Spain is awesome. Let’s start with that. Pretty much anywhere you go will be amazing, based on my experience. But for most Americans, a trip to Spain is to Barcelona or Madrid. Both cities are wonderful – check out my Madrid guide here and tune in later for some rad Barcelona content – but they miss what I feel is the most underrated city in Spain: Seville.
Why Seville? Well, while Madrid is the political capital of the country, to my mind, Seville is the cultural capital. Grand palaces, stunning churches and monasteries, impressive museums, and more await you in the Andalusian hub. Let’s run through some of the highlights. (For the record, I normally don’t like this sort of “best of list” post, but to do this in a more narrative style would have it be too long to make sense, since there are so many things to talk about. So it is what it is.)
The tower of the cathedral is iconic!
Seville has been an important city since ancient times. Roman, Visigoth, Muslim, and Spanish have all had significant presences here, with this being the dominant Spanish city from its reconquest in 1248 until the court was moved to Madrid in 1561. As such, it features prominent palaces both of royalty and of noble families.
Chief among these is the Real Alcazar, a stunning palace featuring two distinct parts (one the original Muslim palace dating from the 10th century and the other the more modern Spanish addition) and expansive gardens. It is the number one tourist destination in the city for a reason, and is not to be missed. As with most Moorish palaces, make sure to wander the Muslim section looking up at the ceilings, around at all the intricate carvings on the walls, and down at the ornate floors.
One of the courtyards of the Real Alcazar
For a slightly more modern take on an Andalusian palace, visit the Casa de Pilatos, a noble home still lived in by its hereditary ducal family. Part of the home is open to tour, and is actually free on Monday afternoons from 4pm until closing, though you’ll need to arrive by 3:30 to get a ticket.
Casa de Pilatos
Beyond these, just wander the streets. So many palaces have been converted into hotels, shopping centers, or other buildings, but you’ll be in awe of so many of their facades.
Churches are everywhere in Seville, even more than in most Spanish cities. And with the plunder coming back to the city from the conquest of the New World – remember, Seville was the most important port in Spain until the large galleons which couldn’t navigate the river forced the moving of the port to Cadiz – most are incredibly ornate. Some are free to visit; others have entry fees.
The tower of Seville’s cathedral can be seen from all around the city. The building is just as impressive. It is the largest Gothic church in the world, and the third largest Christian building, behind St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. Pay the admission fee, and give yourself plenty of time to explore. Some highlights: the tomb of Christopher Columbus is stunning, even if the person inside was a bit of a jerk; the main altar is decorated with more than 2,000 kilos of gold leaf; the tower can be climbed by a ramp (steep in some areas) for the best view of the city.
Just across the river, the Santa Ana Church is also worth a stop. Dating from the 13th century, it is pretty, and a lovely example of Mudejar architecture – the style of the Moorish kingdoms largely still being designed and practiced by Muslims who remained in Spain after the reconquest.
You can also visit one of any number of monasteries in the city. The Monasterio de Santa Paula is known for both its amazing art collection and its incredible homemade jams for sale. Try the orange marmalade, made with Seville’s famous bitter oranges.
There are a ton of museums here, some of which are totally unique. So while there are basic art museums, history museums, and such, we will focus on the more unique experiences for tourists. (Do walk through María Luisa Park, though, to see the palatial facades of the museums there, built for the 1929 Exposition of the Americas.)
Just a pretty museum in a park
Make sure you visit the Archivo de Indias, the Archive of the Indies. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it houses the archives of all of Spain’s voyages of discovery, and temporary exhibitions will show tiny portions of that amazing collection. When I was there, perhaps the best curated exhibit of its kind I have ever seen focused on the voyage of Magellan, with amazing documentation like the original crew list, the log with course settings, and diaries of some of the crew. I don’t know what is coming next, but if it is even half this good, it is a must-see.
The Magellan exhibition was one of the best I’ve ever seen!
Do you like religious art? If not, skip this, but if so, Seville has the largest collection of Spanish masters outside of the Prado in Madrid in its Fine Arts Museum.
Make sure to see flamenco in Seville.
If maritime history is your thing, the Torre del Oro houses a pretty cool museum focusing on Spain’s seafaring traditions, from the golden ages to today.
Other Cultural Gems
Like so much of Spain, Seville is home to a ton of lovely plazas. And then there is Plaza de Espana, the most impressive plaza I’ve ever seen, and maybe the most impressive public space of any sort. Check out the little details: the little alcoves highlighting each of Spain’s provinces, the busts of famous Spaniards, the tiles of kingdom coats of arms (Spain is made up of multiple formerly independent kingdoms). It is probably my favorite spot in the city.
Plaza de Espana. Just wow!
Standing in contrast to pretty much everything else in Seville, the Setas (or Mushrooms) is the largest wooden structure on the planet, and as modern as Seville is palatial. Don’t miss seeing it!
Totally not in sync with the city, the Setas is nonetheless stunning.
So much of Spain is worth seeing, but to visit without seeing Seville is to deny yourself the truly perfect Spanish cultural destination. Make sure to add it to your itinerary!
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