Thinking about attending Santa Semana (Holy Week) in Spain? In this guide for Holy Week we’re sharing all the details to know before you go
Santa Semana – or Holy Week – in Spain is a big, BIG deal. Started in the 1600’s as a way for the “common folk” to understand and participate in religion, today, the Holy Week events have been declared Festivals of International Tourist Interest.
All over the country, long, drawn out processionals wind their way through the cities at all hours of the day and night. Thousands upon thousands of people turn out to watch the spectacle, creating an undeniably exciting atmosphere.
I got super super lucky during my visit to Spain and just happened to be spending my two weeks in Andalucia before and during Holy Week. I didn’t even realize what was happening until we saw bleachers being set up all around the cities we were visiting!
Once I learned how extensive the celebrations would be, I was SO excited and went out of my way to try to watch as many processionals as I could in multiple cities and villages around southern Spain.
I learned a ton about what the traditions mean, what it’s like visiting the cities during Holy Week, what to expect with the “parades”, and all sorts of helpful practical tips and information.
I’m not Catholic (although I am Christian and religious), but I absolutely loved this experience. Even if you are not religious in the slightest, I still think that it’s worth seeing the Holy Week festivities, as the pageantry is really impressive, and it’s clearly an incredibly important cultural event in Spain.
This practical guide for visiting Spain during Holy Week will help you plan and navigate the Santa Semana festivities.
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What is Santa Semana?
Santa Semana (aka Holy Week) starts the Sunday before Easter (Palm Sunday), and continues through Easter Sunday. Palm Sunday, the Thursday going into Good Friday, and Easter Sunday are the biggest days of celebration.
In some cities, the celebrations actually start the Friday before Palm Sunday.
How is Santa Semana Celebrated?
In the words of Wikipedia, “Holy Week in Spain is the annual tribute of the Passion of Jesus Christ celebrated by Catholic religious brotherhoods and fraternities (sometimes called Nazarenes) that perform penance processions on the streets of almost every Spanish city and town during the last week of Lent, the week immediately before Easter.”
In the bigger cities, there are processionals that wind their way through the city every day from Palm Sunday to Easter. The brotherhoods each have their own procession, and there can be dozens and dozens of them throughout the week.
Each processional has a somewhat different route throughout the city, but all must pass by a certain area by the main cathedral in the city.
Processionals have multiple components to them, and it can take anywhere from 20-30 minutes for the entire group to pass one area. These are extremely popular, with people flocking to watch them go throughout the city. In some cities, crowds can literally be 10-20 people deep on the streets as they watch the processional go by.
Catholic Traditions or the KKK?
If you’re American or are familiar at all with the US hate group, you probably see these pictures and think OMG the KKK, which was definitely my first reaction seeing cloaked figurines in shops all over the cities the week before the processions started. Like, immediate horror, you know?
But you just have to keep telling your brain that Spanish penitents have no relation to, and predate the US hate group. And honestly, seeing them all process together through the streets in the outfits is striking.
What is In a Processional?
Each processional has multiple components, but generally there is a large contingent of penitents, a float, and a band. After the band, there may be other groups, such as a small selection of children, or a group of women in mantillas. At the very end of the processional is another large section of penitents.
Let’s talk about each of these groups in detail!
The most recognizable aspect of Holy Week in Spain are the “penitents” on the street. Each penitent wears a robe, sash, and a conical hat known as a capirote. Depending on the group, they may also have a cape as part of the uniform.
The penitents walk slowly down the street in two lines and usually are holding large, wide candles. At night, the lit candles shine against the dark sky illuminating the procession, city, and crowds. However, some of them are carrying crosses in lieu of candles.
There is always a forward group at the very beginning holding a large intricate cross, a scepter, and sometimes banners.
Each brotherhood has a slightly different color scheme for its uniforms. Some wear all white, some wear white cloaks and black hoods, others are decked out in all red or all blue. Each brotherhood also has a unique crest that they wear on the sleeves of their robes.
Even though they are called “brotherhoods,” there are both men and women participating as penitents, and there can be hundreds and hundreds of penitents in a single processional.
Despite the very fancy and official-looking getup, in many ways, the processions were very informal. People would say hi to their friends they saw in the procession, and I even saw a few penitents handing out candy or flyers to kids on the sidewalks.
After the penitents come the main attraction: the float, known as pasos in Spanish. Floats depict scenes of the Passion of the Christ, or they depict the Virgin Mary mourning the death of her son. The floats are intricate and detailed, often painted in gold or silver, and often are filled with flowers or candles. People will often reach out and touch the float as it comes past.
These floats are carried BY MEN! There are ~50 men underneath the float, carrying it along. It’s so impressive seeing that float come, well, floating, down the street visible long before and long after it goes by you.
You can see the feet of the men shuffling underneath the float, and every so often they’ll set the float down and switch out men. I can only imagine how hot and tiring it would be to be under there!
Following the float is a marching band. The bands have fantastic uniforms, and the music is grand and epic and full of strong brass notes. It’s the backdrop for the entire processional, and adds so much to the experience.
👉After the Band
After the band there is another huge group of penitents, and then there can be other groups of people. Sometimes there are groups of small children walking with the penitents (the children wear the robes, but not the capirotes).
Occasionally, you will also see women dressed in black and wearing black headpieces and lace veils as they participate in the processional. The black veils are mantillas, and are precious heirlooms worn during periods of mourning. They wear them as mourning clothes as they walk with the images of Mary and Jesus.
The Routes & How to Know Where to Go
Sevilla and Malaga have the biggest and most elaborate celebrations in all of Spain. More than 70 brotherhoods participate in the processionals in Seville, and there is an app to keep track of the schedules in both cities.
The app is “El Penitente.” In the app, if you click the map icon at the bottom and then click “Geolocalizacion GPS”, you can see the timetable for the processionals.
For each different brotherhood, an exit time (salida) and entrance time “entrada” is listed. It’s a little confusing, but the exit time is actually the start time, because it’s when they exit their local church or parish and start processing.
The “Entrada” is actually the time when the procession ends and they “re-enter” the church. So, Salida is actually the start time and Entrada is actually the end time.
Each procession makes a loop around the city, and the loop can be fairly long – generally 1-2 kilometers, and it can take anywhere from 5-10 hours to complete the route.
You can see that the green and purple bar under the name and date of the brotherhood indicates the percentage of the route that is completed.
Outside of Sevilla and Malaga, cities make little booklets that list the schedule for each day. This was a booklet I picked up in Ronda. Even for a relatively small city, Ronda still had multiple processionals a day and large crowds who turned out to see the spectacle.
Even with the map/booklet, it was a little hard to figure out where to go to see the processional at a specific time, so I often ended up just going near the cathedral and seeing what I could find.
Since all of the processions have to pass by the main cathedral in the city, and there are so many processionals, you’re bound to see something pretty soon. I had a lot of success this way!
I was worried about not being able to find the processions and then missing out, but it was never an issue – in Ronda and Sevilla, there was ALWAYS a procession going by somewhere.
To be honest, it was harder to find a way through the city where I wasn’t running into a street filled with people watching the processional!
If you want a front-row seat, you’ll either need to time your arrival along the viewing route about 20-30 minutes before the procession comes through, or just stand at the back of the crowd and move your way up as people leave.
What to Expect With Crowds & Traffic
In Sevilla and Malaga, the crowds can get so thick that at major roads, there are sectioned-off passageways set up for people to wait to cross the street. Every few minutes, a police officer will let pedestrians cross in between the penitents when the procession isn’t moving.
In any big city, if you’re staying in the old town part of the city, expect many streets to be completely shut down and not to be able to get through by car.
Holy Week Celebrations in Small Villages
While the villages in Spain generally don’t do the big, elaborate processionals, some of the small towns do have small traditions that they celebrate for Holy Week. You’ll find these events usually on Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, or Good Friday.
The best way to find out what is happening in a small town is to ask a local (for example, the hotel where you are staying). Many people in small towns will not speak English though, so either have your Spanish or Google Translate ready.
You can try to Google information, but not all villages will have it posted online, and it will certainly be in Spanish (make sure you are searching “Santa Semana” instead of “Holy Week”)
Zahara de la Sierra, one of the pueblo blancos of Southern Spain, had a sweet and simple Palm Sunday tradition.
Olive and palm fronds were passed out to whoever wanted them in front of the Capilla de San Juan de Letrain church. After everyone had a frond and was assembled, three girls wearing red robes started the procession, carrying a large cross through the town.
The townspeople all followed behind, carrying their fronds, and singing as they walked. At the end of the group was the priest, who carried the bible. The entire thing was pretty short, and just a few blocks long as they walked to the neighboring Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Mesa and went in for mass.
I loved this small but poignant tradition carried out by local townspeople in this small village. You could tell it was an important community event and meaningful. People started assembling in front of the church around 12:30pm.
Similarly, in the tiny, sleepy village of Montecorto where I was staying, I walked out in the morning and saw a group of people in front of the church, a few palm fronds, a donkey, and a few people in red robes – clearly there was another small demonstration about to happen (but I didn’t have time to stay and watch, unfortunately).
Bleachers and Seating
Chairs and bleachers get set up in the 1-2 weeks before Holy Week starts. Only officials and people who have tickets sit in the bleachers – most people just crowd into the streets.
Key Terms to Know About the Santa Semana Traditions
Brotherhoods/Fraternities: The groups that participate in processions through the city.
Pasos (or Tronos): The floats that are carried through the streets. These floats are intricately designed by Spanish artists, and have often been in possession of the brotherhood for years and years.
Costaleros: The men who walk underneath and carry the float through the city. There can be up to 50 men under each float! It is considered an honor to be a costaleros
Capirote: The pointed hood that each penitent wears. The capirote is designed to draw attention to God instead of to themselves as they repent.
Nazarenos: The full outfit that the brotherhoods wear, including the robe, sash, capirote, and in some cases, a cape.
Mantillas: The black lace veils that women wear, along with headpieces, during Holy Week.
Marchas Procesionales: The specific musical pieces played by the marching bands that accompany the float.
Holy Week Dates for 2024
In 2024, Easter is on Sunday, March 31. So Santa Semana would officially start on Sunday, March 24 (Palm Sunday), although festivities in some cities may begin as early as Friday, March 22.
Holy Week Dates for 2025
In 2025, Easter is on Sunday, April 20. So Holy Week would officially start on Sunday, April 13 (Palm Sunday), although festivities in some cities may begin as early as Friday, April 11.
The Wrap Up – Is Santa Semana Worth Going to When You Visit Spain?
Despite the initial jarring visual associations with the US hate group, I really loved experiencing Santa Semana in Spain – it was such a fascinating tradition to observe. I loved the pageantry of it, and how it really consumes the city during the week. I love how distinctive everything was and visually stimulating the parades were.
I love the symbolism of the men carrying those heavy floats depicting holy week scenes on their backs. I even actually loved all the crowds, and I loved the marching band music.
This was for sure a top cultural experience that I’ve ever had in a foreign country and I would highly recommend experiencing it and even adjusting your vacation dates to see Spanish Holy Week for yourself.