The members of the American Women’s Club of Seville have prepared this guide to help you, our visitors, make the most of your stay here in Seville and to adapt more easily to the very different rhythm of life here. The Guide is a group effort, based on suggestions by the club’s members. We welcome feedback and contributions from our members and guests; please send them to awcseville.com.
One of the great pleasures of living here in Seville is introducing our friends and family to the city we have chosen as our home. It’s a wonderful city, rich in history, architecture, legends and social life. If you have a chance to read up a bit on Seville before you come, it will help us, as your hosts, point you in the right direction to see the things you’ll enjoy the most.
One of the first things you’ll discover here is that all the maps are wrong. Sevillano mapmakers are far more creative than their American counterparts and will often adjust the size or angle of a road based on its importance or the way people use a street to connect with another. Here, people rarely know the names of streets; directions are generally given via monuments and plazas. If you ask for, say, the cathedral, people will point you to the next major landmark and tell you to ask again. This is because in much of the city, especially in the old center of town (known as the “centro”), the streets are so serpentine you’ll get lost anyway. Take a map with you, by all means, but don’t be surprised if it fails to match exactly what you’re seeing.
Host’s Home vs. Hotel
Many of us like having houseguests, but if your visit is likely to extend beyond three or four days, both you and your host family will likely be happier if you stay in a hotel. Seville has a wide range of accommodations in every price range, from student hostals to luxury hotels. Be aware that hotel prices can double during the two big spring festivals, Semana Santa and Feria (see Festivals below). The dates of those festivals change every year, as they are tied to the date of Easter, so be sure to check on this if you are arriving in March, April or early May.
Our days are already full of the activities of daily living. When you arrive on vacation, we may not be in a position to drop everything and go sightseeing with you all the time. Those of us who have frequent visitors have learned that it is often most practical to provide our guests with an orientation to the city, a map and (if they are staying with us) a set of house keys. People sometimes say, “We don’t want to treat your home like a hotel.” Please, treat it like a hotel. Come and go. Enjoy the city. Do some research, make your own plans. We’ll participate as much as we can, and when we must leave you to take care of other things, we will look forward to meeting up with you later and hearing about your adventures exploring the city on your own.
The Sevillanos have a somewhat different eating schedule. Normally they have coffee and little else at home, then go out about 10:00 for breakfast, which normally consistes of more coffee and perhaps toast with ham or butter and jam. Just about everything in town opens at 10:00 and shuts down at 1:30 or 2:00 for lunch, which is usually the biggest meal of the day, and is always followed by a siesta, during which nearly all the shops and businesses are closed.
A word about siestas: You’ll find it a lot easier to enjoy Seville if you adapt to the local custom and take a siesta every day. Some visitors refuse to “waste time” this way and scour the city for the few shops and monuments that don’t close from 2:00 to 5:00. They then return to the host’s home or hotel at 6:00, hot and exhausted, and want to dine at 7:00 and get to bed by 10:00 so they can be up early the next morning for more sightseeing. Keeping to this kind of schedule here in Seville puts them totally out of sync with the rhythm of life here. They miss half the fun – the leisurely mid-morning breakfast under the orange trees, the late lunch at a sidewalk café bustling with excited chatter over cold beer, the traditional evening spent sampling tapas bars, the late nights watching flamenco, dancing or listening to music. This is a city where life takes place communally, in the streets; if you skip it, you’ll miss out on a key part of the Sevillan experience.
After siesta, things get going again about 5:00; the businesses and shops re-open and the Spaniards go out for coffee and perhaps a sweet pastry to rev up for the evening ahead. Businesses and shops close about 8:00, and people start drifting into the tapas bars; supper is often a “tapeo,” in which we visit several small tapas bars during the course of an evening, having a nibble and a drink – usually beer, in deference to the hot climate – at each one. More substantial dinners usually start at 10 pm or later. The city is known for its nightlife, and it is not unusual to be out until two or three in the morning; some of our younger guests have come in at dawn. You can keep to your normal timetable while you are here, but you’ll find it is much more fun if you try to adapt to the local customs, at least to some extent.
On Saturday afternoons and Sundays, virtually all the shops are closed. On Sundays there is almost nothing to do except plan a big late lunch, take a long siesta and stroll around town and through the parks.
Many people, especially Americans, arrive thinking Spain is a sort of European Mexico. It could hardly be more different. You can drink the water. The cuisine is not at all spicy and bears absolutely no resemblance to Tex Mex food; you won’t find flour tortillas or jalapeño peppers, and no one will be drinking margaritas or wearing huge sombreros with gaudy designs. You do not bargain for your purchases, even with street vendors in the city. Foreigners are called many things, but not “gringo.” Spain’s civilization is ancient and proud, tracing its roots back many thousands of years. Hercules is said to have founded the city of Seville, and Julius Cesar walked its streets; their images are on the city hall and the pillars in the Alameda to prove it.
While the larger stores and fancier restaurants take credit cards (you’ll need to show them a copy of your passport or other ID for this) many of the smaller shops, bars and cafés operate on a cash basis. You won’t want to bring travelers’ checks or exchange US dollars; go to the cash machines and extract money from your bank account, in euros. The exchange rate varies but is somewhere around $1.35 US dollars to the euro.
When on vacation, even during the financial crisis, lots of people are ready to splurge on good food, tourist attractions and entertainment. That’s great, but you’ll want to be mindful of the fact that your host family may not be in a position to do this. Having guests can become costly for hosts who must pay their own way to all the restaurants, monuments, flamenco shows, etc. not only during your visit but possibly with many other guests throughout the year. A British guy who works in the tourist industry in Marbella says, “I get a lot of guests. I tell them all the same thing: I don’t do airport transport. You can stay for three days. And during that time, you will take me out for a good meal at a restaurant of my choosing. That’s the deal.” That may strike us as a little brusque, but after living for a while in such a popular tourist destination, many hosts find they have to set a few parameters. One AWC member often tells guests, “I’ve been to the cathedral many times; I don’t want to pay to see it again.” Guests who want her services as a guide will offer to pay her way, those who just want to see the place will arrange to meet her later.
The Spanish love to eat and often plan their days and nights around food (see Schedules, above). Gobbling a Power Bar and a latte in your car and calling it lunch would horrify the average Sevillano; cars here don’t even come with cup holders. A key ingredient in the diet is ham, cut in thin slices from huge haunches that hang from the ceiling ofnearly every café, bar and restaurant. One of the most famous Spanish dishes is paella, a shallow pan of rice cooked with saffron and various combinations of meat, chicken and shellfish. Originating in Valencia, paella is common throughout Spain and usually delicious, but beware of ordering it at restaurants with color posters of six different kinds that can be served at a moment’s notice; these will be frozen versions of inferior quality.
Fish is enormously popular, especially grilled or fried, and you can get shellfish here in wide and unusual varieties. One member recalls a visit from a friend from the US Midwest, who for months ahead of time commented how she couldn’t wait to try the seafood here, especially crab legs. When the hosts took her out to a seafood restaurant and ordered a huge platter of shrimp and prawns, the guest looked unhappy. “Where’s the melted butter?” she asked. The hosts explained that here people don’t eat seafood with butter, but rather, just enjoy the taste of the sea, since it’s so nice and fresh here. “It’s cold,” objected the guest. “I don’t like cold seafood.” The hosts tried to convince her to at least try it, breaking open a crab leg for her. The guest touched it to her tongue and dropped it like a hot potato. “No. I don’t like it.” The hosts decided not to mention that sucking the heads off the shrimp was supposed to be the best part. Non-seafood dishes were then ordered, but the guest was so offended, she didn’t even offer to chip in for the meal.
Other mainstays include pork in every conceivable form, beef, chicken, fish, tail of the bull and cheese. Vegetables are often limited to a green salad and spinach with garbanzo beans. Deep fat fried foods, especially fish but also onion rings (known as calamari del campo, or country-style squid) are popular. You can find other country’s cuisines, such as Moroccan, Italian, Indian and Japanese fare, and there are the inevitable fast food franchises imported from America, in case you’re homesick for a Whopper.
Sevillanos love their beer, the colder the better, which is why they serve it in short glasses, so it can be drunk before it turns warm. Another favorite drink, especially in summer, is tinto de verano (red wine of summer), a mix of red wine and a 7-up type carbonated beverage, served over ice, making a sort of wine spritzer; it sounds awful and tastes great, especially on a hot day. Red wine is common; when in doubt, ask for a Rioja, a regional variety known for consistent quality. White wine isn’t as popular, but you can nearly always get Barbadillo, a semi-dry white wine that’s not too distant from a chardonnay. Manzanilla and fino are ultra-dry sherries that are quite popular here, and at the April Feria, they serve manzanilla with a carbonated soft drink over ice, a mix known as rebujito.
Non-alcoholic beverages include the usual carbonated drinks and bottled fruit juices, as well as fresh orange juice. You can drink tap water, but they prefer to sell you bottled water. Coffee is excellent here, and comes in various forms, including café con leche (coffee with milk) and leche manchada (literally stained milk, more milk than coffee). It’s hard to get the jumbo-size lattes that are so popular elsewhere; if you must have one, there are several Starbucks around town. But you should try the local brew first, as it’s commonly held to be vastly superior.
People smoke here. A lot. Many consider it one of the basic freedoms and pleasures of life, in much the same way Americans eat considerable amounts of sugar despite its obvious health risks. As guests in this country, we must put up with smoking in public places as gracefully as we can.
Seville is very safe compared to most cities, and people—even solitary women—go out alone at all hours of the night. Violent crimes are extremely rare, but you do have to watch out for pickpockets and purse snatchers. Leave your passport, most of your cash and valuables, and copies of your credit cards somewhere safe (e.g., your host’s home, your hotel’s safe). Carry with you a copy of your passport (you’ll need it to make credit card purchases), cash and one credit/debit card. As in any city, you’ll want to use common sense. Backpacks, fanny packs, purses that don’t zip shut and wallets sticking out of back pockets are all tempting targets for thieves. However, you don’t need to treat this like a third world country, with hidden pouches on strings under your clothes. Just use a little common sense.
Seville is famous for its festivals, which occur throughout the year, but most especially in springtime. Coming during one of the big festivals—especially Semana Santa, the week before Easter—means dense crowds, long waits just to cross the street, and many tourist attractions are closed or difficult to get to. You will probably have more fun, especially on your first visit, if you avoid Semana Santa and come at a time when you can see the real Seville, a relaxed and friendly city. Having said that, it should be noted that Semana Santa is a world-famous spectacle involving more than 50 huge processions carrying statues of the passion of Christ and a weeping Virgin; they move through the streets day and night, often with brass bands and thousands of participants dressed in hooded robes that look like Ku Kluk Klan outfits (and in fact, they inspired the Klan’s attire).
The other major festival occurs two weeks later. The Feria de Abril (April Fair) is a dazzling spectacle of wildly colorful flamenco dresses, horses and carriages, drinking and dancing all night, with a fun fair and circus on the side, in case you need more excitement. Like Semana Santa, it’s not the best time to see Seville itself, but it’s a world-class attraction. During both Semana Santa and Feria hotel prices can double – even triple or quadruple – and occupancy is near 100%. Be sure to book hotels, flights and trains well in advance.
These are by no means the only festivals in Seville. They occur with bewildering frequency throughout the year, mostly celebrating highlights of the religious calendar, often with processions much like those of Semana Santa. It can be great fun to see these glittering spectacles, especially when you’re not expecting them, but be advised that many holidays involve shutting down businesses, including shops and food markets, sometimes for a day or two. Not to worry, this being Seville, you will find most of the bars and cafés open for business.
There are some big, lovely parks with children’s areas, plus many small neighborhood play areas with playground equipment suitable for small children and cafés nearby for the parents. The small, winding streets, while charming, have sidewalks that can narrow abruptly to less than two feet wide, making strollers and baby carriages awkward to maneuver. English-language movies and TV are not generally available, even in high-end hotels. On the plus side, kids and strollers are welcome pretty much everywhere, including bars. It’s not uncommon to see little kids sitting or playing quietly in the corner while the parents enjoy a beer, a cigarette and the company of friends at a local pub. And people here love children, especially infants, and will often offer spontaneous comments on their beauty (¡Que guapo! ¡Que bonita!) or advice on dressing them more warmly or shielding them better from the sun.
Older teens (if not their parents) will be delighted to hear that the drinking age in Seville is 16, and it is common for teenagers to go out on the town until the small hours of the morning. Host families are often placed in the awkward position of having parents and teens ask how safe this is, how late teens should be allowed out, where to go and so on. There is no perfect answer to these questions, and the parents and teens may want to have some conversations about this before they arrive.
There are some teens (and I am sure none of yours are like this) who go through a sullen phase, acting as if they have been dragged to Europe at gunpoint and using monosyllabic responses, eye-rolling and hunched shoulders to indicate that they are way too hip to be traveling with these losers. Ideally, these teens should be left at home, where they can consort with people who are as mature and hip as they are. When a sulky teen does arrive in town, especially as a houseguest, it poses enormous problems for the host family. One ex-pat here in Seville sits such teens down when they arrive and explains that in her house, they are expected to keep up their end of the conversation, and if they can’t do that, they should find another place to stay. Not all host families are capable of being quite that direct, but parents, teens and hosts should try to come to some accord about what constitutes acceptable behavior during the visit.
People still dress here. By this I mean that you won’t see many locals wearing sweats, fleece, baseball caps, sneakers or shorts; jeans have just become acceptable in people over 25. For men, you’ll see slacks, collared shirts and leather shoes. Women tend to wear slacks or skirts, the tighter the better, with carefully coordinated accessories. They love high heels, but most foreigners can’t manage them on cobblestone streets and shouldn’t try. No one wears hats except at a wedding or if they’re under doctor’s orders to avoid the sun. As a tourist, you are of course exempt from local fashion restrictions. We just mention them in passing.
You have probably already heard that it gets HOT here in July and August. When Sevillanos say hot, they mean weeks at a time in the 90s and 100s, with enough humidity to create a heat index that makes it inadvisable to leave the house from lunch time until 9:00 or 10:00 at night. That means nearly all activities—sightseeing, shopping, buying groceries, errands, etc.—have to be crammed into the morning from 10:00 to 1:30. And it means a LOT of down time in your host’s apartment or your hotel, followed by late nights out on the town (that part is fun). Overall, we recommend that visitors NOT choose the hot summer months. Spring and fall are best, when the weather, although notoriously unpredictable, tends to hit the moderate range fairly often, and if you’re lucky you will have gorgeous, let’s-eat-all-our-meals-outside weather. Winter can be chilly and/or rainy, although again, it varies; for instance, many years we eat lunch at an outdoor café on New Year’s Day.
Communications with the Old Country
There are WIFI connections in many bars and restaurants where you can connect your mobile phone to check your messages or email, do web searches, and so on. (Ask your waiter for the password.) Your host family will probably be able to offer WIFI as well. Your cell phone(s) calls may or may not work here; it’s best to check on this before you come over.
Most people fly into Madrid and either transfer to a flight to Seville or take the train down. The train offers two and a half hours to sleep off any jet lag, and arrives in Seville just in time for lunch, to be followed, of course, by a siesta. If you do take the train, make reservations in advance over the Internet to make sure you can get a seat, and that you have your choice of first class (roomier, with a light meal and sherry) or tourist class (quite comfortable, and what we recommend). If you fly in, you can take a cab, or there’s a bus from the airport to the train station, which is about a twenty minute walk (or short cab ride) from the center of town. If you arrive during Semana Santa, your cab may not be able to enter the city center due to processions passing through.
Let us know if you have any additional questions. Seville is a wonderful city, and we hope you will love it as much as we do. It’s fun having guests and showing them the city. We look forward to your visit!