In Granada it’s the Alhambra; in Cordoba it’s the Mezquita; in Seville… what are the must-sees of the Andalusian capital? The ones you can’t miss in Spain’s most romantic city? Writer and blogger Fiona Flores Watson gives you the lowdown on what should be top of your list when visiting her adopted city of Moorish, Mudejar and Gothic masterpieces, contemporary landmarks… and flamenco.
By Fiona Flores Watson
Living in a city full of stunning historic buildings, it’s easy to become blasé after nearly ten years. But some of Seville’s monuments never fail to take my breath away – and they will make your jaw drop and your eyes mist over too with their winding history, sheer scale and exquisite intricacy.
1) Gothic magnificence with a Moorish tower
For many people, the first stop on Seville’s monumental tour is the Cathedral – in terms of historical and artistic value, and in-your-face impressiveness it takes some beating. The largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its vast, soaring ceilings and enormous gold retablos (altarpieces) are designed to inspire awe. Columbus is buried here and there are countless paintings by Spanish masters such as Goya, Murillo and Zurbaran.
Don’t miss the Patio de Naranjas and the Giralda alminar (minaret), which are all that remain from the Almohad mosque which stood here originally, built in 1198. The bell tower is Seville’s icon, and until recently its tallest building, while the orange-tree-lined patio was used for ritual Muslim pre-prayer ablutions. Walk up the 800-year-old ramps (designed for the muezzin’s horse to climb) and admire the view over the higgledy-piggledy streets of Barrio Santa Cruz. And, when you’re back down again, have a sunset snifter from a rooftop terrace bar overlooking the pinky-golden Giralda – one of the city’s greatest pleasures.
You can also visit the cathedral’s rooftop, for a bird-eye’s view of the city and sneaky peeks into the Alcazar palace (see below).
2) A Mini-Alhambra
Walking through the chambers, patios and gardens of the Alcazar Real (Royal Palace) is like taking a stroll through history. One patio remains from Moorish times, when the complex’s foremost function was as a fort; recent excavations in the Patio de Banderas have revealed even earlier archaeological treasures. You can see where the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, received Columbus, who was looking for funding for his voyages; the baths hidden under the palace where an earlier monarch, Pedro the Cruel, had secret assignations with his mistress, Maria de Padilla, are haunting in their clandestine beauty. The Gothic section has vaulted salons with tapestries depicting wars against France won by Carlos V, the Holy Roman Emperor, whose capital was Seville; his contribution also included a pretty arcaded pavilion in the gardens. And the monarchical continuity extends to the present day: King Juan Carlos stays here when he visits Seville; it is the oldest European royal palace still in use.
The most alluring parts of the Alcazar are the Mudejar (Catholic era, Muslim craftsmen) arcaded patios; the Salon de Embajadores, with its delicate gold ceiling and carved plasterwork; and the shady gardens with their tiled pools and fountains – it’s all small-scale, in comparison to the monumental cathedral or majestic Alhambra, but easier to take in and explore, and is ideal for families.
The Alcazar now offers night visits, led by actors representing characters such as a Muslim poet and Queen Isabel who tell you about their lives in the Alcazar. These are only in Spanish, but are worth it for the experience of seeing the palace by moonlight, populated with figures in period dress dotted about the palace, in their animated dramatic intrigues.
3) Giant mushrooms from space
They have been called waffles and spaceships, though the locals’ name for them is Las Setas (the Mushrooms). Six gargantuan sunshades form the heart of this new architectural icon – the largest wooden structure in the world, inhabiting an old square in the heart of the city. Starting from the bottom, Metropol Parasol, as it’s officially known, has Roman and Moorish architectural remains featuring some wonderful mosaics, in the Antiquarium museum; a food market and various cafes; an outdoor concert venue; and, on top, a two-storey walkway with restaurant and a viewing platform offering 360-degree views of the city. Try to go at sunset (can you tell I’m a sucker for those golden tones?)
When it was finished in 2011, the Sevillanos were dubious as to the structure’s aesthetic value, as well as being outraged by its cost (120 million euros). Their views have softened, although it still receives mixed reactions from visitors; Metropol Parasol was a finalist in the 2013 Mies Van Der Rohe European Union Contemporary Architecture Prize.
4) Feel the duende
If Andalucia’s entrancing gypsy music and dance, flamenco, with its tricky rhythms, haunting melodies, and alluring stars, is an unfathomable mystery to you, then this museum offers an excellent introduction. See the dancers in life-size videos, hear the beats, feel the rhythms, learn about its origins, take a class.
Above all, be sure to catch a flamenco show, on every night in the traditional patio of this converted 17th-century mansion. Yes, the little bars of Trianas with their spontaneous, heart-felt singing may offer a more authentic experience, when the mood takes, but here you know what you’re getting, and when you’re getting it.
The museum, which also has displays of flamenco-themed art and an excellent shop, was created by veteran Sevillana dancer Cristina Hoyos and has welcomed royal and celebrity visitors.
5) Green space with its own architectural wonders
Get out of the city centre and take a stroll in this shady, pleasant green space, close to the river, which hides a new tale at every turn. Donated by the Duchess of Montpensier, who lived in the next-door Palacio San Telmo, the private estate had deer and wild boar for hunting before it became the setting for the Ibero-American Expo in 1929. The Expo pavilions are under-appreciated architectural gems, from the Mudejar Popular Arts and Customs Museum, to the minimal Pabellon de Guatemala, and the huge Plaza de España, designed for stage shows until a replacement architect (Anibal Gonzalez fell out with the organisers over budgets) put a fountain in the middle, subverting his design.
All the ceramics in the park – tiled benches and fountains, and the balustrades and regional panels of Plaza de España – were made across the river in Triana, soon to have its centre celebrating azulejos.
You can hire bikes for one or four people to ride along the network of paths, or rowing boats in the Plaza’s canal, and there are loads of playgrounds, cafes and ice-cream stalls. Plus various companies now offer themed tours of the park, with music and actors to bring its history to life.
Fiona Flores Watson writes about her adventures in southern Spain in her blog, Scribbler in Seville.