Here in Seville, you eat with your fingers and drink with your eyes.

Walking among the city’s 3000 tapas bars, it’s hard to not be taken by more than a millennium of history and architecture that saturates the city. Turn a corner and see ruins from when the city was a Roman outpost; order the city’s best-known tapas, espinacas con garbanzos (a gravy of spinach and chickpeas), and you’ll be tasting a culinary heritage harking back to Moorish times.

Tap into Tapas

“Spain has an amazing history of traditional dishes that tell her story,” says Shawn Hennessey, a Canadian expat who has blogged about Seville’s tapas scene for five years. With so many bars to choose from, I’d enlisted Hennessey’s help during my first trip to Seville two years earlier, and she’s now offering tours due to the demand from visitors to her website.

“My two main objectives are to bring people to tapas bars they probably wouldn’t have gone to on their own, and then get them to try food they wouldn’t have tried otherwise.”

The food challenge from Hennessey is immediate — she takes me to a 70-year-old tapas bar called Bodeguita Romero to try their specialty, the pringá. It’s a small toasted bread roll called montaditos, spread with black pudding and filled with strips of roast pork; the last thing on the menu I’d ever consider ordering, and it’s exceptional. “It’s like somebody’s grandmother made it,” Hennessey says. “You can taste the love.”

Run by three generations of family, Bodeguita Romero personifies the spirit of the traditional tapas bar; where patrons and staff greet each other by name, plates are shared among friends, and noisy conversation dominates.

Our next destination is La Azotea, the darling of the modern gastro tapas scene. Run by a Sevillian and his Californian wife, La Azotea is a vibrant restaurant serving traditional tapas with a modern twist.

We order pig’s cheeks, slow cooked in red wine and served with a gratin of melted goats cheese. It’s a dish so texturally stimulating, so infused with layers of flavour, I remember it as the single best dish of my trip to Spain.

Next up is a plate of cockles and deep-fried baby artichoke hearts drowned in a broth of thick golden olive oil. The artichoke hearts are no bigger than my thumb, and they’re so crisp on the outside and tender in the middle that they disintegrate when my fork touches them.

“You have to eat it with your fingers,” says the owner, Juan Gómez Ortega, as he slices a warm bread roll behind the counter and places it in front of us.

Ortega chats to us about the tapas bars he’s tried recently as he prepares a new leg of jamón, expertly carving the leg of meat while explaining how the offcuts are used to make stock or broth. As I listen, glass of wine in hand, I begin to realise there’s an intimacy to the tapas scene here; a community built around food.

Build Over Time

Like most European cities, some of Seville’s most stunning architectural highlights are hidden beauties; houses built around intimate courtyards closed off from public view. Just a few footsteps from La Azotea is the home of Fourat El Achkar, an architect who runs secret suppers — a fusion of Arabian and Spanish cuisines — in her 17th-century home. The private dinners, advertised through social media and by word of mouth, are a chance to glimpse inside a traditional Sevillian house, complete with exposed wooden beams, dominant fireplaces and white marble floors.

“As an architect, this city is a dream come true,” Achkar tells me as we sit in her upstairs apartment. Traditionally, Sevillians lived upstairs during winter and moved downstairs to where it was cooler over the warmer months, a necessity when summer temperatures can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius and the city melts.

Sensing my interest in the architecture of the city, Achkar invites me to the apartment below to meet Rafael Manzano Martos, her landlord and prominent Sevillian architect.

What was meant to be a brief meet and greet becames a lengthy discussion of how Seville’s history has influenced its modern culture. Through Achkar’s translation, Martos weaves an intoxicating tale of power, wealth and decline in Seville, from its time as a Roman port to when it transformed into a Muslim capital, and then later into a Christian one... a succession of events that changed the urban fabric of the city over the centuries as quickly as the tide laps the shore.

In historic times, the core of Seville’s power was its seaport, the furthest inland penetration point in Spain for seafaring ships sailing first to Arabia and later on to the Americas.

The city’s most salient feature, the Giralda bell tower, was constructed between 1184 and 1198, as a minaret for the mosque that once stood on the site. The tower is, as Martos describes, “a moment of splendour in architectural production”, standing as a statement of symbolic, commercial and military power, as a point that could be spotted by incoming ships miles away.

After the Christian reconquest in 1258, Seville and its key architecture changed again. Seville Cathedral was constructed in the Gothic-Renaissance style on the site of the mosque, and remains one of the largest churches in the world today. 

More elaborate churches, convents and monasteries flooded the city upon the discovery of the Americas in the late 1400s, built for the monks and nuns who were passing through the city on their way to the New World. Seville was given a monopoly to trade with the Americas, and by not introducing local crops such as olives to them, the city’s wealth grew dramatically. Thanks to Seville’s new international relations, the city was also inundated with produce, including peppers, tomatoes and beans. It was the golden age of the city’s history.

Win with the New

While Martos is filled with praise for the architectural beauty of the city, he does not favour the latest structural addition in Seville, the Espacio Metropol Parasol.

Supposedly the world’s largest wooden structure, the parasol, nicknamed ‘the mushrooms’ for its large blooms sprawling over the Plaza de la Encarnación, was built in 2011 over an archaeological site. The roof offers panoramic views of the city as well as an insight into the interiors of the nearby apartments. In another city, it would be a triumph. But with an obscure underground entrance and a largely empty dining area on top, it’s yet to connect with the city.

It’s a short walk from there to my hotel, the Corral del Rey in Barrio Alfalfa, one of Seville’s oldest neighbourhoods, where the laneways are too small for cars and it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of the old buildings with heavy oak doors.

Discreet and exclusive, the hotel is in the 17th-century Casa Palacio with original Roman marble columns, carved wooden beams and stone floors in its atrium patio, all of which were salvaged and painstakingly restored off-site.

Rooms are generous, with high ceilings and whisper-soft linens. During afternoon siestas, warm sunlight stretches through the window and across the wooden floorboards like a cat arching its back.

I meet Hennessey again that night at the Vineria San Telmo, a wine and tapas bar on the edge of the old town, where the roof is painted with philosophical quotes and the kitchen churns out some of the best modern tapas in the city. Creamy bulgur wheat with wild mushroom and truffle oil arrives first, followed by prawn carpaccio with toasted sesame seeds, and then basil-and-tarragon-stuffed roast lamb with currents and wild rice. We feast until we’re full. But my appetite for Seville is nowhere near sated — this is a city I’m only just beginning to get a taste of.

Beyond Seville

Discover the taste of Spain, one region at a time.

Eastern Spain is fed by the flavours of the Mediterranean and rice forms the base of classic dishes such as paella. 

Central Spain is dominated by game, cattle and thick hearty stews. Pigs fed on acorns make up the centre’s most famous product, jamón ibérico. 

Southern Spain is where tapas culture comes from. And the flavours of former Arabian occupiers can still be tasted in Andalusian cuisine.

Northern Spain is known for its abundance of cold-water seafood such as king crab and cod. Famed for its Basque cuisine, the area is also home to pintxos, tapas’s northern version.