When Americans visit Spain, it seems as though their primary destination is always either Madrid or Barcelona.
This isn’t overly surprising; Madrid and Barcelona are the country’s two most populous cities, and they both have a lot to offer. I spent a few days in both cities myself while living in Spain, and I expect to visit them again. While Madrid and Barcelona are both meccas for young professionals, there’s a certain charm to Spain’s smaller cities that is often overlooked by travelers.
For this very reason, I’ve put together a guide to a city where old traditions still reign and locals maintain an uncommonly peaceful pace of life — a place which also doubled as my home for 5 months during my undergraduate education.
Welcome to Sevilla!
- Location: Andalucía, Spain
- Area: 54 miles² (140 kilometers²)
- Population: 703,021
- Time zone: Central European Time (CET, CEST)
- Motto: No me ha dejado (you have not abandoned me)
Sevilla is the capital of Spain’s Andalucía region, a comunidad autónoma (autonomous community) that covers the entire southern portion of the country. It is a city of history, and one that is rich in tradition, religious values, and a relaxed lifestyle that is unparalleled to any I’ve experienced in the U.S. Perhaps the most notable visual trait of the city is its Arabic-influenced architecture.
From the moment the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 711 A.D., they left a lasting impact on the region’s culture, most notably in its southern portions. Blue, yellow, and green tilework dominate the ancient buildings in Sevilla’s oldest city center, and its columned patios are indicative of a civilization that endured in the region for centuries. Remnants of this historical era can be seen around every corner, from the Torre del Oro (tower of gold) to the Universidad de Sevilla (University of Sevilla) and the Sevilla Cathedral, which is the third-largest in the world. The Universidad de Sevilla’s most famous campus was once the Real Fábrica de Tabacos (Royal Tobacco Factory), and remains a prime example of the Moorish, Arabian, and gothic-influenced architectural styles seen in the city center. If you want a view of the city’s greatest architectural gems, as well as a good cardio workout, climb the Giralda, the bell tower atop the cathedral, and admire the city below.
Plaza de España
Scattered around the city are landmarks from various eras in Sevilla’s history, including the 1920s Plaza de España (Spanish square). Located in the gorgeous and unique Parque María Luisa (Maria Luisa Park), the Plaza de España showcases murals from all 50 of Spain’s provinces, each labeled accordingly. In fact, it’s common to see natives from each province taking photos with their respective mural. The plaza has also been used as a filming location for more than one Hollywood movie over the years, including Lawrence of Arabia and Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones.
Hidden in the old city center is Metropol Parasol (metropolitan parasol), an architectural feat claiming to be the largest entirely wooden structure in the world. The structure is known locally as Las Setas (the mushrooms) — and at a quick glance, it’s easy to see why. What may have originally been imagined as a parasol looks more like a bundle of mushrooms growing directly out of the low-rise buildings that surround it. Tourists frequent this structure, and for good reason — the sunset views from the top are worth timing your visit accordingly.
Isla de la Cartuja
Standing in stark contrast to the centuries-old architecture found in the city center is the futuristic Isla de la Cartuja (Island of the Carthusians). Located on this island northwest of the city center is the once-bustling site of the 1992 World’s Fair (or, “Expo ’92,” as it’s known colloquially). The chance to host such a well-known event was a big moment for a city that had mostly been hiding in the shadows of its northerly neighbors. Today, the site contains several grand pavilions that previously belonged to various countries represented at the fair. Some of these structures have been converted into office buildings, while others have been barred shut and left to the will of nature. Still, each building has its own modernistic character, which differentiates it from its surroundings, and there are still fountains that run unhindered, their waters unseen by most who pass through the city. Passing through this site is a surreal experience that feels like stepping into the aftermath of a future cataclysmic event.
Of course, one cannot visit any city in Spain without taking advantage of the delectable variety of tapas bars available. Tapas are a staple of Spanish cuisine, consisting of small plates of various foods that are meant to be consumed alone as a midday snack or in a group of three to four as a family-style meal. I can’t recommend Taberna Los Coloniales enough to anyone who wants some truly authentic, affordable tapas at a location frequented by locals. I suggest ordering the croquetas de jamón (fried bundles of potato and ham), as well as the espinacas con garbanzos (spinach with chickpeas). And, of course, don’t forget to seek out paella while in Sevilla, as it is a classic Spanish rice dish that is difficult to replicate elsewhere.
One of the most rewarding (but also tourist-packed) times to visit Sevilla is during La Feria de Abril (the April Fair), an annual post-Easter festival. In the southwest corner of the city, a multitude of tents is erected every year for this event, some of which are privately owned, while others are available to the public. During the festival, men dress up in suits and ties and women wear traditional Flamenco dresses — the traditional attire of those who participate in the popular southern Spanish Flamenco (flamingo) dances. For a week straight, particularly after working hours, the tents come alive and everyone in the city packs into a tiny section of land reserved solely for this event. There is plenty of dancing, drinking, and eating, and lots of carnival rides.
If you only have a short amount of time in Sevilla, I highly recommend trying to catch at least a day or two of Feria. Trust me — you will know what I mean when I say the Spanish know how to dance the night away.
Overall, visitors to Sevilla will not be disappointed. The city is walkable, has a clean and easy-to-navigate metro line, is generally free from crowds of tourists, and doesn’t fail to showcase old Spanish charm. My time there was unlike any other experience in my life, and I continually dream of the chance to go back and relive my experiences in my second home.
If you’re overwhelmed by the commotion of Madrid and Barcelona, Sevilla is sure to make you feel welcome. As the sevillanos like to say, “Sevilla, no me ha dejado (you haven’t abandoned me).”
It is a city that never truly abandons anyone, and I can attest to that to this day.