Top 5 sights for first-timers
Built in the 14th century by the Nasrid sultans, the flamboyant Arab fortress is Granada’s top attraction and the most impressive remnant of Moorish rule in Spain. Stunning day and night, it glares down from the verdant hills leading up to the Sierra Nevada mountains as though in haughty defiance. There is a daily cap on visitors so be sure to book ahead.
The gardens of the sultans just beyond the Alhambra are almost as impressive as the palace-citadel itself. In one dark corner of Patio de los Cypresses, between immaculately kept trees and garden walls, the sultan’s wife Zoraya was said to rendezvous with her secret lover. With so many elegant fountains, reflecting pools, alluring pavilions and manicured greenery, you’ll think that you’ve stumbled into a dream.
The Moors ruled most of Spain for some 400 years, but the Nasrid emirate in Granada was the last to be relinquished, finally falling in 1492. For an idea of what Moorish Spain was like, the Albaicín quarter beneath the Alhambra is an essential visit. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, its white houses with ornate latticework and narrow streets are fascinating.
The Jewish quarter of the city was prominent under the Moors – so much so that it was named al-Yahud Garnate (Granada of the Jews). The Jews and their pre-Christian rulers lived beside each other in relative peace, but under the Catholic monarchs they were forced out and the area was renamed Realejo. Today, the lanes of whitewashed houses are dominated by expats in this bohemian neighbourhood.
This area in the lofty heights of Granada was once home to the city’s poorest, most notably gitanos (gypsies), some of whom still live in the caves cut out of the soft rock. The curious cave dwellings are popular for flamenco, with vigorous performances at night. The 17th-century Abbey of Sacromonte is also worth a look, containing relics from the martyr Saint Caecilius.
Top 5 sights for old hands
Capilla Real de Granada
Intended as a symbol of superiority over the supplanted Muslim rulers (in a tactic repeated against the indigenous empires throughout the New World), the Cathedral of Granada is grand enough – if a little dull. Yet the royal chapel can’t be missed. Its crypt of marble tombs contains the bodies of the Catholic monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, whose union brought about the birth of Imperial Spain.
Perhaps the highlight of the Albaicín district are the 11th century Moorish baths. You can’t bathe there anymore but you can imagine distinguished locals meeting for a chat, having their beards trimmed or enjoying a massage beneath incredible stone arches, light trickling in through hexagonal holes in the ceiling.
Carrera del Darro
Archaeological Museum of Granada
To get a grip on what Andalusia looked like before the Moors arrived – long before, mind – it’s worth checking out this museum filled with artefacts from the Iberian and Phoenician cultures. Curious ceramics and impressive jewellery give the picture of a sophisticated prehistory.
Carrera del Darro 41
Huerta de San Vincente – Casa-Museo Federico García Lorca
The writer Federico García Lorca produced some of his finest works in this, his family home. In fact, it was Lorca’s summer retreat for the last 10 years of his life. He wrote the tragic play Blood Wedding here before his death by the hands of Franco in 1936. The desk he scribbled on is on display along with several other odds and ends, while the handsome garden is now a park.
Calle Virgen Blanca
Plaza de la Trinidad
Shadowed by an impressive canopy of tall trees, this famous square is a pleasant place to stop for an hour. Sit back on one of the old benches and admire the 18th-century fountain – or better yet, do some essential people-watching.
Souk meets style boutique – that’s how the shoppers describe Granada. As with so many things here, you’ll find it to be an experience blending the city’s Arabic and Iberian heritage. Haggle over rugs and Moroccan lanterns between breaks for mint tea and shisha on the pedestrianised streets near Calle Calderería Nueva, more than a little reminiscent of North Africa’s ancient medinas.
Many of the trinkets on sale are as disposable as those found in Marrakech’s markets, but Bazaar Nueva Karavan (Carrera del Darro) is a step above with handsome lanterns and leather bags. Meanwhile, the Alcaicería market (Calle Zacatín) contains a range of great handmade crafts; visit if only to see what remains of the original arches of the Arab souk.
There are also a number of fashion boutiques around Plaza de Bib-Rambla including typical Spanish names like Bimba y Lola (Calle Mesones), and for the ultimate in retail therapy head to the iconic Spanish department store, El Corte Inglés (Carrera de la Virgen 20-22).
Much like the rest of Spain, Granada’s nightlife is dizzyingly decadent, usually getting going at midnight and not ending until dawn (or later). It’s likely you’ll start at a tapas bar or two; Bar Los Diamantes (Calle Navas 28) is worth looking in if you want to keep things on the elegant side. Culture lovers should check out La Tetería del Hammam (Calle Santa Ana 16), a throwback to the cultural past with traditional dance, live music and storytelling in the Arabo-Andalusian style. Realejo, once home to Granada’s Jewish community, is now popular with expats; its cheerful bars with tables outside are worth a visit.
For a wild night out, Granada’s university is home to more than 60,000 students – almost a quarter of the population – and so there are bars and clubs galore catering to almost every music genre. Those curious about Spanish rough gems should head to Plantabaja (Calle Horno de Abad 11), whose basement regularly hosts live bands, while hip Somo (Calle Pedro Antonio de Alarcón) is good for a dose of blaring rock. If you’re still standing in the early hours, you might attempt El Camborio (Camino del Sacromonte 47), a vast uncompromising club popular with students and always packed.