Granada has one of the most fascinating histories and cultures in all of Spain. As you’d expect, then, the city is packed with attractions and monuments to explore – from the great Alhambra fortress and old Moorish neighborhood of Albaicín, to amazing street art, great tapas bars and a joyful annual fiesta. Read Culture Trip’s guide to the top 20 attractions this city has to offer.
Granada’s star attraction and one of Andalusia’s most iconic sights is the Alhambra fortress. The greatest surviving relic of southern Spain’s 800 years under Moorish rule, between the 8th and 15th centuries, this sprawling complex sits forbiddingly atop the Darro Valley, with the crisp peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background. Originally dating from the 9th century, the fort and walls were extensively rebuilt in the 1200s by the Moorish ruler of what was then the Emirate of Granada, Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar. Particularly beautiful are the Nasrid palaces; built by the Nasrid Kings – the last Moorish rulers of Granada – during the 13th and 14th centuries, which feature some of the Alhambra’s most inricate interiors.
The Generalife functioned as the Alhambra’s Summer Palace, with its exquisite gardens providing a cool haven for the sultans during the furnace of Andalusian summers. Narrow paths run alongside delicate flowerbeds and ponds so still that the elegant archways and whitewashed walls – which separated the palace’s vegetable gardens – are perfectly replicated in the water. An external walkway connecting the Generalife’s north and south sides provides a stunning view of the old Arabic neighbourhood of Albaicín. Indeed, Albaicín itself is one of the most impressive sights in the city when viewed from the turrets and windows of the Alhambra and Generalife.
If you’re at the top of the hill to visit the Alhambra, don’t go back down without first wandering around the Carmen de los Martires Gardens, one of the city’s most attractive green spaces. Because the majority of visitors head straight for the Alhambra, this lovely haven of flowerbeds, small ponds and leafy paths is only ever sparsely populated with guests. In spring and summer, its shaded walkways provide a sanctuary from the powerful sun, and its views of the landscape beyond Granada give a sense of space that can be lacking in the cramped city center. A fairytale tower sits in the middle of this verdant oasis; climb up its small spiral staircase and survey the gardens and Granada from the city’s most romantic viewpoint.
No visit to Granada would be complete without a visit to its oldest neighborhood, the former Arabic quarter of Albaicín. This compact network of winding cobbled streets, whitewashed houses and jasmine-scented squares perches on the hillside the other side of the Darro River from the Alhambra. It requires a little exertion to reach the top of Albaicín, especially in spring or summer, but it will be energy well expended: the views of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada mountains from its most popular square, the Mirador San Nicolás, are some of the best in the city. There is also a lively flea market every Saturday morning on Plaza Larga, one of the barrio’s prettiest spaces.
If you’re in this part of Albaicín, a tapas-stop at one of the neighborhood’s best bars is a must. The owner, constantly swigging from a bottle of Alhambra beer, is often at least half-cut and always (hic) very friendly. He personally chooses the bewildering selection of music played (Édith Piaf one minute, Nirvana the next) and to accompany what must be the cheapest glasses of wine in Granada – €1.60 a pop – you will be absolutely spolied with free food as you watch the life of Albaicín unfold on the street outside. And don’t be put off, as many no doubt are, by the hippies and callejeros (streetbums) that hang about the entrance with their ravenous dogs: it’s all part of La Fragua’s charm.
One of Albaicín’s key architectural attractions is this elegant and understated Moorish palace. Its name means “Home of the Honest,” and it was the residence of the sultana Aixa, mother of Muhammad XII (known as Boabdil to the Spanish), the last Moorish King of Granada. In traditional Moorish style, its quarters and rooms are located on three levels around a central courtyard and pool, which provided shade and cool in the summer. Also remaining are parts of what were once extensive gardens and orchards. Aixa is reputed to have bitterly rebuked her son for losing Granada as they fled the conquered city in 1492; perhaps she didn’t just have the loss of the mighty Alhambra in mind as she did so.
At the center of old Granada is the city’s great cathedral. Work on this imposing Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque structure began in 1518 and, although it took over 180 years and successive architects to build, it’s still not entirely finished: two 262-foot (80-meter) towers were originally planned, but only half of one was ever finished. The cathedral’s towering façade is largely the work of Granadino architect and artist Alonso Cano, who introduced Baroque features when he took over its design in 1652; Cano’s input further contributed to the intriguing mixture of styles that characterize this awesome structure.
Granada’s leading art museum for classic works houses over 2,000 pieces, including a number of important religious paintings and sculptures dating from the 16th century onwards. Like the palace itself, this collection serves as a reminder of the Catholic conquest of Granada, and of successive Catholic monarchs’ attempts to stamp their own religion and identity on what had been Moorish territory for around eight hundred years. The museum also has a number of works by local artist Alonzo Cano, also an architect who designed the façade of Granada’s cathedral.
Time has stood still in the rustic gypsy quarter of Sacromonte, one of Granada’s most distinctive attractions. Many locals still live in dappled white caves carved out of the rock, in which impromptu flamenco gatherings are held long into the night. There are also dwellings entirely improvised from scrap metal, wood, and cloth, in which a rusty bucket protected from view by a ragged old rug often passes for a bathroom (sometimes accompanied by a scrawled sign asking visitors not to take photos of these private spaces). Sacromonte is also Granada’s flamenco barrio, where you are always within earshot of the art’s distinctive, haunting sounds. If you want to go to a formal show, try Venta El Gallo, which also has a fabulous roof terrace.
Bar Pibe on the busiest tourist street in Sacromonte does well to retain its "local" feel
If you’re exploring Sacromonte, make time to stop off at Bar Pibe, the terrace of which offers some amazing views of the Alhambra. If it weren’t for the awning that bears the name of this rustic local bar, you would be forgiven for thinking it’s a private patio. You say you’ll just stop off for one at Pibe – and next thing you know, you check your watch and you’ve spent a whole afternoon on the enchanting terrace, pondering the Alhambra and listening to the crickets and birds singing in the valley beneath. This is on Sacromonte’s main tourist street, but it’s to the owner’s credit that it never feels like a tourist hangout – and despite the wonderful views, drinks here are just as cheap as they are elsewhere in town.
High up in the untamed countryside above Granada’s gypsy quarter is the Abbey of Sacromonte, the neighborhood’s key historical attraction. This now-neglected 17th-century structure was built by Archbishop Pedro de Castro y Quiñones on a site that was supposedly the final resting place of Saint Caecilius, a martyr and Granada’s first bishop in the 1st century A.D. It was an inspired spot to choose, located so far above the city that the stillness and solitude feel almost like presences. For €4 you can visit some of the interiors and, best of all, the narrow, spooky Holy Caves that are annexed to the abbey.
Realejo is Granada’s old Jewish quarter and one of the city’s most charming neighborhoods, the streets and squares of which reward aimless meandering. Particularly attractive is the Iglesia Santo Domingo – one of the more obscure churches in the city, yet one of the most beautiful, inside and out. The most dilapidated walls and building façades of Realejo also constitute a de facto art gallery, displaying the works of local spray-paint artist Raul Ruiz, also known as “El Niño.” El Niño’s incredible pictures lend Realejo an edgy, creative ambience all of its own, and give you the wonderful feeling that you’ve discovered something no one else has.
After exploring Realejo, head to the nearby central square of Plaza Nueva, on and around which some of central Granada’s best tapas bars can be found. Bodega Castañeda, the oldest and most-loved of them all, is a household name for Granadinos of all generations. Prop yourself at the bar, order a delicious (and decently-priced) vermouth – the locals’ drink of choice – and be entertained by the wizardry and speed of the waiters, who work beneath hanging legs of jamon and a giant bull’s head. This place is always packed with Spaniards enjoying voluble catch-ups and, although tourists are often to be seen among them, Castañeda has never lost the amabience of a truly local hangout.
Within shouting distance of Castañeda, tucked away in a short alleyway off Plaza Nueva, is Casa Julio, a specialist in tapas of fried fish that has some of the most unpredictable opening hours in Granada. But if you do see it open you must duck in. Here you can enjoy a delicious plate of fresh calamari – crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside – or a simple plate of cold meaty gambas with a wedge of lemon, washed down with a cold glass of Alhambra beer. The inside resembles a kiosk more than a bar, so most patrons stand around several tall circular tables in the alleyway outside, from where you can watch crowds of visitors heading to the more modern-looking watering holes. When Julio decides to open, that is.
Another of Plaza Nueva’s most popular tapas spots is Los Diamantes, a fried fish specialist that is equally popular with both locals and tourists. Unlike Granada’s more tradtional joints, the décor here is crisp-white and modern, although there is an older version on the nearby Calle Navas. The original Los Diamantes is so small that you have to yell your order from the doorway to make yourself heard above the jam of Granadinos – but that’s half the fun of visiting one of the most loved local bars in Granada. If you like tidiness, order, and a little peace and quiet when eating or dining out, though, head to the newer version on Plaza Nueva.
This revealing collection of documents, sketches, and photographs is situated in a park on Granada’s southern edge that also bears the name of the city’s most famous son. Federico García Lorca was one of the most important Spanish writers of the 20th century, and the elegant townhouse that houses these artifacts is where the poet was born in 1898 and lived until he was 11. Lorca was murdered at the beginning of Spain’s devastating Civil War of 1936-39, and his exact burial spot – thought to be somewhere outside the boundaries of the city’s official cemetery – is still not known.
The Carrera del Darro is Granada’s prettiest street. Starting at Plaza Nueva and winding down towards Albaicín alongside the Darro River, it is lined with centuries-old buildings rising up from the riverbank, their worn façades covered (in spring and summer) by lush creepers and colorful blossom. As you stroll along, peer over the ancient stone wall to see the Darro River gently flowing between verdant banks; here, the river passes under two of the oldest surviving bridges in Granada, and remnants of a few more that used to connect Albaicín with the Alhambra.
Tucked away underneath a private house about halfway along the Carrera del Darro are the oldest and best-preserved Arabic baths in Spain. The Banuelo dates from around the 11th century and its elegant Moorish archways and domed ceilings are still amazingly intact after a thousand years (although the baths themselves have long since vanished). Undoubtedly, after the Alhambra and the Generalife, this is the greatest surviving instance of Moorish architecture in Granada.
Every June (usually around the second week of the month), Granada hosts its annual feria – a boozy, week-long celebration that takes place on a vast fairground – recinto – on the city’s outskirts. Though much smaller than Seville’s legendary Feria de Abril, Granada’s is every bit as fun and, owing to the absence of exclusive, invitation-only parties, much more inclusive. Women dress up in the beautiful flamenco dresses, trajes de gitanas, and the drinking and dancing goes on all day, every day in the recinto’s marquees, fuelled by the feria sigature drink of rebujito – a delicious mix of Manzanilla sherry and lemonade. Several bullfights are also held during feria, in which some of Spain’s top matadors perform.