Like most people, my main reason for going to Granada was to see the famous Alhambra, the Moorish palace and fortress that sits high on a hill overlooking the city and Sierra Nevada mountain range beyond. This was the last bastion of the Spanish Moors as the Christians forced them south in the 13th century and they set about making it the grandest city in all of Andalusia. When they were eventually conquered by the Christians in 1492, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand were so impressed by its beauty they did little to change it and so it remains much as it did when the Nasrid Dynasty ruled and Mohammed en Alhamar established the Moors’ capital there in 1232. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and really one of the wonders of Europe, if not the world. It dominates the city, nearly always visible and really quite spectacularly breathtaking. But it isn’t the only reason to go to Granada for it’s a beautiful city and has so much to offer other than its famous palace.
Getting there and where to stay
I flew to Alicante with British Airways on this trip to visit friends for a few days and then took a bus (ALSA bus) from Alicante to Granada as it was the quickest way to get there (click here for more). I flew back to London with Iberian Airways (British Airways’ partners so all booked together), via Madrid. I had a slightly fraught time coming home as my flight from Granada was delayed and it looked as if I would miss my connecting flight at Madrid, but the people at Iberian Airways were fantastic and met me (and a couple of others) off the plane at the gate and super fast-tracked us through, leading all the way through the terminal, onto a shuttle to another terminal and to our gate with just 5 minutes to spare! I’d never had made it if they hadn’t been so helpful. There are some direct flights from London City Airport and easyJet fly to Granada from Gatwick.
I not only booked my flight through British Airways (as a multi destination deal), I also booked my hotel through them, as I often do, for this definitely makes savings as well as being convenient. I first looked at a suggestion of a hotel high up in the city with wonderful views across to the Alhambra but a bit of research warned this involved a steep 20-minute climb on foot to get anywhere. Thus I booked Hotel Carmen in the centre. It’s a large newish 4* hotel on a busy road and thus inevitably a bit impersonal, but I had a nice big room leading out onto a narrow balcony overlooking the busy Acera del Darro and while quite noisy during the day, it was very quiet at night. There was a huge buffet for breakfast and I indulged in lots of fresh fruit – pineapple, melon, red grapefruit, etc. – but there was pretty much anything you might want, including a big bowl of tomato pulp to make tostadas, the popular Spanish breakfast of tomato on toast.
The staff were always helpful and friendly, so I felt very comfortable there, and they were happy to provide me with a pot of hot water at night with a big smile so I could make a night-time herbal tea in my room.
So, my main recommendation is that you give up a great view of the Alhambra if it means staying in the steep and cobbled roads high above the old Moorish quarter of the city, the Albaicin (Albayzin) because (see more below) the roads there are quite a challenge. I could walk to the area from my hotel in just 15-20 minutes and it felt a lot easier and more convenient – and anyway, if you want the view, Hotel Carmen had a great roof terrace with bar, restaurant and small pool – and view!!
Seeing the Alhambra
Given that you are most likely in Granada to see the Alhambra, then don’t miss out! I booked my trip early in the year and then discovered when researching online that it was recommended you booked a ticket to get into the Alhambra at least 90 days in advance. I decided to book a 3-hour tour with Viator that began at 8.00am and thus got you in ahead of the crowds. Given that over 6,000 people visit each day, getting in first has a lot going for it! It was a good tour, the guide informative and fun, and the views amazing (click here for more).
However I realised afterwards that as it was mainly outdoors I’d missed a lot. We were told we could stay on once the tour ended as our tickets were valid until 8pm, but after an early start and 3 hours walking I, like most others, set off back to town and lunch. When I go back, I’ll just buy a ticket to go in and expect to spend most of a day there, but the tour was a great introduction.
What else to see
I spent most of my time in the Albaicin, the old Moorish part of town. It was wonderful; I sometimes felt like I was in north Africa, Morocco, not Spain. The hub is Plaza Nueva (photo above), full of bars and restaurants and one night some flamenco performers – song, dance and guitar – busking, which was an exciting and unexpected surprise.
Walking from here further into the Albaicin, the road narrows considerably, following the path of the Darro river until it opens onto a green ‘square’, Paseo del Padre Manjon, full of bars and restaurants with the most magnificent view up to the Alhambra. Just sitting there is wonderful.
From here you can continue up to Sacromonte, the old gypsy area where people lived in caves and this was the heart of flamenco. It’s still where you can find the best flamenco if you know where to go, but it’s also quite touristy with tours going up to specially arranged flamenco performances. I walked up there one morning and it was wonderful because the views were terrific; completely stunning. There’s a cave museum at the top which is interesting to see.
And you’ll find a walk round the top where you’ll find a bench where you can sit and admire the amazing view.
There is a small bus (i.e. a very small sized bus that can cope with negotiating the narrow roads) that takes you up, and many people take taxis, but I enjoyed the walk. It’s quite a hard, steep climb though so go prepared with sturdy shoes and a bottle of water! You can also buy a ticket (€5) to go into an old Moorish baths and houses on the route (click here for more).
Around the cathedral area there’s a large, lively square – Plaza de Bib-Ramba – that’s worth seeing and is full of restaurants, bars and shops; you can see the cathedral rising in one corner.
To go into the cathedral itself, you need to pay €5.
Another day I explored the Realjo area and climbed some steep steps at Cta. de los Vergelese and was rewarded with another wonderful view.
Where to eat
For a fantastic setting go to Paseo del Padre Manjon (mentioned above) for the amazing view up to the Alhambra.
There are a number of bars and restaurants there. The best I found was Restaurant Ruta del Azafran. On my first evening walking back to my hotel and exploring a bit I saw a huge crowd outside a bar in a narrow alley (C/Hermosa) off Plaza Nueva. The next day I went back to investigate at lunchtime and had one of my best meals at Bar Casa Julio. It was tiny, standing only and served just a small selection of raciones, like tapas but bigger – sharing plates.
It was such a simple meal – fried prawns and tomato salad but absolutely glorious. I wanted to go back but they were closed Sunday and Monday so I didn’t make it. Another popular place nearby was Los Diamantes.
This was always packed so expect to queue. But once in you’ll find the food fantastic. It’s mainly fish and also serving just raciones (it was rare to see a bar serving the small tapas we’re used to thinking of when in Spain). The first night I went my waiter suggested the mixed fried fish as the dishes were large so I’d only want one on my own.
I’d wanted an arroz – a gorgeous ‘wet’ paella usually made with fish and one of my very favourite dishes anywhere. However, true to Spanish tradition, Los Diamentes didn’t serve it in the evening – the Spanish believe it’s unhealthy to eat rice at night. This means a good test of a restaurant and its authenticity is whether they’ll serve you arroz or paella in the evening! I went back the next lunchtime. I had to wait 10 minutes for them to finish cooking it – it was that fresh. It was fantastic; really good.
They always serve a little taster (like an amuse bouche) and as arroz seemed to be the taster of the day, they gave me a plate of fried mushrooms instead.
I had a nice lunch of tortilla (Spanish omelette) that came with salad at a little restaurant further up the Albaicin right by the river Darro (that’s quite narrow), La Taberna de Tiacheta, where there was a lovely view.
The best two restaurants I ate at were El Mercader in Calle Imprenta off Plaza Nueva and El Trillo in Calle Algibe de Trillo, which required a steep climb up from Paseo del Padre Manjon but was well worth the effort. At El Mercader I had a good cod dish with a squid ink mayonnaise on a romescu sauce.
The whole meal was good and the waiter was very knowledgeable about the wines so guided me to good choices. The meal at El Trillo on my last night was fantastic (read more here). I had the best salmorejo and another cod dish because I like fish and it sounded so good.
I found two good places for breakfast. I actually had breakfast included at my hotel but I like only some fruit, yoghurt and maybe cereal to begin the day and to have coffee and pastry later. So that’s what I did. A good deal of freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and croissant was found at Bar Lisboa on Plaza Nueva for €5.
This was a lively place and always buzzing and busy; they also have seats outside. The best croissant was found at Lopez Mezquita Pasteleria on Reyes Catolicos, a main road leading up to Plaza Nueva. They had fairly limited opening times and I kept passing them when they were closed, but when I finally managed to have coffee and croissant there it was really good.
What to eat in Granada
Andalusian food has a strong Moorish influence. This is where gazpacho comes from; also salmorejo (photo above). They are very similar but salmorejo is basically just tomatoes and bread and garlic, blended or sieved until very smooth and usually served with a garnish of Iberian ham and chopped egg. Gazpacho has other vegetables, less bread and isn’t always so smooth. As mentioned already, you’ll find more bars serve raciones than tapas.
As in other parts of Spain you’ll find wonderful hams, served thinly sliced onto plates. There was lots of fish on offer, mainly fried as I enjoyed above or this wonderful grilled octopus I had at Los Diamentes.
The special cake of Granada is pionono – a delicious small cake which I found to be a little like a bread pudding, soft for being soaked in custard and flavoured with cinnamon and a caramel topping.
The best are found at Casa Ysla, which luckily for me was right by Hotel Carmen! I also found great ice cream there.
I’m not a great shopper on holiday but I always like to bring some little gifts home for family and maybe buy some little souvenir for myself. Inevitably Granada is full of ‘souvenir’ shops, mainly selling typical Moorish things like ceramic plates, cups, tiles and Moorish clothes. But many of the shops sold really quite lovely things – prints and watercolours, handmade jewellery. I bought quite a few things in the official La Alhambra shop, Tienda Libreria de la Alhambra, and also some pretty handmade earrings in Munira on Plaza Nueva, which specialised in leather goods and even ran classes in making leather things; they also, apart from the jewellery had good quality ceramics and lovely prints.
General advice for walking about
Granada is a wonderful city but like any big tourist attraction, it’s wise to be careful with your money, phone etc. I never felt worried, to be honest, even walking around by myself at night, but it’s still best to take care. Of more obvious threat is falling on the steep cobbled street. Throughout the Albaicin area you’ll find you need sturdy shoes to negotiate the cobbled alleyways. It’s quite hard climbing up to lots of the places you may want to go, even some of the restaurants (like El Trillo) so be prepared. Sometimes there are handrails to hold on to – but more often not, so I often found coming back down more hazardous.
An unexpected hazard is traffic on the narrow road by the River Darro that leads from Plaza Nueva to Paseo del Padre Manjon. The road that runs between, Carrera del Darro, is very narrow. It’s easy much of the time to think you are in a pedestrianised area – but you’re not. Small buses, made particularly small to negotiate the road, run past quite often; a tourist train also makes its way up there; and taxis are frequent (maybe other traffic wasn’t allowed up there). There are very few escapes to the side as they approach … I often found myself squeezing onto a narrow step at a building’s entrance to avoid being hit, usually squashed up with other people. Even then I was occasionally anxious that I might get hit by the wing mirror – yes, they came that close! There’s nothing you can do other than be aware and take care.
Apart from guide books, I always like to take – if I can – a novel or some other book set in the place I’m staying, to read while I’m there. I took Laurie Lee’s A Rose for Winter: Travels in Andalusia (published 1955), a real classic, with me. It’s the most glorious writing. Lee writes of Granada that it is ‘probably the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierra like a rose preserved in snow.’ More famous perhaps is Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (first published 1832), which my friends in Spain told me was a ‘must read’ so I bought a Kindle copy while I was staying with them, then saw it in shops all over Granada while there.
I’ve wanted to go to Granada for sometime; it has to be confessed because I wanted so much to see La Alhambra. But once there, I did indeed love the Alhambra and was awed by it and its amazing views, both from it and of it throughout the city. But Granada the city is special too and I fell a little in love with it so definitely want to return soon. I hope my post highlighting all it has to offer will encourage you to go if you haven’t been … or go back if you have!
This article and more on Granada are published on the GPSmyCity app: click here.