If you’re tired of the crowded tours and snap-happy visitors at Argentina’s “greatest hits” destinations, a long weekend in Cordoba can provide the escape from hectic city life that you’ve been craving. We’ll walk you through just a few of province’s many charms — after one visit, maybe you’ll be inspired to discover even more of the city attractions, small towns, and outdoor wonders.

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Local cordobeses relax in the city’s main plaza, Plaza San Martín.

Cordoba, Argentina’s second largest city and the capital of Cordoba province, is sort of like the Chicago of Argentina. Because it’s located far inland in the country’s agricultural heartland, it doesn’t get as much attention (or as many annoying tourists on double decker buses) as other areas of the country. Instead of a tourist hotspot, you’ll find a living, breathing city, full of interesting architecture and affordable food.

After your exhausting 75 minute flight from Buenos Aires (keep your eye out for dirt cheap tickets on Andes Airline), relax in one of the city’s most appealing outdoor courtyards at…the Brunchería. Yep, that’s right: Cordoba has a restaurant so dedicated to the art of brunch, it named itself after the trendy meal. The Brunchería doesn’t disappoint. It combines two of Cordoba’s best features: a mild climate for al fresco dining, and an accessable yet distinctive food scene. At half the price of Buenos Aires brunch, the café delivers top notch coffee, fluffy pancakes, fresh juices, home baked breads, and the best omelette in Argentina. Seriously, we can’t stress enough how important it is that you get the omelette.

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One of Cordoba’s many colonial churches, brimming with visitors during Holy Week.

Cordoba may be the country’s second city, but its slower pace and tree-lined historic center couldn’t be more different from the fast-moving capital. Soak in the laid-back atmosphere with a walk through downtown’s colonial jewels. Cordoba was a significant spot in Argentina’s war of independence from Spain, and today many of its colonial buildings function as well-restored museums, restaurants, and shops. Start at the Plaza San Martín, one of Argentina’s loveliest plazas. Majestic old elms shade the peaceful square, while the city’s grandiose, eccentric cathedral towers over a full city block on the plaza’s western edge. Grab some popcorn or an ice cream from a street vendor, find a bench, and as watch hawkers and uniformed schoolchildren weave through the plaza, pigeons perch on San Martin’s imposing statue, and retired Cordobeses (Cordoba residents) read the local paper. From Plaza San Martín, head west to the Manzana Jesuítica, the historic block of Jesuit churches and monasteries that rises up from cobblestone streets. Peek into the tranquil interior courtyard for a taste of what life was like for Spanish Jesuits during colonial period.

But Cordoba is much more than its historical roots — for a taste of the modern city, stroll south to the Plaza España, one of the weirdest public spaces you’ll ever see. From a distance, it looks like a cross between Stonehenge and the crumbling ruins of a Soviet factory: not exactly the most welcoming space. But enter the plaza, and you’ll discover its strange charm. The four points of the rectangular plaza feature groups of huge concrete pillars covered in otherwordly carvings, along with fascinating cordobes grafitti about everything from communist revolution to Monsanto. Just across the street is the Bicentennial Park, with 200 colored hoops scattered around as though the Olympic Rings had multiplied like rabbits.

Colorful sculptured rings dot Cordoba's Bicentennial Park and make for a popular photo op with visitors.
Colorful sculptured rings dot Cordoba’s Bicentennial Park and make for a popular photo op with visitors.

Tired yet? Finish the day at Bogotá, a Colombian restaurant that specializes in mouthwatering arepas. If you haven’t yet tried the cheesy, corn masa flatbreads, this is the place (in Argentina, at least) to try them. Wash it all down with craft beer from the microbrewery down the block.

There’s plenty to see in the city, but you can’t come all the way to Cordoba without exploring the Central Sierras. This rolling, majestic mountain range stretches through much of Cordoba province, providing opportunities for trekking, camping, and sightseeing. Luckily, the capital sits in the middle of many of the province’s most beautiful sights.

When you’re reading to escape the big city, grab a picnic lunch from one of Cordoba’s many excellent fiambrerías, rent a car, and head an hour south to Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito (Condor Canyon National Park). The drive out of the city gradually shifts from cluttered suburbs to gentle hills, then the bare, dynamite-blasted rock of the mountains starts to rise up on either side of the highway.

Look closely at the sign for the nation park: campfires are not allowed; maté is. Most Argentine sign ever.
Look closely at the sign for the nation park: campfires are not allowed; maté is. Most Argentine sign ever.

In many other parts of the world, this stunning park would be overrun with visitors, but here in Cordoba, it’s remarkably peaceful, with several well-located campsites scattered around the sprawling area. Wild, rocky grasslands stretch in all directions, and a visit during the fall means you’ll enjoy striking contrasts between the blue sky and amber-colored grasses. Along the path, you’ll encounter great views, evolving landscapes, and even the ruins of ancient stone walls built by native residents of the area, the Comechingones, which were later used by the Spanish Conquistadors. A day hike — uphill at times, but never dramatically steep — leads to an overlook above a deep gorge and river that serves as home to a large Andean condor population. Bring a picnic lunch and warm jacket to sit on the bluffs as long as you want, watching the world’s largest flying birds (with a wingspan of up to 3.3 meters!) soar above and below you on plumes of air rising up from the valley.

Andean condors, the world's largest flying bird, make the park their home.
Andean condors, the world’s largest flying bird, make the park their home.

As long as you start out from Cordoba by mid-morning, Quebrada del Condorito can easily be visited in a day. If the weather’s nice, you can camp with gorgeous views in the park itself. If not, or if you’re more of a “glamper” than a camper, drive down south to a quiet mountain valley. You’ll pass by Mina Clavero, a popular valley town that swells with tourists during feriados and summer vacation, but go just a few kilometers further and you’ll arrive in Nono. Lovely, bucolic Nono may be one of the best small towns in Argentina. This tiny hamlet is centered on a pretty colonial plaza, complete with a well-kept church, a bright pink cervecería, and glimpses of the distant mountains. A placid river lined with willow trees winds through the valley, providing plenty of swimming holes during the summer, as well as rides on horseback through the countryside below the craggy Sierras. The leafy, relatively flat Route 14 that passes Nono is ideal for a bike ride or leisurely drive — be sure to stop at the many small farms along the way for local honey and a bottle of their homemade olive oil.

The countryside outside Nono and Mina Clavero offers lazy rivers, willows, and views of the Central Sierras.
The countryside outside Nono and Mina Clavero offers lazy rivers, willows, and views of the Central Sierras.

There’s so much more on offer throughout Córdoba, from isolated mountain villages like La Cumbrecita to some of the best rock climbing in Argentina. The Central Sierras are a great launching point to head west to the Andes, or south to the red rock canyons of Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas. Best of all, at times you’ll feel like you have the province’s natural beauty all to yourself.