Cordoba is most well known for its evocative, 1200+ year old Mezquita (Mosque). While the Mezquita is now a Roman Catholic Church, many of the original elements of the massive structure remain, including its famous candy cane colored arches that appear to stretch on for infinity. In fact, despite being a church, much of the original Mosque remains untouched--a testament to its beauty. A high, arched Cathedral, the church appears to have simply sprouted from the middle of the Mezquita. While the Mezquita is definitely the most interesting sight in Cordoba--and the reason most people visit--it not the only thing to see while in the city. The Alcázar is a 14th century fortress with a beautiful gardens that is worth a look. The Roman Bridge provides a beautiful view back to the city (particularly at twilight when the city begins to light up). The compact, walled city itself is also beautiful to walk around, both inside and out, particularly the Jewish Quarter.
Photo: The famous arches of the Mezquita-Cathedral that appear to stretch on to infinity.
How Long Should You Spend in Cordoba?
There are so many amazing cities in Spain that you could spend days in. While Cordoba and its sights are worth seeing, they are definitely not worth dedicating more than a day and a night of your time unless you have a special interest. Cordoba could very feasibly even be done as a day trip from a number of locations that are worth lingering-- Granada, Sevilla, and even Madrid. Sevilla is by far the easiest of these at only a 45 min train ride away. Cordoba's medieval walled city is pretty, but very touristy. The main sight, the Mezquita, is worth about 1-2 hours of your time, wandering the city maybe another 2 (including a walk out over the bridge for a good view back to the Mezquita and Cathedral), and possibly a trip to the Alcazar (about an hour). The floodlit city at night was very pretty and much less crowded, but not a must-see if you don’t want to spend the night.
Where to Stay
If you’re going to stay in Cordoba, you really should stay in the old city center and soak up the atmosphere. I would limit my hotel search to inside the old wall on the west (Calle de Cairuán), a block past the Mezquita on the east, Ronda de Isasa to the south (the road that runs along the river), and the Plaza de las Tendillas to the north. I personally stayed in La Hospedería de El Churrasco (now La Llave de la Judea) which I really liked for both its location and the atmosphere of the actual hotel–and breakfast was great, too (see: Cordoba Reviews).
Getting from the Train Station to the City Center
Taking a taxi is by far the easiest way to get from the train station to your hotel if you’re staying in the area I’ve laid out above. It will only cost you about €7 or so, and the walk is pretty far (about 25 mins to the city center).
City Transportation Options
We never felt the need to use any public transportation in Cordoba. Many of the streets in the old center are pedestrian only, and everything is very walkable. There is a public bus system in the city, but a tourist wouldn’t have much use for it. The city, like many in Europe, has horse and carriages for hire. You can pay one to provide you with an overview tour of the city. I don’t think it would be as worthwhile in Cordoba which can be easily covered on foot, but if interested, you will find them lined up around the Mezquita.
Food of Note
Meal Time: The Spanish operate on a totally different meal schedule than those of us in the United States do. They typically eat their big meal of the day a little later than our regular lunch time (around 2pm). You’ll find that most restaurants serve “lunch” from about 1pm until a little before 4pm. Historically, the family would gather for lunch and stop their day, closing their shops or coming home from the office, to spend the afternoon siesta (break) together. Then, they would go back to finish their work day after (some of that is beginning to fade, but meal times seem to be remaining the same regardless). Most restaurants do not even open for dinner until 8 or 8:30pm (most Spaniards eat dinner at around 9pm). However, dinner is much less of an affair in Spain than we make it out to be in the U.S. Not wanting to eat a huge meal that late at night, the Spanish often opt for small plates called tapas. (See Barcelona for details on tapas.)
Drinks: My favorite drink in Spain was definitely the sangria. Sangria is traditionally made from red wine mixed with fruit and sometimes other alcohols to create a punch-like drink. It is usually served in a pitcher. However, sometimes restaurants will also offer the drink by the glass or in a smaller-sized pitcher (which will fill about 3 small glasses). Spain also produces a number of good wines from red (tinto) to white (blanco). Two I enjoyed were Ribera and Rioja (both red). If you’re more of a beer (cerveza) drinker, most bars in Spain have at least one on tap. However, they typically do not have the number of options we have become accustomed to in the U.S.
Cordoba Food: I found the restaurants in the center of Cordoba to be touristy and not always the highest quality. Wander away from the Mezquita, find a tapas bar or restaurant on a side street (avoid the places where people stand outside trying to usher you in), and see if you can find a few good things to fill up on. Our hotel had a restaurant which was not open when we were there, but if breakfast was any indication, I would definitely recommend giving it a try (El Churrasco).
Walking Route Suggestion: (Tip) While doing research on Cordoba, I came across a website that provides a great walking tour of the city. It covers all of the sights I mention below plus some additional ones with the assistance of a helpful map. It also includes a map of the Mezquita complex and provides some basic history on the sight. There is a link on the sight for a printable PDF version of it that you can print and take with you on your trip. The site’s link is: www.infocordoba.com/spain/andalusia/cordoba/sightseeing/cordoba_historic_centre_walk.htm
Photos: Left to Right: Exterior of the Complex, Patio de los Naranjos, Bell Tower, and The Famous Mezquita Arches
The Mezquita complex is massive. Stretching across 24,000 square meters, it was once the largest mosque in the entire world. It’s history is as complicated as the complex is large, though. Like much of southern Spain, Cordoba has a history rife with the power struggle between the Moors (Muslims) and Christians. To some extent, they exist even today, with the Muslims still petitioning the Catholic church for the right to worship at the sight. The site’s history begins in the sixth century with the building of a Visigothic Christian Church, St. Vincent. You can still see part of the floor mosaic from the original church near the entrance. (Pictured below.) The Catholic church feels that the existence of a church on the site prior to the mosque is another contributing factor to why it should remain a church now. The current structure’s construction began in 784 and spanned approximately 200 years. When Cordoba was recaptured in 1236 by King Ferdinand, the site once again began to be used as a church. In 1523, it was proposed by the bishop at the time that they build a new Cathedral on the site. However, rather than destroy the Mezquita (as many wanted to do), he wanted to preserve its beauty and build the Cathedral in the center of the existing structure. Construcion on this project lasted until the early 17th century, and little has been changed in the actual structure since that time.
The entire complex is surrounded by a massive wall with keyhole gates. You enter through an open one to get into the Patio de los Naranjos (Courtyard of the Oranges). Entrance into this portion of the Mezquita is free. This is also where you purchase your tickets to get into the Mosque-Cathedral. When the site was still a mosque, the muslims would wash for prayer here before entering.
Note: It is possible to climb the Giralda Bell Tower for a birds-eye view of the Mezquita and Cordoba. “Remodeled” in the 17th century, the 203 steps revolve around the mosque’s old minaret. Its entrance fee is €2 and the tickets are sold next to the tower. A maximum of 20 people are allowed entrance into the tower every 30 minutes.
The interior of the Mezquita holds 856 columns, each supporting candy cane-striped, horseshoe-shaped double arches as beautiful as they are famous. They were designed quite ingeniously to appear to the eye as if they stretch on to infinity. [Note: The headline photo at the top of this page is also of the famous Mezquita arches.]
Another feature of the original mosque you will see is the Mihrab. A mihrab is a prayer niche where the prayer leader stands to lead services (pictured below).
Photos: Left to Right: 6th Century Visigothic Church Mosaic, Mihrab, Cathedral Growing Out of the Arches, Side Chapel Incorporated into the Arches
Love it or hate it, the Cathedral is a dominating presence in the center of the Mezquita. At 130 feet high, it appears to pop out of the center of the Mezquita, towering over it by 100 ft. It’s amazing to see this massive structure suddenly sprout out of the red and white striped arches. Whether or not you agree with its presence, the cathedral has some beautiful decorations, and there is a remarkable attention to detail in the design of its ceiling and dome. The choir is especially beautiful; carved in the 18th century, each of the stalls depicts a different Bible scene in great detail.
The site’s treasury houses religious pieces from the 15th and 16th centuries and the huge piece that is carried through the streets 60 days after Easter on Corpus Christi.
Photos: Inside the Cathedral (left to right): Altar, Woodwork, Organ, Close-up of Choir Stalls
Hours: Mezquita - March-October: Monday-Saturday 8.30-9.30am (free) & 10am-7pm; Sunday 8.30-11.30am & 3-7pm; November-February: Monday-Saturday 8.30-9.30am (free) & 10am-6pm; Sunday 8.30-11.30am & 3-6pm (last admission 30 minutes before closing). Bell Tower - 9:30am-1:30pm & 4pm-6:30pm (5:30pm Nov-Feb); no afternoon hours in July or August).
Cost: €10 for adults, €5 for children 10-14, and free to children under 10; €2 to climb the bell tower
Location: Calle Cardenal Herrero, 1; Right in the center of the old town near the river. The complex is huge and walled, so it’s difficult to miss. Enter through the Patio de los Naranjos (Patio of the Oranges) to purchase tickets (open keyhole doorways).
Admin Stuff: (Tip) It can get very crowded in the middle of the day with tourist groups and day-trippers. Go in the evening or first thing in the morning when you can better enjoy the sight. No large bags, no tripods. The complex is free Mon-Sat from 8:30am-9:30am, however, reviews have indicated that the central portion of the complex is blocked off during this time, and you will have to end your visit promptly at 9:30am whether you have seen everything or not. The Bell Tower often sells out, buy your ticket for the climb early if you wish to visit.
Photos: These 2 Dome Photos from the Mezquita Depict Many of the Differences Between Moorish and Christian Religious Design and Art
Roman Bridge and View Back Toward the City
The bridge that spans the Guadalquivir River itself isn’t all that beautiful, but the view back to town it provides if you walk about 3/4 of the way across it is worth a look. In the evening, the bridge lights come on which make it even more atmospheric. The foundations of the bridge date to the 1st century, but it’s been rebuilt several times, and its current look is rather plain. The gate you walk through to get onto the bridge was built in 1517 for a planned visit from Prince Phillip II. Unfortunately, he arrived before the project was complete, so it was left as-is and never fully finished. The 14th century gate/tower you see at the end of the bridge houses the small Museum of Al-Andalus Life (only worth a visit if you have a lot of extra time on your hands).
Photos: Left: View Back to the City from the Roman Bridge; Center: 14th Century Gate/Tower; Right: Unfinished 1517 Gate
Alcázar de los Reyes Christianos
The Alcázar de los Reyes Christianos, or the Fortress of the Christian Monarchs, lies next to the Guadalquivir River. It is comprised of a simple fort and a beautiful garden with flowing water and flowering plants. It served as the home of Ferdinand and Isabel (the Spanish king and queen) in the late 15th century. I was also used as a headquarters during the Spanish Inquisition. The garden us worth a look, but sometimes the lines it generates really don’t merit the sight.
Hours: June 16-September 15: Tuesday-Saturday 8:30am-3pm (2.30pm Sunday); September 16-June 15: Tuesday-Friday 8:30am-8:45pm (until 4:30pm Saturday & 2.30pm Sunday);Coed ls January 1 & December 25
Cost: €4.50 for adults, €2.25 for students up to 26, and free on Wednesdays.
Location: Calle Caballerizas Reales along the river southwest of the Mezquita.
Admin Stuff: Try to avoid the infamous lines by going early or late.
The current city walls, built mostly during the 12th century, still remain intact in a few places. The best stretch is along Calle de Cairuán (the outer side of the wall). Access through the pretty Puerta de Almodóvar (the city’s best preserved medieval gate).
Photos: The City’s Wall Along Calle de Cairuán and the Puerta de Almodóvar Gate
Cordoba’s Jewish Quarter, to the northwest of the Mezquita, is a UNESCO World Heritage sight and a joy to walk. It’s not as dominated by tourist shops, so you can better enjoy the atmosphere of the old city while wandering through its narrow lanes. Highlights (besides the lanes themselves) include a 14th century Synagogue (on Calle de los Judios), a statue of the Moorish philosopher Maimónides, and the pretty Calle de las Flores (Street of the Flowers). The Synagogue, originally built in 1315, was converted to a church in the sixteenth century, and then later used to house the Shoemakers’ Guild. (Note: Currently closed for restoration.) Just downhill from the synagogue is a statue of the Cordoban philosopher Maimónides; rub his foot to get some of his wisdom to rub off on you. Calle de las Flores is a great place to get an artistic picture of the the Cathedral’s bell tower. If you walk down the narrow lane and look back toward the cathedral, you can see the bell tower looming in the background in the midst of all of the little flower pots popping out of the lane’s walls.
Photos: Left to Right: Calle de las Flores, Jewish Quarter Side Lane, More of the Famous Cordoba Flower Pots, and a Walled Arch