• Leslie

Granada Spain: It's Not Just the Alhambra

Updated: Jan 24

Here’s my guide to the must see sights in Granada Spain. I didn’t know that I'd love Granada before I arrived. I’d just left the stunning and sensual Seville and seen some fantastic white pueblo villages en route. But, still, Granada unexpectedly swept me away with its authentic Spanish vibe and dazzling attractions.

So what makes Granada so special?

Lorded over by the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s an absolutely beautiful ancient city with historic architecture. It boasts many atmospheric neighborhoods, each with an earthy distinct character. It’s home to the grand Alhambra, a Moroccan souk, a massive cathedral, flamenco music, and — perhaps best of all — free tapas.

Top it off with ubiquitous clear blue skies and great weather, you’ve got the perfect spot for a geographical cure in southern Spain. As a plus, Granada is eminently walkable despite the hills. So resist the urge to take the tourist buses.

1. The Alhambra & the Generalife Gardens

Only a cynic would fail to be spellbound by this grand complex, the last and greatest Moorish fortress in Andalusia.

The Alhambra is one of the most popular and best sites in southern Spain, and even in the world. It stands on a stunning piece of real estate, high on Sabika Hill, with panoramic views over Granada and the beautiful countryside.

The Alhambra was listed as a UNESCO site in 1984. It's is a deeply affecting place that's difficult to process. Or to unglue your camera from your face.

In 889 A.D., Alhambra began life as a small fortress on the remains of ancient Roman ruins. By the 13th century, the Reconquista was in full swing. In 1492, Granada finally succumbed. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella transformed the Alhambra into an opulent royal palace complex.

Arms Square, the entrance to the Alcazaba in Granada's Alhambra

me enjoying the views from the Alhambra's Alcazaba

elaborate ceiling of the Palace of the Lions in the Nasrid Palace

I’ve written about the Alhambra at length and you can check out my complete guide with tips for visiting the Alhambra. The highlights of the Alhambra are the Alcazaba, the Charles V Palace, and the jaw dropping Nasrid Palace.

The Nasrid Palace is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the Alhambra. It offers the world's finest example of the refined, intricate, and elegant architectural style of the Moorish civilization. When you’re done with the lavish palaces, head over to the Generalife Gardens.

reflecting pool in the lavish Generalife Gardens in the Alhambra complex

Generalife was the lush leisure villa of the last dynasty of Moorish sultans. They summered there to escape the intense heat. The theme is water. The Generalife Gardens are full of terraced gardens, reflecting pools, and fountains.

Practical Information for Visiting the Alhambra

Location: Albaicín neighborhood, Calle Real de la Alhambra, s/n, 18009 Granada

Pro Tip: For hours, entry fees, the step by step process for buying tickets, and how to plan your time, check out my guide.

Granada Cathedral

2. Granada Cathedral

After staggering out of the Alhambra, slack jawed, stroll down the hill into Plaza Nueva. Cross the square and you’ll reach Granada Cathedral in Granda’s historic center. The Granada Cathedral is a massive affair. It’s the second largest cathedral in Spain after Seville Cathedral and the fourth largest cathedral in the world.

It was built by Queen Isabella after the conquest of Granada. Construction began in 1518. It took over 180 years to complete.

Like Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in northern Spain, the cathedral isn’t yet finished. It’s a bit lopsided. Only one of the planned two 80 meter towers were ever completed. Even that tower had to be lowered, when the gothic foundations couldn’t sustain its heavy weight.

heart covered street in downtown Granada, near the cathedral

The cathedral’s a mix of Renaissance and Baroque styles. The chief architect was Alonso Cano, who took over in 1652. Inside, there’s a towering interior, a grand altar, and side chapels.

Practical Information for Visiting Granda Cathedral:

Address: Calle Gran Vía de Colón, 5, 18001 Granada, Spain

Hours: Mon to Sat from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm

Entry fee: 5 euros, audioguide included. 3 euros for students. Children under 12 are free.

the Albaicín Neighborhood of Granada

3. The Albaicín Neighborhood

Probably my favorite thing to do in Granada was wandering around the old Arab neighborhood of the Albaicín, or Albayzín. Built on a steep hill, it’s an ancient area with tight tangled winding streets and a bohemian feel. The lively place was declared a UNESCO site in 1984.

The main drags in the Albaicín, which both run parallel to the River Darro, are Paseo de los Tristes and Carrera del Darro. Amidst a jasmine scented breeze, you’ll find restaurants, cafes, tapas bars, and even street performers.

tiny cobbled land in Granada's Albaicín neighborhood

another tiny cobbled land in Granada's Albaicín neighborhood

Check out the lovely Church of San Salvador and the Albaicín’s most popular square, the Mirador San Nicolás.

After you’ve taken in the main sites, head into the labrythian streets and get lost. The Albaicín has a rich collection of beautiful Moorish architecture that’s a feast for the eyes.

the Sacramonte Barrio in Granada Spain

4. Stroll the Sacramonte Barrio

I booked a nighttime tour in the otherworldly barrio of Sacramonte, home to Granada’s Roma community. And it delivered. Time stands still in this unusual rustic quarter of Granada.

Sacramonte means “sacred mount.” For centuries, Sacramonte was the home of gypsies, bohemians, artists, and foreign refuges. In the 15th century, the gypsies came from Romania and northern Indian after the expulsion of the Moors.

Called Romas, they lived in caves grouped around ravines and built into the hillside. Most of the caves are white and adorned with copper pots. The locals still live in them. But nowadays, most caves have electricity, although hippies still squat in abandoned caves at the top of the hill.

interior of a cave home in Sacramonte

Sacramonte feels disconnected from the city. Yet, it sports one of the most mesmerizing views of the Alhambra. You’re so high you can even look down on the Albaicín and the River Darro. In my view, this view is superior to, and much less crowded, than the view at Plaza San Nicolás.

Sacramonte is also home to the Museo Cuevas Del Sacramonte. The museum features 10 different recreated caves. Its exhibits explain how the gypsies lived and the origins of flamenco.

Practical Information for Visiting the Sacramonte Barrio:

Getting there: I took bus #34 from leaving from Plaza Isabel Católica near the Cathedral

Cave Museum Address: Barranco de los Negros, Granada

Cave Museum entry fees: 5 euros, guided tours 30-50 euros depending on the number of people in your party

Cave Museum hours: March 15 to Oct 14 daily from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. From Oct. 15 to March 14 daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm

Sunset at Plaza San Nicholas in Granada

5. The Sunset at Plaza San Nicolás in the Albaicín

But you should still come to this spot at sunset. The lively and rather hectic Mirador de San Nicolás is perhaps the most famous viewpoint in Granada. Here, you can see the Alhambra sprawled across the wooded hilltop against the backdrop of the dark misty Sierra Nevada mountains.

This is the ideal place for a classic sunset shot. When former president Bill Clinton visited in 1997, he said the Mirador had "the most beautiful sunset in the world."

The mirador is located in the Albaicín neighborhood. Just next to the viewpoint is the Church of San Nicolás, built in 1525. The church is a combined Mudéjar and Gothic style, built on top of a mosque, like so many other Andalusian churches.

Practical Information for Visiting the Plaza Nicolás:

Address: Plaza de San Nicolás, Granada, Spain

Getting there: You can get to the Mirador de San Nicolás from Plaza Isabel Católica in the small red minibuses that go to the Albaicín.

Pro tip: The Mirador is crowded and there are pick pockets, so be cautious.

entry to the Capilla Real, the Royal Chapel of Granada

6. Capilla Real, the Royal Chapel of Granada

Capilla Real is a 10 minute walk from Granda Cathedral. It’s the resting place of the two most famous Spanish Catholic monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. They ordered the mausoleum's construction in 1504, desiring an appropriately serious place of final resting.

Unfortunately, the monarchs died before the Gothic chapel was completed in 1517. In the interim, they were interred at the Alhambra in the Convent of San Francisco. In 1521, Carlos V moved their bodies to the chapel. In fact, he buried most of his family there.

the tombs of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Capilla Real

The monarchs’ ornate Carrera marble tombs were the work of Italian artist Domenico Fancelli. They lie in a chancel behind a wrought iron screen.

But the tombs are just for show. The monarchs' bodies actually lie in lead coffins beneath their tombs, in the chancel’s crypt. The queen’s crown and scepter are also on display.

Practical Information for Visiting Capilla Real:

Address: Calle Oficios, s/n, 18001 Granada, Spain

Hours: Mon to Sat 10:15 am to 6:30 pm, Sun 11:00 am to 6:30 pm

Enty fee: 5 euros, students 3.50 euros, under 12 free

Venta El Gallo flamenco club in Granada's Sacramonte neighborhood

7. Take in a Flamenco Show

My Sacramonte tour guide said that Sacramonte is the best place to take in a flamenco show. The gypsies brought a distinctive type of flamenco called Zambra. Zambra is a passionate flamenco dance and singing party with barefoot dancers and handheld castenets.

Flamenco is staged nightly on the main drag, Camino del Sacramonte. You can take in a show at Venta el Gallo, Maria la Canastera, or Cuevas Los Tarentos. Sacramonte’s most famous singer is Estrella Morente.

The Albaicín is also famous for flamenco. A good spot to try is the Peña de la Platería. Its alfresco patio has hosted flamenco since 1949.

San Jerónimo Monastery in Granada

8. Monasterio de San Jerónimo

Architect and history geeks can take in the underrated and obscure 16th century Monasterio de San Jerónimo. It's one of Granada's most impressive Catholic buildings. It was the first monastery built after the Reconquista. Construction of the Gothic-Renaissance monastery began in 1496.

The patio courtyard is stunning, awash with orange trees. It has with 36 arches bearing shields of famous kings. The monastery’s main attraction is its intricate Baroque sacristy.

Practical Information for Visiting Monasterio de San Jerónimo:

Address: Calle Rector Lopez Argueta 9, Granada

Hours: Mon to Sun 10:00 am to 1:30 pm, evenings 2:30 to 6:30 in winter and 3:00 to 6:30 in summer. Mass in held on Sundays at 10:00 am.

Entry fee: 4 euros, Guided tours on Sunday at 11:00 am for 7 euros

Getting there: Bus # 25, Cran Capitan stop.

the Alcaiceria Market in Granada

9. Browse at the Alcaiceria Market

Granda has an exotic Moroccan type bazaar, just off the square on the corner of the cathedral. If you’re in the city center, you’ll inevitably stumble upon it. Vendors sell leather good, ceramics, spices, glass ornaments, and silks. But be prepared to haggle because prices are set high for tourists.

I hate to negotiate (a terrible trait for a lawyer), so I didn’t buy a trinket. But the Alcaiceria is still a fantastic spot for photos. So much color!

Unfortunately, it’s quite touristy. While you’re picking up those souvenirs, you may be besieged by women bearing rosemary. It’s a scam. They want to stuff the rosemary in your hand, pretend to read your fortune, and get money in return. Just ignore them and go on your way.

Practical Information for Visiting the Alcaiceria Market

Address: Calle Alcaiceria, 1, 3, 18001 Granada, Spain

Hours: 10:00 am to 9:00 pm

Street art in Granada's Realejo Neighborhood. Image source: Gwen Fran Flickr

10. The Realejo Neighborhood

This is Granada’s edgy old jewish quarter populated by “greñúos,” the name of its residents meant to invoke their inherited dark curly hair. Like the Albaicín, it’s made for strolling.

While you’re strolling, you’ll see the street art of artist Raul Ruiz, known as “El Niño.” Stop for tapas or a drink in the Plaza del Campo del Principe, a lively square in the heart of the neighborhood.

Be sure to check out the Iglesia Santo Domingo. it’s beautiful inside and out. The neighborhood is known for its grand mansions and loverly walled gardens.

A fountain dedicated to Federico García Lorca in the main square of his birthplace, Fuente Vaqueros, Andalucía, Spain

11. Frederico García Lorca House-Museum

If literature is your thing, head to the museum house of Spain’s greatest poet, Frederico García Lorca. Lorca was born in Granada. He lived and worked there, capturing its charm in his many poems and plays. His most famous work is the Romancero Gitano, poetry inspired by romantic world of the Andalusian gypsies.

His house is now a museum, lying about 9 miles west of Granada. There, you can find original artifacts, including drawings, paintings, and manuscripts. Lorca had a lifetime relationship, possible a secret love story, with another Spanish artist, the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí.

Practical Information for Visiting the Lorca Museum:

Address: La Huerta de San Vicente (Museo García Lorca), Virgen Blanca, s/n, Granada 18004.

Hours: From Sept 16 to May 31: Weekdays 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Weekends 9:30 am to 5:00 pm. From June 1 to Sept 15: Tues to Sun from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. Closed Mondays

Entry fee: 3 euros, children 1 euro, free on Wed

Getting there: Bus #25

the incredibly beautiful white pueblo of Frigiliana in southern Spain

12. Day Trips from Granda

Granda also makes a great base for day trips in Andalusia. You can hike and drive in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Or head to the Alpujarras and take in some lovely white pueblos.

I took a detour to off the beaten path Guadix. It’s home to another large cathedral, mysterious cave dwellings, and an alcazaba. I also day tripped to Nerja and Frigiliana on the Costa del Sol, which were both charmingly whitewashed and bedecked with colorful bougainvillea vines.

on the steps of the impressive Guadix Cathedral in Andalusia

In Nerja, on the windy Balcony of Europe

In Nerja, you can enjoy the views from the Balcon de Europe and go subterranean in the nearby Nerja Caves. Frigiliana may be Spain’s most beautiful village. Your head will swivel right and left as you take in the lovely manicured homes and gardens and ogle the beautiful ceramics.

So that’s my guide to the best things to do in the beautiful city of Granada, a place full of culture, color, and phantasmagorical architecture.

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