Best things to do in Granada
What is it? The Alhambra palace, high above Granada, is utterly magical. This masterpiece of Islamic architecture, with its glorious stucco, tiles, limpid pools and fountains, dates back to the thirteenth century, and even the later interventions by Castilian rulers do not destroy the exquisite harmony.
Why go? Step inside the Alhambra and you are instantly transported to the era of the Nasrids. Water trickles softly from elaborate fountains, delicate horseshoe arches frame perfect views, and stucco is transformed into cloud-like ceilings. Even the tourist hordes can’t diminish its extraordinary peace and beauty.
What is it? The Generalife is a green and perfumed oasis full of pavilions, terraces, romantic walks and stunning viewpoints. Originally designed under the Nasrids for their summer palace, it used water as a central theme, with reflecting pools and fountains to offset the intense heat.
Why go? Although much of the Generalife dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it remains one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens. The tinkling fountains of the central Patio de la Acequia, designed to invite silence and contemplation, are still its loveliest feature.
What is it? Granada – the last Moorish kingdom to fall to the Christian armies – boasts the first Renaissance cathedral in Spain. To hammer home the message about who was now in charge, a sumptuous Royal Chapel was added as a mausoleum for Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella.
Why go? The cathedral’s interior is lavishly decorated – an architectural version of ‘shock and awe’ in the wake of the defeat of the Moors. Ferdinand and Isabella, in defiance of the agreed terms, forced the inhabitants to be baptised, as depicted in a relief by the altar. The pious pair lie in state behind a wrought-iron grille in the Royal Chapel.
What is it? Recently reopened after an eight-year restoration project, Granada’s archaeological museum occupies a handsome sixteenth-century mansion. The galleries are arranged around an elegant Renaissance patio, and display finds dating back millennia.
Why go? The museum currently offers a ‘semi-permanent’ exhibition of 120 of its best-loved treasures. The biggest draw is the 1.2 million-year-old milk tooth belonging to the oldest human being discovered in Europe, but also look out for an exquisite fifteenth-century astrolabe, crafted by Ibn Zawal only steps from where it is now displayed.
What is it? You don’t have to schlep around museums to experience the languid charms of old Al-Andalus. This modern spa recalls the Moorish bathhouses with its tranquil pools framed by horseshoe arches, where you can soak under the star-shaped skylights.
Why go? Linger in the shallow pools (which are steamy hot, tepid and icy cold), sip a freshly prepared mint tea, and perhaps book yourself in for a soothing massage with scented oils.
What is it? Set on a panoramic hilltop two miles from the city centre, this Carthusian monastery was begun in the sixteenth century, but it’s the sumptuous Baroque chapels, added in the 1700s, that dazzle today.
Why go? As a complete change from the languid delights of the Nasrid palaces and gardens, head out to this mind-blowing Baroque extravaganza, which offers gorgeous city-wide views and a lavishly decorated sacristy and chapels.
What is it? The Realejo neighbourhood was once Granada’s Jewish quarter, until their expulsion in 1492. Its narrow alleys are an atmospheric mix of churches, Renaissance mansions, breezy squares with terrace cafés and an abundance of murals by spraypaint legend El Niño de las Pinturas.
Why go? Come to check out enchanting churches, street murals, pretty squares and offbeat bars (the Verdi, run by an affable Barcelonin, does great G&Ts). If you’re here on Good Friday, make sure you ask the statue of Cristo de los Favores on the Campo del Príncipe for your three wishes.
What is it? If the Alhambra embodies the luxury of the Nasrid rulers, the Albaícin neighbourhood is its humble counterpart. The old Moorish heart of Granada, this steep, whitewashed warren of narrow alleys has barely changed in a thousand years.
Why go? Wandering around the Albaícin is all about soaking up the atmosphere of its medieval lanes and alleys. The Moorish influence is still felt in the carmenes (traditional houses with patio gardens) and the Arabic-style bathhouses, while the miradores (viewing points) offer picture-postcard views of the Alhambra.
What is it? Scramble ever higher up the hill above the Albaícin district and you reach Sacromonte, home to the city’s gypsy community and the heartland of flamenco. Many still live in cave houses, burrowed into the rock, and the main street has lots of flamenco shows.
Why go? Come at dusk to enjoy the breathtaking views over the Albaícin and the Alhambra (perhaps on the terrace of the Bar Pibe), then soak up the duende at one of the flamenco shows. Yes, they’re touristy, but the experience is still magical.
What is it? A venerable institution in Granada, this barrel-lined bar, with its bullfighting posters and memorabilia, dates back to 1910 and has barely changed since. Not in the least bit fancy, it’s the place to come for no-nonsense traditional food and local wines.
Why go? Order a glass of wine or sherry straight from the barrel (the house vermouth is perfect for a pre-lunch aperitif) before tucking into the great value set lunch, or choosing some of the traditional tapas (the house specialty of broad beans with ham is a good bet).
What is it? A charming cobblestone road that runs along the banks of the Darro leads to this minuscule and romantic wine bar. It is set in an aljibe, a stone cistern once used to store rainwater, and overlooks one of the city’s oldest surviving bridges.
Why go? Sit in the tiny vaulted interior, a cosy spot in winter, or out on the pretty little terrace in summer, and enjoy some great local wines and tapas with a creative twist. The octopus, stuffed artichokes and platters of artisanal cheeses are all recommended.
What is it? Granada doesn’t really go for fashionable eateries, but this loft-style restaurant with two distinct dining options oozes hipster appeal. Award-winning young chef Nicolas Sánchez Chica dishes up creative cuisine at Irreverente, while tapas and simpler Mediterranean dishes are on offer at adjoining La Milagrosa.
Why go? Enjoy a tasty breakfast while relaxing on jewel-coloured velvet sofas at La Milagrosa, or sit outside on the terrace and watch the world go by if you fancy some lunch. Or else book yourself in to more upmarket Irreverente if you want to try the chef’s most elaborate dishes.
What is it? Just below the Alhambra, these enchanting gardens surround a pretty nineteenth-century villa (a ‘carmen’, with a Nasrid-style patio). Surprisingly little visited, they are laid out in the French and English style, with shady nooks, pools and fountains – the perfect respite from the Alhambra crowds.
Why go? These gardens are wild and rambling, a world away from the careful designs of the Generalife. There’s nowhere better for a romantic stroll, with the peacocks calling, the Alhambra looming above you, and the city laid out at your feet.