You may come to Granada with the sole aim of exploring its incomparable jewel of a castle, Alhambra, and that is perfectly fine. If you choose to stay for a while, however, you will discover Moorish heritage aplenty and a city that is fun to explore.
Built in the 13th century by caliphs of the Nasrid dynasty, Alhambra ♥♥♥ is an incomparable piece of architecture. Modest materials that they were – plaster, timber, tiles, – they were worked in a way to create the caliphs’ idea of paradise on Earth. Very successfully, everyone would agree.
The complex contains the magnificent Nasrid Palace; the mildly curious fortress of Alcazaba; the structurally impressive Palace of Charles V, which houses a couple of museum expositions; a number of smaller attractions, such as the Partal and the Arab baths; a park; and the resplendent Generalife palace and gardens. All are worth exploring, which means that you are likely to spend upwards of four hours within the walls of the castle. The Nasrid palace and the Generalife are the most breathtaking, though, with intricate Mudejar ornamentation and magical use of water and light.
Since Generalife is a good 10-minute brisk walk from the heart of the Alhambra complex, and the entrance to the Nasrid Palace is at timed intervals, it’s best to plan to start with Generalife and get you into Nasrid Palace a couple of hours later. You can reach Alhambra by walking up a fairly steep slope from Plaza Nueva; the walk takes around 20 minutes. Or you can take a bus. Keep in mind that if you follow the advice of most guidebooks to take bus #30 or #32 from Plaza Nueva, you will have to do almost a full circuit of the bus’s route before getting to Alhambra, as these routes are circular with the buses descending to Plaza Nueva rather than ascending from there. A better solution is to get on one of these routes at Plaza Isabel la Catolica.
If you are visiting Alhambra with kids, make sure to buy the “Alhambra Told to Children” illustrated book from any number of souvenir shops in town before going to the castle. Besides being rather interestingly written, the book will allow your kids to engage in a sort of recognition activity – “Look at this picture! This is the yard we are in now!” – that will keep them interested.
The old city center ♥ is a maze of narrow streets around the cathedral and the pleasant Plaza Bib-Rambla ♥. Some of these streets comprise a centuries-old bazaar and are no more than pedestrian passages chock-full of craft and souvenir shops.
The Cathedral ♥, exhibiting elements of Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles, is a surprisingly bright and airy place, with bleached-stone columns supporting the high ceiling. Its main chapel, circular Capilla Mayor, is resplendent and unconventionally located in a central area of the cathedral, rather than on the side. Capilla Real ♥, next to the cathedral, is primarily famous for the magnificent grille that encloses the high altar, and for the art treasures in its sacristy.
Plaza Nueva ♥♥ is the gateway to both Albaicin and Alhambra. Carrera del Darro ♥ will lead you along Rio Darrio past crumbling bridges and ancient restored façades towards Sacromonte, where local gypsies used to live in the caves in the hillside. There is a potentially interesting Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte in the area. In the past, visitors would go to Sacromonte for spontaneous flamenco performances; nowadays, there are many touristy venues in the area offering flamenco shows of varying quality. We have heard from an aspiring dancer that Granada is the place to study the discipline.
Along Carrera del Darro, one of the minor attractions is El Bañuelo, 11th-century Arab baths.
Albaicin ♥♥ is clinging to the hillside opposite Alhambra. There, you feel closest to Granada’s Moorish heritage, wandering the narrow cobbled alleys and staircases. You’ll walk past old monasteries, churches, and white-washed houses with pretty courtyards. Mirador de San Nicolas ♥♥♥, a square by the eponymous church at a high point, offers unrivaled views of Alhambra.
Other potentially interesting places in Granada – that certainly get overshadowed by Alhambra for most visitors – are Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada, the vast gardens of Carmen de los Mártires, Palacio de la Madraza, or Museo Casa de Los Tiros which highlights local history and crafts.
A place worthy of a specific recommendation is a restaurant that we paid repeat visits to in different years: Pilar del Toro (near the Iglesia de Santa Ana at the end of Plaza Nueva), a superb dining experience in the atmosphere of the 17th-century mansion.
For the best churros con chocolate anywhere, get a table at Gran Café Bib-Rambla on the square of the same name.