The region of Andalucía has a strong cultural identity tied to flamenco, tapas (they originate from here), Hispano-Moorish influences, agriculture, and lively festivals held under the hot southern sun of Spain. Granada, located in the south of the Iberian Peninsula, is a prime example of an Andalucían city with an inviting personality where you can discover each of these iconic elements of Spain.
The city’s famed Alhambra palace and gardens achieved their splendor in the 13th century during the period of the North African Moors’ conquest and subsequent Nasrid dynasty rule over Al Andalus, Spain. Today the Alhambra complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a top tourist attraction in Spain, as indicated by the scarcity of tickets months in advance. An eventful day of trekking the hillsides of this city and facing off against other tourists for the best photo spots necessitates an evening of drinks and tapas. Whether relaxing with a sunset view of the mountains or rubbing elbows with locals at a high-top table, you won’t be disappointed to find a free tapa served with your drink.
- While certainly not the only thing to see in Granada, most people are drawn to the city because they’ve heard of the Alhambra and its mystiques. A prominent palace complex within a fortress, its location on a hill overlooking the city is particularly dazzling when seen from a distance with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains looming in the background. Don’t just take my word for it though, a plethora of authors, artists, and poets, have given life to this strikingly well-preserved example of Islamic architecture and design. For one such work, read the iconic Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving. The book is a collection of fictional stories and essays based on historical events and supplemented with descriptions of the fortress and palace that were developed during his extended stay in 1828. It is a worthy attempt to do justice to the picturesque setting and legacy of the palace inhabitants that were so intriguing to him and many others before and after.
- Tickets into the Alhambra palace complex are hard to come by as the number of daily visitors is limited so booking tickets to Alhambra well in advance is worth the extra organization. If the general tickets are no longer available on your preferred day, another option is the Alhambra Card. When purchasing the Alhambra Card, you will select either the morning or afternoon entrance and upon purchase, you will receive the Alhambra entrance tickets via an email that also indicates your timed entry into the Nasrid Palace (the royal residences inside the palace).
While the Alhambra Card costs 49 Euros versus the 15 Euros for a general admission ticket (free for children under 12), here is what is included with the Alhambra Card:
- Fast track entrance into the Alhambra should there be an excessive line as is often the case during high season
- Entrance into other monuments in Granada, including the Granada Cathedral, Royal Chapel, Monastery of La Cartuja, Monastery of San Jerónimo, Science Park Museum, Sacromonte Abbey, Zafra’s House, Cuarto Real, and Museo Casa de los Tiros
- Nine journeys on the public bus after you pick up your bus card at one of the bus ATM’s listed in the email
Note the entry time into the Nasrid Palace as indicated on your general admission ticket or Alhambra Card as you must enter at this time and will more than likely be denied entry if you miss your time slot.
- Granada is easily accessible from Málaga, Cordoba, and Sevilla by bus and train. Total transit time varies based on the ticket selected, but the quickest options are:
- Málaga – 1.5 hour bus ride or less than 2.5 hour train ride
- Cordoba – less than 3 hour bus ride or 1.5 hour train ride
- Sevilla – less than 3 hour bus ride or 3 hour train ride
Trainline has an easy-to-use site that allows for convenient researching and booking of both bus and train transit. While the Granada bus station is outside of city center, local city buses stop at the front of the station and take passengers into the city center within 15 minutes. If arriving at the Granada train station, it’s less than a 10 minute city bus ride into city center from there.
- Generally speaking across Spain, the opening and closing hours of restaurant and business that are listed online are not always accurate so don’t fully rely on this information when planning your day. A reservation at a restaurant is always a good idea, but keep in mind that meals are generally served later in Spain and therefore a restaurant may not open until after 7:00 PM.
- While English is widely spoken in this city, learning a few simple Spanish phrases will be helpful to you and facilitate polite exchanges with your hosts and other locals.
- Most people are familiar with Hola and Gracias, but if you want to greet someone in the morning try Buenos dias, or in the evening use Buenos tardes
- Sometimes a simple please, Por favor, goes a long way
- If you would like a table at a restaurant, you could get by saying Una mesa por favor
- Requesting the bill after a meal is as simple as La cuenta por favor
- If you’re looking for the toilet, ¿Donde están los servicios? will get you headed in the right direction
- If you’ve reached the extent of your Spanish language skills, you can inform the other party that you don’t speak Spanish by saying No hablo Español
- Tipping is not as common in Spain, but leaving small change at cafes or following a cheaper meal is appreciated. Having received great service during a longer meal, a 10% tip at a dining establishment is appropriate.
- If you’re planning to shop or are curious about the local made goods, some of the more traditional merchandise includes woven rugs called jarapas from the Alpujarra region, handmade pottery called fajalauza, Moroccan style lamps, and leather goods.
- With its spectacular use of light, space, water, and detailed decoration, the Alhambra in Granada was intended to be a paradise on Earth. More broadly speaking, the Islamic Moors infused the Al Andalus region with significant advancements in the arts and sciences before their expulsion from Granada in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel. The “Reconquista” brought an end to further Islamic inspired design at the palace, but thereafter, the Alhambra became the location of the Catholic monarchs’ royal court. The palace was where Christopher Columbus requested financing for his 1492 ocean crossing and expedition, which was granted and paid for by Isabel and Ferdinand. For a period of time, the fortress and palace were all but neglected until Napoleon’s defeat in Spain in the early 1800s during the Napoleonic Wars. The subsequent rediscovery and restoration of the palace generated foreign interest from architects, artists, writers, and travelers to the Iberian Peninsula. Within the Alhambra and Generalife complexes, you will want to visit:
- Casas Reales
- Within the Nasrid Palace, don’t miss the ceiling of the Salón de Embajadores; the light reflecting pool of the Patio de Arrayanes; the Sala de las Abencerrajes where according to legend, a rival family of the Nasrid ruler was murdered during a banquet; the fountain supported by 12 lions in the Patio de Leones; and the Sala de los Reyes with its beautiful ceiling paintings on leather.
- Bonus points if you can find the plaque commemorating Washington Irving’s stay in one of the rooms of the royal residence.
- Casas Reales
- Climbing to the towers in the oldest area of the fortress will provide you with sweeping views over Granada and the valley. Not as opulent as the palace, but certainly less crowded, a visit to this area allows you to appreciate the functional purpose of what was originally a military post.
- Palace of Charles V
- One of the “newer” areas of the palace, the Renaissance building now houses the Museum of Fine Arts.
- Palace of Charles V
- The gardens and water fountains within the Generalife provided sanctuary from the summer heat and an escape from the royal duties. The flora is beautiful when in bloom, but a visit during the winter is still delightful on account of the views of the palace from afar.
- The tombs of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, responsible for the “Reconquista” of Spain and the funding of Christopher Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic are found in the Royal Chapel of Granada. Also buried there is their daughter Joanna of Castile and her husband, Philip of Habsburg, whose son, Charles V would become known as Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor.
- The Albaicín neighborhood of Granada sits on the hillside opposite the Alhambra and maintains its charm with steep cobble stone alleys and hidden lookouts over the city. A not so secretive, but no less notable, lookout is at Mirador de San Nicolas where you have an unobstructed view of the Alhambra across the valley. If you can grab a seat here for sunset, it’s certainly worth it, but if not, there are plenty of nearby plazas with cafes and restaurants to tempt you with tapas.
- A walk along the Carrera del Darro at the base of the Alhambra will take you past some of the city’s oldest bridges that cross the Río Darro and what remains of ancient houses with refined facades.
- The Sacromonte quarter of Granada is popular for its cave houses, flamenco shows, and Sacromonte Abbey. Perched on another hillside of the city, the underground cave homes were carved into the rock and have been inhabited by many persons, but perhaps most famously by gypsies. Touristy flamenco shows take place in these caves now.
- Iconic tapas of the mountainous region of Granada are sausage made with ham and pork, jamón serrano, stews with tripe or chickpeas, and of course the classic fried eggs and potato dishes. With sherry being produced not far away in Jerez, expect to find sherry sauces on the menu, or just order a glass as an aperitif while you await your meal.
- Moroccan inspired cuisine is easy to find in Granada thanks to the city’s Moorish roots. At Palacio Andaluz Restaurante Almona restaurant, you’ll find excellent pastille, tajine, mint tea, and fruit juices.
- If you are grabbing drinks at a bar or café in town, each will more than likely come with a free tapa – from olives to sandwiches and stews, you could make a meal from the spread!
Granada and the nearby Sierra Nevada attract quite a crowd, but with some planning upfront, you will be able to appreciate the grandeur of the Alhambra among other tourists and then escape the crowds in the steep streets of the Albaicín or Sacromonte quarters where a leisurely stroll can lead to delicious tapas. Better yet, visit in the winter off season when you may just find yourself serenaded by a Spanish guitar as the rain falls gently onto the cobblestones.