Upon arrival in Seville, the first thing travelers see is the Cathedral of Seville’s belltower, La Giralda. Once the minaret of a mosque that stood on the same spot, La Giralda still has its original Arab design that has survived almost a thousand years of turbulent history. Upon drawing closer to the tower, however, one notices that it isn’t as tall as it appears at first glance. In fact, it only seems to be about 15 stories high. Ask any Sevillano why the highest point in the city is so low, and he will answer with pride: Centuries ago, the city agreed that nothing would be taller than the belltower of the cathedral. When skyscrapers began to bloom in other cities, Seville stuck to the ancient decree and sprawled out rather than up. Unlike Madrid, Barcelona or even Málaga, Seville has become a thriving modern city that maintains an intimate, old-fashioned vibe, making history seem contemporary.
During Feria, Sevillanos celebrate their history by partying all week long
This isn’t hard. The city’s history goes back (at least) to Roman times, when it was Hispalis, a major port on the Guadalquivir River. Conquering Arabs renamed it Hisbilyya, and the city acquired its current name after the Catholic re-conquest. Architecture and artwork from all of these periods commingle throughout the city, and drivers on major roads can zoom past remnants of an ancient Roman aqueduct or the Moorish Torre del Oro. The cathedral itself, which took over a century to build around the belltower, is now one of the largest in the world. It is also said to be the burial place of Christopher Columbus, who set sail for the New World from Seville and brought back many riches to its ports, including tobacco (in fact, the city’s University is housed in the former cigar factory in which the opera Carmen is set). Narrow medieval streets feature modern stores and restaurants, and across from an Internet café on Calle Sierpes is a small plaque announcing that Miguel de Cervantes began writing Don Quixote de la Mancha on that spot.
Two of Seville’s most popular and enduring traditions take place in spring, and draw visitors from all over Spain and the world. During Holy Week (Semana Santa), which leads up to Easter, fraternities from churches throughout the city don the traditional Nazareno robes and carry enormous gilded wooden statues (called pasos) through the winding streets. This is not a good time for people with claustrophobia to visit: The narrow streets become unbelievably crowded as each procession goes by, and people can be squashed together for what seems like hours as they wait and watch.
La Giralda, the cathedral's belltower
Those willing to tolerate the crowd, however, will be rewarded with a spectacular experience. These elaborate statues, designed by some of the best architects and artists throughout Spain’s history (some are hundreds of years old) are testaments to Spanish culture.
Mere weeks after the religious opulence of Semana Santa comes the annual Spring Fair, or Feria. As with Semana Santa, the city largely shuts down and, for a whole week, goes out partying in traditional costumes. A fairground in the Los Remedios district houses both traditional carnival attractions and an entire miniature city of casetas—little houses that sell food and drink for private groups, or larger public casetas where anyone can drink and dance. As guests wander around the fairground and chat with locals, it is very likely that they will receive invitations to a private caseta where they can learn to dance Sevillanas, the city’s unique form of flamenco.
Naturally, finding a hotel room during these two celebrations is very difficult, with reservations coming in as much as a year in advance. While there are numerous luxury hotels in Seville, three are particularly worthy of mention. The historic Alfonso XIII is very close to the historic University and the center of town, and has become a cultural landmark in the city. Two new luxury properties have also recently opened in Seville: the boutique EME Hotel Sevilla and the Gran Meliá Colon. All of these hotels are very close to the cathedral.