Wonder What to See & Do in Granada?
Granada has one of the most fascinating histories and cultures in all of Spain. As you’d expect, then, the city is packed with attractions and monuments to explore – from the great Alhambra fortress and old Moorish neighborhood of Albaicín to amazing street art, great tapas bars and a joyful annual fiesta.
The Alhambra Palaces
Granada’s star attraction and one of Andalusia’s most iconic sights is the Alhambra fortress. The greatest surviving relic of southern Spain’s 800 years under Muslim rule, between the 8th and 15th centuries, this sprawling complex sits forbiddingly atop the Darro Valley, with the crisp peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background.
Originally dating from the 9th century, the fort and walls were extensively rebuilt in the 1200s by the Moorish ruler of what was then the Emirate of Granada, Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar. Particularly beautiful are the Nasrid palaces; built by the Nasrid Kings – the last Moorish rulers of Granada – during the 13th and 14th centuries, which feature some of the Alhambra’s most intricate interiors.
Time has stood still in the rustic gypsy quarter of Sacromonte, one of Granada’s most distinctive attractions. Many locals still live in dappled white caves carved out of the rock, in which impromptu flamenco gatherings are held long into the night. There are also dwellings entirely improvised from scrap metal, wood, and cloth, in which a rusty bucket protected from view by a ragged old rug often passes for a bathroom (sometimes accompanied by a scrawled sign asking visitors not to take photos of these private spaces). Sacromonte is also Granada’s flamenco barrio, where you are always within earshot of the art’s distinctive, haunting sounds. If you want to go to a formal show, try Venta El Gallo, which also has a fabulous roof terrace.
The Abbey of the Sacromonte
High up in the untamed countryside above Granada’s gypsy quarter is the Abbey of Sacromonte, the neighborhood’s key historical attraction. This now-neglected 17th-century structure was built by Archbishop Pedro de Castro y Quiñones on a site that was supposedly the final resting place of Saint Caecilius, a martyr and Granada’s first bishop in the 1st century A.D. It was an inspired spot to choose, located so far above the city that the stillness and solitude feel almost like presence. For €4 you can visit some of the interiors and, best of all, the narrow, spooky Holy Caves that are annexed to the abbey.
Palacio de Dar al-Horra
One of Albaicín’s key architectural attractions is this elegant and understated Moorish palace. Its name means “Home of the Honest,” and it was the residence of the sultana Aixa, mother of Muhammad XII (known as Boabdil to the Spanish), the last Moorish King of Granada. In traditional Moorish style, its quarters and rooms are located on three levels around a central courtyard and pool, which provided shade and cool in the summer. Also, the remaining are parts of what were once extensive gardens and orchards. Aixa is reputed to have bitterly rebuked her son for losing Granada as they fled the conquered city in 1492; perhaps she didn’t just have the loss of the mighty Alhambra in mind as she did so.
El Bañuelo Baths
Tucked away underneath a private house about halfway along the Carrera del Darro are the oldest and best-preserved Arabic baths in Spain. The Bañuelo dates from around the 11th century and its elegant Moorish archways and domed ceilings are still amazingly intact after a thousand years (although the baths themselves have long since vanished). Undoubtedly, after the Alhambra and the Generalife, this is the greatest surviving instance of Moorish architecture in Granada.
Realejo is Granada’s old Jewish quarter and one of the city’s most charming neighborhoods, the streets and squares of which reward aimless meandering. Particularly attractive is the Iglesia Santo Domingo – one of the more obscure churches in the city, yet one of the most beautiful, inside and out. The most dilapidated walls and building façades of Realejo also constitute a de facto art gallery, displaying the works of local spray-paint artist Raul Ruiz, also known as “El Niño.” El Niño’s incredible pictures lend Realejo an edgy, creative ambiance all of its own, and give you the wonderful feeling that you’ve discovered something no one else has.
This revealing collection of documents, sketches, and photographs is situated in a park on Granada’s southern edge that also bears the name of the city’s most famous son. Federico García Lorca was one of the most important Spanish writers of the 20th century, and the elegant townhouse that houses these artifacts is where the poet was born in 1898 and lived until he was 11. Lorca was murdered at the beginning of Spain’s devastating Civil War of 1936-39, and his exact burial spot – thought to be somewhere outside the boundaries of the city’s official cemetery – is still not known.
The Carrera del Darro is Granada’s prettiest street. Starting at Plaza Nueva and winding down towards Albaicín alongside the Darro River, it is lined with centuries-old buildings rising up from the riverbank, their worn façades covered (in spring and summer) by lush creepers and colorful blossom. As you stroll along, peer over the ancient stone wall to see the Darro River gently flowing between verdant banks; here, the river passes under two of the oldest surviving bridges in Granada, and remnants of a few more that used to connect Albaicin with the Alhambra.
At the center of old Granada is the city’s great cathedral. Work on this imposing Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque structure began in 1518 and, although it took over 180 years and successive architects to build, it’s still not entirely finished: two 262-foot (80-meter) towers were originally planned, but only half of one was ever finished. The cathedral’s towering façade is largely the work of Granadino architect and artist Alonso Cano, who introduced Baroque features when he took over its design in 1652; Cano’s input further contributed to the intriguing mixture of styles that characterize this awesome structure.
The Generalife Palace
The Generalife functioned as the Alhambra’s Summer Palace, with its exquisite gardens providing a cool haven for the sultans during the furnace of Andalusian summers. Narrow paths run alongside delicate flowerbeds and ponds so still that the elegant archways and whitewashed walls – which separated the palace’s vegetable gardens – are perfectly replicated in the water.
An external walkway connecting the Generalife’s north and south sides provides a stunning view of the old Arabic neighborhood of Albaicín. Indeed, Albaicín itself is one of the most impressive sights in the city when viewed from the turrets and windows of the Alhambra and Generalife.
Because the majority of visitors head straight for the Alhambra, this lovely haven of flowerbeds, small ponds and leafy paths is only ever sparsely populated with guests. In spring and summer, its shaded walkways provide a sanctuary from the powerful sun, and its views of the landscape beyond Granada give a sense of space that can be lacking in the cramped city center. A fairytale tower sits in the middle of this verdant oasis; climb up its small spiral staircase and survey the gardens and Granada from the city’s most romantic viewpoint.
No visit to Granada would be complete without a visit to its oldest neighborhood, the former Arabic quarter of Albaicin. This compact network of winding cobbled streets, whitewashed houses and jasmine-scented squares perches on the hillside the other side of the Darro River from the Alhambra. It requires a little exertion to reach the top of Albaicín, especially in spring or summer, but it will be energy well expended: the views of the Alhambra and the Sierra Nevada mountains from its most popular square, the Mirador San Nicolás, are some of the best in the city. There is also a lively flea market every Saturday morning on Plaza Larga, one of the barrio’s prettiest spaces.
Museum of Fine Arts
Granada’s leading art museum for classic works houses over 2,000 pieces, including a number of important religious paintings and sculptures dating from the 16th century onwards. Like the palace itself, this collection serves as a reminder of the Catholic conquest of Granada, and of successive Catholic monarchs’ attempts to stamp their own religion and identity on what had been Moorish territory for around eight hundred years. The museum also has a number of works by local artist Alonzo Cano, also an architect who designed the façade of Granada’s cathedral.