A city in southern Spain with grand Islamic architecture, free tapas, counterculture street art and a beer spa, Granada surprises and delights visitors. Many are drawn to the vibrant Spanish city for its show-stopping hilltop fortress, the Alhambra. But all are soon swept up by the fast, fun pace of life in the city. Lose yourself in the maze-like streets running through lively neighbourhoods like Realejo and Albaicín, where tender tapas are dished out for free with every cold glass of beer, and powerful street art adorns weathered walls. Here are a few reasons to launch yourself into the heart of Granada and beyond.
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The Alhambra is Europe’s finest example of Moorish architecture
Perched high up over the city is this mighty fortress, a feat of Islamic architecture and the undisputed jewel of all Granada’s attractions. Unsurprisingly, it was awarded Unesco World Heritage Site status in 1984. Within its reddish walls – contributing to its name Alhambra, meaning ‘red castle’ – lie centuries of history that you can spend hours investigating. But after gazing at some of the highlights – including the dizzying ‘honeycomb’ stalactite in the star-shaped ceiling dome of the Hall of the Abencerrajes – don’t forget to stroll through the extensive palace gardens, an undersung but vital part of the Alhambra’s magic.
To explore Albaicín, the old Arabic quarter of Granada
The narrow, snaking streets of this neighbourhood are the perfect place to soak up Granada’s Moorish architecture. You’ll get a real feel for the history of the area, conquered by the Moors in 711CE, as well as great views across the city. Among the many lanes packed with whitewashed houses, make your way to the cavernous Hammam al-Yawza, a wonderfully preserved, 11th-century Arab baths complex known as El Bañuelo. Although it’s no longer in public use, the building can still be toured and features fine examples of intricate Moorish design. Take a close look at the pillars holding up those cavernous chambers.
You can toe-tap to Granadian flamenco in Sacromonte
Historically known as the region where much of Granada’s Roma community once settled, this small district north of the Alhambra has become famous for its many distinctive cave homes, carved into the soft rock that makes up the area’s main terrain. These days, Sacromonte is also known for zambra, a form of flamenco traditionally performed by the Romani people known as Gitanos, and which incorporates elements of Moorish dance. Catch a late-night zambra performance at Cuevas los Tarantos, a locally famous club in a former cave home that’s perfect for intimate and energetic shows.
You can get free tapas all over Granada
Leaving Granada without gorging on tapas is simply not an option – mainly because Granada is one of the few remaining cities to serve free tapas. Many bars in the city will still provide tapas free of charge with any drink purchased, meaning you can – in theory – enjoy a very cheap night out. This is trickier if you’re vegan or vegetarian: you might be nibbling patatas bravas one minute, only to then be presented with slices of cold meat and cheese or seafood. In that case, pay a few euros more and order off the wider tapas menu, or simply bar-hop to your next venue and see what’s on offer. For something beyond the classics, go ‘retro fusion’ at shabby chic-loving Papaupa, offering tapas for vegans, veggies and meat-eaters. Look out for the empanadas and yuca (cassava) fries.
You can ski in the morning and be at the beach by the afternoon
Skiing in toasty southern Spain? Surprising, but definitely possible thanks to the immense Sierra Nevada mountain range, just a short drive from Granada. The area encompasses a national park, the highest peaks in mainland Spain and Europe’s southernmost ski resort. If zooming down the slopes isn’t your thing, there are 86,000ha (212,510 acres) of wild landscape – incorporating lakes, pine groves and meadows – to explore via hiking and cycling trails. Look out for local wildlife – mountain goats, wild boar, badgers, eagles and vultures – before retiring to the Costa Tropical, a stretch of coastline just south of Sierra Nevada dotted with dreamy beaches and pretty fishing villages.
Granada has edgy street art
Granada is a colourful place any way you look at it, but over the years its streets have been further infused with life by El Nino – aka artist Paul Ruiz – whose edgy, eye-catching murals have appeared all over the city. For an El Nino crash course, head to Realejo, Granada’s former Jewish quarter, where you’ll find many of the artist’s most famous – and most-photographed – works. Look out for his bright, bold take on Rodin’s iconic sculpture, the Thinker – just one of the pieces that catapulted Ruiz to fame in the global street art scene.
For the cerveza (beer)
Why stick to simply drinking beer when you can bathe in the stuff as well? Take a visit to Granada’s Beer Spa, where they proudly promote beer’s apparent health and beauty benefits – and where you can submerge yourself in a giant barrel of cerveza while tasting local Alhambra beer. Or go the extra mile and get a body scrub, facial or massage, all using beer-based ingredients. If you prefer it old-school, Granada is packed with buzzy bars in which to sip your beer, rather than swim in it. Our advice is to drink as the locals do at Bodegas Castañeda, bursting with bric-a-brac, house-made vermouth barrels and old-world Spanish charm.
To get the best souvenirs at Alcaicería
Granada’s original main bazaar was a huge, bustling beast of a market built in the 15th century, packed with stalls selling Moorish silk and spices – until a fire all but destroyed it in 1843. Compacted into one long, thin lane, the modern-day Alcaicería is a scaled-down recreation of the original market, but it still overflows with multicoloured fabrics, rugs, ceramics and other curiosities bulging out of dimly lit shops.
To explore its teterias (teahouses)
Swap the cervezas for something a little lighter, and spend an afternoon immersing yourself in Granada’s deep-rooted teahouse scene. Calle Calderería Nueva is lined with these small teterias, where bright Moorish tilework, colourful drapes and plump cushions create a wholly peaceful vibe that’s a world away from the frenetic street life outside. Most teteria have a choice of exotic loose-leaf teas to choose from, plus fresh juices and snacks like baklava, crêpes and salads. Some also offer hookah pipes for smoking flavoured tobacco. A good bet for the full teteria experience is Kasbah Teteria, which transports guests straight to North Africa with its tall arches, candlelit rooms and glowing glass lamps.
The sunset views are some of the best in Spain
The walk up to Mirador de San Nicolás, through the Albaicín neighbourhood, may be a well-trodden one. But Granada’s most famous viewpoint still delivers unbeatable sunset views – particularly if you manage to beat the hordes and bag one of the coveted sitting spots on the wall. The direct views of the Alhambra, gently lighting up as the light fades, and the rolling Sierra Nevada peaks are the highlights – but there’s something to be seen in every direction. For an all-encompassing panorama – and fewer tourists – trek up to Sacromonte Abbey, which boasts sweeping, dramatic views down across the city over deep forests and rugged woodland.
This is an updated rewrite of an article originally by Mark Nayler.
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