Granada is a city that ought to be on everyone’s bucket list. From its mighty Alhambra fortress – the greatest remaining relic of Andalusia’s Moorish past – to the other-wordly neighbourhoods of Albaicín and Sacromonte, a visit here is likely to be one of the most memorable trips of your life. Here are seven reasons why you should visit this beautiful region.
Tell someone you’ve been to Granada and the first question they’re likely to ask you is ‘Did you see the Alhambra?’ Famous the world over, the fortress is the greatest surviving relic from Andalusia’s eight hundred years under Moorish rule – between the 8th and 15th century – and one of the region’s most iconic sights; if you visit Granada just once, then, it should be at the top of your itinerary. Its location is something to behold in itself, sitting as it does on top of the verdant Darro Valley, against a dramatic backdrop provided by crisp peaks of the Sierra Nevada. Built in the 9th century, the exterior structures were extensively rebuilt in the 1200s by Mohammed I ibn Nasr, the Moorish ruler of what was then the Emirate of Granada.
Particularly of note are the Nasrid palaces, which were built by the Nasrid Kings – the last Moorish rulers of Granada – during the 13th and 14th centuries. These comprise the Mexuar, which contains one of the Alhambra’s most intricately-designed internal walls; the Comares Palace, which was the official residence of the sultan of Granada; and the ‘Lion’s Palace’, the internal courtyard, one of the most aesthetically pleasing features of the palaces. A visit to the Alhambra also includes the Generalife, or summer palace, a whitewashed structure that sits apart from the main fort on the hillside and which is home to beautiful gardens featuring ponds, fountains and delicate flowerbeds.
The historical centre of Granada, around Gran Via, the cathedral and Plaza Nueva, is a busy, cosmopolitan city; but just a fifteen minute walk away, up the steep hillside opposite the Alhambra, is a neighbourhood that has barely changed since gypsies settled there in the 18th century. This is Sacromonte (‘The Sacred Mountain’), the gypsy flamenco quarter of Granada, and no visit to the city would be complete without a few hours spent in this barrio. Many of the locals in Sacromonte still live in dappled little white caves carved into the hillside, whilst even more rustic dwellings are entirely improvised from scrap metal, cloth and wood. Here, people still cook on fires and WiFi barely exists; the strains of flamenco voices and guitars can be heard drifting from terraces and caves, and the birds sing in the Darro Valley below. If you tire of wandering in the heat, simply find Bar Pibe – situated about half way along the “main” street, the Camino del Sacromonte –take a table at the little outside terrace and enjoy tapas and refreshments as you gaze out over the Alhambra. Unforgettable.
Sunsets from Sacromonte Abbey
You are spoilt for choice for places to watch the sunset in Granada, but one of the best spots is from the Abadía del Sacromonte, (the Abbey of Sacromonte), situated in the dusty, untamed countryside high above the city. This beautiful 17th-century abbey can be visited in its own right (for about four euros), but if you come up here make sure you finish the tour before sunset. From the little stone wall at the end of the courtyard you look straight down the Darro Valley and see Granada spilling out from its verdant banks, whilst on your left the mighty Alhambra faces the whitewashed gypsy barrio of Sacromonte on your right. Watching the sunset from here is something a little bit special and the memory of its beauty will stay with you for a long time after leaving the city.
The Carrera del Darro
Competition for the accolade of ‘Prettiest Street in Granada’ is plentiful, but there is one clear winner; the Carrera del Darro. Beginning from Plaza Nueva and winding down towards Albaicín alongside the Darro river, this beautiful walkway features on about 80% of the postcards on sale in Granada. It’s not hard to see why: on your right, as you walk from centuries-old buildings rise up from the river bank, their worn facades overhung by lush creepers and decorated with bright flowers. On your left are Arabic souvenir shops, bars and cafes and mysterious, narrow streets carving through the buildings up into Albaicín. You pass two of the oldest bridges in Granada, and remnants of a few more that used to connect this part of town with the Alhambra. Peer over the ancient stone wall to see the Darro gently flowing beneath you, amidst overgrown riverbanks. A stroll down this street will be one of the most romantic things you do on a visit to Granada.
No visit to Granada would be complete without a few hours exploring the neighbourhood of Alabaicín. This tightly squashed-together network of winding cobbled streets, whitewashed old houses and jasmine-scented squares perches on the hillside the other side of the Darro river from the Alhambra and used to be Granada’s Arabic quarter. It is the oldest and most traditionally Andalusian part of the city and is full of pretty plazas on which to enjoy tapas and cold beers on long summer afternoons, Plaza Aliatar being one of the best. There are, as you would expect, plenty of guided tours around Albaicín on offer, but to really acquaint yourself with this iconic barrio, throw away your map and wander aimlessly.
Plaza San Nicolás
It requires a little exertion to reach the top of Albaicín – especially in spring or summer – but it will prove to 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 most humbling in the city. The best way to enjoy them is to take your own bottle of wine, a couple of glasses, and set up on the little stone wall for a couple of hours; in this way you can gaze out over the great Moorish fortress and the mountains while listening to the flamenco music of a local gypsy band that is often found performing here. Among their (admittedly limited) repertoire is an energetic version of the Gypsy Kings’ ‘Bamboleo’ – not ‘proper’ flamenco, as aficionados will tell you , but not a bad soundtrack to some of the most stunning panoramic views in all of Andalusia, let alone just Granada.
If you love food and eating out then there is one simple reason why you should visit Granada at least once in your lifetime: tapas. Granada’s tapas scene is legendary throughout Spain and part of the reason why the city is so popular for Spanish hen and stag dos, during which the all-day partying is kept (more or less) in order by a steady stream of free snacks. Yes, you did read that correctly: the tapas in Granada are free – or, to put it slightly more accurately, included in the price of your (already very cheap) drink. Sizzling little earthenware pots of spicy prawns, delicious, stewed meats served with hunks of rustic bread, crispy fried fish, classic Spanish tortilla – it’s all on offer in Granada’s tapas joints and it’s all complementary with beer, wine and soft drinks. If that isn’t an incentive to visit this enchanting Andalusian city at least once, then nothing is.