When traveling to Spain in the springtime for Semana Santa, or Holy Week, choosing which city you want to visit really comes down to which type of cultural experience you'd like to enjoy on your trip.
While Seville is one of the most popular and extravagant cities to enjoy the week-long festivities, other lesser-known destinations like Zamora host devout and traditional ceremonies honoring the Passion of Jesus Christ, and popular Toledo offers a modern twist to the festivities close to the bustling city of Madrid.
For the more religiously-inclined traveler, the region of Castilla y León is the best place to find more festivities and ceremonies centered around traditional Holy Week events. Along with Zamora, you can also visit Valladolid, Leon, Salamanca, Avila, and Segovia in the region. Alternatively, you can venture to the Andalusia region, especially Seville, for the biggest and grandest Semana Santa celebrations in Spain.
Semana Santa in Andalusia: Overview
Semana Santa is a big deal in Andalusia, and the focal point of Holy Week here in the south is the regional capital, Seville. It is the extravagant elegance of the processions here that have made Spain's Semana Santa celebrations famous throughout the world. However, not far behind Seville is Malaga, another city with processions worth checking out.
If you've already been to one of these two cities during Semana Santa, or if you'd like something a little less crowded, any large city in Andalusia will have something to see, and the celebrations offer a different vibe in each place. For example, in Córdoba, Semana Santa is especially serious, while in Jaén there is a strong folk influence. Read more on the various styles of Semana Santa in cities throughout Andalusia.
Semana Santa starts a little later in Andalusia than in other provinces, beginning on Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos: April 14, 2019), which is the Sunday before Easter itself (April 21, 2019). Other regions normally begin two days earlier, on Friday (Viernes de Dolores: April 19, 2019).
Semana Santa in Seville
By and large, Seville is the place to experience Semana Santa—not just in Andalusia, but in all of Spain. With nearly 60 processions and more than 50,000 participants, Holy Week here is truly a sight to behold.
In Seville, the first of the week's 58 pasos take place on Palm Sunday, with the Domingo de Ramos processions from various churches and religious organizations making their way around the city en route to the cathedral. There are between seven and nine of these each day between Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday (Jueves Santo). Processions all start at their respective churches in the afternoon and arrive at the cathedral throughout the day, often lasting well into the early morning hours.
On Good Friday (Viernes Santo) shortly after midnight, another wave of processions begins. These start arriving at the cathedral at about 5 a.m., but some of them don't arrive until 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon. Proceedings return to normal in the afternoon, with processions starting in the afternoon and continuing until nearly dawn.
Holy Saturday (Sábado de Gloria) is a much quieter day, with only a few short processions. Most start in the evening around 7 p.m. and finish at around 11 p.m. or midnight. On Easter Sunday, one procession—the most important one of the week—starts shortly before 5 a.m. from the Santa Marina church and arrives at the Seville Cathedral at 2:30 p.m.
Semana Santa in Malaga
Malaga is second only to Seville in terms of pomp and ceremony during Semana Santa. Like its larger counterpart, the celebrations here start on Palm Sunday. Unlike the rest of the week, this first day sees processions starting in the morning, with the first scheduled to start at 9:45 a.m. and end at 2:30 p.m. A total of nine processions will make their way through the streets throughout the day.
Good Friday is the most passionate day of the week, with a total of eight processions. During one, the street lights throughout the city turn off as the Virgin Mary float passes by. No processions take place on Holy Saturday, and on Easter Sunday, the most important parade of the week starts relatively early at 10 a.m.
Semana Santa in Castilla y León: Overview
Semana Santa in Castilla y León is a far more solemn affair than in Andalusia. While Andalusia's events have been criticized by some as being a "celebration" of Christ's death due to the pomp and circumstance, Castilla y León's are much more solemn in comparison.
While Malaga and Seville feature numerous processions made up of just one or two floats (each procession pertaining to a single church or religious group), in Castilla y León, there are far fewer processions. However, each one can have up to 11 floats. This means that the activity is more concentrated, and with most activities taking place in the evening, you are free to spend your days sightseeing and playing tourist.
There are six main cities in Castilla y León, each of which does Semana Santa in a similar way with its own unique vibe. León, Salamanca, Segovia, and Avila are more popular among tourists, but lesser-known Zamora and Valladolid are the more famous with regards to Semana Santa.
Semana Santa begins earlier in Castilla y León than in Andalusia, beginning two Fridays before Easter Sunday, making a total of 10 days of celebrations. The festivities start on Friday, April 12 in 2019, known as Viernes de los Dolores.
Semana Santa in Zamora
Despite being the smallest of Castilla y León's six major cities, Zamora is the most famous when it comes to Semana Santa. Though there are more processions in León and Valladolid, they are not as old as those of Zamora, and Zamora's floats are designed by famous artists.
Zamora's Semana Santa begins with one procession a day from Viernes de Dolores (the Friday before Palm Sunday) until Palm Sunday (Domingo de Ramos) itself. There is then one procession a day in the evening from Monday until Wednesday, and another one at midnight.
Holy Thursday (Jueves Santos) is an important day, with just enough time after the processions end at night to get some sleep before a special Mass in the cathedral in the morning. There are then three processions spread out over the day.
In the evening, Zamora borrows a little bit of Seville's party atmosphere, with people celebrating in the streets throughout the night. It is a family event, with parents and children mingling with everyone from rowdy adolescents to chatty grandmas. It all ends with a procession at 5 a.m., officially called "la procesión de las cinco de la mañana" (literally, "the 5 a.m. procession") but commonly called "la procesión de los borrachos" ("the procession of the drunks"), for obvious reasons.
On Good Friday evening, there are two processions. Holy Saturday has just one procession as well as singing in the main square (Plaza Mayor). Events finish up on Easter Sunday morning with one last procession, followed by a traditional meal of eggs and ham, called "El Dos y Pingada."
Semana Santa in Valladolid
Valladolid is another of the most important cities in Spain during Semana Santa. It is second only to Zamora in terms of the age and beauty of the floats.
On Viernes de los Dolores (Friday, April 12) and Sábado de Pasión (Saturday, April 13), there are processions in the evenings. On Palm Sunday (April 14), there is a blessing in the cathedral followed by a procession shortly after it at midday, with another at night.
The processions get more concentrated the further in the week you get. On Monday evening, there is one procession, on Tuesday evening there are two, and there are three on Wednesday evening. On Wednesday night, at midnight, there are three important processions, featuring 17th-century floats.
After Wednesday's saturated schedule, there's then just enough time to sleep before busy Holy Thursday begins. First up is a mass in the cathedral in the morning, followed by another procession shortly afterward and an evening full of processions, beginning in the early evening and continuing until after midnight.
Good Friday is no less hectic, with processions early in the morning, a sermon in the Plaza Mayor at midday, and then more processions in the late afternoon. Thankfully, things are over reasonably early, to allow you to catch up on some sleep!
Holy Saturday has a few more processions in the evening, and on Easter Sunday morning, there is one final procession, followed by the releasing of doves to signify the end of Semana Santa.
Semana Santa in León
Semana Santa in León is interesting for its sheer number of processions. While they haven't yet achieved the fame of those of Andalusia, it's certainly one of the best locations in Castilla y León to experience Holy Week.
There's just one procession on Friday evening (April 12), but there are four on Saturday evening (April 13), five throughout Palm Sunday (April 14), four in close succession on Monday night, three on Tuesday evening, four on Wednesday evening, and five on Thursday. It's enough to make any visitor's head spin!
At midnight on Holy Thursday into the morning of Good Friday, things are a little different. Rather than a procession, there is a "ronda" which serves as a glorified announcement of the next morning's procession.
On Good Friday morning, there is a long, drawn-out procession which lasts for hours, including an important stop in the Plaza Mayor. There are then more processions starting in the early evening.
On Holy Saturday evening, there are three more processions, with a few more leaving at midnight on Saturday night into Easter Sunday morning. Sunday finishes up the events with another procession, a mass in the Plaza de la Catedral, and one last procession at midday.
Semana Santa: Off the Beaten Path in Castilla y León
In Salamanca, there are important evening processions from the first Friday (April 12) until Holy Saturday (April 20). Towards the end of the week, there are more and more processions, with events lasting Wednesday night into Holy Thursday morning, Holy Thursday night into Good Friday morning, and Good Friday night into Holy Saturday morning. On Easter Sunday, events reach their peak in Salamanca's magnificent Plaza Mayor, with a reenactment of the resurrection starting at midday, along with much singing and dancing.
In both Segovia and Ávila, there are events throughout the week, as well as in other cities in Castilla y León. These celebrations have flown under most tourists' radar, but with the spectacular backdrops of Segovia's aqueduct and Ávila's city walls respectively, either one would be a worthwhile day trip.
Semana Santa in Toledo
Last but not least, the magical city of Toledo in Castilla-La Mancha holds some of Spain's most impressive Semana Santa celebrations. And with the city being just a quick half-hour train ride from Madrid, it's easy to establish a home base in Spain's capital and get out of town for a day or so to check out Toledo's festivities.
Events begin early in Toledo and last for over two weeks. While most places start on the Friday before Semana Santa (Viernes de los Dolores), Toledo starts eight days before that! There are some minor processions from Friday until Wednesday evening, when there is a concert in the Teatro de Rojas.
On Viernes de los Dolores (April 12), there are more minor processions, followed by the big procesion de Viernes de los Dolores at about 11 p.m. On Sabado de Pasión (Saturday, April 13), there are even more processions, a few concerts, and a reenactment of the passion. Palm Sunday (April 14) sees activities in the morning starting with a blessing in the cathedral followed by a number of processions after midday.
On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Semana Santa, spectators can attend events each evening or witness small processions early in the day, with larger ones ending each night. Holy Thursday sees events throughout the day, including choir singing in the cathedral and the big procession of the day later on in the evening. Events continue until the morning, with processions until well past dawn.
On Good Friday, things start early, with events lasting throughout the night and into the early hours of the morning. Sleep is not an option, but there is a break for a few hours in the early afternoon for a siesta. On Holy Saturday, there is a major procession shortly after midnight, and events restart with a morning choir performance and more processions in the evening.
As the final day of the Holy Week, Easter Sunday is a continuation of Saturday's midnight procession, which restarts again in the morning with a procession of the resurrected figure of Christ. At noon, there is a solemn mass in the cathedral followed by the final processions.