The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Medina Azahara

A stone room with no roof and lots of arches and black erosion near the top.

Medina Azahara, also known as Medinat Al-Zahra, is the archeological site of city ruins that dates back to the 10th century AD, when Cordoba was inhabited and ruled by the Umayyad dynasty. The medina was designed to be the seat of the Caliphate of Cordoba.

Visiting Medina Azahara is a pretty unique thing to do in Southern Spain (most of the structures from Moorish times are either restored/in good condition, or destroyed completely). It’s a fascinating and beautiful site UNESCO World Heritage site that’s definitely worth the visit.

Plus, since it’s only only 20 minutes from Cordoba, it’s very easy to work into your Cordoba itinerary.

A Guide For Visiting Medina Azahara

In this guide, I’m going to share how a visit to the Medina Azahara site will go, how to get there, tips for visiting, and what it’s like. I’ll use the terms Medina Azahara and Medinat Al-Zahra interchangeably to refer to the site.

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To Start, A SUPER Brief History of Medina Azahara

Medina Azahara, is an archaeological site located just outside Cordoba, Spain. This site used to a be functioning city, and was founded in 936 AD. It was designed to showcase the power and prestige of the Abd al-Rahman, the first caliph of al-Andalus (the Muslim part of Spain).

The Caliphate of Cordoba was the center of the Umayyad dynasty in Southern Spain at the time it was built. A caliph is a ruler (essentially a king), and the Umayyad dynasty was the powerful empire established in Damascus, Syria that controlled much of north Africa and Spain during 700-1030 AD.

Many nobles and royalty lived in the palaces and estates here, as well as the “regular” population who lived in the medina. Despite being a beautiful city, the Madinat al-Zahra really was only actively inhabited for 70 years, as the seat of government was moved in 980 AD, and the city was looted, conquered, and ruined in the following 40 years.

More pillaging took place when the Christians conquered Cordoba in 1236, and construction materials from Madinat al-Zahra were used in other buildings in the area.

In the 1800’s, Medina Azahara was re-discovered, and excavations and restorations began in 1911.

How to Get to Medina Azahara

Drive: Medina Azahara is about a 20 minute drive from historic Cordoba. It is easily accessible by car.

Bus: The #1 bus goes from central Cordoba to nearby Medina Azahara. You’ll just need to walk about 600 meters (about 1/2 km, or 8 minutes) from the bus stop to the Visitor’s Center. You can pick up the #1 bus at the República Argentina (Gasolinera)

Tour: Guided tours with round trip transportation from Cordoba are a convenient way to get to Medina Azahara, while also learning a lot about the historical city. You can check prices and availability for the guided tour here.

Arriving at the Site and Purchasing Tickets

Medina Azahara operates a little bit differently than other sites in Spain. When you arrive, you’ll park in the Visitor’s Center parking lot. There are a lot of parking spaces, and parking is free. The Visitor’s Center has a museum with information about Medinat Al-Zahra, which includes many artifacts from the city.

When you’re done with the museum, you will board a shuttle bus that takes you up to the archeological site, which is 3 km away. When you’re done with at the site, you take the shuttle bus back to the Visitor’s Center/museum and pick up your car.

Tickets, Entrance Fees and Hours of Operation (Important!)

Tickets for the Visitor’s Center and the Medina Azahara Archeological Site are 1.50 euro, and they only take cash.

There is a separate cost for the shuttle, which is 3 euros, and takes cash or card. The shuttle runs about every 15-20 minutes.

It’s important to note that the hours for the Medina Azahara are a little unique. The site is open from 9am-6pm. However, the shuttle bus starts running around 9:30am, and the last shuttle leaves the Visitor’s Center at 5pm. If you arrive after 5pm, you will not be able to visit the site.

The Museum at the Visitor’s Center

The museum has a combination of informational signs describing the history of the city, the history and politics of the region, as well as descriptions of the way of life of the people who lived here during it’s inhabitation. Signage and placards are in Spanish and English.

There are also a good number of artifacts from the medina, including earthenware pots, coins, tools, and the capitals of old columns.

As someone who is 50-50 on liking museums, I found the museum at Medina Azahara to be quite compelling, and definitely necessary to really appreciating the ruins at the archeological site. It’s for sure worth walking through to get an idea of history behind the city.

One thing I found extremely interesting in the museum was the viewing windows into the storage rooms. There were two very large storage rooms filled with tall shelving units filled with artifacts from the archeological site. While some were in bins or covered, many were just sitting out, and you could really get a sense of the amount of artifacts discovered at the site.

There is also a film about the medina you can watch, a viewing platform looking out over the hills and valley (although you can’t see the actual ruins from the viewing platform), and bathrooms. There is no food available for purchase here.

Visiting the Ruins of Medina Azahara (Medinat Al-Zahra)

Okay, so you’ve bought your ticket at the Visitor’s Center, perused the museum, boarded the shuttle, and rode the 3 km to the archeological site entrance.

When you arrive, you’ll be at a viewing point that overlooks a section of the ruins, and the valley behind — absolutely beautiful.

You’ll then head down a path that takes you into the ruins. There is a designed path that you will follow through the ruins, going clockwise. The following are some of the highlights you’ll get to see and experience as you walk through the ruins of Medina Azahara:

Main Government Building

One of the most well-preserved structures is this area is this building with multiple archways. Scientists believe this was used as an administrative government building. This ruined building is SUPER cool and for me was the visual highlight of the entire archeological site.

City Gates

A little bit farther from this administrative building are the ruins of what appears to be the city gates. These arches are very similar to what you’ll find in the Mezquita in Cordoba, with the candy cane stripes at the top of the arches.

The Ruins of Smaller Rooms

The Garden Grove

There are a variety of trees (palm, orange, and others) planted:

The Stables

Scientists believe these stables housed beween 25-30 horses.

Reception Hall for the Prime Minister

Other Smaller Private and Public Rooms:

This beautiful archway is tucked away behind some ruins, and is only visible from farther away:

After You’re Done at the Medina Azahara Archeological Site

You’ll wait to board the shuttle back to the Visitor’s Center and parking lot, where you can pick up your transportation and head out.

Visiting Castillo de Almodovar del Rio

When visiting Medina Azahara, I’d highly recommend also stopping at Castillo de Almodovar del Rio as well. It’s only another 20 minutes farther to the castle from the medina. The castle is perched right on the top of a hill and is just the most stereotypical type of castle you could imagine, in all the best ways.

How Long Do You Need to Visit Medinat Al-Azhra?

I would recommend planning for about 2-3 hours total to visit Medina Azahara. That gives you time to peruse the museum, wait for the shuttle, explore the ruins, and wait for the return shuttle back out.

Is Medina Azahara Worth Visiting – Final Thoughts

If you have a spare couple of hours in your Southern Spain itinerary, then I absolutely think Medina Azahara is worth visiting. It is extremely cool to see the ruins of the old Caliphate city, the site is pretty large, and some parts of the ruins are fairly well-preserved.

This is also a pretty unique place to visit in southern Spain, a region that is full of gorgeous palaces in the height of their splendor.

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