Originally the site of the Christian Visigoth Church San Vicente, Córdoba’s Mezquita -- or Grand Mosque -- stands as the city's most proud monument and one of the most exquisite Islamic structures in the western world.
Its initial origins date back to the year 600 and, following the Islamic conquest in the 8th century, the site of the Visigoth church was actually split between Christians and Muslims for a time. Ultimately, it was bought out by the governor of al-Andalus, with the construction of the Islamic mosque beginning in 785 by Muslim emir Abdurrahman I.
Since then, the structure has evolved right along with Spanish history. A minaret was added, and the building was enlarged, reaching its final size in 987. Then, when Kind Ferdinand conquered Córdoba during the Reconquista in 1236, the structure was consecrated as a Christian Cathedral.
Sprinkled across the Spanish Peninsula, you'll come across Jewish Quarters known as juderías. In Córdoba, which was once considered the most populous city in the world, the Jewish community especially thrived, and now its ancient neighborhood of white buildings is considered one of the most famous juderías in Spain.
The Jewish community indeed played an important role culturally in the history of the Iberian Peninsula. During the Moorish Caliphate -- the period of Islamic rule over Spain which ended in 1031 -- the Jewish community flourished as Córdoba rose as a center for commerce, prosperity, education and religious tolerance.
Located in the heart of Córdoba's Jewish Quarter, and just blocks away from the Mezquita, sits one of Spain's most unique connections to the past: the Synagogue of Córdoba.
Constructed in the 14th century, Córdoba's synagogue is the Judería's (Jewish Quarter's) main attraction and is one-of-a-kind in the Andalucía region. This is because, while the Jewish community once played a very key role on the Iberian Peninsula -- especially during the Moorish Caliphate -- much of Jewish culture was eradicated and expelled in 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition. As a result, Córdoba's synagogue and two others in the city of Toledo remain as the only lasting structures of their kind from pre-Inquisition Spain.
The small Córdoba synagogue houses a courtyard, prayer room and women's gallery. With a humble brick exterior, the small interior features walls with intricate Hebrew inscriptions, scalloped archways and Mudéjar plasterwork.
Just across the Isabel II Bridge, and squished between two parallel branches of the Guadalquivir River, you'll find Seville's Triana District. Originally founded as a Roman colony, this neighborhood -- like the rest of the city – has also been ruled by both Muslims and Christians. Over time it has served as a key strategic position as the last line of defense before invaders reached Seville's western walls. Traditionally, it has also been home to an eclectic mix of residents, from sailors and bullfighters to potters and flamenco dancers – all especially proud of their Triana heritage.
You can still see what endures of the barrio's eccentric personality in today's Triana. While visiting the neighborhood, keep an eye out for the few remaining (and culturally protected) corrales, which traditionally served as communal homes for the district's many Romani people.
The Church of Santa Ana is the oldest church in Seville. Located in the Triana neighborhood, the 13th-century church is home to impressive sculptures, paintings, jewelry and religious processional items, many of which are displayed throughout the interior chapels. Master Castilian stonemasons and Muslim master builders worked on the church, whose remarkable interior features columns topped by corbels decorated with castles, vine leaves, lions and human heads. Admire a conglomeration of architecture with a step inside the originally Gothic church and its Baroque-style reconstruction, added after an earthquake in the 17th century.
You can visit the church as part of a guided bike tour of Seville's highlights, which includes stops at San Jorge Castle and the Jewish Quarter, as well as souvenir photos.
In Seville’s Triana neighborhood, near the banks of the Guadalquivir River, the Castillo San Jorge was the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition from 1481 to 1785. The 12th century castle was demolished in the 19th century to make room for a market and today the underground ruins of the castle are home to the Inquisition Museum.
Founded in 2009, the museum chronicles the religious purges that took place during one of the darkest periods of Spanish history. Visitors will learn about how the Inquisition occurred, from accusations and inquiries to detentions and torture, as well as about daily life in the castle for both prisoners and jailers. However, no devices of torture are displayed. Drawings show suspects wearing pointed caps and tunics marked with an X, and maps show the other major Inquisition-related sites in Seville.
Snuggled up against the Guadalqivir River’s east bank and set amidst some of Seville’s most storied streets, you’ll wander upon El Arenal. Its name (arena means sand in Spanish) tells the story of its past, when, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the sandy-banked neighborhood was used as Seville’s port, making it one of the most important port cities in the world. From its shore, boats set off west for the New World, or east for spices, and returned with grand treasures.
These days, the neighborhood, which sits within the city's historic quarter, is especially known for its residents' passion for bullfighting and also religion. Their faithfulness is evident in the abundance of Arenal brotherhoods, whose devotion can be seen during Holy Week each year, when Seville’s Catholicism comes to life in colorful processions that take over the city streets.
There is no more perfect symbol of Seville's layered history than the Giralda Tower (or El Giraldillo) the bell tower of the city's cathedral. It stands a little apart from the main building; it was once the minaret of the mosque that stood on the site before it was razed to make way for the cathedral.The lower sections of the tower date from that time, but its upper parts are Christian Renaissance architecture. The tower was once topped by a copper ball, but that fell in a 14th century earthquake and was replaced with a cross. It's a long climb up the 100 meters (330 feet) to the top of La Giralda, but the views of the city and the statuary of the lower levels are stunning enough to make it well worth the effort. There are no stairs: you'll ascend on a series of cunningly designed ramps.
Whitewashed buildings, maze-like streets, and courtyards lined with orange trees: No place really defines Seville charm quite like the streets of the Santa Cruz district. As the city's former judería, or Jewish quarter, it is home to many of Seville's top sights, from the grand cathedral with its minaret-turned-tower (called the Giralda) to the Real Alcázar and its fountain-dotted gardens.
The neighborhood dates back to when Ferdinand III of Castile took Seville from Muslim rule, and the city's Jewish residents began to live in what is now El Barrio de Santa Cruz. After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, however, the district fell into disrepair, until it was finally revived in the 18th century.
Apart from appreciating the district's history and seeing the main sights, perhaps the best thing you can do during a visit to Santa Cruz is to simply get lost in the barrio's streets.
The Albaicin (also spelled Albayzin or Albaycin) is Granada's old Muslim quarter, and its steep twisting streets still have a medieval feel. With its white buildings and deep-gardened mansions spilling down the hill, the Albaicin is beautiful in itself, but what makes it particularly stunning is its views of the Alhambra. (The views of the Albaicin from the Alhambra enhance that experience as well!) There's a viewing point by the church of St. Nicolas that offers particularly good Alhambra vistas.
The Albaicin was heritage-listed in 1984. Its name may have derived from settlers fleeing the Christian invasion of the town Baeza, or it may derive from an Arabic phrase meaning 'quarter of the falconers.' Despite the Christian conquest of the city in 1492, it survived as a Muslim quarter for some decades, and you can still see the remains of Islamic bathhouses, mansions and fountains.
The biggest draw of Granada’s UNESCO-listed Albaycin quarter is the hilltop Mirador de San Nicolás, a small raised plaza that lies in front of the San Nicolás Church. This is the city’s most renowned lookout point, from where the magnificent panoramic views span the city center, the distant Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Rio Darro canyon and, most famously, the grand Alhambra palace.
The small public square is a lively place to be at all times of the day, with a handful of craftsmen setting up shop along the paving stones and a roster of street musicians and flamenco dancers on hand to entertain visitors. The most atmospheric time to arrive is at dusk, when crowds of locals and tourists turn out to watch the sunset over the palace grounds, before adjourning to the restaurants and teashops of nearby Elvira Street.
As Granada’s oldest city square, Plaza Nueva has long been at the center of local life and its strategic location at the foot of the Alhambra palace means many tourists will pass through on their way to the city’s top attraction. Laid out in the early Christian era, the square was built over the Darro River and once served as an arena for sporting tournaments and bullfights, as well as public executions.
Today, the bustling plaza is best known for its abundance of stylish bars and tapas restaurants, coming alive in the evening hours when both locals and tourists congregate on the lamp-lit terraces. There’s more to Plaza Nueva than its nightlife though and the elegant square is also home to a number of striking landmarks, including the 16th-century Royal Chancellery and Mudejar-style Church of Santa Ana, both the work of Renaissance architect Diego de Siloé, and the House of Pisa, which now houses the Juan de Dios Museum.
Just steps away from the Alcázar, and perched upon the Guadalquivir River, stands one of Seville's most un-missable monuments from the past, the Torre del Oro, or Golden Tower.
The 12-sided tower dates back to the Almohad Dynasty, when it was constructed in the 13th century. The theories behind the name's origin vary: Some say it came from the tower's once gold-tiled exterior, others say that it was due to it being a drop-off and storage point for gold delivery from the New World, and still others believe the title is simply a result of the landmark's golden-hued reflection on the river.
South of Seville's main old quarter and extending along the Guadalquivir River, you'll stumble upon the city's main green getaway, Maria Luisa Park. Once primarily the land of the Palace of San Telmo (now home to Andalusia’s president), this patch of paradise was donated to the public in 1893, evolving over the years into the Seville escape that you see today.
Most of its transformation came about during preparation for the 1929 World's Fair: expansive boulevards were created, fountains erected, gardens planted. Today’s park is so robust in flora and fauna that it is actually considered a proper botanical garden. And expect not only diverse plants, but also birds too, including ducks and swans that float in the fountains and lakes, and even green parrots that live in the center of the park. It's not all just grassy knolls, ponds and paths, either: Maria Luisa Park is also home to numerous monuments and sights.
Today’s it’s the seat of the Andalusian government, but once upon a time, this grand, rusty-red and golden-yellow building served as a royal palace. That wasn’t its original destiny, however: built in the late 1600s, it was meant to serve as a seminary school for the University of Navigators, and is thus named after the patron saint of navigators, San Telmo. Later it was purchased by the royals, after which Princess Maria Luisa donated much of its lands to the city of Seville, hence why the grand nearby park bears her name (she ultimately donated the entire palace to the church).
Nowadays, the palatial building belongs to the government of Andalucia, and has ever since 1989. Its exterior alone is quite impressive, as it is noted for its elaborate baroque façade, and a stretch of statues featuring historical figures, which is situated along Avenida de Palos de Frontera.
To look up - and up - at the Real Fábrica de Tabacos is to get a sense of the scale of Seville's tobacco industry in the 18th century. This is one of the largest buildings in Spain (only El Escorial tops it in terms of surface area). It's used as a university building now, but you can still walk around it.
The reason most people visit is to get a vision of Bizet's doomed heroine, Carmen. This building is where she worked and these doors are where she lounged, fresh from rolling cigars on her thighs, to ensnare her lovers.
Carmen's wraith may be compelling, but the wraiths of the real cigar workers - nearly all of them women - also clamor for attention, as do the colonially themed bas-reliefs on the outside of the building.