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Andalucía… a truly authentic taste of España. A mixture of Moorish, Spanish, and gypsy cultures all in one, this Spanish region is filled with passionate locals, stomps of flamenco and warm sunshine. Madrid-based TPG International Correspondent Lori Zaino provides a guide to three Andalucian gems, Sevilla, Granada and Córdoba for our Destination of the Week series.
Andalucía boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year. With mouth-watering tapas and fragrant sherry, the region offers a varied landscape of warm beaches, snow-capped mountains and white-washed villages. Its mixture of cultures and world religions reflects the region’s long, turbulent history, starting with the Moors in 700 AD, the Christian conquest in 1492 and a prevalent Jewish and gypsy culture since the 15th century. A visit to its three most well-known cities, Seville, Granada and Córdoba, offers endless discoveries and amusements.
Lay of the Land: Wander down winding cobblestone streets of Seville (or Sevilla, as it’s known to the Spaniards), savoring whiffs of orange blossoms and stop for caña (a small draft beer) and tapas at one of the many outdoor terraces throughout the city. Stroll along the Guadalquivir riverfront and check out the sparkling Torre de Oro (the Golden Tower).
A visit to the Real Alcazár palace is a must. This UNESCO World Heritage site was originally built by the Moors in the 9th century and has been expanded on for centuries after by other monarchies. The palace is a a magical place, and some even find it to be more magnificent than the Alhambra in Granada, due to its sheer size and expanse of the gardens, which are a highlight featuring beautiful flowers, architecture and fountains to wander through.
A quirky insight is that the gardens have one of the few working water organs left in the world. Every hour on the hour, the organ will play music, powered entirely by water. Tip: Buy your tickets ahead of time online for the Real Alcazár to avoid long waits.
Seville’s Cathedral is the third largest in the world, constructed between 1402-1506, and it houses Christopher Columbus’s tomb. Walk up the 34 ramps to the top of the Giralda Bell Tower for stunning panoramic views of the city. The bell tower actually used to be part of the mosque during the Arab reign, but when the region was re-conquered by the Christians, it was turned into the bell tower. A statue on the very top, El Giraldillo, was placed there in 1568 to represent the triumph of the Christian faith.
The Plaza España is one of the largest and most remarkable squares in all of Europe. The famous square, situated on the edge of the Parque de María Luisa features a canal, bridges, fountains, several government buildings and small alcoves, each featuring a province of Spain, decorated and tiled appropriately for that particular region. Look familiar? Scenes from the Star Wars prequels were shot there.
Eat & Drink: Share delicious & creative gourmet tapas at trendy La Brunilda (they’re known for using less traditional Spanish ingredients, like pumpkin puree, and adding them to traditional Spanish dishes), or more traditional tapas like solomillo al whiskey (sirloin marinated in whiskey) at the rustic Bar Pepe Hillo or Casa Baratillo.
If you’re down to party, head over to Triana, a funky neighborhood located across the river. Here you can find some of the best nightclubs, bars and chic riverfront dining. If you’re lucky, you might catch spontaneous flamenco at a neighborhood bar as you sip a glass of sherry and interact with the locals.
Transportation: The AVE high speed train is a great way to arrive to Seville in just 2.5 hours from Madrid. If you prefer to drive, it will take you about five hours.
Stay: One of the best hotels in Seville is the Starwood Hotel Alfonso XIII. This SPG Category 6 hotel is located in the city center and is beautifully decorated in traditional Arabic style (209 Euros/$264 or 20,000 Starpoints per night in November). Seville is also a prime spot to find Airbnb rentals and pensiones (small, affordable hotels that often include breakfast).
Sevilla Fun Facts:
- Rumor has it that the Alcazár, along with other areas of Sevilla are filming locations for Season five of Game of Thrones.
- Famous painter Diego Velazquez was born in Sevilla, and Don Juan, the famous womanizer, also called Sevilla home.
Lay of the Land: The majestic Alhambra palace is the main attraction in Granada, and should not be missed. For something a little different, try a night tour of this Arabic palace to see things in a different “light.” Make sure you snap some shots of the all white, red-roofed El Albayzín quarter, and don’t forget to gaze at Generalife, Alhambra’s blooming gardens during your tour. It’s essential that you book your tickets for the Alhambra as far in advance as possible. Once they are sold out for the day, there is no way to enter.
For sunset, head up to the Mirador San Nicolas viewpoint to see the Alhambra at sunset. The view of the ancient palace against the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains is truly a wonder. Duck into one of the bars or restaurants next to the viewpoint for a relaxing cocktail and enjoy the ambiance.
In the evening, head up to Cuevas de Sacramonte, the gypsy caves, where you can see live flamenco shows (many also offer dinner) in small caves carved into the mountainside. Flamenco is the soul of Andalucía and is made up of four elements, cante (song), baile (dance), toque (guitar), and the jaleo, which roughly translates to “passion, soul, excitement.” It involves hand clapping, foot stomping, and shouts of encouragement (vale!).
El Rocio is my favorite cave to see flamenco, featuring the Zambra flamenco style, which is characteristic of the region of Granada. This particular style dates back to traditional gypsy wedding celebrations which were once held in the caves of Sacromonte. See a clip of the show below.
Eat & Drink: Give yourself a tapas tour through the old El Albayzín quarter of the city. Wander through the small streets and stumble upon local joints on every corner, and have a caña at each, just as the locals do. Be sure to sample the famous cold soup salmorejo, a creamier version of gazpacho. Tapas truly are the way to go here, and they are best for a light dinner, as lunch is typically the “big” meal in Spain. Don’t bother heading out until about 8:30 p.m., though, which is the absolute earliest people will start tapeando… 10 p.m. is really when the locals get started.
Transportation: Unfortunately, the high-speed train doesn’t run to Granada, so if you plan on heading down from Madrid, going by train, bus or car will all take around five hours.
Stay: The best spot in Granda to stay is the Parador de Granada, located in the Alhambra complex. Paradores are a group of hotels owned by the Spanish government, usually in historical buildings like castles or monasteries. This luxury lodging doesn’t come cheap, but will give you an enchanting and authentic Spanish experience (around 300 euros/$387 per night in November). As in Seville, there are also numerous pensiones to choose from.
Tips: Walking and buses are the best way to move around Granada, as driving and parking on the winding, tiny, hilly streets of the El Albayzín is a near impossible feat.
Granada Fun Facts:
- Famous writer and poet Federiceo Garcia Lorca was murdered by Fascists in Granada in 1936.
- More than 2.5 million tourists from all around the world visit Granada every year.
- Granada means pomegranate in English, and this fruit is the the symbol of the city.
Lay of the Land: For a seriously authentic taste of Spain, visit Córdoba. Smaller than Seville and Granada, this town’s main attraction is the Mezquita/Catedral (Mosque/Cathedral). Having started as a Christian church, then converted to a mosque, then back again to a Christian monument, this attraction has unique history and architecture.
A walk in Córdoba’s preserved Jewish quarter is a must. Visit the synagogue, which dates back to 1315 and is one of the only three left in Spain and the Casa Sephard, a preserved Jewish center.
Stroll through the famous patios around the city brimming with courtyards filled with white-washed walls and flowerpots. If you want to go all out, visit during the Fiesta de Patios in May, where homeowners take great pride in showing off their patios of flowers in full bloom. The plants are typically made up gitanillas (ivy geraniums) and carnations. The best neighborhoods to see the patios are the Alcázar Viejo district, between the Alcázar and the parish of San Basilio, Santa Marina, around the church of San Lorenzo and near la Magdalena.
Finally, a walk to see the Roman bridge is a must. The bridge dates back to the 1st century, though it has been restored many time since it was originally built.
Eat & Drink: For a hearty, unpretentious meal, try Meson San Basilio. The garbanzo soup, bull tail and fried fish found here are typical of Andalucía. For a modern eatery with a trendier atmosphere try Fusion by Sojo followed by cocktails at Sojo Ribera.
Transportation: The AVE high speed train gets you to Cordoba from Madrid in under two hours.
Stay: Stay at the AC Hotel Cordoba, a Marriott Rewards Category 3 hotel (50-100 Euros /$63-$126 or 15,000 Reward points per night in November) or Hotel Marisa for a simple, more traditional experience (40-85 Euros/$51-$107 per night).
Córdoba Fun Facts:
- The city was founded by the Romans in 169 B. C.
- If you prefer a different view of the city, visit the Galeria de la Tortura (The Torture Museum), which is filled with torture instruments, offering insight into the 700 year long Inquisition’s methods of extracting forced confessions.
Overall Andalucía Tips
- Andalucía is at its best during Semana Santa, or Holy Week, which falls in April over Easter. Processions march through the town streets daily, and everyone is out and about celebrating. It will really show you the spirit and culture of the region. However, it is the busiest and most crowded time of year, meaning it’s also the most expensive.
- Remember to always use a credit card with no foreign transaction fees like the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or The Platinum Card from American Express and have plenty of the local currency on hand.
Have you visited this region of Spain? What were some of your highlights? With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game.
With great travel benefits, 2x points on travel & dining and a 50,000 point sign up bonus, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card for those looking to get into the points and miles game.