar, head to the back room of Casa Morales in the El Arenal. Filled with locals nursing a cana of beer and nibbling on a tapa of chorizo, the bar at the rear is lined with striking, ceiling-high ceramic jars. T: 00 34 954 22 12 42.
Live flamenco: Although there are plenty of tourist-oriented flamenco shows throughout town, avoid them for the real thing in the Triana district, where a number of boisterous bars cluster together including Lo Nuestro (Betis 31) and Casa Anselma (Pages del Corro 49).
Fontecruz Hotel rooftop bar: Ascend to the rooftop bar to sip ice-cold cocktails before the winter chill creeps in. Located in the Santa Cruz district, the multi-level terrace overlooks the Giralda Tower and offers an exceptional view of the Sevilla skyline. www.fontecruz.com
Seville has an excellent variety of accommodation, but prices can fluctuate and some streets are so narrow that hotels can only be accessed on foot.
£ Pension Vergara: Bargain hunters will love this cheap and cheerful option located in the Santa Cruz area. With just 11 rooms and shared bathrooms, it’s an intimate affair but a clean and charismatic one at that. www.pensionvergara.com
££ Hotel El Rey Moro: Individually decorated rooms set around a spacious green courtyard add to the character of this 16th-century manor house, while free bike rental and a room catering for disabled travellers elevates its popularity. www.hotelelreymoro.com
£££ Corral Del Rey: Discreet and exclusive, this 17th-century bolthole in the Barrio Alfalfa features Roman marble columns, generously sized rooms with high ceilings, and breakfast on its rooftop terrace. www.corraldelrey.com
Did you know? Seville has been the setting for some of the world’s most famous operas, including The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, The Barber of Seville and Don Giovanni. Catch one of these spine-tingling masterpieces at the Teatro de la Maestranza or take the tourist office’s opera walking tour. www.teatrodelamaestranza.es
Seville is connected to other major Spanish cities by air and rail, including the high-speed AVE line from Madrid. www.renfe.com
Ryanair flies from Gatwick, Stansted and Dublin to Seville. EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Seville four times a week. British Airways flies to Seville via Madrid, code sharing with Iberia Express. www.ryanair.com www.easyjet.com www.ba.com
Average flight time: 2h45m.
Seville is easily navigated on foot, though a map is a must.
The Sevici city bicycle hire scheme is available to non-residents with a refundable deposit of €150 (£120), free for the first 30 minutes and €1.03 (82p) per hour thereafter.
The tramline is helpful for getting in and out of the historic centre.
The airport bus, though crowded, is cheap — €2.40 single (£1.92). www.sevici.es
When to go
Spring and autumn are best; summer can be unbearably hot, with bars shutting in August.
Need to know
Currency: Euro (€). £1 = €1.24.
International dial code: 00 34 95.
Time difference: GMT +1.
How to do it
EasyJet Holidays offers return flights plus seven nights at the four-star Casa Romana from £254 per person. www.holidays.easyjet.com
Frommer’s Seville: Day By Day. RRP: £9.99.
Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)