Updated: Oct 31, 2022
While Cordoba, Spain often takes a back seat to other Andalucian towns in southern Spain, the fact that it was the pinnacle of Muslim culture on the Iberian peninsula for nearly three centuries means it offers the visitor a rich trove of history and a look at one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the world. The centerpiece is the Mezquita-Catedral (Mosque-Cathedral), a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site that includes all of the historic center of Cordoba.
If you only have a short time, making the most of your visit is important to experiencing essential Cordoba.
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Where to Stay in Cordoba to Maximize Your Time
If you only have a day or two in Cordoba, staying close by the Mezquita's rectangular walls will allow you faster access to some key sites, among them the Patios of the San Basilio district and the Alcazar. Staying a short walkable distance from major sites allowed us to get to all the main locations quickly, plus also embrace the "siesta" during the heat of mid-afternoon (ah, air conditioning during a heatwave) or, let's face it, hoof it back to use the bathroom.
We were fortunate to book an Airbnb that was immediately outside one of the gates to the Mezquita-Catedral (Puerta de Santa Catalina), We used that gate for the early morning bell tower tour but importantly to cut through the courtyard to the other side of the complex when we needed to get to other places in town--extremely handy during the heat of the day.
Tip: the courtyard--known as the Patio de los Naranjos--is open during the day and is free. At night, it is only accessible if you have a ticket for their special Soul of Cordoba tour (this begins at 10 pm/22:00).
I suspect--time, money, and health allowing--we will be returning to Cordoba, and I'd like to try the hotel where we picked up our AirBnb key, the Hotel Posada de Vallina (sometimes referred to as Hotel Hacienda Posada de Vallina). This hotel is also on one of the streets that outline the Mosque-Cathedral. It gets great ratings on Booking, the staff were helpful to us, including holding our luggage and calling a taxi on our day of departure (even though we were staying at the Airbnb), and the lobby gave hints to an historic, well-preserved, and cozy interior.
A VERY Brief History of the Mosque-Cathedral Site (or as brief as I can get it)
The VERY VERY short history is this:
the site was a Roman Temple,
then a Christian church,
then a Mosque,
then a Christian church.
Got it? The slightly longer explanation (skip this if you just want to see the highlights of the visit).
The history of Andalucia is complex and no where is that more evident than in Cordoba and especially within the city centre and Mosque-Cathedral. The complicated relationship between Muslims, Christians, and Jews --sometimes cooperative, sometimes intolerant--is intertwined with a history that include Romans and Visigoths. In Cordoba, the ultimate result is the visible remains of a vibrant culture that's not only been preserved but is still an active place of worship (which is not without its controversies).
Many people believe that the site of today's Mosque-Cathedral was once home to the Visigoth Basilica of San Vicente, remnants of which were uncovered in the earlier part of the 20th century and are part of the basement of the current structure. While that part is not accessible to the public, the Cathedral has an exhibit in the first section of the Mosque that displays artifacts from San Vicente. Some historians also claim that a temple to the Roman god, Janus, was also on this site.
In 711 CE, the Muslims arrived on the Iberian peninsula. Unlike what you might think, the Muslims reportedly purchased first one half of the existing complex (then both Islamic and Christian services occurred in the same structure), then the remaining portion of the site (knocking down the structure) to build the Mosque for their burgeoning community.
By 786, Abd al-Rahman I began building the Mosque as we see parts of it today, often with materials repurposed from historic buildings in the area. With Roman pillars as the base of the arches, and a unique design of a double arch allowing higher ceilings, it set the standard of uniqueness and simple grandeur the following two Mosque expansions during the Umayyad Caliphate would follow.
See the animation on this page, which shows how the Mosque grew, with what was basically a quadrupling of worship space.
It just seems to keep going, and going. What a wonderous, open feeling to the prayer hall. No matter one's faith, it's a contemplative space. I know it took my breath away when I stepped inside. No photo can truly recreate the expansiveness and serenity. Yet, it's not as open as it was. Many Christian kings added to the structure after the Christian "re-conquest" in 1236 (if you are a history geek, see this brief overview). Most notably, the Bishop of the Cathedral during the reign of Charles V received permission from the king to begin construction of "a cathedral." The result was a Gothic and Baroque transept, apse, and altar constructed right in the center of the mosque and built over 250 years. After visiting the project, Charles V was quoted as saying something to the effect of “You have destroyed something unique, to create something commonplace.”
Hard to disagree with that statement. I would love to have seen it in its true glory, as one of the largest mosques in the world, with space that could hold 40,000 worshippers! And yet, I disagree, because:
There are still 850+ columns with arches. The place is vast.
The juxtaposition of the Muslim and Christian styles and integration of various cultures in both constructions is in itself thought-provoking and maybe a bit mind-blowing.
It makes me ponder what could have been, and what could yet be.
Planning Your Visit -- Booking Tickets Unlike our trip to Granada and the Alhambra where one MUST book tickets months in advance, we did not book significantly ahead of time, buying our tickets only the day before our visit. Honestly, we lucked out and I'd suggest getting your tickets a bit earlier (or simply check availability) using this link. As of this writing, there is no timed entrance to the main Mosque-Cathedral, but there IS a timed entrance to the Bell Tower.
Tip: when buying tickets in advance of your travel, you may have to let your bank know you are purchasing something from outside your home country. I simply log in to my bank, create a "travel plan" for just that day I'm purchasing from home that lists the destination country (Spain) and also my home country (a caution so I can use my credit card for my normal around town purchases that day).
Start at the Bell Tower
The Bell Tower was originally the mosque's minaret where the muezzin would issue the call to prayer. It was later remodeled during the Renaissance in part by encasing it in a box structure. It is truly a symbol of the city, both day and night.
The wear on the ancient steps up the to the top speak to their history.
TIP: I often have a mobility issue but had no trouble walking up the steps--191 in total. There are several landings where you can take in the view, offering rest if you need it. The group of ticket holders you'll go up with all do their own thing, so you can take your time as long as you are up and down in a little less than 30 minutes. Even the view from the first landing is worth it, if that's all you can make.
We visited in May 2022 during a heatwave. Early mornings were the most comfortable time to be out and about. The Bell Tower's first ticket group as of this writing is 9:30 am, with groups scheduled every 30 minutes. We booked our ticket online, arrived at bit early to take in the courtyard, got in the queue, showed our ticket in electronic format on our phone, and we were on our way up the tower at 9:30 sharp. Easy.
The view from the tower gives you a better sense of how the courtyard is laid out. It also gives you a bird's eye view of what the Cathedral construction did to the original layout of the Mosque, as you can see it popping out of the original roof.
If you do what we did--book the first Bell Tower tickets--you'll be ready to enter the Mezquita at 10 a.m., which generally is their opening time. At that point in the morning, there were some students on a school trip getting queued up, but we easily stepped around most of them. We had only a few minutes wait outside.
Don't be alarmed if you are entering with a large group. The interior is so vast--remember it accommodated 40,000 worshipers--you'll find it easy at this early point to step in a alternative direction to view the Mosque's famed arches with few people in front of you. We find having a few people in the photo actually enhances it by giving some perspective to how large the open space is.
TIP: Make sure to pick up the official Mosque-Catherdral of Cordoba brochure, with its map, historical timeline, and explanation of key points. Seeing where Mosque-Cathedral construction falls in an historic timeline that includes things like St. Peter's Basilica was illuminating. TIP: Crowds--we found two spaces eventually got crowded: the Cathedral portion, especially the part with the choir seating, and the gold-bedecked Mihrab. Perhaps it's best to check these out earlier than later, then return to the vast open spaces to enjoy the feel of the Mosque.
We took a left as we came in the entrance, where there were fewer people, allowing for some good photos. We then chose to walk around the perimeter counter-clockwise, opposite to what most people were doing.
Points of Note:
Observe architecture while moving from section to section -- The first section of the Mosque-Cathedral is the one with the red and white double arches. These laid the theme for the expansions that followed, but notice the changes in style as you pass through to the other expansion areas of the Mosque.
Note the blending (or not) of cultures -- The blending (or at least co-existence) of cultures in this complex becomes clear even before you get to the main Cathedral. Set into the perimeter walls and elsewhere you will see various ornate chapels, both large and small. These chapels were important to the Catholic clergy who, in their view, had to sanctify the space, as well as give noble families a place to pray, bury their dead, and, frankly, show off their wealth. While anyone who has toured European cathedrals has seen plenty of similar chapels, the effect was a bit jarring to my mind, looking from the calm serenity of the Mosque's arches to the Baroque and Renaissance decor of the chapels, most of which are behind iron bars.
Step in to the Chapel of Saint Teresa. It's open to tour and is certainly worth a visit to see its plasterwork ceiling and dome with windows. Video below.
One of my favorites in this chapel is this cherub on the tomb of Cardinal Salazar. It represents my feelings at the time, right after I checked the weather for our visit to the next city on our trip--Granada--and found the temperatures expected to be over 100 degrees F (nearly 38 degrees C)!
Glory in the Mihrab area, where again you can ponder the complex relationship of cultures. This is the wall that faces Mecca and the central part of a larger area called the makursa, where the mosque officials (and important associates) would pray.
The authority of the time, Al-Hakim II, desired that his expansion of the Mosque in Cordoba have great mosaics like those in the mosque at Damascus. He asked the Emperor of Byzantium for an artisan capable of such work, and Nicephoras II Phocas not only secured the artist, but sent along many gold tiles--donated--to the project. Lonely Planet has a nice overview with more detail here.
TIP -- It took me a while to get this photo of the Mihrab due to crowds in late morning/midday. Be patient and you will eventually be in the front as long as you re strategic about where you are standing.
Take in the thought-provoking juxtaposition of the Mosque architecture to Christian Cathedral as you walk toward the main chapel and transept in the center of the building. The grand, high Cathedral structure with ornate decor and the more humble prayer space of most of the Mosque speak of two different approaches to connecting with the spiritual.
Appreciate the work that went into creating the elaborate choir stalls of the Cathedral. These are true works of art. More history on them here. After the Cathedral's investment in building the main transcept, it would be more than 100 years until resources were found to build the appropriate choir stalls. As much as I preferred the Mosque portion of the complex (we've seen plenty of elaborate churches), the choir area and the organs on either side are quite the spectacle. As a former choir member, I tried to imagine what it is like singing there.
Imagine what's in the Royal Chapel. This is a room that is inaccessible (mostly due to architectural changes since it was finished in 1372) but whose beauty beckons one as you peek up and through the arches from different angles. This chapel was built during the reign of King Enrique II and intended for the bodies of his father and grandfather. You can see some of the "Mudejar" style, created by Muslim mosaicists employed by Christian rulers. The little bit viewed is quite exquisite but it was frustrating not to be able to see it fully.
Overall, our visit through the Mosque-Cathedral (not including the Bell Tower) probably took about three hours. As history geeks, we were taking it all in and as a travel blogger, I was revisiting sections for photos. My hope is that this article will help you be more efficient than we were with the visit, allowing time for the rest of Cordoba's beauty. For glimpses of Cordoba, see my reel on Instagram which includes a view from around the outside of the Mosque-Cathedral walls as well as a view from our Airbnb.
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