This city now has more UNESCO Heritage sites than anywhere in the world

CNN  — 

For most tourists to Spain, a visit to Cordoba isn’t a must.

Barcelona and Seville have been luring visitors for decades, keeping Cordoba, a city in the south with a population of around 330,000, relatively off the map.

Around a million people visited Cordoba in 2017, whereas Barcelona and Seville saw 8.9 million and 2.6 million tourists in 2017, respectively.

But Cordoba, part of Andalusia and less than a two-hour train ride a from Madrid or a 45-minute train ride from Seville, is worthy of big travel acclaim. As of 2018, it’s the first city in the world to have four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, surpassing Rome and Paris.

Determined by a World Heritage Committee that includes government representatives from different countries, these sites must be, according to UNESCO’s website, “of universal outstanding value” and meet one of 10 criteria such as being representative of a living or extinct cultural tradition or civilization.

The picturesque historic quarter is the heart of Cordoba and is one of the city’s UNESCO sites.

Since the bulk of Cordoba’s attractions are concentrated in and around this quarter, exploring the city by foot is your best bet.

Cordoba may not be as on-the-map as Madrid or Barcelona, but its quiet beauty, as seen here in the Alcazar, a palace fortress dating back to the time of Arab rule, is reason enough to visit.

Most tourists come to Cordoba for the day, but a weekend trip is ideal, says Virginia Irurita, the founder of Made for Spain and Portugal, a Madrid-based company that sells high-end trips. She says a weekend will give you “enough time to take everything in,” she says.

Paco Gonzalez, a historian and tour guide who was born in the city, suggests that visitors intersperse sightseeing with afternoon siestas and long lunches and dinners. “Our meals take several hours. We enjoy our food and our company,” he says. “In between, we enjoy our siestas.”

A leisurely, late dinner

Kick off the weekend in Cordoba with a Friday night dinner at one of the many buzzy eateries in town, such as Casa Pepe de la Judería, which has a rooftop terrace and overlooks the city.

One of the most popular dishes on the menu is the salmorejo, a cold soup puree of tomatoes, bread, garlic and olive oil, topped with bits of Spanish ham. This soup, along with ajoblanco, a cold soup of almonds, garlic and olive oil, is heavy on the olive oil, an important ingredient in Cordoba’s cuisine since it is produced in abundance in the countryside.

Casa Pepe, a restaurant in Cordoba with a rooftop terrace offering stunning city views, is known for its salmorejo cordobés con huevo y jamón — a cold soup made from pureed tomatoes, bread, garlic and olive oil.

Puerta Sevilla is another restaurant favored by locals for its large outdoor dining area and tasty modern interpretations of traditional dishes.

But don’t plan for that meal earlier than 9 p.m., says Gonzalez. “We eat late, and stay out late,” he says, just like the rest of Spain.

Other Cordoba specialties to look for on menus include rabo de toro, a hearty stew made with bull tail meat, and berenjenas con miel, deep fried eggplant sticks topped with honey. Locals usually dine alfresco given Cordoba’s usually warm weather..

After dinner, the wine bars beckon. They’re all over town, and choosing one at random is a fun way to get to know the place and its people.

Irurita loves Sojo Ribera, an always vibrant spot on the Guadalquivir River with a rooftop. “I come here around 11 at night and sit outside and sip a glass of red wine,” she says.

Cap off dinner with a glass of Montilla-Moriles, a locally produced sweet wine that can double as dessert.

A morning of sightseeing

Start off Saturday by hitting two of the UNESCO World Heritage sites: the historical quarter and the Mosque-Cathedral, which is situated within the quarter. Crowds are thin in the morning, according to Gonzalez. “Tourists tend to go between 2 and 5 in the afternoon, so I never suggest going then,” he says.

Attractions here include a 14th-century synagogue; the Alcazar, a palace fortress dating back to the Arab times that has Instagram-worthy gardens full with flowers; and a dozen or so churches, mostly from the 13th and 14th centuries.

Many of these churches are in an area called El Realejo, which doesn’t see many tourists. “Locals come here for mass (usually between 10 a.m. and noon), and anyone can enter for free and watch services going on,” says Gonzalez.

The Mosque-Cathedral is Cordoba's first-named UNESCO World Heritage site.

Then there’s the Mosque-Cathedral. Built between 784 and 786 as a mosque, it was established as a cathedral in the 13th century when the Christians conquered the city and was Cordoba’s first UNESCO World Heritage site (chosen in 1984).

The sprawling structure, measuring at about 250,000 square feet, is a showpiece for exemplary Moorish architecture and a stunning cathedral at the same time.

Irurita believes visitors will be overwhelmed by the Arab inscriptions and motifs in the domes and walls inside, along with several chapels and more than 850 columns constructed from marble, granite and onyx found in the city’s destroyed Roman buildings. General admission is 10 euros, and there’s no need to book a visit in advance.

The Mosque-Cathedral's Moorish architecture is show-stopping.

After the dose of history, Gonzalez suggests a stop at nearby No. 10 Taberna for a glass of sherry and tapas. Both the octopus with potatoes and the sliced serrano ham come highly recommended.

An evening horse show

Following an afternoon siesta, Irurita says that Cordoba’s 70-minute horse show is a must.

It runs between three and four days a week in an arena adjacent to the stables that King Philip II had built in the 16th century. The venue is less than a five-minute walk from the city center, and Irurita says that the shows are a blast to watch. “They combine horse tricks with flamenco dancing, and spectators are on their feet clapping, cheering and dancing,” she says.

If you find yourself in Cordoba on a Saturday, you’ll want to hit up Mercado Victoria, an open-air food market with over two dozen stalls serving up a variety of cuisines from Andalusian to Argentinian. The market is packed on weekends (it’s a local favorite), but it’s worth fighting crowds for the lively ambiance and affordable eats.


The next morning, after a restful night’s sleep (perhaps in the NH Collection Amistad), head to Cordoba’s newest UNESCO World Heritage site, Medina Azahara, awarded the honor in 2018. Discovered at the beginning of the 20th century, this palace fortress is set in the countryside about a 10-minute taxi ride from the city center.

The Caliphate city of Medina Azahara, an archaeological site of a city built in the mid-10th century, is Cordoba's newest UNESCO World Heritage site.

Irurita likens Medina Azahara to a mini-Versailles but in an Arabic style. It was built as new city in the 10th century when Abd-al-Rahman III was named as a caliph or religious Muslim ruler. Inhabited for around 80 years before being left to ruins, the site gives visitors an idea of the roads, buildings and bridges that once existed.

The last Intangible site

UNESCO declares festivals as world heritages when they’re deemed particularly notable, and the Patios Festival, which started in 1918, was given the distinction in 2012. A celebration of spring, the festival takes place during the first two weeks of May when around 50 of the whitewashed houses in the historical center open their flower-laden patios to the public (entry is free).

During the festival, the streets are crowded with tourists and locals who roam freely in and out of the houses where they mingle with the owners and see their patios. Carnations, roses and geraniums are most popular, but each patio is uniquely decorated.

The Patios Festival began in 1918 but was awarded the UNESCO disctinction in 2012. It's a festival featuring flower-laden patios in early May.

A side excursion

For visitors who have an extra day, Gonzalez suggests tacking on an excursion to a few of the surrounding villages.

Each has its own appeal: Almodovar Del Rio, a 30-minute bus ride away, is home to an Arabic fortress where several takes of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” were filmed, while Montoro, about 50 minutes by bus, features Cardena-Montoro Natural Park, where travelers can go hiking and horseback riding through the countryside.

When you go:

Hotel NH Collection Amistad Córdoba is a converted 18th century mansion located in the city center. It's ideally situated for afternoon siesta after a long day sightseeing.

Tourists can explore Cordoba and the UNESCO sites on their own, but hiring a tour guide for a half or full day is another option. Gonzalez charges 150 euros for a half-day tour for up to 10 people while Irurita’s company sells two-night packages to the city, inclusive of tours and accommodations, for a starting price of 815 euros for two people.

Cordoba deserves more attention than it gets, and given its new status symbol thanks to UNESCO, it may not stay overlooked for much longer.

Shivani Vora is a New York City-based writer who travels as often as she can, whether that means going on a walking safari in Tanzania, a mother-daughter trip with her ten year-old in Istanbul or surfing in northern Portugal.