Imagine visiting the town that was the most populated in Europe seven centuries ago, or stepping into the palace of The Arabian Nights whose walls are still echoing with stories of princesses… Or better yet – travel to Andalusia! But first, read about things to do in Granada with everything you need to know.
Granada was inhabited from prehistoric times. Romans colonized the city that was later conquered by the Moors in the 8th century. Arabs stayed here for seven centuries and gave the city its name. This is the last Moorish town that stood until the 15th century after other parts of Andalusia fell under Christians. When Cordoba fell in 1236, a lot of artists, scientists, traders moved here from the former capital. Granada continued to grow under the Nasrid dynasty from the 13th century who developed silk industry and trade routes for Sudan gold.
While typing these lines, I am wondering how it will all fit into a single post on things to do in Granada! But, let’s start from the beginning.
I came here from Malaga by bus (a lot of olives orchards along the way). The ride takes about an hour and a half, the ticket is 14 Euros, and there are numerous departures to choose from. It’s easy to take public transportation (line No. 33) from the bus station. Once you reach the Cathedral and the Plaza Isabel la Catholica, you are all set.
TIP: Public transportation card can be bought or recharged at the machines in Gran Via Street which also operate in English. A single ride will otherwise cost you 1,40 Euros.
‘Al hambra’ means red in Arabic, hence the name of the palace due to the golden and reddish gleam of its stones. The castle covers the whole Sabica hill. Alhambra complex was firstly built for military purposes, which is why it’s the fort – ‘alcazaba’, the palace – ‘alcazar’, and the small town – ‘madina’, at the same time. The fortress dates back to the 9th century, even though it was not used by monarchs until the 13th.
It was built by the Moorish Nasrid dynasty who ruled the city from 1238 to the arrival of Catholics in 1492. Alhambra was then turned into the Christian court. The place was seriously neglected during the 18th and the 19th century, so much so that Napoleon troops used it as military barracks, and it was widely inhabited by thieves and baggers. Never the less, Alhambra was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984, and nowadays every 30 minutes another 300 tourists come in to admire it.
To come to Granada and not to visit Alhambra is just not an option! Alhambra is usually the reason why people come here in the first place. It is the most important among things to do in Granada. Three million visitors pass through its gates every year. This is why you have to be prepared.
Tickets are sold online by the Alhambra Office, they cost 14 Euros and that is the only way to enter the Nasrid Palace (and to see the Patio of the Lions, for instance).
TIP: Tickets are sold online and are available three months in advance. If you try to get it a month before your trip, it might happen that dates you had in mind are just not available any more, even if you stay in Granada for 10 days and more.
Here is what happened to me. I took the airplane ticket and booked most of the accommodation in Andalusia (a month before the trip), only to realize that there are no available entries to Alhambra until the end of September! A thought to postpone the whole journey for October rushed through my mind, but then I remembered that I saw the so-called Granada Card somewhere, that offered ‘more entrees’ and ‘skip the line’ service.
True, it was three times more expensive than the actual ticket, but it included other museums, monasteries and Moorish houses’ fees, along with 9 bus rides and one tourist train ride to Albaicin. I bought it right then and there (online, for 45 Euros), and even then I only had two entry options for the date I was planning to visit (at 14 and 14,30h). And let me say it again – it was the whole month prior to my journey to Andalusia!
TIP: You can either print your Granada Card and take it with you or store it on your mobile. The important thing is that the barcode is available to be scanned at the entrance.
Alhambra can be reached by foot (a bit far from the center), or by C30 and C32 buses and taxies. The entrance itself is about 30 minutes away from the Nasrid Palace, so try to come earlier than the time you have booked, since that time refers to the palace access.
Bear in mind that Alhambra is not just one palace, it is a vast castle complex with palaces, fortresses, gardens, and courtyards. The estimated time of the visit is three hours. (It took me six!)
TIP: Let’s say that your ticket is booked for the 14h entry. In that case, consider being there at 10 am, because you can spend hours visiting other parts of Alhambra before reaching the Nasrid Palace.
It’s hard to choose between the view of Alhambra up close like this, and from the Mirador de San Nicolas in Albaicin on the opposite hill, with Sierra Nevada mountain peaks in the background. It’s also not easy to guess at which part of the complex you are at the moment, even more so when you enter the very halls of the Nasrid Palace.
Maps and audio-guides that are available at the entrance for six Euros, do make it a bit easier, though. Still, you will be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the place and the time you need to see it all.
TIP: Bring a bottle of water and bear in mind that toilets and machines for coffee and snacks are only available at two points in the palace. It’s also good to have some change.
Whether you are in the Hall of the Two Sisters or the Hall of the Kings, the Golden Room or the Patio of the Lions, you will be in awe by the mastery of craftsmen who turned these arches and ceilings into a true work of art. So many details, tiles with numerous patterns (I took so many photos of tiles!), typical Arabian windows, greenery and fountains.
Given that I traveled a lot through the Arab countries, it was immediately clear to me why fertile soil, lots of greenery, and so much water was in the focus here.
Then you remember the symmetry the architects used 7 centuries ago or façade reflections in small ponds for getting the impression of a much larger space. Even a laic like me is aware of the grandeur of the castle before me! Also, it’s not that hard to spot different styles once you enter the Carlos V palace who added this building to the complex after Alhambra was conquered by the Christians.
When strolling around the Generalife gardens where Moorish rulers came to find some peace outside the Alhambra court, you can easily picture some sultan sitting here at dusk on the balcony overlooking the palace, with characteristic breeze and purl of water in the background. If you can forget about the crowd of tourists, there will only be two distinctive sounds to admire – birds and water.
The harmony in every detail has to leave you in awe. No wonder that there were so many romantic and tragic stories that were whispered here since the scenery is just perfect. They say that there were times when sultana was meeting the knight from the rival family under the old cypress tree in Generalife. When the sultan found out, the whole knight’s family was killed… The cypress is still there.
The Albaicin neighborhood is the oldest in Granada. There was the Moorish court with heavy fortification on the hill in the 11th century, that is long gone. Only a few remains can be seen, among others the Elvira Gate. This is where more than 30 mosques stood once, that were later either demolished or turned into churches. There are only a few bell-towers (that used to be minarets) or writings in Arabic to remind us of the town long gone.
When it comes to things to do in Granada, make sure to spend at least one whole day in Albaicin. From the city center and Plaza Nueva you can walk along Paseo de los Tristes, the cobbled street next to the river at the very foot of the Alhambra, and then just turn left and up to where ever it pleases you.
You will get into the maze of narrow passages where three people would not be able to pass at the same time, that is – without scratching the white-washed walls of tall houses on both sides.
The curvy narrow path will take you to one side and the other, up and down, until you definitely lose any sense of direction. But don’t worry, that’s one of the reasons you came here – to get lost a few times.
The whole neighborhood goes up and down with all the houses painted in white. From time to time you go out to a somewhat wider square with cute tapas bars in the shade. You will often admire the view of the city on one side, and while there will be three or four small narrow streets going out of the square with no way to guess where they might lead to.
(This is going to get especially interesting about ten days later after I get to the ‘pueblo blanco’ of Arcos de la Frontera, all white and narrow!)
I went to Albaicin every day at least for a short while during my stay in Granada. Even now I can’t really decide whether I like the neighborhood better in the morning or in the evening, at dawn or when the sun sets, coloring the sky in red (against the white-washed houses).
TIP: Tapas bars are frequent around the Plaza Nueva and the Cathedral with terraces outside. But if it’s not too far, make sure to go for some tapas and a glass of wine to Albaicin bars.
Besides the fact that you are supposed to get lost in those curvy streets, here are few other things to do here. A must-see and another thing to do in Granada is a visit to the Plaza de San Nicolas with the church of the same name in the middle. This is also the Mirador or the viewpoint with maybe the most impressive view of Alhambra.
Visit also the old Arabic bath called El Banyo – with pebbles in the floor and stars in the ceiling, and the Zafra House – typical Andalusian villa with patio and a pond.
(No wonder that the whole Albaicin was declared the World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994.)
There will be a nice view of Alhambra from the Casa del Chapiz, another beautiful Moorish villa with a vast courtyard and lavish greenery. There is also a small statue of a local Rom in front of the Casa. And if you turn right, you will get to Romany neighborhood of – Sacromonte.
The neighborhood is named “the holy hill” because of few relics that were found here and preserved in the monastery on the top. It’s renowned for the white-washed caves that were once carved by Moors to get somewhat cooler rooms. When they were banished, Romany people settled here to stay.
A walk through Sacromonte will reward you with a nice view of Alhambra on the opposite hill. You will pass by the white-washed houses with ‘zambras’ or flamenco caves where this traditional type of Romany flamenco is performed.
Alejandro from the Tourist Information Center explained that Sacromonte in Granada is the very place to see zambra flamenco show. Because, the typical tablao flamenco can be found anywhere in Andalusia, especially if visiting Sevilla.
TIP: Browse around the Tourism Organization of Granada site before you go, just to get an idea of what there is to see here.
It didn’t take him a lot of convincing, I was on my way to one of the Sacromonte restaurants that same night for ‘dinner and the show’ – in the cave.
We had the traditional ‘salmorejo’ soup (made of tomato with chunks of veggies and ham), the Orata fish and ‘flan de la casa’ (vanilla cream with caramel and berries), and a glass of white wine. (The price for the flamenco show is about 30 Euros, with dinner it’s 60.)
And then, at the cave next door – the explosion of bright lights awaits, of loud music, ‘Ole!’ shouts, and dancers who were to crush the floor with their heels.
Sad tones were sung in the background, we were sipping ‘sangrias’ and looking into colorful skirts flashing before our eyes. The atmosphere will take you to some other dimension, you will forget where you are!
Still, the highlight of the evening was when Mari who lives in Albaicin came with us on our way back to the city, taking us for a midnight stroll through narrow streets of the neighborhood, all the way to the Plaza de San Nicolas. People were still gathering here around the two musicians whose voices echoed in the dark, with the magnificent night view of the Alhambra.
CATHEDRAL AND ROYAL CHAPEL
The Cathedral of Granada was built at the very center of the former Muslim quarter in 1523, at the place where the mosque once stood. It is decorated with high ceilings, rich columns and organs, and it was built in the Renaissance style.
There is also the Royal Chapel around the corner which was ordered by monarchs Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon after they conquered this part of Andalusia. Given that it was not finished before they both died, monarchs were firstly buried in the Alhambra, before their remains were finally moved here, under the imposing tombstones.
When you go down from Albaicin, chances are that you will get into the Calle Elvira. If you like Oriental cuisine or its textile and souvenirs, this is the place to be. Next to the Moroccan restaurant with shisha, there is the Syrian fast food and the place to try the Lebanese specialties.
Never the less, in one of the local places, I also found coffee to go and churros with chocolate (for 2 Euros). A must-have and very high on the things-to-do-in-Granada list!
Not very far from here on a five-minute-walk or so, there is another, they say – the oldest monument from the Moorish times, at the very center of the city. It’s called Corral del Carbon. Built in the 14th century, it served as an inn for merchants and a storage for their goods.
TIP: When you pass by specialized shops that sell the famous Spanish ham, check if they also sell sandwiches (‘bocadillos’) or ‘empanadas’. Because this will be a great way to try some of the best ‘jamon iberico’ (Iberian ham) for four or five Euros.
It’s easy to get to the Gran Via Street from here, and when you turn left – the impressive façade of the Royal Chapel will appear before you. Audio-guides are available in several languages.
I have to admit that the monarchs’ tombstone looks pretty impressive, while believers will also be able to find a short prayer to read here.
Unlike the Chapel, the Cathedral seems enormous. There will always be information displayed outside giving you the time of the service and when tourist visits are allowed. Just sit on one of the benches and enjoy the view of those high white ceilings.
I managed to visit one more Christian building – the Monastery of San Jeronimo.
Even though I literally ran through its corridors (it was closing in less than 30 minutes), the decorative ceiling and its beautiful courtyard were well worth visiting.
(Let me just remind you – I didn’t have to pay for any tickets for the places mentioned above, because they were all included in the Granada Card.)
I passed by one of the churches on the way to the monastery. Next to it, one of the nuns was selling local pastry through the open doors. My plan was to come back when I finish my visit and to purchase some of those delights. Never the less, not only that it closed in the meantime, but I was no longer able to recognize the door after being shut!
Next: CHARMING CORDOBA
The full ANDALUSIA series