It may be compact, but Granada’s mix of Iberian and Arab heritage, from traditional Andalusian tapas bars to bustling bazaars...
...and traditional Moorish bathhouses, only adds to its charm. Throw in some of the world’s most fabulous historical buildings and the Sierra Nevada mountains on its doorstep, and you have a city just begging to be explored.
If you’ve only got half a day in the Granada, you can’t bypass the wonders of the Alhambra. You can walk up the hill to the palace, but to save time it’s probably best to catch one of the regular buses that go from Plaza Isabel la Catolica.
When you book your ticket you’re given a time to visit the Nasrid Palaces, the most beautiful part of the complex. There are slots every half hour but you can stay as long as you want. Be aware that if you miss your time slot you will be denied entry to the palaces. Logically, it’s best to visit the Alcazaba fortress first, then the Palace of Carlos V, and lastly the Nasrid Palaces. Afterwards, you can walk along the north wall towards the Generalife gardens. To visit everything at a leisurely pace will take about four hours and you’ll cover roughly three kilometers. If your half hour slot for the Nasrid palaces is late in the day (after 5pm in autumn-spring or 7pm in spring-autumn) be aware that the last entry is one hour before closing time.
As queues for tickets are long, it’s best to buy them in advance, either at alhambra-tickets.es or from any branch of La Caixa bank. Choose the day and time (morning or afternoon) you want to visit and then pick them up at a La Caixa cash machine or from the Alhambra ticket office.
Kick start your Saturday morning with a coffee and pastry at one of the cafes lining the Campo del Principe, before wandering the winding streets and whitewashed houses of the Realejo. You can then spend the rest of the afternoon indulging in some retail therapy. Some of the best shopping is to be found near the Plaza del Triunfo on Gran Via del Colon and the surrounding streets. For independent shops and boutiques, head to the quaint old streets of the city’s historic quarter, especially the Alcaiceria, or Great Bazaar. The original 15th-century building, once a thriving silk market, was destroyed by a fire in the 19th century and rebuilt shortly afterwards in the Neo-Moorish style. At first glance, it might look as though it’s selling nothing more than souvenirs and trinkets, but a closer look reveals traditional Arabic craftwork and ceramics, as well as granadino farolas, traditional lamps made from intricate pieces of stained glass. After all that, an aperitif (with some free tapas, naturally) is called for. Make a beeline for the celebrated Los Diamantes on Calle Navas. This tiny, unassuming cafe is a local secret – don’t let its greasy spoon appearance put you off. It serves some of the best seafood in the region, including sherry-soaked clams and fried bacalao (salt cod).
Start the next day bright and early with coffee at Plaza Nueva and a stroll along the pretty Rio Darro, which runs beneath the nearby medieval stone bridges. Then head up the steep, narrow Cuesta de Gomerez towards the Alhambra to spend the best part of the day discovering its treasures. Undoubtedly the most iconic and breathtaking of all the treasures left behind by the Moors, the 14th- century fortress is a feast of intricate arabesques, Islamic stone arches and painted tiles. Round off the evening at the Damasqueros on Calle Damasqueros. It’s in the old Jewish quarter of Realejo and tricky to find, but the Andalusian cuisine here is some of the best in Granada – try the Iberian pork with couscous, yoghurt and apricots – and in a romantic wood-panelled setting.
Once you’ve exhausted Granada’s treasures, and if you’re staying longer than a few days, you’ll want to venture farther afield. Andalusia offers endless options for activities such as skiing (Pradollano is the main resort), hiking, wildlife, bird watching, or simply sunbathing at the resorts along La Costa Tropical.
Some of the best hiking routes include Acequia del Toril, around 80km north east of Granada. As well as its wild, dramatic scenery, the area is known for its hot springs and mineral waters. Nestled in the Sierra Nevada-Baza valley, the thermal springs are located at Mencal hill, near the confluence of the Río Fardes and Río Gor. The nearby spa resort, Alicún de las Torres is a modern facility with rooms and a range of health and beauty treatments.
Also in the area and well worth exploring is the little known town of Gorafe, set in a canyon and surrounded by 240 megalithic tombs from the Bronze Age. There is also a 600-square-metre visitor centre, designed like a megalithic tomb, equipped with the latest technology, audiovisual and 3D displays.
Of the towns and villages on La Costa Tropical, Salobreña, an hour’s drive south of Granada, is one of the prettiest. Dominated by a Moorish castle, it was also an important Phoenician settlement, with a history stretching back 6,000 years. Known as the ‘jewel of the Costa Tropical’, the town is built on a rocky outcrop and is a maze of whitewashed houses and winding streets and alleyways. Down its long sandy beach you’ll find several chiringuitos (beach restaurants) serving freshly caught seafood and other Andalusian specialities. The annual Lucero del Alba flamenco festival, held in the castle every August, attracts some of the best dancers in Spain and is not to be missed if you’re in town.
West of Granada, two villages worth a visit are Alhama de Granada and Montefrio. The former, an hour’s drive south west, is a tranquil and picturesque town perched on the edge of low cliffs. Its name derives from the Arabic – al-hamman, or thermal baths – and it has a carefully preserved Moorish quarter. There are impressive views of Alhama’s gorge from just behind the Iglesia de Carmen.
The whitewashed village of Montefrio, an hour’s drive north west of Granada, has one of the most striking settings of any town or village in the region, dominated by a high limestone outcrop topped with a church. There are numerous shops, bars and cafes lining the town’s main road, while the nearby Las Peñas de los Gitanos site is famous for its prehistoric tombs and remains of Roman and Visigothic settlements.