Sevilla is Andalucía’s largest, most self-assured, and most sophisticated city—the hometown of the passionate Carmen and the lusty Don Juan. Style matters here. Almost every Sevillana owns at least one flamenco dress to wear during the city’s famous April fería—or to a friend or family member’s wedding. It may also be the most ornately decorated city in Spain. No country does baroque like the Spanish, and no city does Spanish baroque like Sevilla, where the style represents the hybrid offspring of Moorish decoration and the Catholic insistence on turning every abstract curlicue of Islam into a Christian angel’s wing. Sevilla has been Andalucía’s center of power and influence since Fernando III of Castilla tossed out the Almohad rulers in 1248. But Fernando wisely left Barrio Santa Cruz intact, and the tangled ancient streets of the Judería still make the medieval era palpable. As the first major city in the heart of Andalucía to return to Spanish hands, Sevilla has a markedly Christian countenance. The city is studded with churches and former convents funded by the riches that flowed into the city from its 16th to 18th century trade monopoly with the New World.

If you choose lodging near the cathedral, the bells may jar you awake. Locals who grew up nearby claim they never notice the sound, and it’s true that most visitors become accustomed to them quickly. During Semana Santa and feria, hotels double or even triple their rates, with increases often announced at the last minute. If you’re going to be in Sevilla at these times, arrive with an ironclad reservation and an agreed price before checking in.

The North African influence on Sevilla cuisine is obvious in the honey-sweetened pastries and the abundant dates, almonds, saffron, and lemons. Gazpacho was made here with almonds and garlic long before tomatoes arrived from the New World, and breads are still baked in ancient ovens.

A city of 1.7 million people, Sevilla sprawls in every direction from its historic heart. A Metro system is under construction to speed up getting around, but to date it is of little help in the old city. To see the sights, plan to walk. The cathedral and the Alcázar anchor one end of the city, with the Barrio de Santa Cruz spreading north from them and Parque María Luisa spreading south. Due west of the cathedral, heading toward the river, is Arenal, the former ship-building district now dominated by the bullring and its adjacent concert hall. The old commercial district expands north of Plaza Nueva and Plaza Santiago. Shopping is anchored by Calles Sierpes and Cuna as they reach north to Plaza de Encarnación. The neighborhood north of Encarnación is called Macarena after the basilica, and stretches to the northern limit of the old city at the remains of the Moorish walls.

West of Sevilla’s old city and across the river, the Barrio de Triana is the old fishermen’s and Gypsy quarter, famed for its bullfighters, flamenco musicians, and ceramics in the North African tradition. The large Isla de Cartuja, north of Triana in the river, was the site of Expo [’]92 and now holds some museums, performance centers, and an amusement park.