Beyond the palaces and cathedrals, contemporary Seville awaits

Metropol Parasol

Winding walkways lead visitors around the top of Metropol Parasol, a waffle-shaped creation of wood, steel and concrete towering over medieval Seville's domed churches and narrow streets.

The vibe from the rooftop bar is relaxed as we sip wine and admire the views. In the distance are the spires of the city's Gothic cathedral; the Alcázar royal palace and the Giralda bell tower, originally built as a minaret when Seville fell under Morrish rule. Below us is the Plaza de La Encarnactión, a once-neglected area destined for a parking garage, now ringed with cafes, boutiques and art galleries. 

"You have the historical center and the contemporary center," a local tour guide told me. He recommends visitors to the Andalusian capital find ways to explore both.

"See the must-see sights," he advises, "then cross over the tracks and experience the different neighborhoods" where young entrepreneurs are nudging one of Spain's most traditional cities into the 21st century with contemporary food, fashion and art. 

Do spend time in Barrio Santa Cruz, a romantic tourist hub filled with horse-drawn carriages, flamenco halls and atmospheric tapas bars decorated with autographed photos of bullfighters, then go exploring to find out how old blends with new. 

Here are three suggestions, all within walking distance of hotels in the historic center.


Dominating this artsy enclave in the Alfalfa-Encarnación neighborhood is the Metropol Parasol, nicknamed "Las Setas," the Spanish word for mushrooms, for its canopy-like design.

Explore the archeological museum and indoor market on the lower levels, then take the elevator to the top a sense of what German architect Jürgen Mayer had in mind when he used the 16th century Seville cathedral as inspiration for the tree-like parasols shading the plaza below. The renovated market, originating in 1842, makes a good lunch stop, as do the cafes ringing a shady terrace surrounding Las Setas. 
Jesus Barrera in Un Gato en Bicicleta

Back at ground level, walk along Calle de Pérez Galdós in an area dubbed "Soho Benita" by a group of arts-minded entrepreneurs. Pick up a map at Un Gato en Bicicleta, a cozy cafe, bookstore, art gallery and potter's studio where owner Raquel Eiden turns out playful sculptures and whimsical gifts such as tiny ceramic pins resembling Scrabble tiles.  Across the street is Delimbo, a modern art gallery with works by Spanish and international artists. Find dresses by local designers at Isadora Concept Shop, and wallets made from Spanish cork at Verde Moscú, a fair trade cooperative specializing in eco-fashion. 

For a high-tech spin on a historical walking tour, sign on for an augmented reality tour with Past View headquartered in the  Metropol Parasol.  Wearing smart-glasses and a touchpad linked to an iPhone, visitors follow a guide through the city viewing video re-enactments of what life was like in the days of Roman and Arab rule. "Prepare to enter the past," our guide, Chris, instructed as my husband, Tom, and I donned glasses and followed him on a tour of a virtual Roman palace that once occupied a space where a gift shop now stands.

El Arenal

El Arenal is a neighborhood close near the Guadalquivir River that draws tourists on Sundays to an outdoor art market outside the Museo de Bellas Artes.

Artists originally sold traditional Spanish paintings, but that's changing as more showcase contemporary arts and crafts. 

Sculptor Angelo Giovanni

I was tempted to take home one of the small Don Quixote sculptures Angelo Giovanni creates on site from scrap pieces of metal, glass and wood. Easier to fit into my carry-on were napkin-sized sketches by Manuel Fernández, a young artist who uses watercolors and India ink to tell stories with whimsical line drawings.  

Gravitating to the neighborhood are are young chefs experimenting with "gastro tapas," new twists the small plates, traditionally ordered a few at a time as friends roam from bar to bar. 

Near the bull ring is Cinco Jotas, a bar owned by Spain's top producer of Iberian ham from acorn-fed pigs. We sampled paper-thin slivers of air-cured ham along with glasses of Fino, a pale, dry sherry. 

Slicing ham in an art form in Seville

Next stop was La Bulla, across from a shipyard used as a set in the HBO series, Game of Thrones. Seating at a picnic table next to a wall mural of a big red hen, we shared truffled artichokes and tempura shrimp trumpets served in a soda glass.

Tempura trumpets at La Bulla

Marked with a blue door and a barely visible sign is La Brunilda Tapas on a sleepy side street near the museum. Its ranking on "top ten" lists mean most of its dozen so tables fill quickly with local families. One strategy: plan on a late lunch. My husband, Tom, and I, arrived a half an hour before the kitchen closed. 

Our waiter, tattooed and English-speaking, patiently translated the chalkboard menu, then put in our order - salt cod fritters with pear aioli and grilled pork - with time left to snag a serving of bread pudding with caramel sauce for dessert.  Nearby is Azotea, where a line forms early for 8:30 p.m. dinner, and the owners reserve most tables for customers ordering full dinners. We were after tapas on a raining evening, but showed up early enough to score a small table by the window which our waiter quickly covered with butcher paper. Out of the kitchen came olives, a thick chunks of whole-wheat bread, grilled veggies with goat cheese, slice of Iberian pork with mushroom hummus, and mini-burgers packed in little McDonald's-type paper boxes. It was standing room only by 8:50 p.m., and we felt guilty about keeping the table for dessert, so we popped open the umbrellas and ran around the corner for ice cream at Helados Rayas, a Seville institution since 1980. 

La Macarena  

Tucked into courtyards and side streets in the northeast area of the city are artists' studios, cafes and small restaurants with local followings. 

Landmark sites include the La Feria, one of the city's oldest food markets, and the Basilica de la Macarena, honoring the virgin, La Macarena de la Esperanza (The hit song was about one of the Sevillian women named after her). 

El Convento de Santa Paula
Cloistered nuns support themselves by selling homemade sweets at the Convento de Santa Paula. Follow an arrow from the church to the monastery and ring the bell, then enter a courtyard filled with plants and orange trees. The sister on duty welcomes visitors into a small room with shelves lined with homemade marmalades in dozens of flavors and wooden boxes of a nougat candy called torrone.

Around the corner is the Plaza del Pelícano where artists welcome visitors into their workshops. At Hombre de Madera, a studio in a former engine repair shop, craftsman Ignacio Sánchez took time to explain how he uses wood from neglected orange trees to create custom-made furniture. 

Doubling as a gallery for Pelícano artists and a venue for jazz musicians is conTenedor, more restaurant than tapas bar, with a slow-food approach to dishes meant for sharing. Customers can print out the restaurant's business cards on a hand-cranked printing press near the entrance, then peruse a daily-changing menu presented on chalkboards brought table side. 

Watch as chefs work in a glassed-in kitchen, plating slices of duck with crispy rice and salads flecked with black sesame seeds. Feel free to linger well past 4 p.m. when the kitchen closes. It's siesta time, after all. No one seems to be in rush, and neither should you.

If you go:

Be sure to find a way to explore the history behind the colorful ceramic tiles and pottery you see everywhere in Seville. The industry flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries when artisans mined clay from the Guadalquivir River and set up factories in Tirana, a poor suburb across the river from the historical center. Cafes, hotels and pottery shops have replaced most of the factories, but a few artists still struggle to keep up the tradition.

Paula Felizón calls herself a "ceramics romantic." Working in her studio, Barro Azul, (named for the blue clay taken from the Guadalquivir River) she is one of the few remaining artisans in Triana, a riverside neighborhood that was once the center of Seville's ceramics industry.

Paula Felizón in her workshop

Moorish designs influenced the colorful, glazed tiles found in courtyards, churches and street corner shrines throughout the city. Each was hand-painted, using techniques Felizón teaches in two-hour classes. 

I learned a technique called Cuerda Seca used centuries ago to create tiles with geometric patterns.  Felizón demonstrated how to trace a design onto a blank tile, outline it in heavy black pencil, then use a syringe to fill in the spaces with colored glazes. My finished work - a small square inlaid with yellow stars on a blue background - isn't perfect, but that's the point. It's one of a kind.   

A version of this story appears in the January, 2018 issue of Virtuoso Life Magazine.

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