Seville sits on the banks of the river Guadalquivir, at the heart of Andalusia. Travelers to Spain will find here some of the richest windows into Andalusian culture and history, from the Islamic and Mudejar artistry of the exquisite Real Alcazar to the warm air pulsing with the sounds of flamenco and horse-drawn carriages passing by.
The city traces its origins to some three thousand years ago, as the splendid and somewhat mythical city of Tartessos — a city mentioned in both Ancient Greek writings and in the Bible. Tartessos was said to be located at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River — or, according to Herodotus, beyond the Pillars of Heracles, which stood at the Strait of Gibraltar.
Tartessos disappeared as mysteriously as it appeared.
The Roman period began with the defeat of the Carthaginians in the area in 206 BCE. The city became the grand metropolis of Hispalis, and an important center of trade. Important members of the Roman aristocracy, including the emperors Hadrian and Trajan, were born here.
The Vandals of Germany, then the Visigoths, took control of the city beginning in the fifth century CE. Then, in the year 712, the Muslim governor-general Musa bin Nusayr conquered the city for the Umayyad caliphate. The Islamic era in Seville would last for five centuries, during which time Seville (then known as Isbiliya) became the most important city in Al-Andalus, the medieval Muslim territory in the Iberian Peninsula.
It is, of course, from Al-Andalus that Andalusia takes its name. In fact, every Spanish word that begins with “al-” — from almendra (almond) to almohada (pillow) — derives from Arabic.
The Christian king Fernando III conquered the city in 1248 after a 15-month siege. But the artistic and architectural styles that had arisen during the Islamic period survived, and became what is known as the mudéjar style. This intricate artwork, built on patterns and forms inspired by the natural world rather than realistic representation, is on full display at the Real Alcazar, a fortress dating from the Islamic era. More on that below.
Seville’s strategic and commercial importance continued for several centuries. It was a principal port for trade with Italy and England in the 1500s, but by the 1600s saw a strategic decline and Seville became known as the “city of convents.” The city was revived with the infrastructure improvements that accompanied the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition, for which the Plaza de España (more on that below) was built.
Seville is a culturally rich and energetic city, and a wonderful introduction to what makes Andalusia special. For a fabulous resource on tapas and flamenco tours in Seville, check out Spanish Sabores.
Top Things to Do
El Real Alcazar
If you only have time for one activity during your stay in Seville, you absolutely must visit the Alcazar. This stunning edifice boasts some of the most intricate artistry and stunning tilework of the era of Islamic rule in Spain (711–1492 CE). Room after room, it is simply breathtaking.
In 913 CE, Abdurrahman III an-Nasir, the caliph of Cordoba, ordered the construction of new Umayyad government buildings at the site where the Alcazar stands today. A palace was built, and later expanded. Under the name al-Mubarak, that palace was to become the center of cultural and governmental activity.
Several more additions would be made over the coming centuries, and grand changes would have to be made after an earthquake destroyed much of the original palace in the 14th century.
When the Castilians captured the area in 1248–1249, the Real Alcazar became a royal residence for the Catholic rulers. They would make changes and additions of their own. You can see evidence of this firsthand in the iconic Patio de las Doncellas (Damsels’ Courtyard), an enclosed, open-air courtyard and reflecting pool surrounded by delicately carved arches. The upper floor of the patio was redesigned in a Renaissance style, and stands out stylistically from the floor below.
Even after the area was reconquered, the Spanish would use Muslim architects to design many of their structures. The hybrid style that emerged would be called mudéjar.
You’ll also see evidence of the Christian monarchs throughout much of the tilework, in which you’ll see the iconic lion and castle emblems of the kingdoms of Castilla y León (an area still today called Castile and Leon). These were the heraldic emblems of Peter I (Pedro I de Castilla, 1334–1369), who lived in the Alcazar.
The Hall of Ambassadors offers up one of the most stunning examples of this marriage of two worlds. It is crowned with a gilded, intricately carved dome. While the patterns are of Islamic origin, and seashells representing the ears of Allah line the walls, the castles of Castilla are also incorporated into the design.
After exploring the many palaces contained within this single complex, make sure to wander through the palace gardens, whose lavish fountains and ponds feature prominently in a few episodes of Game of Thrones. (If you’re a fan of the show, visit these five Spain destinations that feature prominently in Game of Thrones.)
Address: Patio de Banderas, s/n, 41004
Hours: 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. (October to March); 9:30 a.m.–7 p.m. (April to September). Close Jan. 1 and 6, Good Friday, and Dec. 25.
Admission: €11.50 for adults; €2 ground-floor admission for seniors and students 17–25 years of age
Catedral de Sevilla (Seville Cathedral)
This UNESCO World Heritage site is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. Indeed, this 11,520-square-meter (124,000-square-foot) structure dominates the landscape for blocks. In size, it rivals St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The Seville Cathedral, called Santa María de la Sede, was constructed between 1401 and 1506 on the site of a former mosque. That structure, built in the 1100s, was called the Aljama mosque, and was built by the Almohad dynasty.
During the Reconquista (“Reconquest”) — the centuries-long campaign of Christian monarchs to take control of Muslim-held lands on the Iberian Peninsula — it was not uncommon for religious and governmental strongholds built by Muslim rulers to be replaced or repurposed for Christian use. This was also the case for the Alhambra in Granada.
You can see remains of this history in the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Pardon) and the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of the Orange Trees) on the north side of the cathedral. The earliest mention of the Puerta del Perdón dates from 1196 CE, during which period the city was still ruled by a Muslim dynasty. At the time, the gate probably had a military function, though it also served as an entryway to the mosque.
It gained the name Puerta del Perdón after it became an entrance to the cathedral. In fact, this is a common name for an entryway to a cathedral in Spain — especially for the doorway through which repentant sinners would enter.
Look closely at the door itself and you’ll notice intricate Arabic carvings in bronze that read, “Power belongs to Allah” and “Eternity belongs to Allah.”
Once you pass through the door, you’ll find yourself in a meticulously maintained garden of orange trees. It’s flanked by pointed arches typical of Moorish and Mudejar architecture. The construction of this patio dates to the 1100s.
The belltower, called la Giralda, is the only other remnant of the Moorish dynasty on the site. Two-thirds of the lower portion of the tower were built in the 12th century.
This map will help you find the Puerta del Perdón and other sites around the cathedral:
Inside the cathedral, you’ll find an incredible 80 side chapels and a 42-meter nave.
Address: Av. de la Constitución, s/n, 41004
September to June:
- 11 a.m.–3:30 p.m. (Mondays)
- 11 a.m.–5 p.m. (Tuesday through Saturday)
- 2:30–6 p.m. (Sundays)
July and August (except July 17–25):
- 10:30 a.m.–4 p.m. (Mondays)
- 10:30 a.m.–6 p.m. (Tuesday through Saturday)
- 2–7 p.m. (Sundays)
It is recommended you buy your ticket one hour before closing time.
Closed Jan. 1 and 6. and Dec. 25. Reduced hours Jan. 5 and Dec. 24 and 31.
Admission: €9 general admission. €4 for seniors and students 25 years or younger. Free for children 14 or younger accompanied by an adult. Audioguide €3. Free admission on Mondays, 4:30–6 p.m.
Find a place to stay in Seville:
Plaza de España
Built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition, this monument showcases each province of Spain in one of 48 distinct alcoves, each with its own province-specific painting on tile along with a map. A moat — complete with rowboats for anyone who wants to take a leisurely ride — is crossed by four bridges, each representing one of the Iberian Peninsula’s four ancient kingdoms: Aragon, Navarre, Castille, and Leon.
There are, in fact, 50 provinces in Spain, but there are only 48 alcoves because at the time of the plaza’s construction, Tenerife was part of Canarias and because Seville actually doesn’t have its own alcove.
Colorful blue-and-yellow tiles, or azulejos, typical of Andalusia sparkle in the sun. Meandering along the alcoves offers a unique look into what makes each province distinct. Duck into the shade and meander along the interior esplanade for some relief from the heat, or get a full view of the plaza from one of the balconies.
You can rent a boat for €5 per 45-minute session.
This video offers a great introduction to the history of the Plaza de España, with flamenco accompaniment:
When you’re done exploring the Plaza de España, cross the street and explore the greener parts of the Parque de María Luisa.
Address: Avenida de Isabel la Católica, 41004
Hours: 8 a.m. – 10 p.m., every day
Parque de María Luisa (Maria Luisa Park)
Wandering through the swaying palms, shaded gazebos, and hidden fountains and ponds of the Parque de María Luisa is the perfect way to spend a hot Seville afternoon.
This huge green space was part of the same 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition for which the Plaza de España was built. That’s why, as you wander through its lush green spaces, you’ll also find lush pavilions in Renaissance and neo-Mudejar style that were originally built for that event. One, the Pabellon Mudejar, is now the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares (Museum of Popular Arts and Customs), while another, once the Pabellon de Bellas Artes, is now Seville’s archaeological museum. Find both of these on the southern end of the park on the Plaza de las Americas.
As you explore the park, you’ll also discover monuments to some of Spain’s most notable writers, including Miguel de Cervantes and Gustavo Adolfo Becquer.
Address: Paseo de las Delicias, s/n/, 41013
Hours: 8 a.m.–12 a.m. (summer); 8 a.m.-10 p.m. (winter)
Metropol Parasol / Setas de Sevilla
The Metropol Parasol has been known informally as the “Setas de Sevilla” (“Mushrooms of Seville”) since they were officially completed in 2011. Located in the Plaza de la Encarnación, the sculptures are 70 meters wide, 150 meters long, and about 26 meters tall.
The structure shelters an area that was a market in the 19th century. Over time, the market fell in disrepair, until in 2004, the Seville city government announced a contest to design a public plaza and market for the space.
Below the Metropol Parasol, you can visit archaeological ruins from the Roman and Moorish periods at the Museo Antiquarium. These ruins were discovered during excavations for underground parking in the 1990s.
Address: Plaza de la Encarnación
Seville is a wonderful place to experience tapas culture. So while we’ll offer a few recommendations for places to eat here, remember that, for the full tapas experience, you should be bar-hopping.
Order a drink at any given restaurante or bar and you’re likely to get a free tapa with it. Eat, enjoy, move on to the next place, and repeat. This means that the best bar for tapas is often the one that is closest to you.
Mercado de Triana
Specialties: Fresh produce, affordable snacks and lunches
Address: Calle San Jorge, 6
Price Point: $$$$
There’s really no more vibrant place in any town in Spain than the local market. And the Mercado de Triana is no exception. It’s a fabulous place to try a broad variety of fresh, local foods.
You can choose between Andalusia-produced jamón (ham), chorizo, cheese, salads, pastries, anchovies (much better than the ones that come on American pizza) and much more.
Bodega Palo Santo
Specialties: Tapas with a gourmet twist
Address: Plaza de la Gavidia, 5-B
Price Point: $$$$
Bodega Palo Santo has an open and airy atmosphere and a sidewalk terrace to boot. But that’s not why you should go. The broad variety of tapas and porciones (larger plates) are all made with care and precision. Many are presented with the flourish of a fine-dining establishment, rare among tapas bars.
It’s not just the usual tapas fare, either. You can expect delicious gambas (shrimp) and stews that are quintessentially Spanish. But you’ll also find dishes with unusual takes on tradition — combined with couscous or quinoa, or the delicious chipirones en su tinta (squid in squid ink) … in a crepe! Cool off with some salmorejo, a delicious cold soup similar to gazpacho but less acidic.
Café Bar El Comercio
Specialties: Churros with chocolate
Address: Calle Lineros, 9
Price Point: $$$$
Churros are delicious pieces of deep-fried dough that are often dipped in melted chocolate. Try this bar for the perfect after-dinner treat — or for breakfast.
Just remember, churros don’t usually come with chocolate automatically. This would seem to imply that the chocolate isn’t necessary, but let me tell you — it absolutely is. So make sure to order chocolate along with your churros. Ready, set, indulge.
Featured Place to Stay: Santiago 15 Hotel Casa Palacio
Address: Calle Santiago, 15
Price Point: $$$$
This hotel at the heart of the old city of Seville features a luxurious open patio in the center. It’s the perfect place to relax after a long day exploring and eating tapas. An outdoor roof deck is the perfect place to luxuriate with a coffee in the morning. The rooms, meanwhile, are impeccable and beautifully decorated. And, most importantly — there’s air conditioning!
Hotel Patio de las Cruces
This hotel, which features a lush, green patio, is just a few minutes’ walk away from the Alcazar of Seville and the Seville Cathedral. It’s also perfectly situated near the Plaza de España and Maria Luisa Park, the ideal place for escaping the midday sun. The rooms are clean and breezy, making this one of the best options for staying in Seville.
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