Semana Santa in Spain

Christ leaving the church. Cristo
Copyright, Juan Pelegrín. / Getty Images

Semana Santa (or Holy Week) is the Spanish name for Easter, which dates back to the 16th century when the Catholic Church decided to present the story of the Passion of Christ in a way that the layperson could understand. From that point on, scenes from the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ were told through a series of processions through the streets each year.

Today, Semana Santa is still celebrated in all the pomp and circumstance of 16th century Spanish Catholicism in cities across Spain.

Andulasian cities like Seville and Malaga particularly shine in this regard, but some Spaniards argue that "true Semana Santa" takes place in the region of Castilla-Leon in cities like Zamora, Valladolid, Salamanca, Avila, and Segovia.

Be sure to check Semana Santa dates before booking your hotels and flights. To maximize your Semana Santa experience you can also take in multiple cities over the course of the celebration. You should start in Toledo, which is where the events get going earliest, before taking in Viernes de Dolores and Sabado Pasión in Castilla-Leon and ultimately heading to Andalusian cities like Seville for the main show.

Common Features of Semana Santa Celebrations

Andalusian Semana starts on the Sunday before Easter and lasts until Easter Sunday itself, while in Castilla-Leon events run from that Friday, making for ten days of celebration in total. In Toledo, Semana Santa celebrations are even longer, starting on the Thursday two weeks before Semana Santa itself.

Though the style and mood of Semana Santa in Spain vary from city to city, the basic components remain the same. Each day there are a number of processions, one from each brotherhood in the city, made up of floats which are carried from their church to the town's central cathedral and back again.

Most brotherhoods carry two floats, one with Christ and one with his mourning mother, Mary the Virgin.

Each procession is different and each has its own particular followers, either due to the location of the church or the exact nature of the procession. The presence of or type of music, the time of day, and the size of the church all factor into the crowds that follow these displays.

The floats are heavy, especially so in Andalusia, which is the most extravagant region for Semana Santa. Strong men carry the floats, but with the procession lasting many hours, even they will feel the pain. The suffering experienced is likened to that experienced by Christ and the men (known as costaleros) consider it a great honor to carry the float, despite (and indeed, because of) the pain involved.

In Andalusia, specifically Seville, you can also expect to witness several saetas during Semana Santa. These performances of flamenco song are sung from one of the balconies in the narrow streets of the city. Although they were once spontaneous outbursts of worshippers overcome with emotion, they are invariably preplanned these days, and the entire procession stops to listen until the song is finished.

Best Places to Experience Semana Santa in Spain

Depending on what type of celebration and how long you want to enjoy the festivities, there are many options to choose from when selecting a city in Spain to experience Semana Santa.

While tourists usually flock to Andalusian cities like Seville and Malaga for more elaborate floats and processions, Castilla-Leon cities celebrate longer and feature more events.

Andalusia presents an interesting problem for tourists in that hotels are often completely booked in places like Malaga up to a year in advance, so if you're hoping to travel to this part of the country during Holy Week, be sure to plan well ahead of time and book your flights and hotel reservations in advance.

Toledo is also a major focal point for Semana Santa and the closest city to  Madrid that celebrates Holy Week, which means it is possible to take a day trip from the Spanish capital to sample the events of Semana Santa in Toledo. If you don't like it, you can duck back into Madrid, a city which remains relatively free of the festivities.

Basing yourself in Madrid also gives you the opportunity to take day trips to Segovia, Avila and possibly Salamanca.

Semana Santa is an outdoor event, so rain is bad news, and with many of the floats being very old and easily damaged, processions are called off with even the slightest drop of rain. If rain is forecast, stay away, there'll be nothing to see, so be sure to check the weather in Spain in March and April before you go out for the day.

Itinerary of Events for Most Semana Santa Celebrations

Although the time of Semana Santa processions varies, most cities across Spain carry on similar traditions, and while cities like Toledo may offer fewer processions than Seville, they offer other events and celebrations throughout the holiday all the same.

No matter where you celebrate, though, the events on Thursday evening before Easter never really stop, with processions from Thursday night (the early hours of Friday morning) going until Friday evening. Unless you have an excellent capacity to drink large quantities of coffee, you'll have to miss some of it to get a little beauty sleep. The events of Thursday night into Friday morning are the most important, so plan your sleep around this fact.

The mass of Easter Sunday, the last day of Semana Santa, is also important. The hoods that have been worn throughout the week to signify mourning at the death of Jesus Christ, are taken off to celebrate the resurrection.

Although these are just a few of the major events of Semana Santa, the full itinerary also contains special services at the cities' central cathedrals, performances and special professionals, and a variety of local traditions that vary by city and brotherhood.