Go on a scavenger hunt for patios. For a respite from the hot, dry climate, locals retreat to open-air patios to cool off. These mostly hidden spaces are usually tucked behind ornate ironwork gates. As you wander, peek into any open patio door to catch a glimpse of a flowery retreat (homeowners are proud to show off their patios).
Flowers are front and center in Cordoba each May, when the city celebrates a series of festival events. First comes the Battle of the Flowers parade, with women tossing flowers from blossom-covered floats to eager crowds.
Next, for the Festival of the Crosses, neighborhoods proudly make and display 10-foot crosses festooned with flowers. Residents gather for months beforehand to prepare their crosses in secret; in an earlier era, the work parties were an excuse for young singles to meet.
Perhaps the most emblematic Cordoba event, however, is the Patio Competition, when residents open their gardens to the public in an intense contest to select to the city's most attractive patio. If you have a penchant for patios, visit Palacio de Viana (aka the Patio Museum) to stroll its 12 connecting patios, each with a different theme.
Cordoba is an easy day trip (it's a short train ride from Sevilla) — but if you really want to know the place, spend the night. Like everywhere in southern Spain, evening is prime time. Throughout the spring festival season, locals pack the squares in communitywide celebrations.
During the Festival of the Crosses, each neighborhood association sets up a bar next to its flowered cross to serve drinks and tapas (the local specialty is salmorejo, a creamy version of gazpacho). Mellow guitar notes and seductive flamenco beats fill the air.
Experiencing the traditional culture of Cordoba — celebrated by and for its locals — trumps any packaged tourist show. With its beautiful courtyards, lively traditions and infectious atmosphere, Cordoba rewards those who aren't in a hurry.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.