It doesn't get as much hype as fabled Granada or scintillating Seville, but there's another city right in the middle of Andalucía that no one should miss.
Famed above all for its wonderful Mezquita (mosque), one of the great works of Islamic architecture, Córdoba is a beguiling place that oozes history in every twisting lane and flower-filled patio of its old centre. It is also well in the 21st century, with contemporary restaurants and tapas bars, some charming boutique hotels, a big modern university and the superfast AVE train that travels 345km from Madrid in under two hours.
The Mezquita alone is reason to put Córdoba high on your Spanish itinerary. This mesmerising building, with its lines of red-and-white-striped arches stretching as far as the eye can see, has been likened to a forest of date palms built in stone. Well over 1000 years old, it dates from the time when Córdoba's Muslim Umayyad dynasty ruled over most of the Iberian Peninsula, and Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side in a city of three cultures that stood as a beacon of arts and learning in dark-ages Europe.
A few decades after Muslims from Morocco had conquered the Iberian Peninsula, Emir Abd ar-Rahman I purchased the Church of San Vicente in Córdoba and replaced it with a brand-new mosque, which opened for prayer in AD 785. This original Mezquita was only one-fifth the size of the final version we see today – it was extended three times in the 9th and 10th centuries – but the basic design was set from the start. Hundreds of columns from the earlier church and other buildings in Córdoba and elsewhere were used to support long lines of two-tier arches in red brick and white stone, creating a broad, low-roofed, horizontal prayer space where the spirit could be free to roam and communicate with the divine.
Still today, despite tourist crowds, the Mezquita is a remarkably serene and contemplative space. Even the large Christian high chapel and choir that were plonked in the middle of it in the 16th century, 300 years after Christians reconquered Córdoba, do not hamper the harmony. The Mezquita's artistic high point is the mihrab (prayer niche), whose arched portal glitters with mosaic flower motifs and Quranic inscriptions, created with 1600kg of gold cubes gifted by the Christian emperor of Byzantium to the 10th-century Cordoban caliph Al-Hakim II.
The Jewish community in Islamic Córdoba played an important part in the city's life in such roles as administrators, doctors, jurists and poets. The old Jewish quarter, the Judería, just northwest of the Mezquita, remains a warren of narrow medieval streets – some now lined with gaudy souvenir shops, others remarkably silent and calm. Here, on Calle de los Judíos (Jews' St), you can visit one of Spain's few surviving medieval synagogues, the Sinagoga, decorated with extravagant stucco work, and learn about Jewish Córdoba at the Casa de Sefarad museum.
Flowers and fiestas
Córdoba is famed for its hundreds of lovely patios – courtyards festooned with flowers and tinkling fountains. They're at their loveliest in spring, when the Fiesta de los Patios de Córdoba opens dozens of them to public viewing for two weeks in May. Year-round you can enjoy a dozen plant-filled patios at the Palacio de Viana, or wander the city's most delightful garden – full of fountains, ponds and spectacularly colourful flowers – at the Alcázar fortress-palace.
Córdoba jumps with one festival after another during the heady spring days of May, and flowers also feature in the Cruces de Mayo celebration, when beautifully bedecked crosses are set up in the plazas and become the focus for a whole weekend of partying.
Beneath the streets and floors of modern Córdoba lie the remains of one of the most prosperous and cultured cities in the Roman empire outside Italy. The Archaeological Museum has excellent displays on Roman Córdoba and you can inspect part of the Roman theatre in its basement. Still standing are the 11 picturesque, tall white columns of the Roman temple on Calle Claudio Marcelo, and the 16-arch Roman bridge spanning the Río Guadalquivir just below the Mezquita. The bridge, free of traffic, makes a great place for an airy stroll.
Beyond the Mezquita
Give yourself time to get lost among the stone-paved lanes of the medieval city to the west, north and east of the more touristic area immediately around the Mezquita. The longer you give it, the more Córdoba's deeper magic reveals itself, as you wander from one gem of a little plaza to another along narrow, winding streets lined by golden-stone buildings, overhanging trees, potted plants and wrought-iron balconies.
A few blocks east from the Mezquita you'll find yourself on Plaza del Potro, with a lovely 16th-century stone fountain topped by a rearing colt. Originally a horse market, the square was renowned for its rambunctious goings-on in centuries past. An ancient inn here now houses arguably the best flamenco museum in Andalucía, the Centro Flamenco Fosforito, which also stages regular live performances of this quintessential Andalucian art form.
If you're fascinated by Islamic Córdoba, don't miss the trip out to Medina Azahara, 8km west. This was a sumptuous palace-city built by Caliph Abd al-Rahman III in the 10th century, then abandoned and wrecked within a few decades as Córdoba's medieval glory days came to an abrupt end. An excellent modern museum lends life to the ruins.
Where to eat
Casa Pepe de la Judería Thoughtfully prepared classic Andalucian fare – from salmorejo (Cordoban cold tomato-based soup) to lamb shoulder with apple purée – and attentive service, on a sunny roof terrace or in rooms adorned with Cordoban art.
Amaltea A good mix of Spanish, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian dishes in a spacious, relaxed atmosphere just across the street from the Río Guadalquivir.
La Boca Very well done global fusion in half a dozen different arty rooms.
Where to stay
Balcón de Córdoba Wonderful contemporary boutique hotel in a former convent, a stone's throw from the Mezquita.
Viento10 Bright, relaxing rooms in an inspired contemporary conversion of a 15th-century building.
Bed and Be Sociable and sparkling clean hostel with clued-up staff.