Before it gets too hot, tackle the Alhambra. You need at least a couple of hours to see it properly. This mighty Islamic fortress is the greatest surviving piece of architecture from Andalusia’s Moorish period, which lasted from the 8th to the 15th centuries. It sits atop the lush Darro valley against a dramatic backdrop provided by the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. 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. The forbidding, light-pink brickwork of the Alhambra’s exterior (its name in Arabic means “The Pink One”) shields interiors of intricate delicacy and tranquil open-air courtyards, as best seen in the Nasrid palaces. Exploring the fort and the beautiful gardens of the Palacio de Generalife – the Alhambra’s summer palace contained within its expansive grounds – is a perfect way to spend a morning in Granada.
The Alhambra, Granada, Spain + 34 958 02 79 71
As lunchtime approaches on a spring or summer day in Granada, the heat climbs to prohibitive levels, so take refreshment on a shady terrace or in an air-conditioned bar. If you order a beer, soft drink or glass of wine in Granada, one of the local culinary specialities will arrive with your drink, unbidden and completely free. Whether it’s a sizzling earthenware pot of spicy prawns, a meaty stew served with hunks of rustic bread, crispy fried fish or paella, tapas dishes here arrive on your table at no extra cost. And if you’ve just come down from the hill from the Alhambra and find yourself on Plaza Nueva, you couldn’t be in a better spot for lunch: try Los Diamentes for fried fish, Los Manueles for its perfectly cooked meat dishes, or La Riviera for meal-sized portions and an outside seating area on one of the centre’s liveliest streets.
Bar Los Diamantes, 13 Plaza Nueva, Granada, Spain +34 958 07 53 13
Restaurante Los Manueles, 61 Calle Reyes Catolicos, Granada, Spain +34 958 22 46 31
Bar La Riviera, 7 Calle Cetti Meriem, Granada, Spain +34 958 22 79 69
After a long lunch, siesta hour will call and the streets will suddenly empty of Spaniards. After this, it’s time to explore one of Granada’s most enchanting neighbourhoods. Albaicín is the city’s old Arabic quarter, a barrio of crunched-together, whitewashed houses, implausibly narrow streets and secret, sun-drenched squares and gardens. This is an area rich with flamenco, and as you wander you will hear the music’s distinctive strains coming from windows left ajar. Head for the Mirador San Nicolàs, from which you can enjoy some of the best panoramic views in the city and, at night, a spectacularly illuminated Alhambra. From San Nicolas, it’s just a few minutes on foot to the charming Plaza Larga, where the locals gather to enjoy conviviality and tapas on the little cobbled square.
Quaint Sacromonte is the Gypsy barrio of Granada, situated on the dusty, cacti-studded hillside high above Albaicín. Many locals here still live in dappled white caves carved out of the rock, in which impromptu flamenco gatherings are held long into the night, especially during the celebrations surrounding the procession of the Gypsy Christ every Easter. 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. Locals cook on fires, ride horses through the streets and live without TV, computers or wifi. After a few hours wandering around Sacromonte, you will start to forget that a large, busy city lies just a ten-minute walk down the hill.
After an afternoon and evening spent absorbing the romance of Albaicín and Sacromonte, you will be ready for flamenco. Avoid the touristy establishments around Plaza Nueva, and head to one of the cave theatres in Sacromonte or the Chien Andalou bar on the Carrera del Darro, all of which offer superb nightly performances. In such intimate spaces, the dancers’ dresses graze your face as they perform, and the defiant stomping of their thick-heeled shoes makes the ground vibrate beneath you. You will see flamenco as it should be – raw, moody, passionate, life-affirming and yet melancholy. Granada’s great 20th-century poet Federico García Lorca described the guitars as “sobbing”, and likened the singer’s lament to a “black rainbow” stretching over deserted countryside. Still under the musicians’ spell, you’re likely to feel thoroughly stirred up as you wander to a nearby tapas bar in which to round off your day in this enchanting city.
Le Chien Andalou, 7 Carrera del Darro, Granada, Spain +34 617 10 66 23