Sevillians of all ages party well into the night both in tents and out on the lanes of the fairground. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Sevillians of all ages party well into the night both in tents and out on the lanes of the fairground. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Sevilla’s April Fair: Spain’s sparkling spring spectacle

People parade around in their peacock finery, and springtime flirtations fill the air.

Spring fairs enliven towns throughout Spain, but I’ve found that nobody does it bigger or better than Sevilla, the capital of Spain’s Andalucia region. If you come in April, you’ll find one of the most exuberant and colorful festivals in a country known for fiestas — the gigantic Feria de April (April Fair).

The fair is a vibrant and secular indulgence that comes two weeks after Holy Week and Easter, which is also an epic event — especially in Sevilla — that stirs the soul and captivates all who participate. After catching their communal breaths, cities like Sevilla use the fair to greet spring. For seven days, Sevillians gather at a huge fairground for a round-the-clock party that would leave the rest of Europe exhausted — and travelers are more than welcome to join in.

People parade around in their peacock finery, and springtime flirtations fill the air. It seems everyone knows everyone in what feels like a thousand wedding receptions being celebrated all at once. It’s also a celebration of Andalusian heritage. That means fiery flamenco music, fine horses, artful bullfights and flamboyant clothes. Everyone seems to indulge in the driest of sherries and an unquenchable obsession for thinly sliced ham.

Any time of year, Sevilla pulses with Iberian passion. But in spring, the weather is ideal. The trees are covered with white and purple blossoms, and the air is heavy with the scent of orange and jasmine. It’s a short window of time when southern Spain is at its peak.

The fair is also Sevilla’s peak social event of the year. Women sport outlandish, brightly colored flamenco dresses that would look clownish elsewhere, but are somehow brilliant here. A matching, folding fan completes the look — it’s not merely to cool off; it’s also a crucial part of flamenco dancing, and can be used to flash coded messages in the flirtation rituals. Men wear the traditional caballero outfit — a short jacket and wide-brimmed hat (though nowadays, many wear business suits and ties or formal wear).

Over a thousand tents, called casetas, pop up in a large fairground across the Guadalquivir River from downtown Sevilla. Each colorfully striped tent hosts a private party for a family, club or association. Though it’s supposed to be a private affair, casual tourists can have a fun and memorable evening by simply crashing the party — it’s not unheard of to strike up an impromptu friendship and be invited in.

Inside, the sherry spritzers flow freely. Each caseta is well stocked with a bar and buffet at the back filled with tapas — hors d’oeuvres speared with a toothpick, or atop a piece of bread — and traditional gazpacho (zesty cold tomato soup), among other regional delicacies. The most treasured is jamon — cured ham that’s artfully sliced and savored with religious zeal.

Some of the larger tents are sponsored by the city and open to the public, but I find that the best action is in the streets, where party-goers from the livelier casetas spill out.

Festival mornings are sleepy and relaxed. Around noon, the promenading starts. You can enjoy the parades of horses (nearly as dressed up as the people), the locals in colorful costumes, and amusement park rides. The parading tradition has been part of the fair since it began in 1848. Back then, the festival was basically a county fair where livestock breeders showcased their animals. In keeping with the tradition, today’s riders continue on to the bullring, where they meet up with other breeders.

As the sun sets, the bullfights end. The horse-and-fashion parade winds down, the streets are cleared of horses, and two-legged party animals take over. By midnight, the fino is flowing freely, and the casetas are rocking. Music is everywhere. Most casetas have their own soundtrack, whether a stereo, a live band, or just a friend who plays guitar. People take turns dancing flamenco. Bystanders clap along, play castanets, and cheer on the dancers with whoops and shouts. It’s not unusual for entire families — adults, grandparents, and little kids — to stay up feasting, singing, and dancing until sunrise.

It all builds up to the weekend. As the fair reaches its close, the skies are lit up with a dazzling fireworks show, a tradition that dates back over a century. For the kids, the whole scene creates memories that will be replayed in the next generation.

Travelers love Spain. While filled with history, high art, and culture, Spain also knows how to celebrate, and Sevillians in particular do it with gusto. Festivals like April Fair help Spaniards maintain their cultural identity, with pageantry stoking local, regional, and national pride.

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