The Andalucian city of Cordoba is one of a select few to lay claim to having been the most powerful city in the world.
Around the first millennium AD, this city was a flourishing centre of culture, learning and creativity with a population estimated between 350,000 and 500,000 – to put this into perspective London and Paris each had around 20,000 at the time.
After many a twist of fate, Cordoba is now a provincial city in the heart of southern Spain, but enough reminders of its glory days remain to warrant going out of your way to explore this amazing city (you can read the full guide to Cordoba here).
6 Cheap or Free Things to Do in Cordoba, Spain
Cordoba’s glory days were between the 8th and 11th centuries AD when it was capital of the Islamic Emirate of al-Andalus and later the Caliphate of Cordoba.
The most prominent reminder of these times is La Mezquita, the Great Mosque, which was begun back in the 8th century AD.
It is one of the most amazing buildings in the world, outside and inside, and a Christian cathedral has been built within it.
You enter the same way Muslim worshippers did, passing beneath the orange trees of the lovely Patio de los Naranjos, before heading into the main mosque, an endless forest of pillars supporting red and white striped double arches. It’s one of the great sights of the ancient world and you can visit it for a very low price.
Entrance Fee: Entry to the Mosque-Cathedral is free from 8.30am to 9.30am Monday to Saturday, except when special celebrations are on. At other times the fee is €10 for adults and for €5 children aged 10-14. Kids under 10 are free.
Old Town and Juderia
One of the best free things to do in Cordoba is to explore the city on foot. Cordoba’s Old Town and Juderia, the former Jewish ghetto, are clustered around the Mezquita, extending north towards the modern city and make for a great self-guided walking tour.
Most of the streets are narrow and winding, criss-crossed with shaded alleyways, while nearly all of the houses are whitewashed to reflect the baking summer sun – Cordoba is the hottest major city in Europe, with temperatures often soaring over 40°C.
The climate had a big influence on the design of the city’s houses as far back as Roman times when they were first built around a shaded central courtyard where plants would be grown to keep it as cool as possible.
If you’re in Cordoba outside Patio Festival time, you can often glimpse some as you walk around the back streets.
One particular place you should seek out is the Calleja de las Flores, a tiny alleyway with flowerpot-decked houses and a view to the Torre del Alminar, the cathedral belltower. The best time to get your shot is the morning.
Cordoba’s Other Main Sites
Cordoba’s other main sights are also within walking distance of the Mezquita.
At the southern end of the bridge is the impressive Torre de la Calahorra, once a fortified city gate, now home to the Museum of al-Andalus Life, which has a fascinating exhibition on life in Muslim Andalucia.
Entry to the museum costs €4.5 for anyone over 8 years old. Kids under 8 are free. There is an extra cost of €3 for the audio tour.
Back across the river, the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, or Castle of the Christian Monarchs, was founded as far back as the 8th century, later becoming the residence of Ferdinand and Isabella and one of the main headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition.
The Alcazar buildings are quite small – the main attraction here is the beautiful complex of gardens. Entry to the Alcazar is €4.5 and under 14s are free.
Best Time to Visit Cordoba
The best time to visit Cordoba is in May, in balmy spring weather when its main festivals are held.
In the first week of the month, beautiful flower crosses are put up outside all the city’s churches for the Cruces de Mayo (May Crosses) festival, a prelude to the following week’s Patios Festival, when the best-decorated patios in the city, most of which are in private houses, are open to the public for viewing.
The central courtyards of the houses are decked floor to roof with flowers and are absolutely stunning.
Then, towards the end of the month, the Feria de Cordoba takes over the town, with a huge funfair, lots of flamenco and even more fantastic food at El Arenal, near the football stadium.
The only drawback with visiting in May is that prices are at their peak then, and accommodation needs to be booked months in advance.
I found it a little disconcerting to step back into the 21st century after the best part of two days exploring Cordoba’s ancient core, but it’s worth spending some time seeing the centre of modern Cordoba as well.
Plaza de la Corredera is a classic Spanish square, which reminded me of a less spacious Plaza Mayor in Madrid, is a great café and people-watching spot, while Plaza Tendillas is much more open with fountains and an equestrian statue, surrounded by grand white buildings.
You find all kind of treasures in this part of the city, from ruins of the Roman temple to the statue of Cristo de Los Faroles, a statue of Christ surrounded by ornate lamps which is beautifully atmospheric at night.
If you happen to visit outside May, the best place to see some Cordoban patios is in the gardens of the Palacio de Viana, which has over ten of them spread across its extensive grounds.
Today, David and Faye from Delve into Europe are sharing their tips on the best things to do in Cordoba, Spain.
Read next: 9 Creative Ways to Save Money on Airbnb