Small it may be, but lively Granada boasts more than enough inspiration and colour to pack into 24 hours. Its mix of Iberian and Arab heritage offers a gloriously diverse medley of attractions, from historic eateries and hidden locals’ bars to bustling souk-like markets and traditional Moorish baths. Isabel Dexter explores the off-the-trail hidden delights and the iconic, photogenic landmarks of Spain's self-proclaimed heartland.
Start exploring Granada early, while it’s quiet and cool. While the city’s 300 days of sun a year certainly seem like something to celebrate, the heat can admittedly get exhausting later in the day. Head first to the pleasant, bar-filled Plaza Nueva or Plaza Barria of Bilbao, a majestic Neoclassical square built in 1821, which lies at the foot of the hill that leads up to the famous Alhambra
Make like the locals and opt for a typical breakfast of a savoury pastry with a cortado (strong coffee topped with frothy milk) or relish being on holiday with a classic carajillo (coffee with brandy) at one of the terrace bars. Try Café Lisboa's famous magdalenas and churros, or if you're feeling homesick, they also do a wonderful full English fry-up. (Calle Reyes Catolicos & Plaza Nueva, 958 21 05 79). For something more secluded, head off the main square to nearby La Trastienda (Calle Cuchilleros 11. 958 22 69 65), a local legend that’s been going since 1836; you’ll find cured hams hanging against old-tiled walls, with a host of specialist cheeses, including salted Payoya goat's cheese, and mouth-watering pâtés to choose from.
From Plaza Nueva, stroll along the pretty Rio Darro babbling beneath medieval stone bridges, with the Alhambra staring formidably above you (Real de la Alhambra, 958 027 971). The fabled citadel is one of Europe’s most must-see attractions and it certainly warrants all the fuss. Commanding a majestic view of the Sierra Nevada mountain range from atop a lofty hill, it's lured travellers for generations.
As you head up the steep, narrow lane of Cuesta de Gomerez, take a moment to contemplate the Puerta de las Granadas, stone blocks stacked as a gate to separate the paved street from the path to the palace. Dating from 1536, it was a tribute to the reigning monarch – Charles 1st, King of Spain's marriage and proclaims "Everything from here on upwards is mine."
Undoubtedly the most iconic and breathtaking of all the treasures left behind by the Moors, who ruled Spain for four centuries, the Alhambra is a 14th century fortress, stuffed with intricate, arabesques and stone arches, beautiful, painted tiles and all the delights of Moorish architecture. Walk through to the dreamy palace gardens, full of lush cypress trees and pretty fountains for the archetypal Granada experience.
After the Alhambra, the surrounding neighbourhood of Albaicín awaits: this is the ancient Moorish quarter of the city. Granada was the last Moorish city to fall to the Catholic Reconquista in 1492, and the well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site gives an accurate idea of what it would have been like to live amidst its traditional whitewashed architecture.
An early morning start calls for elevenses. Locals and visitors alike are drawn to the district's Loft Cafe with its appealing, contemporary Mediterranean dishes (Calle San Antón 6, 958 52 09 33). Their fresh fruit breakfasts are a real treat, whether you're in detox mode or nursing a hangover.
By now, you’ll be tired from all the climbing steep hills; fortunately, it’s lunchtime. The Spanish tend to stop for comida between 2pm and 3pm, but if you arrive at any of the most popular local restaurants that late, it’ll be standing room only. Instead, head for El Claustro (Calle Gran Vía de Colón, 958 805 740), which blends local flair with high gastronomy. The brainchild of Andalusian chef and El Bulli graduate Juan Andrés Morilla, ‘the cloister’ offers southern-inspired food elevated to fine-dining standards, all with local produce and in the sumptuous setting of a 16th-century convent.
Granada is a great place for shopping, in part because it combines typical Spanish boutiques and brands with North African-style bazaars. Towards the south of the Albaicín district, there are little souk-like streets with spots to partake of mint tea and shisha. The highlight is probably the Alcaiceria (Plaza Bib-Rambla), the old Moorish silk market, an authentic Middle-Eastern shopping experience of stalls and shops selling traditional Moroccan wares such as rugs, lanterns and clothing. For high-quality handmade products, visit Al Aire Artesania (Plaza Aliatar 16, 622 364 651), a shop in the heart of this district, with ceramics, paintings and jewellery.
If you're feeling more energetic, then climb up to El Mirador de San Nicolas, the city's most famous viewpoint, which will give you stunning – and Instagram-worthy – views of the Alhambra palace. The gruelling climb calls for a pitstop so enjoy a traditional Spanish coffee or a cold beer at Cafe 4 Gatos and make the most of their sunny terrace, with its spectacular views (Placeta Cruz Verde, 6, 958 22 48 57). It's super cosy, so don't be surprised if locals squeeze in beside you.
The best part of Granada is its melting-pot culture, so take advantage of the Iberian-meets-Arab heritage and luxuriate in the region's spas. Just the antidote to the noise and bustle of the souks. If you're craving a luxurious Moorish experience then Hammam Al-Andalus (Santa Ana 16, 902 333 334) is a sumptuous setting for an afternoon of pampering in a stylish spa masquerading under the guise of a traditional North African bath.
If you prefer a more voyeuristic approach then head to Banuelo (Carrera del Darro 31. 958 22 97 38). It’s no longer a functioning baths but this well-preserved, 11th-century hammam comprising of majestic golden stone arches will give you a taste for what bathing was like during Granada’s Moorish era. Entering the baths through a small house to emerge into a pretty alberca (courtyard with a pool) is a magical experience, as the octagonal and star-shaped holes in the roof allow beautiful light to stream in. A traditional meeting place for locals, the baths are thought to be the oldest in Spain.
Tapas hour commences around 8pm so after a stroll make a beeline for the celebrated Los Diamantes (Calle Navas, 26. 958 07 53 13). This tiny, unassuming cafe is the locals' hidden gem. It may look like a greasy spoon but don't let that fool you. The best seafood in the region, tempura aubergine, sherry-soaked clams and fried bacalao (salt cod) are the house tapas – meaning they're a gift from the bar, which you can't choose or send back. If you want a truly local experience then there's no better place.
If you're not full of tapas remember that although Andalusians tend to dine late, there are a few early-evening options. Head to the old Jewish quarter of Realejo for something to tempt your tastebuds. The tricky-to-find Damasqueros (Calle Damasqueros 3, 958 210 550) offers Andalusian cuisine and more adventurous options such as Iberian pork with couscous, yoghurt and apricots, all in a romantic wood-panelled setting. Alternatively, stick to the tapas and try the famous roast ham, patatas a la pobre (potatoes fried with onions and green peppers), topped with a quail's egg and a choice of tipple from a fine sherry selection at Bodegas Espadafor (Calle Darro, just off Via Colon.) Soak up the gorgeous 1910, tiled interior with its posters of traditional bullfights and fiestas while you sip on a deliciously syrupy Moscatel.
The nightlife tends to start later and end later in Granada than in many other parts of Spain, but that's no reason not to get a head start on the crowds. Try one of Granada's hidden gems, the super cool Discoteca Aliatar (Calle Recogidas, 2 +34 958 26 19 84). Once an old cinema, it now hosts festivals and events by day and at night transforms into the best place to hit the dance floor, especially if you're looking for a late night of homespun hedonism. Alternatively, make for the vivid orange terrace of flamenco club Peña de la Platería (7 Placeta de Toqueros) for some authentic dancing-the-night-away. If you've got a taste for flamenco then the heartland of legendary Spanish gypsy culture, Sacromonte, is well worth a visit. The scenic, precarious hillside pathways and whitewashed cave dwellings are awe-inspiring. Plus check out the ever-changing homespun flamenco bars scattered along the Camino de Sacromonto. Around 2am head from Sacromonto to El Camborio (Camino del Sacromonte, 47, 958 22 12 15) a club that mirrors many of the local houses, with tunnels built into the hillside.
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