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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Hidden among the Santa Cruz neighborhood's maze of streets, you'll find – if you're looking carefully -- Aire de Sevilla. This spa-like oasis located in the heart of Seville captures the magic of an old-world hammam, allowing the visitor to journey into the past, and also to relax.
The building itself dates back to the 16th century, when it was constructed as a mansion by a viceroy from the Indies. Since then, the structure has been transformed into a hammam – the type of Arab bath once so common in Spain's south -- transporting you to another time with its tranquil pools, hypnotic music, and historical setting of brick-vaulted ceilings dimly lit by Moroccan-style lanterns. During your two-hour visit, you'll be able to alternate between Aire de Sevilla's pools, of which there are several. Wash away the day's heat and wallow in relaxation while taking dips in the cool-, warm- and hot-water baths.
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.
The 17th-century village of Santiponce lies nine km (5.5 miles) north of Seville and is the site of one of Andalusia’s most important historical remains: the Roman city of Itálica near the banks of the Guadalquivir River. Founded in 206 BC when the Romans were busily empire-building across Europe, Itálica was the first – and largest – Roman settlement in southern Spain; it rose to be of considerable military significance within the Empire and was the birthplace of several emperors, including Hadrian, who built the infamous wall across northern England. The city fell into disrepair with the crumbling of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, and for many years it was plundered for stone used in the building of the lovely city of Seville.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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