Beyond the centuries-old storybook walls lies the enchanting city of Granada. Located in southern Spain’s Andalusian region, one can easily give in to wanderlust by purposely getting lost.
Wander the see-sawing streets of its exotic neighborhoods, savoring the fusion of Spanish and North African cuisine. Discover vibrant markets and pay reverence to the last Islamic kingdom’s breathtaking palaces in the Iberian Peninsula.
Formed on a plain within the Baetic mountain ranges at an elevation of 2,421-feet, Granada is converged by four rivers (including the famous Darro River) and silhouetted by the majestic Sierra Nevada Mountains. It is an autonomous community with a palpable Moorish influence underlying the Reconquista’s Christian metamorphosis over 500 years ago.
The relatively temperate climate of Andalusia enjoys less rain and more sunshine than the northern regions of Spain. The hottest months are also during peak season for tourists. These are June, July, and August, with temperatures typically around 88 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures drop during December, January, and February.
To get there, take a high-speed train from Madrid that takes just over 3-hours or a hop on a one-and-a-half-hour flight from Barcelona.
As a traveler, you will find evidence of this transition with all five of your senses in its food, art, music, architecture, and horticulture.
Look for Pomegranates—It’s in the Name
The translation of the name Granada means pomegranate. The alluring orb-shaped fruit bears bulging seeds resembling garnet jewels is the ceremonious symbol of the city.
Around town, you can play a game of “I spy.” You’ll spot the pomegranate prominently marked on buildings as well as some cleverly hidden symbols on the signs at street corners, address plaques in front of homes, engraved on fountain pedestals, stone mosaics on sidewalks, wall tiles, and tapestries in restaurants and shops.
Of course, you will also encounter these fuchsia-colored globes hanging from their glossy green shrubs in gardens, courtyards, and along the Darro riverbank during the peak season in November.
Aside from admiring the beauty of a pomegranate flower morphing into a blossoming round shape through art and nature, it is best experienced when split open, plucking the gems out of its webbed pulp, and popping them into your mouth to savor the bursts of sweet and tart juice full of antioxidants.
Islam’s sacred book mentions pomegranates as the “apple of paradise.” That presents another link to the harmonious Granada culture respecting current Islamic culture and Christian cultures interspersed within the city.
The Alhambra—The Magical Kingdom Before Disney
The Alhambra is by far the grandest highlight of a visit to Granada. Translated as “the red fortress” in Arabic, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a dreamy double hilltop complex of brilliantly decorated ancient palaces, artfully crafted lush gardens, and a stark massive fortress.
What started as a small Roman fort was later transformed into a 13th-century palace and fortress. It belonged to the Islamic monarch Nasrid Mohammed Al-Ahmar and continued to expand into a living and breathing Moorish kingdom throughout the Nasrid Dynasty (Spanish Muslims) until the 1492 Christian Reconquista.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain defeated the last Moorish King, Abu Abdallah (also known as Boabdil by the Spanish), in battle. It re-established Christianity to Granada. Despite the centuries of changes of ownership, reconstructions, additions, and inhabitants, it is the only preserved palatine city of the Islamic period, per UNESCO.
Artists, archeologists, historians, gardeners, architects, poets, writers (including the famous Washington Irving), and even irrigation system engineers have returned from their visits praising the beauty and magnificence created by the intelligence-collection that built its sophisticated infrastructures.
As you wander, you will notice that water is the revered theme. It is featured in spraying fountains, cascading falls, rippling pools, pouring spouts, and even streaming through narrow channels built into the stone floors of rooms and hallways from the courtyards.
Each entrance, room, alcove, hallway, and column has been decorated from top to bottom bearing the hearts and minds of the artists’ creations.
Book tickets for the Alhambra tour at least 2—3 months ahead of time, or further out for peak season June-August. It’s definitely worth the splurge of hiring a tour guide when booking your Alhambra tickets to lead the way through the large complex
Albaicin—The Old Moorish Quarter
This well-preserved Moorish neighborhood is a topsy turvy maze of wide stone steps that spiral and escalate into multiple small courtyards and residential areas with alabaster houses.
The houses have red-tiled roofs and are adorned with flowering pots and cascading plants from rustic balconies. It is the best place to get lost in the morning or early afternoon as you will find delightful surprises corner after corner to truly experience the treasures of Granada. It is a steep, but culture-rich walk (about 30-40 minutes) if starting from Plaza Nueva first on Calle Elvira and then following up Calle Caldereria Nueva.
Along the way, you will come upon a Moroccan-style souk, a stretch of petite shops selling delightful souvenirs such as leather goods, mosaic glass lamps, artisanal metal jewelry, batik print tapestries, and depending on the season, soft cotton summer dresses, men’s cool lounge shirts or toasty hand-made wool slippers, scarves, or pull-overs.
The restaurant scene is a charming mix of laid-back tapas bars, eateries with traditional Andalusian plates, and Moroccan Indian, North African, and middle eastern cuisines.
Many venues have live entertainment. I also suggest stopping for a few minutes and give your attention (and a euro or two) to the street musicians. Guitarists, dancers, and singers are just as captivating at the squares in this enchanting neighborhood as in restaurants and bars.
The Food Scene
The best edible experiences and memories are hitting the local food scene, consisting of Moroccan and Andalusian cuisine. The beauty of Granada is that you will find foods that complement the area. Strolling from one area to another, such as Plaza Nueva, Plaza de Bib-Rambla, the Albaicin, San Nicolas View Point, Plaza del Carmen, and beyond, will give you a different appeal and vibe on the signature dishes.
You’ll need reservations for dining at romantic Carmen. At the terraced gardens of mansions converted into restaurants, you’ll have fun indulging in the mouthwatering dishes such as Habas con Jamon which is a hearty stew of fava beans with cured ham.
For the adventurous eater, the Tortilla de Sacromonte is an eclectic omelet made with mutton brains and nuts. It may include ham or chorizo (spicy Spanish sausage) or a traditional hot meal of Plato Alpujarreno, a plate of blood sausages, potatoes, fried eggs, sweet peppers, chorizo, Serrano ham, and other ingredients left up to the chef.
Seafood enthusiasts can enjoy plates of local grilled or fried fresh fish (the coast is only an hour away), a refreshing summer salad called Remojan Graniano made of oranges, codfish, black olives, onions, green olives, pomegranate seeds (of course!), and a hard-boiled egg drizzled with local olive oil from the Granada countryside.
Another memorable experience is sinking your teeth into a Piononos de Granada, named after Pope Pius IX. This sweet milk or syrup-soaked sponge cake is filled and topped with a secret recipe of special cream made with lemon and cinnamon hints.
Granada’s Old Town
Spaniards love the tradition of “el paseo.” Granada’s Old Town area is a great place to stroll along the promenade in the fading light. The paseo is a leisurely evening walk around the popular passages and squares of a Spanish town for the simple purpose of socializing and getting some low-intensity cardiac exercise.
Whether you decide on exploring Old Town during paseo or earlier in the day, the main sites to see are just a few minutes apart within walking distance. Here you’ll find woven evidence of Islamic history mixed with European history.
An arched brick gate marks the entrance to the Alcaiceria, which was once a silk market for the Moor people. Because silk was a heavily coveted good during those times, this market was created to protect the king’s merchants by the king’s guard.
It was later destroyed and rebuilt in the 19th century as a Moroccan-style souk selling souvenirs for tourists. You will see the typical t-shirts and touristy goods spread on sheets on the street and may find a few unique trinkets such as handwoven hats and dolls. Bargaining is certainly welcomed if not the norm, though be wary of pushy vendors.
Plaza Nueva is the other popular square in Old Town. You will find the bustling of locals and tourists moving about as it is a central passing point to reach the various Granada areas.
You will find buses to the Alhambra. It’s often a meeting point for walking and Segway tours. It’s a great area for paseo and happy hour as restaurant tables are peppered onto the checkered terrace.
The bars between here and nearby Calle Elvira make a fun pub crawl in the Royal Chancellery’s backdrop and other surrounding important buildings.
Carrera del Darro translated as “road that gives gold,” is a serene walk along the Darro River banks where gold was mined. It’s lined with arched stone bridges and historic buildings as well as remains of old Arab homes.
Best by mini-bus or taxi, this road can be taken to the main street Camino del Sacromonte, which opens the neighborhood of the white hillside cave dwellings cut straight into the rock called Sacromonte.
You will find multiple cave bars offering the unique flavor to the gypsy flamenco where the dancer is barefoot, clicks to the beat with finger castanets, and is also the singer.
This type of flamenco is called zambra and is unique to the Roma community of Sacromonte. The original Roma, also known as the Gypsies of Andalucía, are said to have migrated from India to Granada’s hills in the 15th-century.
The close-knit community thrives with its Roma descendants who have owned their cave homes for generations. The community is intermixed with modern-day gypsies, writers, poets, artisanal craftsmen, talented performing artists, musicians, and temporary traveling nomads.
The Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte is an open folk museum with multiple walk-in cave dwellings staged to display artifacts and décor of the traditional Roma community.
Views of Granada Spain
To see the best views of the city, all you need is a sturdy pair of walking shoes, a bottle of water, and maybe a light picnic in your backpack. Mirador de San Nicholas is the most popular viewpoint located at the top of the Albaicin Quarter. Lovers and artists gather here or in the church’s courtyard next door for the Alhambra’s most premier views.
Restaurants along this area (especially those that include San Nicolas in the name) have garden terraces where you can reserve a table for dinner as dusk falls, lighting the Alhambra up with a golden hue.
A great viewpoint to see an alternate side of the Alhambra and the Generalife is from the Mirador de Carvajales in the lower Albaicin district.
Panoramic views of the sprawling city, its sparkling rivers, and its storybook palaces and purple mountains are best captured from one of Granada’s highest points, the Placeta de Mirador San Miguel Alto.
In the Sacromonte neighborhood, hiking to the Abbey of Sacromonte or climbing along the Cuesta de Chinos to the Vereda de Enmedio will give you picturesque and scenic views overlooking the city with unforgettable views of the Albaicin and the Alhambra.
Special to BookCottages.com by Shraddha Majcher.architecturedestinationhistoric