Located in the beautiful region of Andalusia, Spain, Grenada can sometimes be an overlooked spot in comparison to the larger tourist hubs of Barcelona and Madrid.
For 2500 years and possibly even further than that, humans have been living in that part of the country so there’s definitely something to be said about the warmth and natural beauty of the region. Granada is also a very aesthetically diverse place with a lot of empires and people invading and conquering the area.
The Moorish conquest in 711 AD brought Islam to the peninsula and Granada was one of the most important cities in the Al-Andalus. Following the Reconquista, the Christian image and architecture were then almost placed right on top of the existing Muslim and Roman one giving the city a distinct visual mixup of several different cultures.
The rich history and eclectic aesthetic of the city are only a small part of its charm. Despite the age of Granada, the lifestyle is certainly fueled by young crowds and student-driven nightlife. Granada is very much an old city with a young vibrancy. It’s less touristy than other cities and so it’s oftentimes more affordable as well. If you’re looking to spend time in one of Spain’s hidden gems, check out these amazing things to do in Granada.
Visit the Iconic Alhambra
Many people visit Granada simply to see this absolutely iconic palace of the Alhambra. The castle is one of the most iconic parts of the city and is arguably one of the most well-known and important cultural sites in the country. It’s hard to sum up exactly what it is, however. Part of it was a summer retreat, part of it is a castle, part of it is an enclosed town, and even with all those parts, there’s still even more. Built between the 1200 and 1300s, the Alhambra, in the end, became the last Moorish stronghold in the country, and its lush gardens and splendid Andalusian architecture served the Nasrid’s until the Reconquista.
After that, it became the royal court of the Catholic Monarchs. Now it is a vast complex where you can spend an entire day exploring the royal grounds.
Generalife: The grounds of the Alhambra are massive and divided into sections. The Generalife is the old garden that is especially vibrant and fragrant in the springtime.
Regarded as one of the most beautiful Moorish gardens in Europe, the Generalife is where the Emirs would spend their summers lounging in the shade. The garden fountains cool the air and the views here are incredible.
Alcazaba: The Alcazaba is the remaining part of the former fortress that sits on top of the hill overlooking the city. Offering amazing views of the city below and the mountains in the distance, the Alcazaba was also the personal quarters for soldiers. Inside the walls are where the soldiers lived with outlines of homes and baths still visible.
Palacios Nazaries: The Nasrid Palace is probably the most viewed and visited part of the palace. It is here where you’ll come across some of the more breathtaking architecture and artists’ works with carved wooden entranceways, colorful ceramic mosaics, and grandiose lion statues. The Palace of the Ambassadors room is the largest and most grand of the chambers functioning as a throne room with a star-studded ceiling and ornately carved arched windows.
Palace of Charles V: The Palace of Charles V is the most recent addition to the palace having been built in the 16th century after the Reconquista. It served as Charles V’s royal residence and is home to two museums. One is dedicated to the Alhambra and the other serves as an art museum.
Let Your Senses Guide you Through the Bazaar
In 711 the Moorish conquest brought a lot of Islamic art and architecture to the peninsula. When the Reconquista happened and Christianity returned to the country, the conquerors tore down a decent amount of Moorish buildings, but one they decided to keep around are the city’s bazaars. Now European travelers can experience the thrills, smells, and sights of an authentic Middle-Eastern style bazaar right in the heart of the city.
One of the biggest spots for shopping is the Alcaiceria market. Alcaiceria was originally a Moorish silk trading post and despite Spain’s effort to re-Christianize after the reconquest, they decided that the Alcaiceria market was too profitable to change. Explore the winding alleyways and narrow streets of the market and let your senses do the guiding for you. Brightly colored silks and ceramics line the shop’s entrances while exotic spices and scents take you back to the early days of the spice trade.
Another but just as important bazaar is the Bib-Rambla square. Also known as the “Plaza de Flores” it’s relatively small but always bustling with activity. In the Roman era, the space was used for bull running but now the area where this little market resides is used for celebrations and is a great spot to grab a coffee and chocolate churros. Hang out by the fountain, grab a snack, sit back and do some people-watching.
It is hard to think of a more picturesque place than Granada.
Get a little green therapy at the Carmen de Los Mártires garden
Step away from the hustle of the city and step into a world of greenery, tranquility, and peace. The Carmen de Los Martires garden is the perfect place to stop on your trip to Granada and like many things in the city, the garden is steeped in history and is much more than just your average run-of-the-mill garden. The surrounding area was originally known as the “Corral of Captives” and was named so after the Christian prisoners who interred in Arab prisons. A church was later built on the site, followed by a convent but in the 19th century the space was sold and gardens were built.
The professionally-designed garden features a British and French-style garden as well as a lake and a lovely Nasrid Patio overlooking a maze. The gardens are wonderfully maintained and with the grounds newly restored, the views are spectacular everywhere you look.
Bring a camera, take some photos by the French garden’s pond, or enjoy the intricacies of the English garden’s fountain. Get lost and wander in the maze with a loved one for a romantic afternoon stroll.
Wander through the Juan De Dios Cathedral
Spain has plenty of gorgeous churches and basilicas and Granada has some of the finest. The San Juan de Dios basilica might look like a conventional Spanish-style church from the outside but its interior will really blow you away.
The baroque-style church was built between 1737 and 1759 and is characterized by the two towers outside depicting important moments from John’s life.
While the exterior is nice, it’s the inside is beautifully ornate and filled with interesting things to see. The predominantly gold interior shines all around and the array of statues, carvings, sculptures, and paintings effectively make the place a museum as well as a place of worship. There is a 5€ entry fee which includes an audio guide available in different languages. And if you want to keep exploring the area, the nearby Monasterio de Jeronimos is a short walk away.
There are many cathedrals and churches in Granada to explore.
Spend some time in the Caves of Sacromonte
On the eastern edge of the city is the neighborhood of Sacromonte.
Situated on the hillside and opposite the Alhambra, the neighborhood is one of the most picturesque spots in the city. Historically the area has been the home of Grenada’s gypsy community but the biggest thing this neighborhood is known for is its iconic cave dwellings.
While the origins of the cave dwellings are not clear, its speculated that they come from the 16th century when the Jewish and Muslim populations were expelled from their homes in the city center.
They intermingled with the Romani gypsies already living there and took on some of their customs.
In the modern era, Sacromonte is one of the coolest places in the city. If you’re looking for a unique place to stay that’s not a hotel or hostel, a lot of the idyllic whitewashed cave homes are available to rent for short-term or long-term travelers. If you’re not looking to stay here, touring Sacromonte at the very least is a great option too.
Stop by one of the many little bars or cafes, grab a drink, and watch (or learn) how to flamenco dance. Specifically, the Zambra style which originated in the Sacromonte community and is typified by its blend of traditional flamenco with some Arabian belly dancing flair.
Check out the Historic Baths and Have one of Your Own
Known as “El Banuelo”, Granada’s Arab baths are an incredibly well-preserved part of local history. The old baths in Granada are some of the best-preserved in the region as most of the other ones were destroyed during the Spanish Reconquista.
The baths were built in the 11th century and served multiple functions. For one thing, it was a place where people went to clean themselves but it also served as a place of informal business where merchants and businessmen went to socialize and make connections.
There are three rooms visitors can check out. The cold room which once served as a changing room, the massage room or “tepid room”, and finally, the “hot room” which is where the big baths are.
While the historic bathhouses are a fun place to see some local history they aren’t functional bathhouses and mostly serve as a cultural landmark. So if you are looking to lounge and relax in a thermal bath and spa the Palace of Comares baths in the Alhambra Hotel is an authentic replica featuring hot and cold pools, Turkish baths, and the Arab spa circuit treatment.
Drink Wine and Snack for Free
Driven by its young and student population the bar and nightlife scene in Granada shouldn’t be missed. Granada is mostly notable for its tapas tradition that often is cheaper and more accessible than in other bigger cities. Lunch service typically goes from 1 pm to 4 pm with dinner service starting from 8 pm until the wee hours.
Wine and beer is generally cheap everywhere and finger food is typically served for free alongside the drinks you order. Naturally, the more you order and drink, the more (and better things) you’ll get to eat.
Go Skiing or Hiking in the Sierra Nevada
Located just a short drive away from the city of Granada is one of Spain’s most beautiful natural features; the Sierra Nevada mountain range. There is no bad time to visit and if you’re looking to get out of the city and into nature, this is the place to do it.
In the winter months, the mountains serve as one of Spain’s hottest ski destinations with trails around Boraguiles, Monachil, and Pradollano. The Sierra Nevada Mountains are southern Europe’s very few ski destinations and service typically operates from December to April.
If you’re visiting in the spring or summer, check out the 4-wheeling or mountain biking trails found around the mountains. If you’re an adrenaline junkie looking for a thrill, paragliding and mountain climbing are also popular activities. No matter what you choose to do here, don’t forget to bring your camera because no matter where you are, the Sierra Nevada offers gorgeous sites you won’t want to forget.
Our Final Word
Writer and diplomat Washington Irving called Granada ” A City of enchantment and fantasy.” We would add “and one not to be missed”. Granada has been a haven for writers and artists for generations and it is easy to see why.
Stay a few days, take your camera and discover the Spanish countryside like no other, but leave a forwarding address. You might never come back.