Tips to Make Your Semana Santa Memorable
We spent Semana Santa in Seville this year – and although we enjoyed it, we could have enjoyed it so much better if we knew what we know now. (And it’s not like we didn’t do our research in the internet and guidebooks first.) So read this to find out how to make the most of your stay in Seville during Semana Santa!
Let’s start with…
Should You Even Go to Seville for Semana Santa?
This is fundamental: If you don’t specifically want to see the Easter processions, avoid Seville during Semana Santa!
The population of the town multiplies, the main sights are difficult to access and hotel prices go through the roof, especially for the Easter weekend (starting with Thursday night).
The Alcázar and the Cathedral are only open for part of the time, the queues can be more than an hour long and the booking website crashes.
You’ll enjoy the town a lot more in October – nice weather, no crowds.
If you haven’t set your heart on Seville but you do want to see Easter processions: go somewhere else in Spain. In the smaller towns you can enjoy them without the crowds – and get real close!
But if you do want to spend Semana Santa in Seville – read on.
The Ultimate Survival Guide to Semana Santa in Seville
Arriving & Leaving
Arrive and leave in the morning during Semana Santa. There are processions in the afternoon and the evening which mean…
- you’ll probably have to walk it from the train station to your hotel
- the airport shuttle will take hours and is not worth waiting for
- taxis won’t be able to pick you up or drop you at your hotel, only somewhere outside the procession zone
This is of course assuming that you’re staying in the old town and not at the edge of some distant suburb.
Make sure your luggage is easy to carry – you may have to cross some very crowded streets, not to mention processions, with it!
All about Processions
You don’t have to look for processions – they’ll come to you
(Good luck trying to avoid them!) There are more than 60 cofradías in Seville and they all do a procession.
Most processions go to the Cathedral
If you like your comfort and don’t know what to do with your money, you can pay for outrageously expensive seats by the Cathedral and nearby (you will want to book it online as soon as the booking opens – about two months before Easter).
The highlight is the afternoon and evening of Holy Thursday and dawn on Good Friday
Some of the oldest and most prestigious cofradías do their processions then.
Avoid narrow streets…
…if you’re of a nervous disposition.
The narrower streets get absolutely jam-packed – to the point that you can’t move at all. The pasos are carried by men underneath and they are very heavy – in some of the narrower streets you’ll have to literally flatten yourself against the wall to allow them to pass – it might wobble past your face at the distance of a couple of inches!
Try not to panic when somebody starts to run
And for the love of God, don’t start running yourself. Chances are it’s just a couple of waiters chasing a customer who left without paying. (This obviously doesn’t apply if you can actually see a homicidal maniac on the loose.)
Hush when the float goes past
In the end, this is a religious procession you came to watch. Many people who are standing around you consider this a sad occasion; many cross themselves, some even sob. (Christ is just about to die or has just died!) Children are hushed as the paso arrives – you should hush too.
Allow lots of extra time to get there
If you’re going anywhere on time, like that flamenco show you paid €40 per head for (not to mention the airport to catch your plane home!), allow lots and lots of time. And then allow a bit more time. It can easily take you an hour or more to walk a distance that normally only takes 10 minutes.
Sweets for children
Children standing in the front row as the procession goes past might get some sweets.
Most sevillanos will happily assist with getting your children to the front.
Look where you’re going
People will start waiting along a procession route hours ahead.
They sit on small folding chairs and squat on the pavement – below your usual line of vision.
Understandably, they don’t appreciate being trodden on.
Advanced procession spotting
Your hotel will give you a timetable with routes. Unfortunately this is not very accurate. But…
- If red banners hang from balconies in a street, chances are that a procession will head that way sooner or later. The more banners, the more likely this is.
- When groups of well-dressed people rapidly walk in the same direction, they are likely to be heading for an approaching procession. The larger the crowd and the faster they walk, the sooner the procession will arrive.
- Whether you’re trying to keep out of the way of the procession or to find it: listen out for the drums. You can hear them a long way off.
If you’ve got a timetable with routes, identifying the brotherhood should be easy.
Otherwise, look out for the colour of their habits and hoods, and the crests that decorate them.
Some of them hand out small name cards like this one from Los Negritos.
How to cross a procession (& why you might want to)
A procession lasts 8-10 hours or more. If you’re trying to cross a street blocked by a procession, you might easily have to wait an hour or more before the paso, the band and all the nazarenos have passed. It can be similarly time consuming trying to get round the procession.
- Processions stop frequently, for several minutes at a time. This is the moment you want: take your cue from the locals. Avoid getting in the way of the paso, and don’t walk down in the midst of the procession to move along the length of street.
- When the procession is about to start moving again, you will hear or see someone hitting the pavement hard three times with his ornamental staff. Get out of the way of the paso. Or of the way of the burning candles and big wooden crosses, for that matter.
- Some junctions and the area around the cathedral are provided with pathways in both directions, as well as crossing points. These are manned by the police, who ensure a regular flow of pedestrian traffic. Make sure you’re walking in the right direction (clearly signposted). This is not the place to stop to watch or take photos – the police will move you on.
Wearing black for Maundy Thursday – an urban legend?
No, it’s not an urban legend. Many of the locals will wear black, as if they were about to attend a funeral. (See some pictures here.) Although you don’t have to wear black, show a little respect by wearing something smarter than your favourite pair of ragged denim shorts. Even non-religious locals will wear formal clothing -suits with ties and dresses. You don’t have to go to those lengths but you’ll feel less out of place in a ‘smart casual’ outfit.
How to Enjoy Seville during Semana Santa
Be prepared to be lost. The tourist maps handed out in hotels are pretty inaccurate. Bring a proper city map or use your smartphone. And don’t be shy to ask the police or the locals for directions – most are happy to help.
Tranquilízate. The sevillanos all manage to stay pretty relaxed, even though their city is totally overrun by badly dressed tourists and it’s impossible to move about. You’re on holiday. Chill out. You’ll get to wherever you’re going… eventually.
You don’t have to book restaurants. Just head a few streets away from the procession.
Be streetwise. You’re in a large crowd: hold on to children at all times, mind your valuables, &c.
Adopt Semana Santa hours. Sleep in, have a three-hour lunch starting at 3 pm and stay up until dawn – just like the locals.
The Alcázar and the Cathedral might have long queues… but the Casa de Pilatos has a much shorter one, and the Casa de Salinas none at all. You won’t regret visiting either.
The most useful knowledge is not where to find a procession; it’s how to avoid it. If you can get information from the locals about which streets are closed, you’re ready to rock & roll.
There are no processions in the morning: If you want to go anywhere or want to see anything (other than a procession), get up reasonably early (8-9 am.)
There’s a metro line in Seville. As the means of dodging a series of processions, it’s unbeatable.
For the best chance to hear an ad-hoc singer to sing a lament (saeta) from the balcony as a procession goes by, be there when the procession leaves its home church or stay up for the madrugada on Good Friday.
Semana Santa Jargon Buster
The tall conical hat worn by the people in the procession.
Brotherhood. The brotherhoods are organised with affiliation to a particular church. (Think of it like a football club and its supporters – apologies for the irreverent comparison!) Most of them go back to the 16th century – some are older.
The men who carry the paso (and on occasion to keep the crowds out of the way). Muscular young men, who could probably make a living as bouncers in a night club, they are recognisable by their headdress.
Early morning. In this context it refers to dawn on Good Friday when some of the most famous processions take place.
A penitent. Those members of the brotherhood who take part in the procession, wearing a habit and a hood, carrying a cross. The costume is to hide their identity, since they’re sinners.
The float on which the statues of Christ, the Virgin or scenes from the Passion are carried around. Some of these are priceless objects of art, several centuries old. The statues are dressed up and the floats are decorated with burning candles and flowers.
The pasos weigh several tons and are carried by some 20-40 men, called the costaleros. If you want to see how it can go wrong, watch the beginning of the film Ocho Apellidos Catalanes (in English marketed as Spanish Affair 2)!
A religious song, a lament, often sung during processions.
A fried bread, similar to French toast, except instead of being savoury, it’s sweet and is served with honey or sugar. Typically eaten at Easter.
Have you been in Seville during Semana Santa? Have you got any tips to share to help fellow travellers to make the most of their stay?