Seville: Music, Architecture and Passion in Spain

(Albert Stumm) Seville is known for its flamenco dancers, Moorish architecture,bullfighting and vibrant tapas scene.

The sultry alleyways of Seville reverberate with music day and night. Flamenco dancers stomp and clap for tips on the streets, and guitar virtuosos strum out traditional Spanish songs. And when we visited in the fall, a five-piece, all-female band was playing a classical rendition of a Coldplay hit outside the city’s famed cathedral. 

It’s these passionate local characters who first draw you in when you visit Seville, followed soon after by the intricate Moorish architecture and vibrant tapas scene. In fact, much of what Americans think of Spanish culture in general — flamenco, bullfighting and indeed, tapas — originated in the city or the surrounding region of Andalusia.

For nearly a century, the premier perch from which to enjoy all this life has been the Hotel Alfonso XIII. Opened in 1929 to welcome dignitaries for a multinational exposition, the hotel exudes an opulence of a bygone era with all the modern luxuries right in the city center. “King Alfonso XIII wanted this to be the most amazing hotel in the world,” Olivier Rust (011-34-954-917-045; [email protected]), director of sales, tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “Because he wanted to show everyone how great Spain is, and how great he is.”

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Hotel Alfonso XIII’s 2,723-square-foot Royal Suite is furnished with antiques.

The 148-room hotel, which is part of The Luxury Collection, overflows with influences from the Moors, the Muslim rulers of Spain for 700 years before Christopher Columbus set sail. During a restoration in 2012, delicately carved wooden moldings and elaborate copper tiles were restored by the same companies that made them originally. Many of the rooms include detailed peaked wooden arches above the well-appointed beds and ambiant lighting hidden inside coffered ceilings.

Rust says luxury travel advisors should make arrangements for VIP guests through Account Manager Araceli Queiro ([email protected]; 011-34-954-917-061) at least four months in advance for the best rooms, particularly in the spring when the city is packed for the Seville Feria festival and Semana Santa, the week preceding Easter. Both events include all-night parties and colorful processions that wind their way through the city’s tangled alleyways. Insider Tip: Temperatures in July and August routinely top 100 degrees in the afternoon, so it’s best to plan for spring or fall. 

Rust recommends staying in the Royal Suite, which has hosted Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Cruise. The suite, designed in the Andalusian style with leather headboards and chairs embellished with metal rivets, features marble columns that separate the living area from a dining room with an eight-seat table. Appointed with antiques inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the 2,723-square-foot suite connects to neighboring executive suites that can turn into a two-bedroom, four-bathroom living space. The Reales Alcazares, seductively decorated in contrasting dark- and cream-colored tones that inspired a former king’s mistress, overlooks the ancient Moorish palace of the same name next door. The magnificent palace and gardens are one for the city’s premier sights and still are an official residence of the Spanish royal family.

Tip: Because the hotel is owned by the local government, Head Concierge Antonio Morilla ([email protected]; 011-34-917-954-000) has great contacts in town. Guests have been treated, for instance, to private, grand banquets normally reserved for dignitaries at the royal palace, or exclusive after-hours tours of other palaces and historical sites.

Hotel Alfonso XIII’s San Fernando Restaurant serves modern interpretations of Spanish classics.

The hotel’s Restaurante San Fernando offers authentic Andalusian cuisine (ask Morilla for the table next to the sculpture of King Alfonso XIII), while ENA by chef Carles Abellán specializes in modern tapas. There is no in-house spa, but visitors can arrange in-room treatments; we hear that guests often instead opt to experience a traditional Arabic bathhouse, such as Aire de Sevilla. The hotel also has an outdoor pool.

Just outside the tourist center is the Hotel Palacio Villapanés, an 18th-century aristocrat’s palace that was renovated in 2009 and updated again last year. The 50-room Renaissance-style building is built around an open-air central courtyard, which promotes air flow throughout the building and features the calming babble of a hexagonal marble fountain. The renovation preserved the traditional structure of the palace but guestrooms have a surprisingly homey feel for a building that’s been declared a national heritage site.

General Manager Martina Cam (011-34-954-502-069; [email protected]) says the vibe is meant to feel like a home you can return to after experiencing the hustle and bustle of the city.

We loved the Torreón Suite, which was built into a tower that was once used as a pigeon coop. It has a private terrace, plus arched windows with views of the city’s terra cotta roofs. The Palacio Suite was also quite impressive, with 18-foot wood-coffered ceilings. Luxury travel advisors can contact Cam for bookings, but to make arrangements for unique experiences — a horse carriage ride from the front door, for example, or a private visit to a fighting bull breeding farm — they should reach out to Front Office Manager Maria Franzon ([email protected]; 011-34-954-502-063). The staff stresses personalized attention, including urging guests to leave their deliberately old-fashioned room key at the front desk to ensure regular contact with each person.

All rooms in the hotel, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, provide a complimentary minibar and full-size Apple iMac computer. The opulent bathrooms have free-standing stone tubs, separate multi-head showers and Molton Brown bath amenities. One of the highlights is its rooftop terrace with views of the Cathedral — the third-largest in the world and another can’t-miss attraction — and the Giralda tower, which was once a Moorish minaret but was incorporated as a bellower into the Cathedral after the Spanish reconquered the Andalusia region in the 1400s. 

Hotel Palacio Villapanés has a rooftop terrace  with views of the Cathedral and the Giralda tower. 

The Villapanés is a short walk from the historic Santa Cruz neighborhood, the oldest part of the city and the center of its nightlife. Sevillanos traditionally have their largest meals at lunch, which is why many shops still close for the siesta between 2 and 5 p.m. But at night, groups of friends spill out onto the streets, enjoying a drink and tapa at one place before moving on to the next restaurant, often standing up the whole time.

Seville has one restaurant with a Michelin star, the cutting-edge Abantal. But we were blown away by the modern spin on tapas at Azotea, as well as the more traditional Bodeguita Casablanca. Or try Cañabota for amazing seafood by fourth-generation fisherman from the coastal city of Cadíz.

Also in Santa Cruz, Cam suggests taking in a flamenco show. “Flamenco is so typical here, people have it in their blood,” she says. But choose carefully because of the many lackluster performances geared toward tourists. She recommends The Museum of Flamenco, which might sound touristy but was founded by one of Spain’s most prominent dancers. There’s also La Casa de La Guitarra for a more intimate show of only a few dozen patrons, a dancer and a singer. 

VIP travelers in search of more discretion in an intimate setting will enjoy the Hotel Mercer, which opened in 2016 with only 12 rooms. One of only four boutique properties owned by a Spanish-owned group, the Mercer is situated in another renovated former palace. An unassuming white brick façade hides a spectacular central courtyard, which is ringed by arches and bathed in natural light that filters through a glass ceiling.  

General Manager Jaime Maestre (011-34-954-223-004; [email protected]) says the hotel offers an experience that is 100 percent personalized. “It’s almost like a butler service here,” he says. “The property has a soul, and people can feel that.”

Hotel Mercer, which opened in 2016, has 12 rooms. Shown above is a  Premium Junior Suite.

He suggests that couples should book Room No. 202 through Sales & Rooms Manager Gloria Anglora ([email protected]; 011-34-933-107-480). It is a Premium Junior Suite with a private terrace with orange trees. Large families should opt for Room No. 103, a suite that connects to a Junior Suite (No. 104). All rooms have a minimalist design, Nespresso machines and all-white bathrooms with rain showers and a gift box of Molton Brown toiletries. The lack of terraces in most other rooms can be made up with by a visit to the rooftop pool.

Even travelers who don’t stay at the Mercer should consider a visit to the Fizz Bar, which serves some of the most inventive cocktails in the city. Head Concierge Javier Garcia ([email protected]; 011-34-954-223-004) recommends the Moon Lake, made with mezcal, tequila infused with coriander, pineapple juice and lime. The Mercer’s intimate, seven-table restaurant, María Luisa, also sets a fine-dining standard that insiders say is difficult to top in the city. Garcia enjoys making personalized arrangements, such as providing a luxury transfer to a rented private yacht for a wedding proposal.

Hotel Mercer has a rooftop terrace with a swimming pool (left) and a solarium.

The Mercer is located in an area called El Arenal, which is still quite convenient to the major attractions and just two streets away from La Maestranza, the 12,000-seat bull ring. Though the sport is controversial, it still is considered an artistic treasure in this part of Spain, and Maestre can help guests with nerves of steel catch a performance from April to September. Guests can also stroll along the nearby Guadalquivir River (don’t miss an evening drink at the riverside Mercado Lonja del Barranco, a hip food hall) or cross the water into the ancient Triana neighborhood, which is known for ceramics. Pop into Ceramica Ruiz for some authentic handmade souvenirs (and international shipping).

But then again, nearly everything worth seeing in Seville is within walking distance. The trick is to plan on getting lost, and along the way you’ll discover the dazzling, everyday beauty of this beguiling destination. 

INSIDER’S GUIDE TO THE BEST DAY TRIPS NEAR SEVILLE:

HISTORIC

Italica, a well-preserved Roman city, has recently drawn attention as a filming location for “Game of Thrones.” Private guides with doctorate degrees offer tours of the ruined temple and huge amphitheater, says Jaime Maestre, general manager at Mercer Seville. A bit further afield, the village of Bolonia has another set of ruins near a fabulous beach. Guests often see the ruins with a guide in the morning, then have lunch, get changed and stay at the beach for a few hours before taking the sleepy, two-hour ride back home.

Metropol Parasol, a wooden structure located at La Encarnación square, in Seville, Spain, is popularly known as Las Setas de la Encarnación (Incarnation’s mushrooms).

GASTRONOMIC

With its English name, the fortified wine sherry may surprise people as being from Spain. But it comes from the town of Jerez, whose charming wine bodegas lure travelers into the countryside about an hour south of the city. Martina Cam, general manager of Hotel Palacio Villapanés, says the hotel books a private guide and driver who pair wine cellar visits and tastings with tours of Iberian ham facilities or olive farms.

CULTURAL

A high-speed train zips visitors to the heart of the captivating city of Córdoba in 45 minutes, says Olivier Rust, general manager of Hotel Alfonso XIII. The city served as the capital for the Moorish kingdom that ruled Spain for 700 years and was a center of Islamic learning and culture during the Muslim golden age. Its eighth-century Mezquita, or great mosque, is considered one of the most architecturally significant buildings in the world. The Museum of Fine Arts boasts a fantastic collection of Renaissance and Baroque art, and the Taurino Museum tells the fascinating history of bullfighting in Spain.

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