Snuggled up against the Guadalqivir River’s east bank and set amidst some of Seville’s most storied streets, you’ll wander upon El Arenal. Its name (arena means sand in Spanish) tells the story of its past, when, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the sandy-banked neighborhood was used as Seville’s port, making it one of the most important port cities in the world. From its shore, boats set off west for the New World, or east for spices, and returned with grand treasures.
These days, the neighborhood, which sits within the city's historic quarter, is especially known for its residents' passion for bullfighting and also religion. Their faithfulness is evident in the abundance of Arenal brotherhoods, whose devotion can be seen during Holy Week each year, when Seville’s Catholicism comes to life in colorful processions that take over the city streets.
Whitewashed buildings, maze-like streets, and courtyards lined with orange trees: No place really defines Seville charm quite like the streets of the Santa Cruz district. As the city's former judería, or Jewish quarter, it is home to many of Seville's top sights, from the grand cathedral with its minaret-turned-tower (called the Giralda) to the Real Alcázar and its fountain-dotted gardens.
The neighborhood dates back to when Ferdinand III of Castile took Seville from Muslim rule, and the city's Jewish residents began to live in what is now El Barrio de Santa Cruz. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, however, the district fell into disrepair, until it was finally revived in the 18th century.
Apart from appreciating the district's history and seeing the main sights, perhaps the best thing you can do during a visit to Santa Cruz is to simply get lost in the barrio's streets.
The Albaicin (also spelled Albayzin or Albaycin) is Granada's old Muslim quarter, and its steep twisting streets still have a medieval feel. With its white buildings and deep-gardened mansions spilling down the hill, the Albaicin is beautiful in itself, but what makes it particularly stunning is its views of the Alhambra. (The views of the Albaicin from the Alhambra enhance that experience as well!) There's a viewing point by the church of St. Nicolas that offers particularly good Alhambra vistas.
The Albaicin was heritage-listed in 1984. Its name may have derived from settlers fleeing the Christian invasion of the town Baeza, or it may derive from an Arabic phrase meaning 'quarter of the falconers.' Despite the Christian conquest of the city in 1492, it survived as a Muslim quarter for some decades, and you can still see the remains of Islamic bathhouses, mansions and fountains.
The biggest draw of Granada’s UNESCO-listed Albaycin quarter is the hilltop Mirador de San Nicolás, a small raised plaza that lies in front of the San Nicolás Church. This is the city’s most renowned lookout point, from where the magnificent panoramic views span the city center, the distant Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Rio Darro canyon and, most famously, the grand Alhambra palace.
The small public square is a lively place to be at all times of the day, with a handful of craftsmen setting up shop along the paving stones and a roster of street musicians and flamenco dancers on hand to entertain visitors. The most atmospheric time to arrive is at dusk, when crowds of locals and tourists turn out to watch the sunset over the palace grounds, before adjourning to the restaurants and teashops of nearby Elvira Street.
As Granada’s oldest city square, Plaza Nueva has long been at the center of local life and its strategic location at the foot of the Alhambra palace means many tourists will pass through on their way to the city’s top attraction. Laid out in the early Christian era, the square was built over the Darro River and once served as an arena for sporting tournaments and bullfights, as well as public executions.
Today, the bustling plaza is best known for its abundance of stylish bars and tapas restaurants, coming alive in the evening hours when both locals and tourists congregate on the lamp-lit terraces. There’s more to Plaza Nueva than its nightlife though and the elegant square is also home to a number of striking landmarks, including the 16th-century Royal Chancellery and Mudejar-style Church of Santa Ana, both the work of Renaissance architect Diego de Siloé, and the House of Pisa, which now houses the Juan de Dios Museum.
Originally the site of the Christian Visigoth Church San Vicente, Córdoba’s Mezquita -- or Grand Mosque -- stands as the city's most proud monument and one of the most exquisite Islamic structures in the western world.
Its initial origins date back to the year 600 and, following the Islamic conquest in the 8th century, the site of the Visigoth church was actually split between Christians and Muslims for a time. Ultimately, it was bought out by the governor of al-Andalus, with the construction of the Islamic mosque beginning in 785 by Muslim emir Abdurrahman I.
Since then, the structure has evolved right along with Spanish history. A minaret was added, and the building was enlarged, reaching its final size in 987. Then, when Kind Ferdinand conquered Córdoba during the Reconquista in 1236, the structure was consecrated as a Christian Cathedral.
Just steps away from the Alcázar, and perched upon the Guadalquivir River, stands one of Seville's most un-missable monuments from the past, the Torre del Oro, or Golden Tower.
The 12-sided tower dates back to the Almohad Dynasty, when it was constructed in the 13th century. The theories behind the name's origin vary: Some say it came from the tower's once gold-tiled exterior, others say that it was due to it being a drop-off and storage point for gold delivery from the New World, and still others believe the title is simply a result of the landmark's golden-hued reflection on the river.
South of Seville's main old quarter and extending along the Guadalquivir River, you'll stumble upon the city's main green getaway, Maria Luisa Park. Once primarily the land of the Palace of San Telmo (now home to Andalusia’s president), this patch of paradise was donated to the public in 1893, evolving over the years into the Seville escape that you see today.
Most of its transformation came about during preparation for the 1929 World's Fair: expansive boulevards were created, fountains erected, gardens planted. Today’s park is so robust in flora and fauna that it is actually considered a proper botanical garden. And expect not only diverse plants, but also birds too, including ducks and swans that float in the fountains and lakes, and even green parrots that live in the center of the park. It's not all just grassy knolls, ponds and paths, either: Maria Luisa Park is also home to numerous monuments and sights.
There is no more perfect symbol of Seville's layered history than the Giralda Tower (or El Giraldillo) the bell tower of the city's cathedral. It stands a little apart from the main building; it was once the minaret of the mosque that stood on the site before it was razed to make way for the cathedral.The lower sections of the tower date from that time, but its upper parts are Christian Renaissance architecture. The tower was once topped by a copper ball, but that fell in a 14th century earthquake and was replaced with a cross. It's a long climb up the 100 meters (330 feet) to the top of La Giralda, but the views of the city and the statuary of the lower levels are stunning enough to make it well worth the effort. There are no stairs: you'll ascend on a series of cunningly designed ramps.
Sprinkled across the Spanish Peninsula, you'll come across Jewish Quarters known as juderías. In Córdoba, which was once considered the most populous city in the world, the Jewish community especially thrived, and now its ancient neighborhood of white buildings is considered one of the most famous juderías in Spain.
The Jewish community indeed played an important role culturally in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. During the Moorish Caliphate -- the period of Islamic rule over Spain which ended in 1031 -- the Jewish community flourished as Córdoba rose as a center for commerce, prosperity, education and religious tolerance.
Málaga’s gleaming white-stone cathedral was built over many years on the former site of a mosque after Isabella and Ferdinand had expelled the Moors from Andalusia in the 1480s. All that is now left of the mosque is the pretty Patio de los Naranjos, still filled with sweet-smelling orange trees. The cathedral is affectionately known locally as La Manquita (the one-armed lady) as it only has one – granted very elaborate and Baroque – bell tower.
The original architect of the cathedral was Diego de Siloe and construction began in 1528; it continued slowly over the next two and a half centuries and this can clearly be seen in the mish-mash of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture on the façade. The architecture José Martín de Aldehuela, who built the Puente Nuevo in Ronda, also had a hand in finishing this cathedral.
Just across the Isabel II Bridge, and squished between two parallel branches of the Guadalquivir River, you'll find Seville's Triana District. Originally founded as a Roman colony, this neighborhood -- like the rest of the city – has also been ruled by both Muslims and Christians. Over time it has served as a key strategic position as the last line of defense before invaders reached Seville's western walls. Traditionally, it has also been home to an eclectic mix of residents, from sailors and bullfighters to potters and flamenco dancers – all especially proud of their Triana heritage.
You can still see what endures of the barrio's eccentric personality in today's Triana. While visiting the neighborhood, keep an eye out for the few remaining (and culturally protected) corrales, which traditionally served as communal homes for the district's many Romani people.
If you’re in Malaga, chances are you’ve not missed the town’s citadel towering in the center of the city. Known as the Alcazaba de Malaga, and built around the middle of the 11th century to act as a palace to the region’s governors, today the Alcazaba receives visitors year-round and is noted for its impressive gardens and panoramic views of both the city and the sea.
La Alcazaba was built atop the vestiges of an old Roman fortress, and the proof of this is most evident in the Puerta de las Columnas gate (gate of the columns). Its name, in fact, refers and pays homage to the pre-existing roman structure used to help build the palace as it stands today. This gate and another lay before visitors on their way up to the structure which is actually two distinct architectural pieces: Alcazaba itself, and Gibralfaro Castle. Inside, you’ll see some of the noted gardens, fountains and towers in traditional Moorish design before entering the main lobby of the palace.
Córdoba doesn't just have a Grand Mosque, but also a palace: the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos. Once the site of a Visigoth fortress, it was ultimately rebuilt to house the caliphs of Córdoba, before being taken over by the Christians. Once in their hands, the palace was famously home to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel for eight years during the Spanish Inquisition. During that time, it was even visited by Christopher Columbus, who came to explain plans for his westward journey to the Catholic Kings.
The palace has gone through various rounds of re-buildings and modifications, with today's structure maintaining little of the Moorish one that stood before it. Even so, the present-day Alcázar still has a Moorish flavor, given the Múdejar style of design and architecture implemented under King Alfonso XI.
Sacromonte is traditionally Granada's Gitano quarter, and these days is the epicenter of the city's flamenco-based tourist trade. Spilling down the sides of its hill (the 'sacred mountain' of the name - the district is actually named after the Sacromonte Abbey), the area has been extensively commercialized, but still has plenty of magic. At dusk, with the lights twinkling and the Alhambra views, it's hard to resist.
It was in the 19th century that Sacromonte became the province of the Gitano. The local rock has enough clay to be soft, but enough rock to be stable when formed. Hence, many of the poorer people shaped caves into the sides of Sacromonte and lived in those. The community - and flamenco - thrived. During the 1960s floods rendered many of the caves uninhabitable, and many of the locals evacuated.