Granada is a mid-sized city in the south of Spain. Its most famous attraction is the Alhambra, a Moorish fortress, but is also considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the country.
After finishing up a two-week Spanish intensive at my business school in Barcelona, I had the weekend to myself before starting orientation. When looking at flight deals, I discovered that the flights to Granada had a good value. It was not the cheapest destination (that would be Mallorca), but I was going to be paying an average fare whereas for the other destinations I would be paying a premium fare for booking late and for booking in August when all of Spain is on vacation.
I was also able to secure a rare last-minute ticket to the Alhambra. Tickets normally book up a month or two in advanced.
Finally, Granada was somewhere I really wanted to visit. According to my research, two days is the perfect amount of time to spend in the city.
August 30, 2019: Welcome to Granada
I received an email from Vueling that their ground staff was on strike and flights would be affected. The earlier Granada flight was cancelled, but luckily mine was not. I arrived 3 hours early due to the scary nature of the email. In reality, that was totally unnecessary. We took off about an hour late due to a maintenance issue.
After 1 hour 10 minutes in the air, I landed at the tiny Granada airport- Spain’s 22nd busiest. It had two gates and no jet bridges. It was then that I realized why the flights was more expensive than other Spanish airports.
I took a 3 euro bus into town (the airport is so small that the bus is timed to leave exactly 30 minutes after each flight arrives). 40 minutes later I was in the center of Granada next to the Cathedral. I walked over to a lively bar street and strolled into a tapas bar. There I ordered a beer. Much to my surprise, the waiter not only brought me a beer but a plate of chicken in a green sauce. In Granada, every bar gives you a free tapa with your drink (alcoholic or not). This practice used to exist all over Spain but now is mostly limited to Granada and some places in Madrid. If you order a second drink, they give you a second tapa- that is usually better than the first to encourage you to stay.
After a few tapas, I headed over to my hostel and crashed for the night. There was only one other person in my room but for some reason they put me on the bunk bed right on top of him. Hard to complain when you’re paying 12 euros/night but still…
August 31, 2019: The Alhambra and Granada’s Main Sights
My Alhambra ticket was for the first thing in the morning. Maybe I was able to get it because Spaniards don’t like getting up early. The fortress is located on a hill just above town. It was about a 10 minute walk from my hostel.
The Alhambra is a huge fortress and is made up of multiple parts. Three parts require special tickets: the Nasrid Palace, Alcazaba, and Generalife. Of those three sections, the Nasrid Palace is the one that everyone cares about. All-access tickets specify exactly when you can visit the Nasrid Palace. If you are willing to not visit the Nasrid Palace, the Alhambra sells a ticket that gets you into everywhere else. These ticket does not sell out.
The Nasrids were the last dynasty of Muslim Spain. They ruled the Emirate of Granada (in the region then known as Al-Andaluz) from 1230 until 1492 when the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the city. The Alhambra was a royal palace and foremost military installation. Muhammad ben Al-Ahmar built the original fortress but numerous emirs expanded it including Yusuf I and Muhammed V.
After the end of the Nasrid Dynasty, the complex fell into the hands of the Castillian noblemen who altered the complex considerably (most likely for the worst). It then fell into a state of disrepair sometime in the 19thcentury. However, for the last century, the Spanish government has done a wonderful job at restoring the site to its original glory.
The Nasrid Palace was the “royal palace” section of the Alhambra and had the most ornate stonework of the complex. With the exception of a few rooms which were altered by the Spanish, everything here was built in the 1300’s by Muhammad V and Yusuf I.
I stood in line and was let in right at 9:30. Immediately I was struck with an ornate wall covered in Arabic-lettering stonework. Wow!
I then followed the crowd through the incredible rooms and courtyards of the palace. The stonework on the walls is nothing short of spectacular. The ceilings were also beyond anything I have ever witnessed due to their complexity. This obviously could never happen but I wish that the rooms were furnished so I could see what it really looked like during the Nasrid dynasty.
The tour of the Nasrid Palace took about 1 hour afterwards, I wandered over to the Alcazaba which was the military installation part of the Alhambra. I wandered through the towers and ruins of the barracks. It was here that I got the best views of Granada and the surrounding mountains.
Finally, I visited the Generalife which was a 25 minute walk from the Alcazaba (that’s how big this place is). The Generalife was built as the “country home” for the Emir. I found this funny since it was so close to his normal palace. It was definitely smaller and simpler than the Nasrid Palace, but nice in its own right. I also got a beautiful view of the Alhambra.
It was now 12:30 and I have been at the Alhambra for 3 full hours! At this point I have seen everything that is to be seen and was ready to explore around the rest of Granada.
I stopped for a quick seafood lunch (the free tapa was a plate of fried anchovies) before heading to the cathedral.
The Granada Cathedral was one of the largest churches I have ever seen. Construction began in 1526, 34 years after the Catholic monarchs conquered the city. Because Granada was the last Muslim city in Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella (and the subsequent monarchs) sort of went extra heavy on making the city Catholic and put considerably more resources into the city’s churches. Today the church feels oversized because nobody in Spain actually practices Catholicism anymore.
Additionally, Ferdinand and Isabella actually decided to be buried in the cathedral. The considered removing the Muslims from Spain their greatest achievement and wanted to be buried at the site of their victory – an incredibly imperialist, but on-brand move. Their burials are in the incredible Royal Chapel, which today has a separate entrance and requires a separate entrance ticket. Pictures were not allowed inside.
Something that struck me was a request from a sign (and the audioguide) to say a prayer to Isabella for all she did for Catholicism (it appears she was the religious one). Yes she did increase the bounds of Catholicism to Granada and to the Americas but at the cost of many many lives and livelihoods. I am not so sure that this sign is appropriate in the modern day.
Near the cathedral is a neat spot called the Alcaiceria. It appears to be just another tourist market to buy Arab-style curios and other touristy goods, but is in fact a very real 14thcentury Arab silk market. Many other cities have historic markets turned into cheesy tourist markets (Nassau, Bahamas’ Straw Market immediately comes to mind). The difference here is the narrow streets and palpable history.
I visited two other incredible churches during the afternoon. The first was Royal Monastery of San Geronimo. Hint: if the church has Royal in the name, it is crazy ornate. This church was covered in ornate paintings on every wall and ceiling. The golden altar had approximately 80 statues of saints underneath even more paintings of saints. This place made my jaw drop.
The other amazing church (located just two blocks away) is the Basilica of San Juan de Dios. This basilica contains relics of St. John of God who grew up in Portugal but eventually settled in Granada. St. John of God founded a worldwide Catholic organization dedicated to helping the sick and those with mental illnesses. Even though the guy seems like a humble man, the church has more gold than anywhere I have seen outside of Porto’s Sao Francisco.
Above the main altar, you can visit a room containing the relics as well as dozens of skulls wearing crowns of rotted flowers. Creepy!
In the evening, I walked up to the Mirador San Nicolas, the most famous viewpoint in the city. You get a straight-shot view of the Alhambra…and there’s an ice cream shop right nearby.
Then… I got more tapas.
At 10pm, I had walked 22.8 kilometers (14.1 miles) and passed out.
September 1, 2019: Abayzin and Sacromonte, the Unique Neighborhoods of Granada
After a well-deserved 10-hour rest, it was time to explore during my final day in Granada.
My goal for the day was to explore the two most famous and unique neighborhoods of Granada: Abayzin, the ancient Arab neighborhood, and Sacromonte, the gypsy neighborhood of cave homes.
But first, I had one more church to visit: the Royal Carthusian Monastery. This complex houses an order of monks that follows the teachings of Saint Bruno. The church is considered one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture in all of Spain. This church was a combination of obscene amounts of gold and murals.
Now it was time to explore the Abayzin, the former Arab neighborhood. Back in the day, this area was protected by a grand wall. It was historically considered a less-nice neighborhood but today is one of the trendier places to live in Granada. All the buildings were painted white and arranged on a hill. The streets are a maze. According to my friend Charlotte who studied abroad in Granada,
“ there is no ‘right’ way to see the Albayzin- just walk up the streets, get lost, [and] take it all in.” That’s exactly what I did.
As I wandered, I eventually found an interesting museum: the Palacio Dar-al-Horra. This small UNESCO-listed palace was the home of the wife of the emir. The palace was devoid of furniture. Instead, there was a fascinating exhibit on the technological advances of the Moors during the 1300’s. It is a fact that the Muslims were more technologically advanced than the Christians in almost all fronts including astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. It was suggested that the Muslim kingdoms fell due to infighting rather than military or technological inferiority.
The other interesting site was an ancient Arab bath. But both of those sites took no more than 30 minutes combined to see. The real magic of the Abayzin was the joy in exploring and discovering new streets or alleyways.
Just upvalley from the Abayzin is Sacromonte. Sacromonte was settled by gypsies shortly after the city became Catholic in 1492.
Gypsies (also known as Roma) are one of the most misunderstood communities. They migrated from India to Europe sometimes in the early 1400’s. Some countries welcomed them but many did not, so many Roma communities have remained nomadic in some places even up until today. The Roma language is closely related to Sanskrit and incorporate Hinduism into their beliefs. In Spain, the Roma have been persecuted for 500 years. Despite that, they have persisted. Today there are approximately 1 million Roma in Spain. I am not sure how the Roma managed to stay in Sacramonte the whole time.
Sacramonte is one of the most unusual neighborhoods in the world because 80% of the houses are caves. The caves were actually built by the Arabs but the Roma moved into them after the conquest. The neighborhood was a poor gypsy neighborhood until a few decades ago but now has been taken over by artists and hippies (the Roma moved to public housing projects).
The neighborhood doesn’t have too too many sights. The best thing I saw was the museum which showcases a typical cave home and Roma culture. There is also a monastery, but it’s not nearly as nice as the other churches in Granada.
It was now in the mid-afternoon and soon time to head to the airport. I took a final stroll through Abayzin, got lunch in a Moroccan restaurant and got one final free tapa. Then it was back to Barcelona.
Granada was pound-for-pound the best city I have been to in Spain and quite possibly Europe. The Alhambra does live up to the hype. The churches are stunning. The history is incredible. The free-tapa-at-the-bar culture is unreal and creates a lively nightlife. The food is delicious and there are neighborhoods that have no equals in Europe.
Two days is a perfect amount of time to see Granada; one day is not enough. I could easily have stretched it to three by adding in an adventure to the Sierra Nevada mountains.