Seville [also known in Spanish as Sevilla] is a city that had been on my “must see” list for quite some time. Why? Tiles. I LOVE colorful tiles. And, due to its Moorish history, Seville is one of the absolute best places to see them! I had enjoyed the architecture/design in Marrakech so incredibly much that I knew beyond any doubt that I would also love Seville. This vibrant city turned out to be even more stunning that I’d ever imagined, and ranks highly on my mental list of “favorite trips.”
BACKGROUND: HISTORY, ARCHITECTURE & TILES
Before I dive into the architectural highlights of Seville, I’d like to share some background information about the history & architecture of Andalusia [this particular region of southern Spain] and the tiles that I love so very much, which I find to be the most exciting & fascinating feature of Andalusian architecture.
First of all, why tiles? And why do they look so darn much like the ones in Morocco? I’m very glad you asked!
**This will be a super duper insanely short background on Andalusia & its cultural/architectural history and I’ll be leaving tons of information out for the sake of brevity & clarity. It is not, by any means, a comprehensive version of the region’s history. There’s plenty more great information out there on these topics, if you’re interested in learning more – and would I would strongly urge that you do!**
In case you’re rusty on your world history and/or geography, I’ll refresh your memory a little. Spain is located directly above Northern Africa, specifically present-day Morocco. The two countries are separated by a mere 7.7 nautical miles at the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar. Presently, ferries can make the trip in just 35 minutes, i.e. even centuries ago it wasn’t such a big deal to cross this water. When the Moors moved from Northern Africa up into the Iberian peninsula [Spain & Portugal] waaaaaay back in the 700s AD [yes, that’s a long time ago!], their culture came with them and it continued to take hold across the region over the centuries of Moorish rule. For obvious geographic reasons, Andalusia really got a ton of that influence. As the Moors gradually lost control of land in the Iberian peninsula, Andalusia was their last stronghold until it was lost, as well, in 1491. [side note: I’d like to remind you that a certain someone “sailed the ocean blue” the very next year… from Andalusia! More on him later, though…]. This is why the strongest Moorish/Moroccan influence & similarities in architecture can be seen in the Andalusian region of Spain. Almost all of the architecture from the time of the Moorish rule is long gone and has been built over [Catholic Churches over mosques, Spanish palaces over Moorish palaces, etc]. But its strong influence remains and has continued to reign in Andalusian architecture and design for centuries, during which time it also blossomed into the unique Andalusian culture that we see today. Going forward from the 781 years of Moorish rule, Spain became a force to be reckoned with on the world stage, as the first “world power”. Their increased wealth & power resulted in their exploration of the globe [most famously by Columbus & Magellan] and extensive colonization of newly discovered lands. Seville, in particular, has a very vibrant history from this period, as all goods imported from the New World passed through its port. This made it the gateway for exotic goods for all of Europe & enormously enriched the city. It is, therefore, no surprise that Seville experienced a golden age of arts & architecture.
Architecture is the primary area where we can still see this influence & history, in the style called Mudéjar. Mudéjar is the merging of Islamic & Christian design elements and remained a dominant style through the 17th century, encompassing the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance periods. Although you may be looking at a structure built during one of those periods, you will find that it is entirely different, stylistically, from buildings of that time elsewhere in Europe. The shape & structure will be the same, but that is where the similarity ends. One of the biggest hallmarks of Mudéjar style is its use of shapes & geometric patterns, as is popular in Islamic architecture. You’ll see these stunning geometric patterns in the very distinctive carved wood, brickwork, and tilework present in Mudéjar buildings. Personally, I absolutely LOVE all these patterns and I find them endlessly fascinating.
In Seville, we see the Mudéjar style manifested particularly in tiles [called “azulejos” in Spanish]. Earlier tiles [from closer to the time of Moorish rule] tend to be exactly the same as what you’ll see in historic Moroccan palaces, but Seville also has its own unique styles that it developed. For centuries, the city had a thriving tile-making district, Triana, which made use of the mud on the banks of the river running through the city. Pretty much all of the tiles you see in buildings across Seville came from the workshops here. So, now let me explain some of the different types that you’ll see, so that you’ll be a total pro at spotting them!
Alicatado tiles [or Zillij in Arabic] are the ones that you’ll see most prevalently in Morocco [see my Morocco post here]. They are a traditional Islamic art and were always created in geometric designs [because depicting living things was not allowed under Islamic law]. They are also the style of tiles that started it all in Andalusia, in the 13th century. They are created by taking glazed tiles of various colors, hand-cutting shapes out of them, then meticulously fitting the pieces together into the patterns, like puzzle pieces. Now, it obviously requires quite a lot of time & precision in order to cut all the little pieces exactly right and then fit all the little pieces together exactly right, which you can see in this incredible video. You’ll see the same types of patterns & colors repeated frequently in buildings in both Morocco & Andalusia. This website gives a great overview of a few of the most common Alicatado/Zillij patterns seen in both Morocco & Andalusia. The handcrafting of these tiles is not only time consuming and painstaking work, it also means that there’s a definite limit on the type of designs that can be made. Needless to say, as demand for these gorgeous tiles grew, new crafting methods evolved & emerged by necessity – as well as by changing tastes & influences. Which is what led directly to the next two types.
Cuerdo Seca [technique developed in Seville, 15th c.] means “dry cord” – a reference to the lines that separate the colors on these tiles. They couldn’t just paint the patterns onto the tiles because the colors were too liquid and would bleed together. So, in order to keep the pigments from running together on these tiles, the design was drawn in thin lines with a grease combined with a dark pigment. The artist could then fill in the remaining areas with the desired pigments without worry of them running together. In this style, the dividing lines [often a dark color] are low & the colors are slightly raised. You can see how these designs are made in this video.
Cuenca/Arista [technique developed in Seville, 15th c.] achieved the same result as Cuerdo Seca, but in a slightly different manner. Instead of using the grease lines to separate the colored areas, they began making tiles using molds that stamped the designs into them. These tiles have raised edges around all of the shapes so that the colors can then be added into each depressed area without bleeding together. In this style, the dividing lines are raised & the colors are slightly lower. You can see how these designs are made in this video. This is one of my personal favorite types of tile! And there are so many varieties – which I’ll get to a little more when I talk about specific buildings in Seville.
**The above two techniques were spread from Seville to Portugal after the Portuguese King Manuel I visited Seville in 1503. This got tiles going there, as well… which the Portuguese then morphed into THEIR own unique style!**
Olambrilla are decorative paving tiles that are mixed in with plain terra-cotta tiles or paving bricks. They’re little bitty guys [usually 7 cm squares] that add just a little bit of extra visual interest to a floor/walkway. I always like spotting them tucked away amid the “boring” pavement.
Majolica [technique brought from Italy, 16th c.] tiles are where designs start to really get extravagant. They are polychrome, painted tiles. If you are familiar with Italian painted pottery… this is essentially the same idea. The new technique allowed the artists to paint entire scenes on tiles. Italian artisans had brought their tile-painting technique to Seville with them, and it started to really take off there, then also spread to Portugal.
Casa de Pilatos
[Plaza de Pilatos, 1]
Most people wanting to see beautiful tilework in Seville will head straight to the Real Alcázar. And while that should absolutely be on your itinerary, do not let it be your only stop. There are several options of mansions to visit and what a great one this was! What you’ll mainly be seeing here are some of the most elaborate & ornate Sevillian Cuenca/Arista tiles in a 16th century Mudéjar palace. It is simply stunning! As an added bonus, it’s a lot less popular than the Real Alcázar, so you’ll have plenty of time to get up close & personal with these tiles. Personally, I prefer the tilework here to that of the Real Alcázar. Any which way, you definitely don’t want to miss it!
[Patio de Banderas, across from Seville Cathedral entrance]
All right, this is 100% the meat-and-potatos of Mudéjar architecture & tilework in Seville. It is very popular for good reason. That said, you definitely need a strategy in place to be able to fully enjoy it before the hoards take over. As always, our strategy was to pre-purchase tickets and be lined up waiting before they opened for the day. I’d recommend finding a map online ahead of time and planning your path to the Patio de las Doncellas. If you make a beeline there, you should have a few minutes to enjoy it and snap photos before it starts filling up with people. Next up is the Salón de Embajadores [Hall of Ambassadors]. To get there, walk to the far end of the patio, through the doorway, and take a right. [If you watch Game of Thrones, you should recognize both of these first two as filming locations for Dorne.] After that, head out back to the gardens. Another highlight to check out is Los Baños de Maria Padilla, which is under the building you just came from and accessed from the back garden. Because the Real Alcázar was built over quite a long period of time you’ll be able to see many different types of tiles. In the rooms surround the patio, there are many different patterns of Alicatado. When you step out the back into the gardens you’ll find Olambrilla dotted in with the paving bricks. And as you walk through some of the other areas you’ll also see multiple patterns of Cuenca/Arista tiles. This makes for some pretty good one-stop sightseeing, which probably accounts for why most people make this their only tile-viewing stop in Seville. Oh, and it also happens to be the oldest still-in-use palace in Europe, since it’s still used by the Spanish royal family.
Los Baños de Maria Padilla
Plaza de España
In addition to the Real Alcázar, the Plaza de España is the other site in Seville famed for its tiles. And it is a prime example of the painted Majolica tiles. The park was built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. The colorful tiled benches [called Alcoves of the Provinces] in the park are dedicated to -and decorated for- the provinces of Spain, as you can see when you get a close-up look at them. In addition to the benches, which are no doubt extremely eye-catching, I also really loved the blue and white ceramic spindles on the bridges and fences. There are four of these bridges, to represent the four ancient kingdoms of Spain. The architectural style of the surrounding buildings [also constructed for the exhibition] is a cross between Art Deco and neo-Mudéjar, and the walkway of the main building was used for filming a scene in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. Plaza de España was one of the places I was most looking forward to visiting in Seville, having seen many stunning photos of it, but I wound up liking it less than expected. That’s not to say that it isn’t beautiful or that people shouldn’t visit, because you absolutely should. But my heart definitely lies more with the Alicatado & Arista tiles!
[Av. de la Constitución]
We have, of course, seen many, many cathedrals in our travels. You might think they would all start to blend together in my head after a little while, but they actually don’t. Despite many of them having very similar architectural styles, each one is slightly unique. Seville Cathedral stands out in my mind a bit more than most. The first thing you’ll notice as you approach it is that it is simply massive. And that’s an accurate impression, as it is has held several records in its lifetime. It is: the largest cathedral in the world, the third largest church in the world, and the largest Gothic church in the world. Phew! Its construction began in the 15th century and was completed in the early 16th century. An important historical note is that the cathedral was built on the site of a former mosque. The bell tower [called La Giralda] is actually the minaret from said mosque, built in the late 1100s and modeled after the minaret of Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech. The only other remaining Moorish structure is the Puerta del Perdón [aka Moorish Gate]. You can climb up the tower for a great view over the city, or you can also pay more to climb other parts of the cathedral. Also historically relevant: Christopher Columbus [Cristóbal Colón in Spanish] is buried at the cathedral, which was still being built while he made his famed voyage. Inside the church, the main things people flock to are Columbus’s tomb & the center altarpiece, which is quite stunning. The enormous gilded wood altarpiece is a depiction of biblical scenes, carved by Flemish craftsman Pierre Dancart over the course of 44 years. Although these are the main highlights, I will also add that there are many little side rooms full of hidden gems, so don’t miss those.
Iglesia de San Ildefonso
[Calle Rodríguez Marín, 4]
This 18th/19th century church isn’t something that we went inside of, but make sure that you at least walk by. The vibrant red and yellow exterior will call out to you like an architectural beacon as you get close. I was still in the middle of my “omg we just arrived and this city is amaaaaazing” moment when we walked by. Don’t you just love that feeling of absolutely delighted excitement when you’re totally loving a new city??
[Plaza de la Encarnación]
This is quite different from any of the other architectural sights in Seville. Nicknamed “Las Setas” [“The Mushrooms”], it is still relatively new, having only been completed in 2011. I find it to be a bit of an oddball in this city, design-wise. It looks rather like a structural mock-up that an architecture student would build. When viewing it from the street, I’m not too much of a fan, as it kind of sticks out like a sore thumb. And I’m not at all convinced that it’s an appropriate design for Seville. A Nordic city? Absolutely. It would make total sense there. But here? Not so much. However. That said, it was pretty fun to wander the walkways along the top of the structure. From that perspective, all of those curved shapes on it [that from the street seem completely wrong for the location] take on a new life. I guess my ultimate conclusion is that once you’re walking on Las Setas it has an air of whimsy… but I’m still not quite sold on it as a whole.
Ayuntamiento de Sevilla
[Plaza Nueva, 1]
This is Seville’s City Hall, built in the 16th century. It is a grand, imposing building in the Spanish Plateresque style. This style, which is sometimes considered a subsection of Renaissance style, developed during this time as a result of Spain’s growing wealth & power in the world, with its recent reunification & “discovery” and colonization of the Americas. It is a highly decorative style, in a way that goes beyond what we see in traditional Gothic or Renaissance, with an ornateness that seems more like what you’d expect to see in silver-work of that time. Spend a little time taking a good look at all the intricate details.
[Av. de la Constitución, 2]
This building is a good quick stop right next to the City Hall. You could certainly easily walk past it without really taking notice, as I’m sure most people do. But if you take a moment to give it a look you’ll see that this building, designed in 1914, is a good example of ornate neo-Mudéjar architectural style.
El Divino Salvador
[Pl. del Salvador]
This church is quite fascinating, with an extensive history. Its history began in the 800s BC with the Phoenicians, who built a wooden temple here. This was replaced during Roman times with a basilica. In 879 AD a mosque was built on this site, which was replaced with a larger one in 1172. The mosque’s patio & tower are its only remains today, as the mosque was demolished to build a cathedral when the city was reconquered from the Moors. The current version of the church was finished in 1712. Thanks to a restoration effort a decade ago, bits & pieces from all of those iterations have been unearthed. There are photos inside the church from when its floor was dug up, which I found very fascinating to see. The interior of the church is also interesting, as its filled with elaborate wood figures. What I liked the most, from a design point of view, was the colorful patterns painted onto the fluted columns & the dresses of the carved angel figures.
Head across Puente de Triana bridge to the neighborhood known for its tile making history. Just casually walking the streets is fun, as you’ll be able to pick out lots of different tilework on houses and other buildings. There are plenty of shops for buying ceramics, although I’ll give my preferred Sevillian tile shop later in this post. There is a great food hall/market [Mercado de Triana] right next to the bridge.
Centro de la Cerámica de Triana
[Calle Callao, 16]
This small museum in Triana is dedicated to giving a glimpse into the tile making past of Seville. Hang onto your ticket from the Real Alcázar to get free entry here. You’ll get to see the giant kilns used to bake tiles and see lots of examples of different styles.
Teatro Lope de Vega
[Av. de María Luisa]
This Neo-Baroque theater is not far from Plaza de España and, like the park, it was also built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition. The exterior of the building is white with golden yellow detailing, a beautiful Sevillian take on Baroque style. Unfortunately, when we walked by there was set-up going on for an event, so we didn’t get to fully appreciate the architecture [and sorry for the awkwardly cropped photo].
Palacio de San Telmo
This grand building was constructed in the 17th century as the “University of Navigators”, a school to educate orphans and train them to be sailors. It is now the seat of the president of Andalusia. Painted in vibrant red & gold, it is an excellent example of the Sevillian version of Baroque architecture, with a Churrigueresque [elaborate Spanish Baroque] entrance.
Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza
[Paseo de Cristóbal Colón, 12]
My only interest in seeing the largest bullfighting arena was for its exterior architecture [I have no interest in seeing bullfighting or the arena used for it]. Like so many other buildings in Seville, it is vibrantly colored: white with yellow & red decoration, in Baroque style.
Hospital de la Caridad
[Calle Temprado, 3]
Near La Maestranza is the Hospital de la Caridad [Charity Hospital]. Although it, too, is built in Baroque style, its facade is visually very different from the showy exterior of the bullfighting ring. The colors are elegant & muted, but the style is still distinctly Spanish.
Torre del Oro
[Paseo de Cristóbal Colón]
The “Tower of Gold” was built as a military watchtower in the 13th century. Although the name would suggest that the tower, itself, is gold in color, this is actually a reference to how its reflection in the river looks. The twelve-sided tower, built during Moorish rule, was once part of a chain of towers & walls that controlled access to the city.
[at the corner of Calle Argote de Molina and Calle Segovia]
As a classical musician, I am no stranger to the story of The Barber of Seville/Figaro! In fact, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro was the first opera I ever played. And yet somehow, in spite of all that, I wasn’t even thinking of that story when we were in Seville! It was pure dumb luck, then, that we happened to spot Rosina’s Balcony as we were wandering around. I was just standing there thinking “oh, what a pretty balcony” when I noticed the sign. Yes, this is, in fact, the famed balcony from that story! The intricately-carved wood balcony of this Mudéjar house is worth seeing, even if you have no interest in opera.
Real Fábrica de Tabacos
[Calle San Fernando, 4]
Although this building is now used by the university, it was originally the Royal Tobacco Factory. Because of the aforementioned monopoly on trade with the Americas, Seville was the natural place for a factory processing New World tobacco imports. Built in the 18th century, it was, at that time, the second largest building in the entirety of Spain. That gives you a pretty good idea how important tobacco was to Seville’s economy! And it also brings me to another opera connection: the title character of Bizet’s Carmen worked in this factory. With this history & its lovely facade, it’s worth taking a quick peek along the way to Plaza de España.
Plaza del Cabildo
I always love looking up hidden gems of a city, and this is one of them. Despite being mere steps off some of the busiest streets of Seville, you could walk by every day without ever knowing of the existence of this delightful little square. You really have to purposely venture there to ever see it. The stark white, crescent-shaped building that encloses it is lined with arches that are painted with orange decorations. You can enter the square via tiny alleys off Calle Almirantazgo or Calle Federico Sanchez Bedoya.
Capilla de San Jose
[Calle Jovellanos, 10]
Part of the magic of Seville is that you never know when you’re going to turn your head and spot something striking. Which is exactly how we discovered this little chapel. It was first thing in the morning and we were walking along Calle Sierpes and we saw the Baroque chapel peeking out at us. It has a very ornate interior, although we did now get to see it since it was too early in the day for it to be open.
[Calle Eslava, 3]
While there is certainly no shortage of restaurants in Seville serving tapas [and we visited several] Eslava is pretty top notch. They make their own contemporary take on the traditional Spanish tapas, which is both refreshing & delicious. Their menu changes, but they always have a couple of their award winning dishes on it, plus lots of local seafood.
[Calle Jesús del Gran Poder, 31]
This was our first food stop in Seville, shortly after arriving, because it was just around the corner from our gorgeous Airbnb. It is absolutely a highlight in contemporary Spanish dining. At the bar is a case fully stocked with fresh seafood. I took advantage of the opportunity to try sea urchin pate with caramelized onion [it was delicious]. They also have very high quality acorn-fed Iberico ham, for those who eat meat.
Bar El Comercio
[Calle Lineros, 9]
When in Spain, churros are a must! This quaint little bar serves up insanely delicious churros in a beautiful setting. You will have no doubt that you’re experiencing “the real deal” from the moment you step inside. The bar was founded in 1904 and you can really feel the history in the style of it. Order some churros & espresso at the counter and then grab a table along the beautifully tiled walls.
Vineria San Telmo
[Paseo de Catalina de Ribera, 4]
We knew that we wanted to try sherry while we were in Seville, since it comes from Andalusia [in Jerez]. We were both complete newbies to it, so we were happy to have the recommendations of the staff at the vineria. For anyone unfamiliar with the beverage [as we were], sherry is a fortified wine, meaning that its had a distilled grape spirit added to it [i.e. higher alcohol content than normal wine]. Despite its limited region of production, there are quite a few varieties, which is why we needed help in deciding what to taste. We tried a Fino [dry white] & a cream [blended sweet] sherry. I normally prefer dry, not sweet, so I was quite surprised to find that, while I enjoyed both, I definitely preferred the cream sherry. The one that we tried was Gonzalez Byass’s “Solera 1847” Cream Sherry, an award-winning sherry. I can definitely understand why!
[Mercado de Triana]
When we were walking through Mercado de Train we couldn’t resist trying something sweet from this pastry stand. The case full of puff pastries in exotic flavors [like lavender, mango passion & pina colada] was calling out to me. No one could ever regret trying these delicious little bites!
[Calle Harinas, 10]
I loved the “family run” feel of this little tapas bar! While we were there, we saw what appeared to be 3 generations of the family. The youngest, a little boy probably only about 3 years old, was being doted on by his grandparents, who were slicing him little pieces of Iberico ham off the full leg that was on the counter. What a way to grow up, right?? That kid is surely going to have good taste in food for life. As the setting would suggest, you’ll find traditional tapas dishes here. We didn’t have any sherry here, but they had several different barrels, so I’m sure this would be a good place to try some.
Bodega dos de Mayo
[Plaza de la Gavidia, 6]
This is a great place for dinner! They have a very extensive & varied menu of tapas to select from, which means that it’s very flexible for whether you’re super hungry or only a little hungry. They also have lots of wines & cavas by the glass to pick from. Grab a table [inside or patio] and then order your picks at the counter.
[Plaza de Pilatos, 2]
If you love tiles as much as I do and want to take some beauties home as decor [as you absolutely should!], this is THE place to go. Located across the street from Casa da Pilatos, this little shop has no shortage of authentic, old tiles. There are plenty of patterns & colors to choose from. I literally could’ve bought the whole store, that’s how amazing the selection is! We stopped in at the end of our trip and there was a crowd gathering outside Casa de Pilatos. The shop owner told us that there was a royal wedding happening there, and then kept insistently asking me if I was sure I wasn’t a famous person. Despite repeatedly assuring him that I definitely am not, I don’t think he was entirely convinced, haha.
Convento Madre de Dios
[Calle San José, 4]
Another one of my hidden finds in doing pre-trip research was “convent goodies.” The numerous convents of Seville produce homemade sweets to sell to the public to support themselves, similar to the Belgian monks who produce famed beers, but much more under-the-radar. We selected Convento Madre de Dios purely by location, as the others were a little more out of the way. There was a whole long list of options & we wound up taking home boxes of 3 different types: Trufas de Avellanas [chocolate truffles], Manchegos [a little like shortbread cookies], and Empanadillas de Cabello de Angel [traditional cookies stuffed with caramelized pumpkin]. This website offers a great list of the many convents and what types of sweets they offer. I’d HIGHLY recommend visiting at least one!
Seville is an incredibly vibrant city that’s full of life, and as a lover of architecture I found it to be straight up magical! I think that’s it’s overlooked all too often by tourists whose only stop in Spain is Barcelona, which is a real disservice. It seems to me that it’s impossible to truly understand the history & culture of this beautiful country if you haven’t been to Seville. But, then again, I do like having the best places to myself!