Granada is a city in the east of Spain's most southerly province, Andalucía. While it is not the most beautiful of Spain's cities, it is very significant culturally. It was the last outpost of Moorish (Arabic) rule in Spain, surviving for over two centuries after the rest of Spain had fallen to the Christians. Among the remains from this era are the Alhambra, one of Europe's most stunning buildings, and the Capilla Real, the Royal Chapel built by the Christian conquerors.
Like most of Andalucía, Granada can be very hot in the summer, but thanks to its close proximity to the mountains of the Alpujarra it avoids some of the intense heat of other inland cities in the region. The mountains produce a steady breeze of cool air, and through winter, spring and early summer the snow-capped peaks form a sensational backdrop.
The city doesn't have the finest range of classy restaurants nor a great nightlife but, like most Spanish cities, it has plenty of attractive plazas for eating and drinking al fresco.
All in all, Granada is a great city for a short visit, and provides an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding mountains. Its history is inescapable, and it is a huge contrast to the overblown resorts on the coast further south. Perhaps nowhere else in Spain are the memories of the Moorish occupation quite so vivid.
A Day In Granada
If you only have one day in Granada, you'll probably want to spend most of your time exploring the city's culture and history. Here is the best of what the city has to offer:
A morning visit to the Alhambra, making the most of the early part of the day before the tour groups arrive.
A good lunch and coffee at one of the café-bars on Paseo de los Tristes, at the bottom of the Alhambra cliffs.
An afternoon strolling around the Albaicín, the largest Moorish quarter remaining in Spain. Take in the views from the miradors, before finishing the afternoon in a Moorish teahouse.
Resting your weary bones after all that walking with a soak and massage at the Arabian baths.
A Spanish-style dinner in Plaza Nueva, before heading up to the gypsy caves at Sacromonte for some late-night flamenco.
The Coming of the Moors
The fertile plains around Granada have been inhabited for as long as history records. The first known inhabitants were the Celtiberians, who arrived in the 10th Century BC but, as in the rest of Andalucía, they probably assimilated with tribes already living in the area. The Celtiberians traded with other civilisations around the Mediterranean coast, and the Greeks established a trading post here called Elibyrge (or Elybirge). The city was expanded under Roman rule and became important enough to mint its own coins. It was under the Visigoths, however, that the seeds of the city's future were sown.
The Visigoths swept over the Pyrénées in the 5th Century. They were, by and large, adherents of the Christian faith, and there was considerable tension between them and the local worshippers of the Roman faith. Worse, however, was their treatment of the Jews; tensions grew when St Isidore wrote an anti-Jewish essay, and an impressed King Sisebut decreed in 610 that all Jews must convert or leave. Finally the Jews bit back; they encouraged the Moors to invade, and in 711 the Jews of 'Gárnata al-yahud' helped the Moors to take the city. In time, the old name of Ilbira or Elvira would be forgotten, and the Jewish 'Gárnata' corrupted to Granada1.
The Moors would remain in Granada for an incredible 781 years. While most of Moorish Spain had fallen to the Christians during the Reconquest, canny manoeuvring by Mohammed I ibn Nasr just about kept Granada Moorish. He offered Fernando III of Castile a deal, whereby Granada's independence would be guaranteed in return for military aid. This unlikely alliance captured Muslim Seville, and the Moors held on to Granada. They would stay for over two centuries, expanding the Alhambra fort and adding palaces and gardens to the complex. Part of the appeal of keeping the city Moorish, to the Christians, was the trade links the city-state offered into Africa. The Moors controlled the trade routes through Morocco, and it was handy for the Christians to have a bargaining partner close to hand. The Christians relied on the Moors for trade almost as much as the Granada Moors needed the Christians for their very existence. This tricky equilibrium began to unravel as the Portuguese explored the African coast; as new sea-routes opened, the Moors became less and less valuable, until eventually the 'Catholic Monarchs', Fernando2 and Isabel, decided the Moors were no longer useful and took the city in 1492. It was the end of an incredible era, a quirk of history unrepeated anywhere in the world.
Orientation and Getting There
Granada is divided by the main street, Gran Vía de Colón, which runs roughly north to south through the centre. Most of the main sites are on this road or to the east, and the city is compact enough to be explored almost exclusively on foot. The bus and train stations are a good distance further north, and you'll probably want to take a taxi into town from either of these. Granada's airport is 20 minutes away by bus; services into the centre are regular.
The Alhambra is undoubtedly the highlight of any visit to Granada. The Moorish palace, gardens and fortress dominate the city, and Granada is as unimaginable without it as Agra would be without the Taj Mahal.
For detailed information about the Alhambra, see the separate h2g2 Entry on the complex.
The old city rises to the north of the river Darro, which separates it from the Alhambra hill. At over a square kilometre in size, it is Spain's largest Moorish city and has made few concessions to the modern era. If you want to explore, make sure you get a good map with all the street names marked; navigation can be confusing and the maps given out free all over town aren't detailed enough. Away from the main streets, there is a significant problem with graffiti and the streets can be uncomfortably dark and claustrophobic at night. A good route to take is to follow the river Darro as far as you can to Paseo de los Tristes, then turn left up Cuesta del Chapiz. This main route will take you up to the best parts of the Albaicín; packed with pretty churches, leafy plazas and a couple of spectacular viewpoints (miradors) at Carril de la Lona and San Nicolás. A good guidebook will come into its own here, as there are some wonderful Moorish buildings just off the beaten track.
At the bottom of the Albaicín hill on Calle Caldería, there is a string of Moorish teahouses, serving a whole range of teas from around the world. They're well worth popping into; atmospheric and nicely decorated, they sell every kind of tea, from those stuffed with rare herbs through fruit teas and green teas to Indian chai and - occasionally - English breakfast tea. After a walk through the old city, the teahouses make a perfectly fitting end.
The hillside above the Albaicín is covered in small caves almost like Tolkien's hobbit-holes. These have traditionally been home to the gitanos or gypsies. It's a pleasant place to wander around, but don't expect to see much gypsy culture - everything is very much geared to the tourists. In days gone by, visitors would be invited into the gypsy zambras ('shindigs') and treated to some sherry and flamenco. This still happens, but rather than sharing their culture the gitanos simply want to make as much money as they can. It's all good fun, but be careful not to run up a huge bill!
If you want to see and learn more about gitano culture, there is an excellent museum, the Centro Interpretación de Sacromonte. Also worth a mention is Los Faroles, a very small bar run by a flamenco aficionado; at weekends there are often impromptu flamenco nights here - while not quite the real deal, it's much better than buying a ticket to a tourist show.
The Cathedral and Capilla Real
Somehow, it's difficult to fully appreciate the Christian buildings in Granada. The Moorish influence is so tangible elsewhere that, however grand, they seem to lose their impact somewhat.
This doesn't make them any less worthy of a visit. The Capilla Real, or Royal Chapel, was built as a mausoleum for the city's first Christian rulers, Fernando and Isabel. Despite Isabel's express wish to be buried in the Alhambra, her remains were moved and interred here in 1522 along with those of her husband. Scenes from the lives of the saints, Fernando and Isabel, and from the Reconquest of the city are carved and painted behind the altar. Descending a short flight of stairs allows you a peek at the monarchs' tombs, though since Napoleon's troops opened and defiled the tombs in 1812, no one is quite sure if their remains are inside the tombs at all.
Furnished with gold from the New World, the cathedral was begun in 1521 on the site of the Moors' Great Mosque, but wasn't completed until the 18th Century. The 30-metre-high ceiling stands atop 20 huge stone pillars making the inside appear extremely spacious. It attracts its share of visitors, but the interior is fairly unremarkable among Spain's cathedrals.
There is a smattering of other attractions in the city. Just north of Plaza Nueva is the Museo Arqueológico, the Archaeological Museum, which is fascinating if you have an hour or so to kill. Entrance is free if you have an EU passport. It consists of a series of rooms, each covering a different era of Spanish history; Neolithic grass sandals and a Moorish astrolabe are among the highlights. Nearby are the Baños Arabes; closed indefinitely at the time of writing, the Arab Baths are another relic of the Moorish occupation. Don't be disappointed, though; just over the river, you can get your swimwear on and treat yourself to an Arab bath and massage at Baños Arabes Al Andalus. The baths, consisting of one hot bath, one warm and one tepid, are a perfect way to relax after a long day exploring.
Federico García Lorca
Born in Vaqueros near Granada in 1898, Lorca was one of Spain's greatest literary figures. He moved into the city at the age of 11 and nine years later, while still at university in Granada, he published his first book of poems and essays. His career didn't really take off for another decade, when in 1928 he published El Romancero Gitano, a collection of gypsy songs. Suddenly successful, he then spent two years at Columbia University in New York, which led to another collection, Poeta en Nueva York.
Back in Spain, he was offered a grant from the government to run a travelling theatre group, known as La Barraca (the Cabin). Between 1931 and 1936, he was inspired to write his greatest productions for the stage.
With unfortunate timing, Lorca returned to Granada in 1936 just as the Civil War was about to begin. Franco's coup led to a reign of terror in Granada; Lorca, openly homosexual and Republican, was tracked down by the fascists, taken to the nearby village of Viznar and murdered two days later. His body was never found.
A guilty city has only just begun to recognise his legacy; perhaps the most poignant tribute will be the Parque Federico García Lorca, where a huge rose garden adjoining the house he grew up in is planned. The house, with its adjoining orchard, is now a museum to his memory.
If you have a mind to, you can find echoes of Lorca all over Granada. At the eastern end of the city, for example, the river Darro enters a tunnel built by overzealous town planners and remains hidden under the city for most of its journey through it. Lorca describes it perfectly:
[The river]... moans as it loses itself in the absurd tunnel.
Around Granada Province
The province of Granada has a very wide range of habitats. Here you can find desert (near Baza, which is also worth a visit, there are remains of pre-Roman cultures in the desert and troglodyte3 dwellings). The Guadix landscape is reminiscent of the Grand Canyon. There is Alpine habitat in the Sierra Nevada, with flora found nowhere else in the world. Inland, the landscape is described as 'continental', and this is where most olive trees can be seen; the majority of the exotic fruits consumed in Spain come from the sub-tropical Andalucían coast.
To the south of Granada lie the Sierra Nevada mountains, which are snow-capped for most of the year. From November until late May, there is excellent skiing at the resort of Sol y Nieve4, just 28km from Granada. For the rest of the year it is an excellent base for mountain trekking and horse riding.
Further to the west, the N323 is the best route into the Alpujarras. These fertile valleys, running south from the main Sierra Nevada range, were the last refuge of the Moors after the fall of Granada. The mountain pass at Suspiro del Moro (Sigh of the Moor) is the place where the last Moorish king, Boabdil, looked back on the city for the last time5. Worthy of particular note is the town of Lanjarón, which has been famous for its spa waters since Roman times. The villages to the east of Lanjarón are worth a tour. Trévelez is renowned for its altitude - it's the highest village in Spain - its wine and its delicious serrano ham. The landscape in the Alpujarran autumn is an amazing spectacle.
Eating and Drinking
Restaurants and entertainment are not something Granada is renowned for. Food is good but fairly basic, so it's best to forget high cuisine and enjoy meals as the Spanish themselves do. Every evening, every plaza in the centre is filled with tables; most places have a menu del día, a half-set three course meal including wine for €6-12. This is great value for money if nothing else, and the food is always reasonably good. If you do want a culinary treat, a few places are worth mentioning. La Mimbre, near the Alhambra ticket office, is in a refreshingly shady spot and fairly reasonably priced. The Spanish royal family have eaten at the busy Los Manueles just west of Plaza Nueva. Finally, Restaurante Chikito, just off Acera del Casino on Plaza del Campillo, was once known as the Café Alameda and attracted a throng of literature's finest figures - Lorca, Rudyard Kipling and HG Wells were all visitors; it was also footballer Diego Maradona's favourite steak-house.
They say that, in Granada, the tapas6 are always free, and it's a pleasant surprise to find that it is true! You'll almost always be brought a small plate of olives with your drinks, and if you stay for a few you'll probably be brought other delicacies as well - for example, a few cubes of Spanish omelette or some serrano ham and cheese.
Granada has a large number of ice cream shops, many of which have been run by the same family for generations. They're always busy, particularly during late afternoon and early evening. Some of the heladerias go to extraordinary lengths to promote their products, whipping up the ice cream into all sorts of artistic shapes to catch the eye.
Nightlife is similarly nothing to write home about; a few bars have student nights, and there are some lively discobares7. Fortunately, bar-hopping is fun, particularly in the maze of streets opposite the cathedral and around Plaza Nueva and Paseo de los Tristes. On a bright evening, the latter is a great spot to sit and admire the wonderfully illuminated Alhambra.