Once the world’s largest city, a rival of Constantinople, Cordoba is perhaps the most underrated city in Spain, despite the fact that it is the only city in the modern world to host four UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Cordoba lies in the heart of Andalusia, within easy travelling distance from Sevilla, Granada and Malaga. It is the kind of city that takes you by surprise. It was once the capital of a Roman province Hispania Baetica, then became the capital of the Muslim-controlled region Al-Andalus that extended to most of the Iberian Peninsula, and after the fall of the Caliphate of Cordoba, it became the power seat of the first Catholic monarchs of Spain – Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, whose marriage unified Spain in 1494.
Cordoba is one of the world’s oldest cities. During its two-millennia-long history, Cordoba was shaped by three different empires, and today, its historic centre is a unique fusion of Roman, Muslim, Jewish and Spanish cultures.
Some of Cordoba’s most famous sites include Mezquita – a great Mosque with a Catholic cathedral built into the centre of it, the 2,000-year-old Roman bridge, one of only three surviving synagogues in Spain from before the Expulsion of 1492, and the artfully decorated whitewashed patios that open their door to the public each May during the Patio Festival or Fiera de Los Patios.
It is important to note, that while many sources refer to the Muslim rulers of Cordoba as the Moors, they were not, in fact, Moroccan Berbers, as the name Moors suggests. Initially, yes, it was an army of Berbers led by the Arab commanders backed by the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus (Syria) that invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 711. Within just a few years most of the peninsula was under Muslim rule in the newly established Muslim domain of al-Andalus.
But the splendour of the al-Andalus kingdom is due to a fateful event in Syria in 750 AD when the Umayyad dynasty fell to their rivals Abbasids. To affirm their power, Abbasids murdered every member of the Umayyad dynasty, but one. Abd al-Rahman I, the grandson of the last Caliph, escaped to Spain where he established Umayyad Emirate with the capital in Cordoba.
As the former rulers of the entire Muslim world, Umayyads rebuilt their capital in the image of their homeland in Syria and eventually proclaimed Umayyad Caliphate in al-Andalus, in open rivalry to Abbasid rule in Baghdad.
Cordoba is home to 4 UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Mezquita Mosque and Cathedral, Historic City Center including Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos, The Cordoba Patios, and Palace Town of Medina Azahara.
Spring is the best time to visit Cordoba. The weather is beautiful with daytime temperatures around 20-25°C – perfect for walking around the old city centre and relaxing in the courtyards of tapas bars.
Cordoba also hosts some of Andalusia’s most famous festivals in spring including Fiera de Los Patios or Patios Festival – the only two weeks in the year when the citizens of Cordoba open the doors of their houses to the public to show off their ‘works of art’ courtyards decorated with plants, water features and mosaics.
Cordoba’s historic city centre is one of the biggest and oldest ‘old towns’ in Europe. You can spend an entire day wandering its labyrinthine alleyways, peeling back the layers of history absolutely for free. You can even visit the Mosque-Cathedral for free if you turn up at 8.30 am. While the key tourist attractions like the Mosque-Cathedral and Alcázar de Los Reyes Cristianos attract an entrance fee, the old neighbourhoods themselves are free to explore. All you need is a pair of comfortable walking shoes.
Planning Cordoba itinerary
Exploring Cordoba mostly involves wandering around the atmospheric streets of the historic city centre with an occasional trip to out-of-town attractions. You’ll want to wear your most comfortable walking shoes (and don’t forget sunscreen and a bottle of water) because chances are you’ll walk much more than you planned to. Every time you turn a corner in the old town you’ll be tempted to explore another street.
For ease of planning, the suggestions for things to do in Cordoba in this guide are broken down into 1-Day and 2-3-Days itineraries.
I will try to keep this brief as there are many places to mention, but I will add links to more detailed posts for some of the places of interest.
Where to stay in Cordoba
If you are looking to wrap yourself in luxury and comfort, consider Patio del Posadero – an original Cordovan patio from the 15th century transformed into a boutique hotel infused with Arab essence and exquisite decor.
If you prefer the privacy of your own luxury apartment, Loft El Arcangel is one of the most stunning and luxurious lofts in Cordoba. It is located near a supermarket which makes it very easy to be self-sufficient.
For staying in the heart of the old town, consider La Llave de la Judería Hotel Boutique. Spread across three restored houses, it features a cocktail room lavishly decorated in the style of Louis XV and a secret terrace that offers wonderful sunset views of the minaret of Mezquita
Another gorgeous gem, just 500 meters from Mezquita but on a quiet street are the apartments at Las Cases del Potro each with a charming balcony looking out onto Plaza del Potro.
For larger groups, the three-bedroom Apartment right next to Juderia is a fantastic budget-friendly option for staying in the midst of it all, close to bars, restaurants and all the major attractions of Cordoba.
How many days to spend in Cordoba?
As with any city, the more time you have the more you will see and the better you will get to know the place. In Cordoba, most of the key sites are concentrated in a relatively small area which makes it possible to experience the essence of Cordoba in 1 day.
On the other hand, as a city shaped by three distinct empires, Cordoba has so many interesting and beautiful sites that you can easily spend a week here and still not see half of it. In general, 2 days in Cordoba is a good compromise.
If you only have 1 day in Cordoba, you will want to concentrate on the city’s ‘must-see’ attractions including 3 of Cordoba’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The historic city centre (including Alcazar de Los Reyes Cristianos), Mosque-Cathedral, and the Patios of Cordoba.
Tip: One way to maximize your time and skip the ticket lines is to join a walking tour with a local guide. There is a variety of walking tours on offer in Cordoba ranging from 1 to 4 hours in duration depending on how many attractions you would like to visit. For a 1-day visit to Cordoba, the best option is the 4-hour tour of the Jewish Quarter, Mosque-Cathedral and Alcazar de Los Reyes Cristianos. It covers all the essential Cordoba attractions and leaves you half a day for exploring the rest of the historic city centre.
If you have 2 or 3 days in Cordoba, you can explore old town historic neighbourhoods (barrios) at a leisurely pace, get lost in the maze of adorable alleys in Juderia and San Basilio, visit the Palace Town of Medina Azahara, relax in Hamman al Andalus, see the beautiful snow-white Andalusian horses at the Royal Stables and enjoy Cordoba’s vibrant night scene.
Things to do in Cordoba in 1 Day
This part of the guide introduces the unmissable sites of Cordoba that can easily be seen in 1 Day. You can pack more attractions in your day, or keep a reasonably relaxed pace exploring these key sites.
Visit the Mezquita – Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral
Cordoba Mosque-Cathedral or the Mezquita is one of the most unique structures in this world. Sitting on a foundation of a Roman Temple, the mosque was built in 785 CE when Córdoba became the capital of the Muslim Kingdom Al-Andalus which occupied most of the Iberian Peninsula. And when Cordoba fell back to the Christian kings in 1236, the mosque was converted to a Cathedral, or more precisely, a Renaissance-style cathedral was built into the centre of the existing structure of the mosque.
The most striking feature of Mezquita is the giant arches supported by a forest of about 850 columns recycled from the earlier Roman, Byzantine and Visigothic structures. When it was built, Mesquita was the second largest mosque in the world.
Depending on when you arrive in Cordoba, plan to see the Mezquita either first thing in the morning, at 8.30 am or the last thing in the afternoon, after 4 pm. This way you will avoid the large tour groups that arrive in buses from Granada and Seville or from Cordoba itself.
If you are fit enough to walk up 200 steps, then climb the bell tower for a birds-eye view of the city and the Mezquita.
Walk over the Roman Bridge
Right outside the Mosque-Cathedral, the Roman Bridge of Cordoba is one of the oldest structures in town. It was constructed by the Roman emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC and for two thousand years, it was the only bridge across the Guadalquivir River. It most likely formed part of the ancient Via Augusta – one of the longest roads built by the Romans in Hispania connecting Rome and Cadiz.
Of course, the bridge has been restored and renovated several times during its 2,000-year-long history, and most of the present structure dates to the 8th century when the bridge was restored by the Muslims.
More recently the Roman Bridge of Cordoba appeared in Season 5 of the Game of Thrones series as the Long Bridge of Volantis.
On the far side of the bridge, Calahorra Tower is a later addition. Built by the Muslims as a defensive structure, it lacks the finesse of the more elaborate structures of Muslim origin. But if you climb to the top, you’ll be rewarded with photogenic views of the bridge and the Mezquita.
Visit Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos
Alcázar de Los Reyes Cristianos or the Castle of the Christian Kings’ is a 14th-century palace with magnificent terraced gardens, watchtowers with sweeping views of the city, and gorgeous patios. Like most of Cordoba’s historic monuments, it was built on the site of an earlier structure – a Muslim fort.
The palace’s most notable residents were the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabell. It was here that Christopher Columbus met the Monarchs in 1486 seeking sponsorship for a voyage that would lead to the discovery of America.
The most striking feature of cordoba Alcazar is the sprawling gardens, Jardines del Alcázar – a smaller version of those in Granada’s famous Alhambra fortress. And the best way to experience the gardens is to take a stroll along Paseo de Los Reyes ‘The Walk of the Kings’, past the meticulously manicured cypress trees and stunning ponds to the statue that commemorates the meeting of Christopher Columbus with the Catholic Kings.
Wander among the Patios of San Basilio
Beyond its magnificent historical edifices, Cordoba is most famous for its patios or ‘courtyards’. Cordoba’s patios are works of art made up of plant pots of brown, blue or green overflowing with flowers of all colours, shapes and sizes and exquisite decorations.
The most popular way of exploring Cordobas patios is during the annual Cordoba Patios Festival that runs in the first two weeks of May. But in the charming San Basilio neighbourhood, next to Cordoba Alcazar, you can visit the patios all year round and without the crowds. And if you are a keen photographer, you can book a private tour to have the patios to yourself.
Get lost in Juderia
The Jewish Quarter (La Juderia) is a wonderful maze of tiny winding streets and alleyways lined with lovely whitewashed houses with colourful doors and balconies and gorgeous courtyards overflowing with flowers. Between the 10th and 15th centuries Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together in Cordoba, and Juderia was the Jewish neighbourhood.
The area of Juderia is such a tangle of streets that the best way to explore it is by letting yourself get lost among its many twists and turns. Most of the streets are quite short, so very soon you begin to feel like you are walking in a maze, a very atmospheric one at that.
You can spend as much time as you like exploring the tangle of small streets in Juderia. Stop for coffee or tapas at the street bars and cafes or shop till you drop in the souvenir stores that line the streets.
Walk through the Almodovar Gate
While you are in Juderia, make sure to walk through the Almodovar Gate (Puerta Almodovar). From within Juderia, the gate doesn’t look like much but walk through it and you discover a long stretch of the imposing medieval city wall of Cordoba, complete with a defensive moat.
If you visit in the late afternoon you’ll see the golden-coloured wall reflected in the still water of the moat. It is a jaw-dropping site even for Cordoba.
Right by the gate, there is a statue of Seneca – a Roman philosopher and statesman from Cordoba, who went on to become Nero’s trusted advisor.
And if you feel like taking a walk along the wall (Calle Cairuan) you’ll soon come across the statue of Ibn Rushd – Muslim philosopher, judge, and doctor from the 13th century best known for reviving Aristotle’s ideas in the western culture.
Check out Casa Andalusi
Tucked away on the narrow Judios street a couple of doors past the Synagogue, Casa Andalusi is a lovely house museum that gives you a glimpse into the Muslim lifestyle in Cordoba in the 12th century. It is very much worth the 4 euro entrance fee. The house is a typical Muslim home of that era with a number of rooms, 3 patios, and a basement.
One of the rooms houses a model of one of the first paper factories in the western world and a variety of exquisite Arabic scrolls and books. This room opens onto a small courtyard with a gorgeous fountain.
The basement is even more fascinating. Like most houses in Cordoba, this house was built on the site of an earlier structure – Visigothic in this case. The ancient floor tiles inlaid with faded mosaics are preserved in the basement, as well as a large amphora and a few other pre-Muslim artifacts.
Try Cordoban Salmorejo
Don’t leave Cordoba without sampling its specialty dish, Salmorejo – a chilled tomato soup that is similar to gazpacho, but thicker and creamier. It is made from skinned tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil and garlic and is traditionally served with hard-boiled eggs and cured ham.
Depending where you break for lunch, some of the best Salmorejo in Cordoba is served at Tavern “el Abanico” on Velázquez Bosco street and at Casa Pepe De La Juderia in Juderia. The benefit of having lunch (or dinner) at Casa Pepe is that its rooftop terrace offers one of the best viewpoints in Cordoba.
Other traditional Andalusian food to try are: rabo de toro (oxtail stew), mojama (cured tuna loin), torrijas (Spanish-style French toast), pescaíto frito (Andalusian deep-fried fish), and of course, Jamon Iberico (Iberian ham).
Dine in a rooftop bar with a view
If you are staying in Cordoba for dinner, pick a rooftop bar to enjoy a meal with a view. There are a few rooftop bars in Cordoba, but none has better views than the bar on the Rooftop of Hesperia Hotel.
Located just across the Roman Bridge from Mezquita, the bar has gorgeous views of the bridge, the Mezquita and the old town. And at night, the view is particularly stunning with the light-up town reflecting in the dark water of the Guadalquivir river.
Things to do in Cordoba in 2 or 3 Days
If you have more time in Cordoba you can slow down your pace and start to get to know the city better. One thing I would recommend is to visit the Alcazar first thing in the morning to experience it without the daytime crowds.
Take a tour of Medina Azahara
The best thing that the second day in Cordoba allows you to do is to take a tour to the city’s final UNESCO site – Medina Azahara. Located 5 miles outside of Cordoba, Medina Azahara was a palace that was constructed in 929 A.D. by the first Caliph of Cordoba, Abd-al Rahman III. The rumour has it that the palace was dedicated to the caliph’s favourite, Azahara.
Sadly, only 7 years after its completion the palace was destroyed in the succession of Civil Wars that ravaged Andalusia at the turn of the 11th century. You can only imagine how beautiful the palace must’ve been if even its crumbled arched walls carry the status of a UNESCO Heritage site.
You can visit the site independently, but the buses are quite infrequent and the taxi is pretty expensive. If time is of the essence, I’d definitely recommend visiting Medina Azahara on an organized tour from Cordoba.
Explore the Patios of Palacio de Viana
Palacio de Viana is a stunning 14th-century palace surrounded by 12 patios and beautiful gardens. The palace itself is an interesting place to explore to get a glimpse into the lives of Spanish nobility but is the patios of Viana Palace that you want to see.
Open year-round, these patios are some of the finest in Cordoba. And they are the perfect opportunity to see Cordoba’s courtyards outside of the Patio Festival.
The stately Patio de Recibo, Patio de Gatos, Patio de los Naranjos and the intimate Patio de la Madama are among the prettiest, in my opinion.
Visit the Roman Temple
Near Palacio de Viana you can find another of Córdoba’s Roman monuments with a 2 thousand-year-long history. In the 1st century B.C., Cordoba became the capital of the Roman Colonia Patricia of Baetca.
The new capital needed a new temple to uphold the cult of the Emperor, and construction began around 41-54 AD and concluded by 81-96 AD. Like the Roman Bridge over the Guadalquivir River, the Temple lay alongside Via Augusta – the ancient Roman road connecting Rome and Cadiz.
Not much is left of the Temple now, beyond a few columns, but these columns serve as a fascinating reminder of the glory of Cordoba in Roman times. You can also see the stunning Roman mosaics uncovered at the Temple, now on display at the Alcazar of Christian Kings
Drop by Calleja de las Flores
Calleja de las Flores or the Flower Alley is one of the prettiest streets in Cordoba. It is a narrow arched alleyway bookended by whitewashed house walls adorned with blue power pots. It lies in the heart of Juderia, starting near Mezquita and ending at a small square which is actually a courtyard of one of the houses.
From the square, you’ll be treated to a beautiful (if narrow) view of Mezquita’s Bell Tower framed by multicoloured flowers and pots.
Squeeze through Calleja Pañuelo
Another interesting street nearby is Calleja Pañuelo or the Alley of the Handkerchief. This odd little Muslim-style alley is remarkable for being the narrowest alley in Cordoba; at its narrowest point, it is no wider than a lady’s handkerchief.
The alley ends at an equally tiny square with a small fountain and a single orange tree. Some say it’s the smallest square in the world.
Find the secret recepie on Calleja del Salmorejo
Another hidden alleyway you might want to check out is the secret Calleja del Salmorejo. The appeal of this street is the official recipe for Cordoba Salmorejo written on a tile attached to a wall. The mystery of that street lies in the fact that it is not marked on many maps.
To find it, type ‘Taberna restaurante La Fragua’ in Google maps and it will take you to Calleja del Salmorejo. If you have trouble finding the street, here is the recipe:
- 1kg of tomatoes
- 200g of bread
- 100g of extra virgin olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic
- 10g of salt
- Blend all together and top with chopped egg and jamón
And if you do find the street, you may like to stop for lunch at Taberna restaurants La Fragua as a reward for your efforts.
Shop for handicrafts at Zoco Municipal
Zoco Municipal or Cordoba’s souk is a crafts shopping experience with a difference. Not only is it Spain’s first craft market, but you can also observe the artisans as they create the crafts. The souk is in fact a series of artisans’ workshops where you can buy their crafts as well.
Zoco souk specialties include silverware, jewellery, leather, wooden puppets, and some of the finest filigree in Cordoba. Filigree is the art of fine silverwork that creates shapes of fine metal wire with tiny beads and twisted threads soldered together to create exquisite designs.
The souk is located near Mezquita, although the entrance to the building might be tricky to find. The two entrances are located on Calle Averroes and Calle Judios (near the Synagogue).
Relax in Hammam al-Andalus
Have you really been to Andalusia if you haven’t experienced a Hammam? Legacy of Muslim rule in Andalucia, Hammam experience is similar to a hot spring bathing experience. Spend an hour moving between medium/hot/cold pools and a sauna room to wash away the tiredness after a day of explorations and you will emerge completely rejuvenated and blissfully relaxed.
Cordoba’s Hammam Al-Andalus near Mezquita offers a variety of options for the visit from the standard bathing experience for 34 Euro to a decadent package of bathing, a traditional kessa bath and a relaxing massage for 87 Euro.
Visit Mezquita at night
Depending on the time of the day you visit the hammam, you might like to visit Mezquita at night in an experience called The Soul of Cordoba. The night visit is open to a limited number of visitors, so it’s not as crowded as during the day. There are two entry times offered each night around 8 pm and 11 pm. Please check the exact times on Mezquita’s official website, as they vary with seasons. The night visit lasts about 1 hour and includes an audio guide.
Uncover Cordoba’s secrets at the Archaeological museum
Sprawled over two buildings, including a former Renaissance-style palace and three courtyards, the Archaeological Museum of Cordoba is one of the finest archaeological museums in Spain.
The eight rooms in the original (palace) building house an impressive selection of artifacts from the al-Andalus era. While the new building features an exceptional exhibit – Cordoba’s Roman Theater, serendipitously discovered when construction work for the building began.
The theatre has been fully restored and can now be visited in the basement of the second building of the museum.
Visit a Moroccan Tea House
Near the museum is Cordoba’s most charming Moroccan Tea House – Salon de Té. Located in an unassuming 13th-century building, Salon de Te is atmospheric, featuring fine North African decor complete with columns and arched walls, plants climbing up the walls and gentle mood lighting.
Order a pot of mint tea for a traditional Moroccan experience, or a full Andalusian breakfast and spend some time simply soaking in the ambience of the place.
Uncover Roman Cordoba on the Underground Tour
If you enjoyed visiting the Roman Temple in the basement of the Archaeological Museum, you might be wondering what other Roman structures lie concealed underneath Cordoba’s streets. If you are, you will love the Underground Cordoba Tour that takes you to Cordoba’s subterranean nooks and crannies in search of hidden traces of Roman Cordoba.
This walking tour is one of the most unique things to do in Cordoba and the perfect opportunity to channel your inner Indiana Jones for 3 hours and discover the secret face of Cordoba that lies concealed by the thick layer of successive civilizations built on top of it.
See the legendary Andalusian Horses
Tucked away behind Alcazar of Christian Kings, Caballerizas Reales or the Royal Stables are not only a beautiful structure, but they are also home to the legendary Andalusian Horses of Spain. Andalusian horses come in many coat colours, but the most famous and arguably the most spectacular are the snow-white Andalusians.
There are two ways of seeing the horses at the stables. If you are in town on Wednesday, Friday, or Saturday you can attend an evening show: Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse.
Alternatively, you may be lucky to catch an afternoon practice session in the courtyard at the stables.
Spot Fernandid Churches
Fernandin Churches of Cordoba are the 11 churches built under the patronage of Ferdinand III “The Saint” between the mid 13th and the early 14th centuries. A popular way to explore the churches is by walking one of the designated routes.
Axerchia Route takes in the churches of San Andrés, San Lorenzo (considered a jewel of medieval architecture in Cordoba), Santa Marina, and San Pablo.
Axerchia II Route includes the baroque San Francisco church, San Pedro Church, and the Church of the Magdalene.
Villa Route corresponds to what used to be Villa de Córdoba and passes the churches of San Nicolas (with its beautiful bell tower), San Miguel & Santo Domingo de Silos.
Use this map to plan your Fernandin Churches walking routes
Shop for books
Bookshops are my weak spot and I always buy more of them than I can read. But when it comes to travel, books about the destination you are exploring are a great way to get to know the place beyond what meets the eye. Or to read a book after your trip and get those pangs of joy when you recognise the places you are reading about. I haven’t met many travellers who are indifferent to books.
Surprisingly despite Cordoba’s long and diverse history, not many books are set in Cordoba. And those that are can be hard to find outside of Spain.
This is where the local book stores come in – there is always the chance to discover an unexpected gem or an out of print classic.
Here are some of the best books set in Cordoba:
- The Just Men of Cordova by Edgar Wallace
- Dogs of God: Columbus, the Inquisition, and the Defeat of the Moors by James Reston Jr.
- The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages by Nancy Marie Brown
- The Map of Knowledge: How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found: A History in Seven Cities by Violet Moller
- The Apprentice’s Masterpiece: A Story of Medieval Spain by Melanie Little
- A Dying Light in Corduba by Lindsey Davis
The two independent bookshops in Cordoba that carry a selection of books in English are: Librería Luque book shop on Calle Jesús y María, 6 and El Laberinto on Rda. de Isasa, 4. El Laberinto sells the lovely Illustrated History of Cordoba and the more voluminous History of Cordoba.
If you read any good books on Cordoba, please recommend them in the comments below.