Welcome to the city where orange blossom mingles with fountains in quiet courtyards while passion flames in the streets. Home to flamenco, inspiration for Carmen and the springboard for Columbus' voyage to the new world, Seville never bores her guests. After half a decade living there, here's my guide to the best things to do in Seville, Spain.
Seville is sexy, sassy and very self-confident - and it prides itself on having a good time.
It’s a city in love with tradition; you’ll find posters for bullfights and black barrels for sherry on many a street corner. And those vibrant spotted dresses with ruffles and frills aren’t just there for the tourists. They’re worn with panache every year at the Feria, complete with matching heeled shoes and huge flowers pinned to slicked back hair.
Legs of jamon still hang from the ceilings, next to religious calendars depicting statues of virgins studded with tears. Then Holy Week, or Semana Santa, in Seville sees some of the world’s most spectacular Catholic processions, with both crowds and incense filling the streets all day and all night.
Yet for all the tradition, those streets lined with oranges do carry the spirit of change. Seville has opened its arms to new flavours and features of late, from wasabi-laced tapas to the swirling silhouette of the Espacio Metropol Parasol.
Scorned by some for its drab-coloured walkways, there’s no disputing that the view from the top, which ranges from the Giralda to the plains beyond, is one of the best in the city. Nicknamed "the mushrooms" or Las Setas by locals, it's opening in 2011 received a mixed reception (code for people didn't like it.) Fast forward a few years and it's one of the most popular things to do in Seville.
Designed by German architect Jürgen Mayer, the idea behind the Setas was to provide some shade in a scorchingly hot city. The design took inspiration from the vaults of Seville's Cathedral (arguably the largest in the world) and the nearby ficus trees. The place is divided into four levels: the underground Antiquarium with Roman and Moorish remains, the Central Market at street level and the panoramic terraces and restaurant.
The Museo del Baile Flamenco takes you through the steps of Seville’s most famous dance to the soundtrack of stomping feet. Its rich visual display includes the costumes of some of flamenco’s biggest stars and it's easy to understand how foreign visitors found the dance so overwhelming in the days before the internet and television.
If you can't manage to catch a real performance (and you should try!) then a visit to this museum is one of the next best things to do in Seville.
Love it or loathe it, there’s no getting away from the fact that bullfighting forms a crucial part of the Andalusian culture. A visit to the 18th century riverfront bullring, the Plaza de Toros de la Maestranza reveals a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes, from the history of the tradition to the chilling dents in the gates left by charging bulls. You can even see the chapel where matadors say one last prayer before walking into the ring.
For a look at how life used to be and the latest in temporary exhibitions, walk though the wide expanses of the Maria Luisa Park to visit the Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares de Sevilla.
Parque de María Luisa offers more than just fresh air and grassy fields. It's an expanse of grand boulevards and botanical gardens with tiled fountains and ponds, native doves and parakeets. Stretching along the Guadalquivir River, it's poignant to look at the water today and imagine Columbus setting off from here and the returning procession of ships carrying gold from the New World.
Grab a snapshot of Spain’s geography through the detailed curves of the Plaza de Esapaña, an extravagant sweeping crescent of a building constructed to celebrate the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.
Shopping for souvenirs in Seville can be great fun, the shops crammed into picturesque alleyways and barrios, the trinkets flamboyant - and oddly functional. Chances are you will need a fan during your time in Seville and if you hang around for Semana Santa and then Feria, you'll need a spotted dress too.
Head to this guide on shopping in Seville for everything you need to know, including Spain's favourite department store, El Corte Inglés.
As long as it's not too hot, a walk along the Guadalquivir River carries a light breeze and provides a lovely view of Triana on the one bank and the tower of gold on the other. Today, the tower of gold (Torre del Oro) functions as a peaceful landmark for people meeting for a night out. But it began life in 1220 as a dodecagonal military watchtower called the Burj Adh-Dhahab under the Almohad Caliphate. After the Spanish conquest, this 13th century tower oversaw the ships that "discovered" the New World and which returned bearing gold that made Seville the most powerful city in the world at that time.
Look out for the new love padlocks on the Isabella Bridge. And don't worry; you'll find plenty of stops for tapas and cerveza along the way.
Triana lives across the Guadalquivir River and was once considered the "wrong side of the tracks." Here, working class sailors gathered to join the Columbus voyage and transport their striking accent to the lands of Central and South America.
It's also the hotspot for ceramics, the Spanish equivalent of the famous azulejos tiles in Portugal. Artisanal workshops cram into white and yellow shadowed streets, selling souvenirs and authentic crafts. Visit the covered fresh food market and sip a cerveza looking back at the rest of the Seville.
Sipping cerveza or fino sherry and sharing tapas while the sun settles its furious hot bones into the sky remains one of the best things to do in Seville. Albondigas, olives, gambas and more. The pastime requires an article all of its own. Stay tuned, one is coming soon...
Wherever you end up, you can’t miss Seville’s Cathedral and its latticed tower, La Giralda. Beneath this landmark, you’ll find horse-drawn carriages, a thriving meeting point and the entrance to the Santa Cruz Barrio. This maze of white-washed streets is no place for maps. It’s a place for losing yourself amidst hot tapas and wild flamenco, small museums and Arabic baths. Simply put, some of the best things to do in Seville.
The Cathedral of Seville and its elaborate tower, the Giralda, have become the symbols of the city. Visible from miles around, this beautiful landmark used to form the minaret of the mosque that stood here before the Catholic Monarchs drove the Moors from southern Spain. A close look near the top reveals the line where the Moorish mosque ends and the Christian ornamentation begins.
Inside, you’ll find crown jewels, gilded altars and the resting place (allegedly) of controversial hero Christopher Columbus.
To regain a sense of space, stride past the peacocks that strut through the gardens of the Real Alcázar.
If you’re in Andalusia and you can’t reach the Alhambra, Seville’s Real Alcázar is the next best thing. Extensive Moorish fountains, carvings and patios plus a few resident peacocks make it a refreshing break from the scalding streets of Seville.
Related: NO8DO Meaning Seville Remembers
Drop down again in scale to appreciate the small but exquisitely formed Casa de Pilatos. This casa showcases the elegance of Seville’s old mansions, with interiors heavily influenced by Renaissance, Gothic and Mudejar styles and with fragrant gardens providing relief from the heat.
For the latest in Seville art and culture, however, check out the exhibitions staged by the Instituto de la Cultura y las Artes. There you can find information about theatre performances, photography, music and fashion.
Both the Romans and the Moors embraced the idea of public baths with alternating hot and cold plunge pools, so it’s them we have to thank for Seville’s relaxation options today. The Baños Arabes known as Aire Sevilla are some of the best, tucked away in one of the narrowest streets in the Barrio Santa Cruz. With low lights, incense and sweet cold apple tea, the atmosphere alone makes muscle tension melt. But it’s the sense of history that completes the experience. The baths live in the former mansion of a Viceroy to the Indies, on a site that actually used to be a hammam – and Roman baths before that. Try the Thousand Shower steam room, hydro-massage bath and saltwater pool before gearing up for the real temperature challenge: the tepidarium at 36 degrees, the calidarium at a scorching 40 degrees and finally, the frigidarium at a ludicrous 16 degrees.
How about things to do in Seville in August? Other than simply stay inside and try to stay cool?
“Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” So the saying goes, but in Seville, even the mad dogs know when it’s time to stay indoors. With summer temperatures soaring over the 40 degree mark and no rainfall in sight, almost everything in central Seville is designed to keep people cool.
The streets of Santa Cruz crowd together to keep out the sun. Blinds are drawn and curtains pulled to keep the light outside. Machines spray water into the alleyways, creating a cooling mist for passersby. While modern hotels now have air-conditioning, many still live in former mansions or palaces, which relied on design to keep them cool.
That’s why you see so many marble floors and open courtyards, with cloisters providing shade from the sun. And that’s why so many central fountains flow to add moisture into the air.
That’s also the reason behind the siesta – and why dinner doesn’t start until after dark. It’s hard work simply being in the midday sun in Andalusia. Far better to rest when you can and to save yourself for the night.
In a city where dinner rarely starts before ten, the whole article could have been called things to do in Seville at night.
Yet Seville’s nightlife isn’t reserved for youngsters – you’ll find children and grandparents tucking into tapas at midnight and beyond, as well as adults enjoying free-flowing wine. With the crazy heat that Seville endures throughout much of the day, it’s no wonder its streets come alive at night.
You might want to follow a tip from the locals and squeeze in a siesta. Dinner’s nearly impossible before half past eight and most places aren’t buzzing ‘til ten. Even the spas stay open until midnight, in case you fancy a late evening soak.
Don’t worry about missing the nightlife, though. Live music doesn’t kick off until late at La Carboneria, while clubs like Kudeta are open until dawn.
La Carbonería has one of the most laid back vibes in town – except for when there’s a live flamenco performance on. A world away from the image of spotted dresses and castanets, flamenco here is dark, soulful and serious. Occasionally, you’ll catch a sevillana performance, a lighter (and some would argue) more enjoyable form of dance.
Bodeguita Casablanca offers up a hearty, no nonsense bar experience within easy stumbling distance of the cathedral and Santa Cruz. With staples of jamon hanging from the ceiling, framed photos of bullfighting on the walls and either football or the latest bullfight on TV, it’s the Sevillano equivalent of a local English pub.
For an upmarket sip of fino sherry while the sun sets over the Giralda, you can’t beat the rooftop bar at the Dona Maria.
Recommended reading: Where to Stay in Seville
If you can take the heat, you can explore the whole city on foot, zig-zagging between shops and museums with the odd pick-me-up of hot chocolate and churros. Seville’s metro, while new and clean, misses off most spots that visitors want to see. Taxis struggle in the tiny streets of the older barrios but you can take a taxi from the airport or main station to the edge of the older parts.
Seville overflows with beautiful hotels with central courtyards, fountains and ceramic tiles. Read my guide on where to stay in Seville here.
Travel further back in time to Italica on the outskirts of Seville. Crumbling columns, coloured mosaics and broad walkways all whisk you back to life in Roman times a few thousand years ago.
Some truly amazing day trips await, although another way to tackle them is to hire a car and build your own road trip through Andalusia. Olive groves, scented blossoms, mysterious caves and snowy peaks await. But so, do, to UNESCO World Heritage Sites and some of the most spectacular cities in Spain. An entire article awaits, but for now, here are the highlights.
UNESCO World Heritage Site and dazzling, ornate palace in the hills. "Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man."
One of the most beautiful buildings I've ever seen. A mosque that was converted into a cathedral and another UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.
Spectacular wetlands with flamingoes and the nearby Hermitage of El Rocío with its candle-lit vigils and stay-on-your-horse bar.
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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