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.
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.
The Church of Santa Ana is the oldest church in Seville. Located in the Triana neighborhood, the 13th-century church is home to impressive sculptures, paintings, jewelry and religious processional items, many of which are displayed throughout the interior chapels. Master Castilian stonemasons and Muslim master builders worked on the church, whose remarkable interior features columns topped by corbels decorated with castles, vine leaves, lions and human heads. Admire a conglomeration of architecture with a step inside the originally Gothic church and its Baroque-style reconstruction, added after an earthquake in the 17th century.
You can visit the church as part of a guided bike tour of Seville's highlights, which includes stops at San Jorge Castle and the Jewish Quarter, as well as souvenir photos.
In Seville’s Triana neighborhood, near the banks of the Guadalquivir River, the Castillo San Jorge was the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition from 1481 to 1785. The 12th century castle was demolished in the 19th century to make room for a market and today the underground ruins of the castle are home to the Inquisition Museum.
Founded in 2009, the museum chronicles the religious purges that took place during one of the darkest periods of Spanish history. Visitors will learn about how the Inquisition occurred, from accusations and inquiries to detentions and torture, as well as about daily life in the castle for both prisoners and jailers. However, no devices of torture are displayed. Drawings show suspects wearing pointed caps and tunics marked with an X, and maps show the other major Inquisition-related sites in Seville.
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.
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.
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.
Today’s it’s the seat of the Andalusian government, but once upon a time, this grand, rusty-red and golden-yellow building served as a royal palace. That wasn’t its original destiny, however: built in the late 1600s, it was meant to serve as a seminary school for the University of Navigators, and is thus named after the patron saint of navigators, San Telmo. Later it was purchased by the royals, after which Princess Maria Luisa donated much of its lands to the city of Seville, hence why the grand nearby park bears her name (she ultimately donated the entire palace to the church).
Nowadays, the palatial building belongs to the government of Andalucia, and has ever since 1989. Its exterior alone is quite impressive, as it is noted for its elaborate baroque façade, and a stretch of statues featuring historical figures, which is situated along Avenida de Palos de Frontera.
To look up - and up - at the Real Fábrica de Tabacos is to get a sense of the scale of Seville's tobacco industry in the 18th century. This is one of the largest buildings in Spain (only El Escorial tops it in terms of surface area). It's used as a university building now, but you can still walk around it.
The reason most people visit is to get a vision of Bizet's doomed heroine, Carmen. This building is where she worked and these doors are where she lounged, fresh from rolling cigars on her thighs, to ensnare her lovers.
Carmen's wraith may be compelling, but the wraiths of the real cigar workers - nearly all of them women - also clamor for attention, as do the colonially themed bas-reliefs on the outside of the building.
There was a time after Spain’s first journeys to the Americas that Seville served as one of the most important commercial cities and ports in Europe. For that reason, in 1572, this Renaissance-style building — now called the General Archive of the Indies — was erected, with the goal of serving as a merchant’s exchange.
Come 1785, when Seville’s role as a trade hub fizzled out, the grand building was finally converted into a space meant to unify all the country’s documentation related to its overseas empires in the Americas. These days, this includes 9 kilometers of shelving with over 43,000 volumes and 80 million pages, and is composed of documents such as exchanges between Christopher Columbus and the Spanish King and Queen, as well as other writings by explorers. Though the extent of what visitors can actually view is quite limited, entrance to the building is free, and therefore worth a quick wander, especially since it’s located right next to the main cathedral.
The chief attraction of the Basilica Macarena is La Macarena, or "the Virgin of Hope," a 17th century wooden sculpture of Christ's mother mourning his death (complete with tears). She's the patron saint of bullfighters, friend to gypsies and star of the Semana Santa parade held in Seville every Easter.
When she passes by in the parade, songs are sung to her beauty and rose petals strewn in her path. In a small museum adjoining the basilica, you can see some of the Virgin's parade array, along with bullfighting relics.
Built in the 15th century, this honey-colored stone monastery was frequently visited by Christopher Columbus. In fact, he was buried here for a number of years. With a deep religious history, the site now houses the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, a center for local contemporary art.
First a chapel and monastery, it evolved into barracks after a Napoleonic invasion and later became a ceramics factory before finally being established as a national monument and museum. The grounds include a dramatic entrance gate, expansive gardens, a lake, tower, and many outdoor patios. It was extensively restored in preparation for the Seville Expo in 1992, but historical remnants of each stage of its past can still be found. The art museum’s permanent collection includes works from artists such as Luis Gordillo, Candida Hofer, and Louise Bourgeois and focuses on Andalusian creativity. Various workshops, concerts, and temporary exhibitions are also held here year-round.
La Casa de Pilatos, or the House of Pilate, is surrounded by uncertain legends. The building was certainly finished by the Marquis of Tarifa after his return from a Grand Tour of Europe and the Holy Land in the mid-16th century, and the Italian Renaissance elements show his infatuation with what he'd seen.
But the Pilate reference? Some say the house is a copy of a ruined palace, supposedly Pilate's, that the Marquis saw in the Holy Land. Others talk of a correlation between the original Pilate house's proximity to Golgotha, the site of Christ's death, and the proximity of the Marquis' house to a local chapel.
La Casa de Pilatos has a grand Imperial air, with ancient statues, elaborate tiles, a courtyard fountain and elaborate ceilings. Its mix of Mudéjar and Italian Renaissance elements was to prove massively influential.
If you can't make it to Madrid's Prado, then consider Seville's Museum of Fine Arts your second-best option. Hailed as having one of the most impressive art collections outside of the capital, the museum is well worth the stop, and for more than just the artwork.
The Museo de Bellas Artes (as it is called in Spanish) dates back to the 1830s, and is situated in what used to be a 16th-century convent. Within its walls, explore works – largely religious in subject matter – dating from the Gothic period to the 20th century, and by greats like Murillo, Zurburán and even El Greco. Beyond just paintings, you'll also find other items on display, ranging from sculptures to ceramics and furniture.