A spine-tingling melee of high-pitched brass bands, trumpets glinting in the sunlight, clouds of incense, and mysterious candle-lit images swaying gently as they pass: this is Semana Santa in Seville. Called Holy Week in English, it’s the biggest annual religious event in Spain, and one of the most spectacular. But it can also be a bit confusing for folks just arriving in town. Usually our clients are full of questions before, during, and after their trips. So we’re here to answer them for you. 

What is Semana Santa?

Semana Santa float in the street
Photo by Chris Boland

Holy Week, which lasts from Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) to Domingo de Resurrección (Resurrection Sunday or Easter), is a week-long Catholic ritual celebrated all throughout Spain and in  hundreds of other countries with Catholic or Christian roots. In Spain and in many Latin American countries, followers walk elaborate floats, called pasos, through the streets at all hours of the day depicting the last moments of Jesus’s life and death. The original idea served as a way tell this biblical story to the people in a very public manner. Today it has evolved into an elaborate display of pageantry, music, culture, and tradition.  

What can I expect to see in Seville?

christ figures semana santa

Each procession in Seville’s Semana Santa is organized by an hermandad (brotherhood based in a church), and consists of hooded nazarenos carrying candles or crosses (read more about this below), and the costaleros, who shoulder the weight – up to 1,300 lbs each – of the pasos. Hidden behind a curtain beneath the float, only their shoes visible, the costaleros take slow steps (hence the swaying, designed to make the statue appear to move on its own). You’ll spot them in the street, still wearing the white head padding they use to carry the paso, having a well-earned beer during their breaks.                        

In some processions, you can count as many as 3,000 nazarenos, taking over an hour to file past. They make their way from their church to the cathedral, along a carefully pre-planned route, and then back again. Some take 14 hours to complete the journey. The logistics are extraordinary, with up to nine hermandades in the street at any one time, which cannot cross or meet each other.

Who celebrates Semana Santa?

women walking seville's semana santa processionSemana Santa is regarded as more than just a religious festival but also a cultural one. In other words, even people who are not Catholic or do not abide by any religious tradition still love and choose to celebrate Holy Week with great fervor. Many people look upon the week with nostalgia. It may remind them of their grandparents or stir up moments from their past. And others simply love the pageantry and music they grew up experiencing. It’s not strange to meet an atheist marching along in the procession or wandering through the streets to find their favorite pasos.

What makes Semana Santa in Seville so different?

semana santa sevillaSpain’s most famous Semana Santa celebrations are in Seville, with around 60 processions attracting up to a million spectators. Sevillanos are extremely proud of the exquisite artistry of their pasos, from the 500-year-old wooden sculptures, to the Virgins’ hand-embroidered velvet and gold capes. You’ll find millions of people watching the processions in Seville. And many of the most venerated pasos are accompanied by thousands of processors. It’s quite a site to see. 

What are these hooded figures?

Seville cathedral at nightSemana Santa sees sombre processions of nazarenos – robed figures wearing capirotes (pointed hoods with eyeholes), and sometimes walking barefoot – snake in long lines through the streets of towns and cities throughout the Iberian peninsula. The unfortunate resemblance to the KKK is extremely unnerving, but has absolutely nothing to do with this horrifying racist sect. However, for many people of color it can be extremely traumatizing. If you feel it could be too overwhelming, we recommend avoiding Seville during Holy Week. 

How should I experience Semana Santa in Seville?

altar in Seville cathedralTo criss-cross the city’s streets, tracking the progress of different processions, is an orienteering challenge all of its own. There’s even a local app that helps you track them! You turn a corner and suddenly you’re greeted by a carved wooden statue of Jesus on the cross, alarmingly life-like, or the Virgin Mary under her beautiful canopy, floating on a sea of white blooms; banging drums add to the somber, dramatically charged atmosphere. You’ll rarely see anything else like it in your life – guaranteed.

While the spectacle is truly unique, it can be challenging to visit Seville for the first time during Semana Santa. Many streets are completely cut off, museums and attractions are closed during certain times, and restaurants are packed. If it’s your first time visiting, we often recommend arriving a few days before the festivities begin. Or stay a few days after so you can get around and experience the city in its normal state.

The Best Moments of Semana Santa in Seville

semana santa sevillaThe most mesmerizing moments happen after night falls. At dusk, the candles carried by the nazarenos, and on the Virgin’s paso, are lit, and the sight of silent candlelit hooded figures slowly marching along narrow medieval streets takes your breath away. Haunting music; the jumbled scents of incense, flowers and candles; and the high point – a mournful, heart-rending saeta – a gypsy prayer-turned-flamenco song addressed to the Virgin or Christ figure, delivered from a balcony overlooking the statue. This song of high intensity and passion, along with the salida (when the paso leaves its church, greeted by adoring cries and gasps), cannot be missed. Batteries charged, memory empty, ready to record – you’ll want to keep these images forever.

For more details on Semana Santa in Seville, get in touch with your travel designer. They’ll be able to offer you even more insider tips on how to plan your trip around this spectacle. That way, you’ll see exactly what you want to experience or prefer to avoid.