From free tapas to a visit to the Alhambra, getting lost in the Albaicin and finding the perfect view: the best things to see, do and experience in this detailed local’s guide to Granada.
What you’ll find in this local’s guide to Granada:
- How to plan your visit to the Alhambra
- What to see in the Albaicin and Sacromonte
- The city’s best lookouts
- Explore the cathedral and city centre
- Where to find the best food and drink
- Where to see the best street art
There’s nowhere in the world like Granada. No other city manages to perfectly mix together Andalusian charm with vibrant, Moorish culture and an artistic hippie vibe as effortlessly as it does. And that’s why I’ve decided to curate this extensive local’s guide to Granada, so that you, too, can experience every side of the magical city.
I was lucky enough to live there for a little more than a year; enough time get to know the city’s ins and outs, its best attractions and best-kept secrets – all the while still permanently left wanting more. Just a few hours on the train from Seville, a one-hour bus trip from Malaga or a short flight from Barcelona or Madrid, the ancient Moorish city is becoming one of Spain’s most visited.
A city of contrast – both culturally and climatically – Granada is the country’s second-coldest in winter, and in summer it’s the third hottest. It sits at 700 metres above sea level, on the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, framed by snow-capped peaks and low cloud.
A city so beautiful it appears painted, having inspired people like The Clash’s Joe Strummer, American diplomat Washington Irvine, writer Ernest Hemmingway and first lady Michelle Obama.
A city that must be visited at least once in a lifetime.
Find out how to explore the best it has to offer, where to taste the best tapas and see the best sights, with this comprehensive local’s guide to Granada.
With up to 3 million visitors in a year, The Alhambra is usually the main reason people travel to Granada. The palatial fortress sits high above the city, and was the last bastion of Moorish rule over southern Spain. For such an iconic and well-known site, you’d think it’d be pretty straightforward to visit and get around – but, as with most things in Spain, nothing is ever as easy as it seems.
Unless you’re fine with getting up at an ungodly hour to line up for tickets, without guarantee: book ahead. While in the low season it’s possible to pick up tickets the day before your visit (the tourism office in Plaza Nueva is the easiest place to do it); in the high season it they can sell out up to months in advance.
If you miss out, there are still a few ways you can experience parts of the complex: buy a ticket just for the Generalife gardens, book a night visit, or enter the free section. The Palace of Carlos V, central plaza and a few different monasteries and old entrance ways can be accessed without a ticket. If you take Cuesta de Gomérez, a dirt road through greenery that starts from Plaza Nueva, you can double back at the top of the hill and enter via the Puerta de la Justicia. From here, you’ll still be able to see the brilliant views of the Albaicin and Sacromonte that the Alhambra is famous for.
But the great palace’s exterior is no match for what’s inside: it’s ornately carved, colourfully tiled, dotted with fountains and lined by orange trees. Every new corner presents a new marvel, guaranteed to leave you completely in awe. And, every now and then you get a glimpse of the white-wash buildings crawling up the hill on the other side of the valley, between lattice and Arabic-style archways.
When you purchase a general visit ticket, you’ll be able to select a time to visit the Nazires Palace; quite possibly The Alhambra’s most iconic feature. Arrive half an hour before your allotted time, and wait in line outside the Palace of Carlos V.
Set aside at least four hours to tour the whole area, starting from the Plaza of Isabel the Catholic (that’s the one with the statue of Christopher Columbus kneeling in front of Queen Isabel). Here you can take the C3 through the narrow streets, climbing almost vertical up the hill to The Alhambra’s entrance. When you hop off the bus at the final stop, head down to the left, following the signs towards Nazires.
In my dozen or so visits to The Alhambra, I normally save the Generalife Gardens to last. A stroll through the perfectly symmetrical pools, lined with wildflowers and complemented by a constant, calming trickle of water, is the best way to end the trip. From there, exit via the Puerta de la Justicia, and walk downhill towards the buzzing Plaza Nueva through forest and bramble.
There is no experience more authentically ‘granadino’ than getting completely lost in the Albaicin. The medieval neighbourhood was once the Moorish district, but is now home to hippies and artists who have flocked to the inspiring city.
The best place to enter is via Calle Caldereria Nueva, extending off Calle Elvira, where you can head directly uphill through a collection of lantern shops and Arabic tea rooms. There, follow one simple rule: head uphill and you’ll get more lost, head down and you’ll eventually find a way out.
The cobblestoned streets and white walls can only be distinguished from one another by pieces of street art, climbing vines and the occasional boutique café. If you manage to make it there, spend an hour people watching in Plaza Cristo Azucenas – a haven for hippies sharing shisha pipes, bouncing on slack lines and playing music, with views across the city.
Running from the back of Plaza Nueva, all the way towards the Sacromonte neighbourhood is Granada’s most picturesque street. Carrera del Darro is a narrow, cobblestoned street with arched bridges and a cold water stream on one side, and ancient building, some built into the rock like caves, on the other.
At the very end of Carrera del Darro, head directly up the hill and take a right into Camino del Sacromonte. Here, you’ll see the scenery change from dense buildings to open valley, low hanging trees over the road and the occasional passerby on a donkey.
It’s the traditional gypsy area of the city, where residents still live in the same caves as their ancestors did before them, and sing and dance to the same flamenco songs. At the end of the road you’ll find the massive Abbey of the Sacromonte, where a 30-minute tour (in Spanish) will set you back three euros.
There’s no way to enter the abbey without first taking the tour, unfortunately, but it’s worth it; afterwards you’re free to explore on your own, where, beneath the main church, lie sprawling catacombs and underground chapels, home to a cross which supposedly belonged to Saint John of God.
Granada is the city of ‘miradores’ – or lookouts – and rightly so. High hills and mountains on one side, and sprawling, flat plains on the other; bridged by a cluttered, beautifully unorganised city between. The most famous of all lookouts is the Mirador de San Nicolas – a plaza in the Albaicin sitting directly across from the Alhambra’s most-photographed façade. It’s filled with buskers playing flamenco guitar and vendors selling little trinkets and handmade silverware; the perfect place the watch the sunset turn the palace and snowy mountains behind a light shade of pink.
It’s easy to explore the Albaicin’s nonsensical, cobbled streets and come across a private mirador of your own, but high above the city, adjacent to its ancient walls is where you can find the best view. A walk to the Mirador de San Miguel is not for the faint hearted: the highest point in the city is located at the end of a long, long set of stairs. To get there, navigate your way to Calle Cruz de la Rauda, right at the back of the Albaicin. From there, you can follow the steps to the top, towards the Chapel of San Miguel Alto. It’s worth the hike though, because the view (shared by you and very few others) looks something like this:
While it’s no rival for Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or the huge, gothic spire in Seville, Granada’s cathedral blends in perfectly with the city’s Arabic-Spanish feel. The cream-coloured exterior, turned sandstone by the bright sun, is tucked between a marble plaza, narrow lanes and the Royal Chapel; where the remains of the famous Catholic Kings now lie.
While the exterior is a sight to see, if you’ve already visited a lot of Spanish and European churches it’s probably not worth the four-euro entrance fee to go inside. If you do, it looks something like this:
Rather, save your cash for a coffee in the sprawling, sunny plaza outside. If you head back up the cathedral’s steps and turn to the right, you’ll end up in a collection of narrow streets, archways and stores selling Moroccan glass lanterns and tea sets (often at a reduced price to the ones on the Albaicin’s main street). This is the ancient silk markets, also known as the Alcaiceria, once home to a grand bazaar peddling North African wares to the city’s wealthy from the 15th to 19th centuries.
If you make it out of the labyrinth of metre-wide lanes, head downhill the huge, Parisian style Plaza Bib Rambla. In my time living in Granada, this was always my favourite spot for people watching. A spot in the sun, by the high, central fountain, with an ice cream from Tiggiani’s (look for the yellow shop front – cinnamon and honey cake flavour is to die for!), is the perfect place to whittle away the afternoon hours.
One thing that sets Granada apart from the rest of Spain is its free food. You read right: with every drink you buy, you’ll get a free tapa on the side. Depending on where you go, this could range from a poached quail’s egg wrapped in ham, to a toasted sandwich with bacon and cheese.
For a filling meal, any one of the city’s four Bella y la Bestia bars never disappoint – for two euros you’ll get a beer, wine or soft drink, mini bagel with ham and a side of hot chips and aioli. If you’re after something more unique, Babel World Fusion, behind big glass windows on Calle Elvira, lets you pick an international-style dish off its chalkboard menu.
Los Manueles near Plaza Nueva sells some of the tastiest Andalusian food, and the biggest croquetas you’ll ever lay your eyes upon, and any one of the bars in Calle Navas will serve you juicy, fresh prawns, mussels and fried fish cakes.
Tucked away in Plaza de los Lobos is one of the city’s coolest spots for a coffee or cocktail. Behind an unassuming, unmarked door, sits Bohemia Jazz Café, an incredibly curated collection of remnants from the forties and fifties; old books, movie posters, gramophones and type writers, an old barbershop chair and a piano-cum-table are among the eclectic collection. True to its name, the dark hole-in-the-wall is one of the coolest venues for live jazz performances.
Moorish tea rooms
You can’t go to Granada without sampling some Arabic tea in one of its many, smoky pillow-adorned tea rooms. While there are several winding up the hill in the Albaicin’s Calle Caldereria Nueva, one of the best is Tetería Abaco. High up on Calle Alamo del Marques, the tea shop sells a variety of flavours in ornamental, silver pots and tiny glasses, with chocolate and fruit crepes. Follow the staircase all the way to the top, where the ceiling is too low to stand, for a view out the window across to the Alhambra.
Granada is the street art capital of Spain, and rightfully so – El Niño de Las Pinturas (basically, Spain’s answer to Banksy) grew up in the city’s old Jewish District: El Realejo. Stroll along Calle Molinos to uncover some of the city’s best works; from entire buildings covered in faces, to Placeta Joe Strummer: a square dedicated solely to the lead singer from The Clash.
On the other side of the city, near Plaza del Triunfo and the University Law Faculty, sits one of the city’s most iconic collections of street art. On a staircase between Calle Veredillas de San Cristobal below, and Carretera de Murcia above, you’ll find a mixture of styles, colours and artists. There’s a pregnant Mother Earth and wildflowers and, if you turn around at the base of the first set of stairs, a huge, black and white middle finger.