Semana Santa: A Week-Long Celebration of Myth & Faith in Spain

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Semana Santa, or Holy Week, is one of the most important weeks on the Spanish calendar. During the seven days before Easter Sunday, many communities celebrate the religious holiday with the passion and intensity that exceed anything you may imagine about the Mediterranean country. Ancient religious brotherhoods from all over the cities come together to celebrate the holy week by dressing in hooded cloaks and carrying elaborately decorated floats through candle-lit streets, as local devotees sing their support from balconies and sidewalks.

The dedication to tradition, mythical images and sheer quantity of Spaniards in the streets make Semana Santa an excellent time to get to know Spain and its history. We’ve compiled a list of the best places to check out the celebrations and get to know the soul of Spain. We recommend choosing a handful of cities by region, and hopping between them by bus to get a real taste for each place’s tradition.

Community of Andalusia

You may combine these cities in any way you like, to enjoy the best processions of one or all cities. If you choose to visit all four cities, we recommend starting in Granada as it is quick and easy to get to. From Madrid, hop on an ALSA bus at the South Station. For this journey, you may choose from a 4 hour ride for 38 euros, or a 5.5 hour ride for 18 euros.

In Granada you’ll find…

Gypsy celebrations under the shadow of the Alhambra. One of the best things about starting your trip in Granada is that you’ll be treated to the chill-inducing processions of the local gypsies. Watch them carry their float from the caves of Sacromonte through the whitewashed Albayzin and finally down the candlelit Paseo de los Tristes, stopping along the way to sing somber flamenco coplas.

For the next leg of your Andalusian journey, take a quick ALSA bus from Granada to the seaside city of Malaga.

Semana Santa in Spain

In Malaga you’ll find…
Rich historical tradition and sea breeze. Malaga has been home to some of the best Semana Santa processions for over 500 years. Aside from incredible performances and passionate participation from the crowd during the parades, Malaga also has great restaurants and museums for your time between celebrations. If you’re looking for a mix between traditional and modern Spain, Malaga is a fantastic option.

After Malaga, take the ALSA route to inland Cordoba to spend a few days enjoying their unique festivities.

In Cordoba you’ll find…
A serious, somber affair. The brotherhoods and spectators that partake in Cordoba’s Semana Santa processions celebrate in silence, demonstrating their devotion to Christ. Although you won’t see the fervent crowd participation that you do in other Andalusian cities, the silent parades through Cordoba’s old town and incredible cathedral-mosque are sure to give you goose bumps.

Finally, take the bus from Cordoba to Seville’s Plaza de Armas station to finish your trip in Andalusia’s capital.

Semana Santa in Spain

In Seville you’ll find…

Passion and intensity. Seville is home to perhaps the most famous of Semana Santa celebrations as 60 brotherhoods parade their floats all over the city. There is immense crowd participation, and it is estimated that over one million people travel to Seville to be part of the celebration.

If you attend only one procession this Semana Santa, make it the Madrugada in the traditionally Gypsy neighborhood of Triana. The moving procession starts around midnight between Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and belongs to the Silent Brotherhood of Gypsies. It is worth staying up late to view the haunting images of devoted crowd members singing to their Virgin under the moonlight.

Semana Santa in Spain

Community of Castile and León

If you decide to attend Castile and León’s celebrations, you will grab an Avanza express bus from Madrid’s South Station to Salamanca for around 20 euros. The express bus gets you there about an hour faster than the regular bus.

In Salamanca you’ll find…
A serious event and stunning architecture. Salamanca’s celebrations are some of the greatest in the central region of Castile and León, as the vision of hooded brotherhood members is made all the more extraordinary by the ancient buildings surrounding them. Salamanca is a college town, so many residents will leave for the holiday, allowing you to get an up close and personal view of the processions; a nice break from the packed crowds of Andalusia.

From Salamanca, take an Autocares Viva bus to León in the north.

In León you’ll find…
Incredible floats and seasonal drinks. Much like Salamanca, León’s processions are much calmer than those of Andalusia, but in some ways, even more beautiful. León is known for having some of the most beautifully carved floats in the country, and the smaller crowds make it easy to catch a glimpse. Between processions, be sure to stop into one of the hundreds of bars for traditional “lemonade,” a type of mulled wine made exclusively during Semana Santa, and the city’s excellent free tapas.

Finally, take an ALSA bus from León to Valladolid where you will find yourself only two hours from Madrid, making for an easy trip once the festivities finish.

In Valladolid you’ll find…
Religion and art living in harmony. The celebrations in Valladolid put a huge emphasis on the intricate art that makes up an integral part of the Catholic religion. You will also find that residents take the Passion of Christ very seriously, making for a very strong, and sometimes harsh representation. If you are looking to see the extremes of devotion that exist in Spain, Valladolid is an excellent choice.

Community of Catalonia

The best place to start if you want to see Catalonia’s extraordinary Semana Santa celebrations is, of course, Barcelona. Your first stop will be Olesa de Montserrat. From Barcelona, take the 45 minute ride to the town on an Autocares Julia bus.

In Olesa de Montserrat you’ll find…
Theater and art. Catalonia is a region distinct from the rest of Spain in many different ways, one of them being their Semana Santa celebrations. Instead of elaborate and intense processions, in Olesa de Montserrat you will find theatrical performances of The Passion. A stage is set up in the middle of town, where costumed actors perform the sacramental acts, bringing an artful and emotional feel to the parties.

After a day or two in Olesa, take the bus back to Barcelona where you will spend the night. The next morning, take a quick ALSA bus ride to Girona, where you will catch your next bus. You will need to take an AMPSA bus to the town of Verges.

In Verges you’ll find…

The Dance of Death. Perhaps the most unique celebration of Holy Thursday is found in the small town of Verges. People dress like skeletons and dance in the darkness to the beat of a drum. The dance is meant to symbolize death and the final judgement, both of which are successfully and powerfully transmitted to viewers.

Although you will make many stops on the bus journey to Verges, the sheer uniqueness of the dance within the town’s medieval walls makes the extra effort more than worthwhile.

Semana Santa in Spain

This post was written by Liz Carlson from Young Adventuress. After studying a semester in Salamanca, Spain, Liz grew in love with travel. Now, a few years later, Liz has visited more than 40 countries around the globe and is currently living in New Zealand.

Follow her adventures as she wanders, eats and photographs her way around the world on her blog, Instagram, Facebook & Twitter.