Capital and largest city of Andalucia

Seville is the capital and largest city of Andalucia with a population of 700,000 (1.5 million in the metropolitan area), making it the fourth most populous city in Spain (after Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia). Bull fighting, flamenco, tapas and the Holy Week (Semana Santa) processions and an enthralling history, all seem to play an important part in the life of the city which encapsulated much of what we think of as Spanish culture.

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Andalucia - Cities

Visit Seville

Cordoba - Official tourist website

Places to visit in Seville

The site of the Reales Alcazares (Royal Palaces) has a long history reflecting the changes of power in Seville and is well worth an extended visit. The early fortified palace was built on the remains of Roman barracks in the early 10th century for the local governors by the Moorish rulers of al-Andalus based in Cordoba. It was then extended in the 11th century, allegedly with a vast harem and skulls of enemies used as flower pots, before being developed as a fortress by the Almohads, who made Seville their capital in the late 12th century. However, nearly all of what we see today was built after the conquest of Seville by Fernando III (1248), when it became a favourite residence of Castilian monarchs, particularly by Pedro I (r.1350–1369). Known as Pedro the Cruel or Pedro the Just, depending on the different views of the king at the time and since, he instigated a thorough reconstruction of the palace. Much of it was in the Mudejar style used by Moors working in Christian controlled Spain. Charles V was married in the palace where he had large apartments built. In more recent times General Franco stayed here whenever he was in Seville, and part of the building is still used by the Spanish royal family today.

Entrance through the Puerto del Leon and its courtyard leads, on the left, into the Sala de la Justicia with its star shaped coffered ceiling with mudejar plasterwork, where Pedro I passed the death sentence on his brother Don Fadrique (though others have it that Don Fadrique was murdered in the Patio de las Munecas). This leads to the Patio del Yeso with its many arches and more delicate plasterwork remaining from the Almohad period (Photo 2). Returning to the Patio del Leon one passes through the gateway into the Patio de la Monteria, said to be where the court met before hunting expeditions, a large open space dominated by the entrance to Pedro’s palace, which is directly ahead. To the right are the Salon del Almirante and the Sala de Audiencias built by Ferdinand and Isabella in the early 16th century which are closely connected with the plans for the exploration of the newly discovered Americas.

The Palacio de Pedro is built around the Patio de las Doncellas (the Court of the Maidens), now restored to its 14th century state, with central pool, sunken gardens and fine doors (Photo 3). The double columns and upper floors were added by Charles V at the time of his wedding. His ‘Plus Ultra’ motif can be seen here and elsewhere around the palace. The Patio de las Muñecas (the Courtyard of the Dolls) and the rooms that come from it were at the heart of domestic life for its residents. These rooms are small, in a complex layout, though full of wonderful arches, plasterwork, both plain and coloured, glazed tiles with repeated geometric patterns, wooden panels and a remarkable use of space and light. Entering through the Vestíbulo, the rooms ahead and to the right include: Dormitorio de los Reyes Moors; the Dormitorio de Isabel Católica, the Dormitorio de Felipe II (Philip II – of the Spanish Armada); the rooms of Maria de Padilla, the favourite mistress of Pedro I; and the outstanding Salon de Embajadores (Ambassadors). Probably the finest of all the rooms, this has a stunning carved and gilded wooden dome ceiling (Photo 4) in red, green and gold, geometric patterned tiles, triple horseshoe arches and Arabic inscriptions in the plasterwork telling us that the craftsmen were from Toledo and that the room was completed in 1366.

When Charles V arrived in Seville on 10th March 1526 he first met his wife to be, Isabella, in the Alcazar and they were married shortly after midnight on the 11th March in the Salon de Embajadores. A staircase in the south-eastern corner of the Patio de las Doncellas takes you to the Palacio de Carlos V which, with its large rooms and numerous vast tapestries, provides a considerable contrast to the rest of the palace. It is here that you will find the Salon de Techo de Carlos V (The Ceiling Room of Charles V) with its impressive wooden panelled ceiling (Photo 5). There are the coat of arms and emblems of the Emperor - The two-headed eagle, emblem of the Habsburg Empire, and the columns of Hercules with the inscription ‘Plus Ultra’.

The extensive Alcazar Gardens are pleasant and restful. It is worth taking time to wander through the small linked gardens adjacent to the Palacio de Carlos V. One, the Jardin de las Danzas, gives access to a passage under the building to the vaulted baths, and another contains the Estanque del Mercurio, with its pool full of fish and its bronze figure of Mercury. Once in the gardens proper have a look at the maze and the pavilion of Charles V, walk along the avenues and the wall (which leads to the centre of the gardens), and enjoy the flowers and orange trees (Photos 6 and 7).

Seville cathedral is one of the largest in the world and lays claim to be the largest of all Gothic cathedrals. It was built on the site of the Almohad Grand Mosque, itself built over an earlier Visigoth cathedral, as in Cordoba. Although consecrated to the Virgin Mary and used as a cathedral, the mosque building existed for over 150 years after the conquest of Seville. The current cathedral was started in 1402 and planned on such a scale that the cathedral chapter believed that ‘future ages shall call us mad for attempting it’, though the proximity of nearby buildings make it difficult to appreciate its true size. Taking over 100 years to build, it had 17 chief architects and was constrained by the floor plan of the old mosque. It has 5 naves, though the interior structures make it hard to see the layout clearly. The collapse of the central dome in 1511 meant that the reconstruction after that was in Renaissance style.

From the exterior notice the huge rose window and the double buttresses which give support to the massive walls. Entry is through the new visitors’ centre, which also contains a museum of religious art. Once inside the overall impression is quite gloomy, but there are features that are particularly noteworthy. The vast columns of the central nave are 3.6m. in circumference, reaching to a height of 43 m. The tomb of Christopher Columbus constructed in 1902 is supported by four pall bearers representing the kingdoms of Castile, Leon, Aragon and Navarre (Photo 8).

The history of his remains is convoluted, involving Valladolid (where he died in 1506), Seville, Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Havana and eventually Seville again. The city gained most in the 16th and 17th centuries from his discovery of the Americas, even if he himself still believed that he had found a new route to the East Indies. Most now accept that the remains in the tomb are those of the famous explorer. The choir (coro) has 117 carved Gothic-Mudejar style choir stalls. The retable (alter piece) of the Capilla Major is the largest in the world at 37m. high. It took 82 years to complete and has 45 scenes from the life of Christ, the lifetime work of the Flemish artist Pieter Dancart.

The Royal Chapel (Capilla Real) contains the tombs of Fernando III (El Santo), the conqueror of Seville, his wife Beatrice, and their son Alfonso X (the Wise). That of Pedro I (the Cruel/the Just) is in the crypt. The Sala Capitular (Chapter House) completed in 1591 by Hernan Ruiz, who was also responsible for the belfry on the Giralda, has an unusual oval shaped design and a fine domed ceiling.

Exit from the cathedral is through the Puerta de la Concepcion into the Patio de los Naranjos (Court of the Orange trees). This is another element that remains from the mosque, where worshippers would have carried out ritual cleansing in the fountains before entering. To the right is the Biblioteca Colombina, set up by Christopher Columbus’ son, who was in the entourage of Charles V, which contains 20,000 volumes. From the patio the way out to the street is through the Puerta del Perdón. This, the original entrance to the mosque, has some superb plasterwork and 12th century doors of larch wood faced with bronze.

The Giralda, (photo 9) the tower and belfry of the cathedral was originally the minaret of the mosque built by the Almohads in the late 12th century (1184-1192). It was designed by Ahmed ibn Baso, on the orders of Abu Yacub Yusuf, and has served as model for other major minarets in North Africa and is often regarded as one of the most significant examples of Muslim architecture in the world. The original four bronze spheres at the top were destroyed by an earthquake in the 14th century. With the addition of the spire and giraldillo (the bronze figure of Faith as a weather vane – after which it is named) in 1568, the Giralda now stands 91m. high and is visible from most of Seville.

Its most unusual feature is the fact that inside, instead of steps it has a ramp wide enough for two mounted guards to pass, which goes all the way to the bell chamber. There are numerous viewing ledges on the way up as well as chambers with hooks, pulleys and other remains from the towers’ past. The 16th century belfry is not in keeping with the rest of the structure, but from here there are excellent views across Seville, where you can see the various areas, with their differing architectural styles.

Other Places of Interest

These include a fine mansion, the Casa de Pilatos, the Torre de Oro by the river, the Bullring, and the Triana district, known for its great bars lively night life and dancing. Read More +

Probably the finest mansion in Seville, the Casa de Pilatos (Photos 10, 11 and 12) is an examples of the combination of Mudejar and Renaissance architecture and artwork. The name derives from the idea that the layout of the house copies that of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. Its construction was started by Don Pedro Enriquez and completed by his son Don Fadrique, the 1st marquis of Tarifa, who had travelled widely throughout Europe and the Middle East. The Patio Principal is most impressive, with its two levels, arches and columns, plasterwork and glazed tiles; the Salon Pretorio has a fine coffered ceiling; and the gardens have palms, orange trees, and pavilions. Greek and Roman sculptures are to be found throughout the house and grounds. A tour of the rooms on the upper level, via a tiled staircase with a domed ceiling, has a number of frescoes and artworks of interest.

Built by Juan de Herrara in the 16th century, the Archive of the Indies was originally the stock exchange (Lonja) of Seville at a time when the city was the major trading port with the Americas. After the 1780’s with the decline of that trade through Seville, it became the archive for all papers, reports, maps and documents relating to the Spanish colonies in the New World between 1492 and the 19th century. It is said to hold over 80 million pages of documents on 6 miles of mahogany shelves.

To the east of the Cathedral and the Alcázares Reales is the area of narrow streets, bars and restaurants of the old Jewish quarter, the Barrio de Santa Cruz. Wander the streets to get a feeling for the Seville of the past. Most of the houses are built around central patios which can be glimpsed through open doors or wrought-iron screens. They are usually whitewashed and decorated with flowering plants.

Built in 1220, the Torre de Oro (Golden Tower) (Photo 13) on the banks of the River Guadalquivir was originally a watchtower on the city walls marking the edge of the city’s defences.

From here underwater chains could be stretched across the river to the Torre de Abdelazi in Triana. It has its name either from the golden tiles that used to cover the original roof or from the fact that it was the place where bullion was unloaded from the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has since been used as a chapel, a prison, a warehouse, a post office, and is now a small maritime museum. The turret was added in 1760.

The Maestranza Bullring, (Photo 14) constructed in the late 18th century, is regarded by many as the most beautiful bullring in the world (Guided tours available).

Many visitors go to the Plaza de Espana, the site of the 1929 Exhibition, and the adjacent Parque de Maria Luisa, to rest in the shade of the trees and to watch the bird life there. Close by, on Calle San Fernando, is the Hotel Alfonso XIII (1929), with a pleasing patio for a sherry, beer, tea or coffee, and along from there is the vast 18th century Tobacco factory, where over 5,000 women rolled cigars and cigarettes, now part of the university (Science and Law faculties).

The Museo de Belles Artes is housed in the former Convento de la Merced which was founded in the 13th century, rebuilt in the 16th century and opened as a museum in 1838. In modern galleries, it holds a fine collection of art (in Spain ranked second only to the Prado, Madrid) including work by Velazquez, Cana, El Greco, Zurbaran, and Murillo. The Hospital de la Caridad has more 17th century paintings by Murillo. The Hospital de los Venerables is a 17th century home for retired priests with a restored Baroque church in Barrio de Santa Cruz.

Across the river, the Triana district, named after Emperor Trajan, is a traditional working class area with narrow streets, workshops, restaurants, tapas bars and nightlife with dancing Sevillanas and Flamenco. There are great view across the River Guadalquivir at night. Also on this side of the river is La Cartuja, a 14th/15th/16th century monastery, which was restored for Expo 92.

Further afield

Carmona, 20 miles to the east, accessible by bus, is an interesting small town with a long history. It has an intact old town well worth exploring and pleasant restaurants and bars. There are great views across the surrounding plains from the walls (Photos 16 and 17)

The Parque Nacional de Donana, 56 miles from Seville, at the estuary of the River Guadalquivir is a haven for birds (including the Imperial Eagles, flamingos, vultures), animals (Iberian lynx, wild boar) and plants – with wetland, coastal and woodland ecosystems - now threatened by increasing tourism, and mining pollution (there was a major spillage in 1998). It is possible to walk or cycle along specific trails in the park or to see the many different environments join a guided tour in a 4x4 from the Visitors Centre – limited numbers, book). Lasting approximately four hours, this trip makes a most enjoyable break from the city.


Roman and Moorish history (up to 1248)

The Romans captured the area from the Carthaginians in 206 B.C. during the 2nd Punic War. Italica was founded and nearby Hispalis (to become Seville) was a port on the river. Although Cordoba was the capital of the Roman province of Baetica, it was Italica that was the birthplace of the Emperor Trajan (Emperor 98-117A.D.) who took the empire to its largest extent. Following the withdrawal of the Roman legions Spain was dominated by the Visigoths and Hispalis developed as a cultural centre under Archbishop San Isidro (died 635A.D.).

After the Moorish invasions of the early 8th century, Hispalis became known as Isbiliya, one of a number of significant towns in al-Andulus under the control of the emir (later caliph) of Cordoba. With the breakup of this central control from Cordoba in the early 11th century, after the death of Al Mansur, Isbiliya became the base of one of the stronger warring kingdoms. However in 1085, the increasing pressure from the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Leon from the north motivated Al-Mutamid, the local ruler, to invite the more fundamentalist Berber Almoravid dynasty to assist in the fight against the Christians. As is so often the case the new allies, having had success in the original conflict, decided to remain and take control of al-Andalus, which they did until they in turn were removed by another dynasty from North Africa, the Almohads.

By 1147 the Almohads had taken over most of al-Andalus and made Seville its capital. During the second half of the 12th century they were responsible for developing the Alcazar, and constructing a large mosque (on the site of the present cathedral) with the Giralda (originally the minaret). After 1200 the threat from the unified Christian kingdoms increased and with defeat at Los Navas de Tolosa in 1212, the final collapse of Muslim control was only a matter of time. Cordoba fell in 1236 and Seville in 1248.

Seville after 1248

Many Muslims fled the city, moving to Granada, and upward of 20,000 Christian settlers were brought in. Seville was a favourite residence of many monarchs and the most important city in Castile, and was to remain so until the late 17thcentury. Pedro I ‘the Cruel’ (r. 1350-1369) was responsible for the complete reconstruction of the Alcazar in Mudejar style. Mudejar was the name given to those Muslims who were permitted to remain in Christian Castile and their influence on the architecture of the time was considerable, with the Alcazar of Seville being the outstanding example. This did not mean that religious tolerance was always accepted, as shown by the attack on the Jewish quarter – the Barrio Santa Cruz – in 1391.

From 1492 onwards the discovery of the New World opened up vast new possibilities for Seville with the navigable River Guadalquivir and its access to the Atlantic. Seville was granted a monopoly on trade with the New World by the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella) in 1503 and so became the base for all exports to the rapidly growing settlements in the Americas and for the import of bullion. Thus it entered its ‘Golden Age’ as the ‘port and gateway to the Indies’, the largest and richest city in Spain.

In the time of Charles V

During the time of Charles V and Philip II the city’s population grew from 40,000 (1500) to 150,000 (1600), becoming one of the great European cities at a time when Spain itself became a major power in international politics. It was in Seville that Charles and Isabella of Portugal were married. Isabella had been enthusiastically welcomed by its citizens a few days before. As soon as Charles arrived on 10th March 1526 the ceremony took place just after midnight in rooms in the Alcazar Reales specially redecorated for the occasion. Charles recorded the event in his memoirs twenty-five years later. ‘The emperor left Toledo in 1526 for Seville, where he got married, and during the journey he received news that the Queen of Denmark, his sister had died’. At the time he wrote a long letter to his brother Ferdinand about their sister’s death, negotiations with Francis I and then he mentioned that ‘I have now entered the state of marriage, which please me well’. The Portuguese ambassador wrote at the time: ‘When the bride and groom are together, though everyone may be present, they have eyes only for one another’. They did not stay long in Seville, moving on that spring to Cordoba and then for a rather longer stay in Granada.

History from Charles V to the Present Day

Despite Seville’s importance it was the relatively small town of Madrid that was chosen as capital of Spain in 1561 by Philip II, mainly for the unifying potential of its central location. The wealth, and the resultant Renaissance and baroque buildings, generated by Seville, was in marked contrast to the general poverty of the Andalucian countryside. Here the vast estates of the tax exempted nobility were turned over to sheep grazing, with hundreds of thousands losing their livelihood and grain production falling to an extent that production could not match demand. This was also at a time when the expulsion of the Jews (1492), and the later expulsion of the converted Muslims or Moriscos (1609-1614), resulted in Spain losing a whole section of the population that might have been able to develop commerce and industry. This, together with considerable expenditure on European wars, meant that the wealth pouring in from the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries was not used for long term economic development of the city or its hinterland.

There were several reasons for Seville’s decline in the 17th century. Reduced shipments of gold and silver from the Americas, poor harvests, and a catastrophic epidemic of the bubonic plague that wiped out half of its population in 1649, all contributed. By the end of the century the river was silting up, making it impossible for the large trading vessels to reach the city, and in 1717 control of the New World trade was passed to Cadiz. Some damage in the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, another terrible epidemic (yellow fever) in 1800 and occupation and pillage by Napoleonic troops between 1810 and 1812 all led to further problems. In the early 19th century the Spanish American colonies fought for and gained their independence. Seville was by then a much weakened capital of a poor province.

Attempts to revive Seville included the construction of the massive tobacco factory (Antigua Fabrica de Tobacos) in the 1750s which remains the second largest building in Spain (after El Escorial). It was the setting for Bizet’s opera, Carmen, and is now part of the university. The 19th century saw further efforts with the first bridge over the Guadalquivir (Puente de Triana or Puente de Isabel II) in 1852. The demolition of the old Almohad city walls opened the way for more expansion. The impetus of the 1929 Exposicion Iberoamericana (Plaza Espana), along with the construction of the Hotel Alfonso XIII, was soon lost in the economic depression caused by the Wall Street Crash, and this was followed by the civil war (1936-1939). Seville was soon taken by Franco’s Nationalist troops, led by Gonzalo Queipo de Llano and resistance led to savage reprisals, especially in the working class Triana district across the river from the centre.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Seville became the capital of the autonomous region of Andalucia, and between 1982 and 1996 Felipe Gonzalez from Seville, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers party, was the Prime Minister of Spain. Expo 1992, commemorating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, resulted in new bridges over the Guadalquivir, millions of visitors, a new Opera House and the construction of the high speed train link to Madrid. Seville had become a thriving modern city, while retaining its essential atmosphere and links with the past.