Seville: Fiestas, Siestas, and Sidewalk Cafes

Seville, on the River Guadalquivir in Andalusia (Spanish Andalucia), is my favorite city in Spain (so far). Lush and sensual, with the scent of orange blossoms and sound of church bells, it’s a city where people know how to relax and enjoy life, whether they’re clapping to flamenco or sipping sherry at sidewalk cafes.

Charming Seville square

Charming Seville square

All Seville loves a fiesta – holding two of the biggest festivals in Spain. La Feria de Abril (April Fair) features a week of non-stop music, feasting, drinking and dancing. Women wear brightly colored folk costumes, elegant men ride Arabian horses, and everyone goes to the bullfights. Semana Santa focuses on deeply emotional religious festivities in the week leading to Easter. Thousands fill the streets for parades (several a day), of pasos (floats) with figures of the Virgin and Christ carried aloft. On Good Friday there’s a pre-dawn procession by candlelight.

More festivals celebrate music, theater, and bullfighting. I’m not a fan of bullfights, but they’re a strong part of the culture, with matadors showing their skills from Easter to mid-October. The bullring, Plaza de Toros, which accommodates 14,000 spectators, dates from the 18th century. You can buy tickets to the show in advance online or at the bullring ticket office.

Sidewalk cafes in Seville

Sidewalk cafes are abundant in Seville

Our hotel, the Vincci La Rabida, was in a great location near the city’s historical sites. Rooms in the restored palace varied in size and comfort; John’s and mine was fine, and the rooftop restaurant and bar were inviting. Rates were reasonable, but breakfast was so overpriced we ate elsewhere. Other good choices:
Hotel Alfonso XIII, a gorgeous, historic, expensive place.
La Casa del Maestro, charming and authentic, with a theme from flamenco music (that’s the “Maestro” part) and bullfighting. It’s on a small street and further from the main tourist attractions.
Taberna del Alabardero, is in an elegant 19th-century mansion close to the cathedral. It has a pretty central patio, a superb restaurant, and a staff both welcoming and gracious.

An open-top bus tour is a great way to get your bearings in Seville (or almost any European city of size). You can ride for an hour or get on and off, using a 2-day bus pass. That also gives you a discount on a river boat trip. The Seville Culture Card, good for 24 to 72 hours, provides discounts at many museums and attractions. Card prices start at $39.

Our favorite way to explore Seville is on foot. Ambling along the winding streets took us to Barrio de Santa Cruz, the medieval Jewish neighborhood, where we admired the wrought iron gates, picturesque balconies overflowing with flowers, and palm-shaded plazas.

Cascading blooms from a balcony in Seville

Cascading blooms from a balcony in Seville

Once we entered the massive Gothic cathedral, the afternoon was gone. It takes hours to see and appreciate the opulence and works of art in Europe’s third largest cathedral, which  covers 11,250 square meters. The central nave is 42 meters high. We had plenty of company; the Catedral de Sevilla is world-famous — one of those many places to see before you die. Built on the site of a mosque, it took more than a hundred years to be completed. We saw exquisite wood carvings, ornate marble sculptures, and paintings by El Greco, Titian and Goya. Christopher Columbus’ tomb was there, and shrines of silver and gold — well, the place deserves the attention it gets. In one corner we found the long, circling ramp that leads to the top of the Giralda Tower, a 12th-century Muslim minaret, and were rewarded with fabulous views of the city.

Cathedral in Seville

The entrance to the Cathedral in Sevilla

Near the cathedral is the Reales Alcazares, the royal residence of Spanish kings for centuries and it is royal indeed, with elegant archways, colorful tilework, and a gilded dome. Beautiful gardens with fountains and pavilions lie behind the palace. They’re perfect for resting in the shade after a hard afternoon of touring Seville. Our favorite rest stop though  aside from collapsing on the hotel bed) was with a coffee at one of the dozens of sidewalk cafes.

Real Alcazar in Seville

interior of the Real Alcazar in Seville

For meals in Seville, Spain:

Casa Robles, with many dining rooms and menu choices. The regional food was very good, the service could have been better.
Enrique Becerra, where the gazpacho had flavor and zip, and the tapas were excellent.
Entrecareles was atmospheric, with hanging hams and garlic, a wooden bar, and tapas selections on a chalkboard.
Meson de le Infanta and Las Teresas were two of many good tapas bars.
La Albahaca, on a sweet square in Santa Cruz, had the elegance of a 1920s mansion. Royals and celebrities dine under the greenery here, and our meal was noteworthy. Especially the desserts.
Restaurante Jano . . . Restaurante El Modesto . . . El Rincóncillo — every one a worthy choice. You get the picture: Seville has no shortage of terrific places to eat.

Night dining in Seville

Night dining in Seville

Most shops and restaurants in Seville close at 2:30 pm, siesta time, because in a country with blazing hot summers it’s sensible to rest in the afternoon and go out at night. Tourists ignore this and look for what’s open, usually churches. We went to the church of Santo Tomé, mainly to see its famous painting, “The Burial of Count Orgaz,” a 16th-century masterpiece by El Greco. The art was stunning, but crammed into a horde of visitors, we decided a siesta was a better idea and we’d come back when the doors opened, 10 am.

One evening after an 8 pm dinner (ridiculously early by Spanish standards) we were seated by 9 o’clock at El Tablao Flamenco Los Gallos, on Plaza de Santa Cruz Los Gallos, considered one of the best of Seville’s many flamenco spots, features women in bright red swirling dresses, slim men in black, snapping fingers, clicking heels, and astounding dancing. And the 11:30 shows are said to be even more dramatic. At that hour we were walking back to the hotel, passing bars and cafes full of laughing, smoking Spaniards eating olives and drinking beer. A continuous fiesta.

More travel information on Seville, Spain can be found at the official Spain tourism website, Explore Seville and at Andalucia .

Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com

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