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Granada: The Heart of Moorish Spain

By Tarana Rana, 20 Nov, 2019

    A charming Andalusian town, Granada specializes in evocative history, stunning Islamic architecture and one of the best tapas scenes in Spain.

    No trip through Southern Spain is complete without stopping in Granada. While most travellers arrive here just to see the Alhambra, this compelling city is a destination in its own right. Seeping with centuries of history, Granada melds elaborate Islamic architecture and Arab-infused street life with monumental churches, bohemian bars, and a thriving tapas scene. Once deemed one of the greatest Islamic cities in the medieval world, Granada was the last bastion of the Moors in Spain when the Catholic monarchs captured the city in 1491. Today, this translates into a breathtaking blend of architecture and styles, most spectacularly seen in the Alhambra. If you’re planning a trip to this gritty and mystical Spanish city, prepare to leave thoroughly enchanted.

    Explore the Alhambra

    Without a doubt, the Alhambra is one of the most visited attractions in Spain – and for good reason. Set against the Sierra Nevada mountains, this alluring palace complex dates back to the 12th century. With its Islamic décor, elegantly landscaped gardens, and spectacular 360 views of Granada, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one you shouldn’t skip. Plan ahead and book tickets well in advance as they sell out. It’s recommended to book your tickets at least two months prior to your visit, if you are travelling in high season (June–September).

    The complex has three main parts, which will occupy most of your day once you arrive. There’s the fortress Alcazaba, where you can see the site’s original 13th century citadel. Then there’s the Nasrid Palaces, the centerpiece of the entire complex, with its stunning facades of glazed tiles, stucco and intricately-carved wood. Finally, there are the Generalife gardens, with its sultry courtyards and pools. It’s recommended to either book a tour or rent an audio guide to make the sense of this sprawling attraction, as signage is limited.

    Visit the Catedral de Granada & Capilla Real

    The next day, stroll down to the heart of the city to visit the Cathedral of Granada. Built on top of a former mosque after the conquest of Granada by the Catholics, the cathedral is considered a masterpiece of the Spanish Renaissance style. It is surprisingly large inside, with impressive facades, a grand altar and several exquisite chapels. Audio guides are included in the price of admission (5€/adult) and direct you to some of the more important works in the building.

    You can visit the Capilla Real (or the Royal Chapel) afterwards, which is located right beside the cathedral. Known for being the last resting place of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, Isabel I de Castilla and Fernando II de Aragón, the chapel has their monumental marble tombs on display. The sacristy also hosts a small museum inside, with some impressive pieces and an art collection, which contains a masterpiece by Botticelli.

    Wander around the Albayzín & Sacromonte

    Granada has two distinct historical neighbourhoods you should definitely add to your list. The Albayzín is Granada’s Moorish district, full of winding cobblestone streets, steep hills, where you’ll catch glimpses of whitewashed caremenes (mansions with walled gardens). It’s an ideal place to spend a relaxed afternoon; just wander around, soak in the distinct atmosphere or stop at a teashop. You’ll also find a lot of medina-style stalls here if you’re looking to pick up a souvenir or two. For some Instagram-worthy views of the Alhambra, you can walk up to Mirador de San Nicolas. This labyrinthine area is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

    Another unique neighbourhood you must explore is Sacromonte. Nestled in the hills above Granada, this is home to the city’s thriving Roma (Gypsy) community and is famous for their whitewashed cave homes. An interesting stop is the Cave Museum of Sacromonte. It’s an open-air museum where caves have been recreated as they were 100 years ago, so visitors can learn about the living conditions and trades of its inhabitants.

    Both these historical neighbourhoods are accessibly by foot. You also have the option of booking a walking tour if you’d like more of a guided experience.

    Experience a Flamenco Show & a Turkish Bath

    Round off your experience in Granada with a flamenco show. This Andalusian art form consists of tragic yet beautiful singing, guitar playing and passionate dancing which all culminates into one unforgettable experience. A popular venue for authentic flamenco is La Casa del Arte Flamenco, located in the city centre. You can also head up to Sacromonte to experience a show in a cave.

    Granada also has some of the oldest baths in Spain and this is another quintessential experience to enjoy while you’re there. There are several to choose from in Granada where you will be able to enjoy traditional hammam: hot and cold water baths, steam rooms, massages, and mint tea. Granada’s Hammam Al Ándalus is a popular choice for travellers. Be sure to book a few days in advance to ensure availability.

    Enjoy Granada’s Tapas Scene

    As my tour guide informed us, if you had to pay for your tapas, you’re not eating tapas. You’re just having Spanish food. Granada may be one of the few places left in Spain that honours the time-old tradition of tapas – whenever you order an alcoholic drink, you’ll get a scrumptious snack on the house and each successive drink secures an even more elaborate tapa.

    In Granada, the free tapas ranged from hefty servings of croquetas de jamon (breaded and fried bechamel fritters with Spanish cured ham), fried shrimp and fish fritters, sherry-soaked clams, and even paella. A great place to experience this is Los Diamantes. This tiny tiled café may look unimpressive but is always packed with locals and tourists alike. Their drinks are reasonable at 2€-3€; be sure to arrive early if you want a spot to sit.

    For a traditional bar, head to Bodega Castañeda, known for its floor to ceiling barrels of wine. It’s mostly standing room only but it’s well worth it. For tapas with a twist, visit Om Khalsum, which serves up Arabic tapas. Enjoy bite-sized versions of falafel, shawarma and various other classics in beautiful Moorish surroundings – complete with tiles, carved arches and cushioned benches.

    Finally, don’t leave town without having churros and chocolate for a sinfully delicious breakfast. Both Café Fútbol and Torres Bermejas are great places to indulge and are beloved by both tourists and locals.

     

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