Granada is blessed with Moorish heritage dating back more than 700 years. The pinnacle of this is the Alhambra, a compound with palaces, courtyards and gardens where the Emirs of Granada would escape the summer heat.
You can work your way along the streets of the old Moorish city, laid out exactly as it was in Medieval times, or enter the cave dwellings of the historic gypsy neighbourhood famed for its flamenco shows. All the while the soaring peaks of the Sierra Nevada will draw you gaze in the distance to the east.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Granada (Spain):
This magnificent sight is hard to sum up with a few words: The Alhambra is a palace, castle, summer retreat and enclosed town all in one enchanting place.
It was built during the 1200s and 1300s for the Nasrids, who ruled the the Emirate of Granada in the final centuries of Muslim control in Andalucia.
After the “Reconquista” it also became the royal court of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella I and Ferdinand II. Book well in advance and spend an enthralling day pottering about royal chambers, serene courtyards and divine renaissance and Moorish palaces.
The sumptuous grounds of the Alhambra are so huge that you might even need another day to see them.
These lush and stately gardens are especially fragrant in springtime and have colourful flowerbeds, neatly trimmed hedges and toparies, geometric pools and fountains and all sorts of surprising architectural flourishes.
The unforgettable part though is the Generalife Palace, which is at the crest of the hill where the Emirs would spend their summers in the shade.
The fountains here would cool the air as their waters evaporated on the patio’s paving stones.
Head north up the hill from Plaza Nueva to get to Granada’s Arab quarter that is also part of Granada’s UNESCO site.
After the reconquest this is where the Moorish population that wanted to remain in Granada settled and it’s impossible to ignore the influence on the architecture of this captivating part of the city.
Eventually the Muslims were expelled and their mosques became churches.
As befits a Medina, the streetplan is a tangle of tight alleys with tall townhouses painted white.
The hand-painted Moorish tiles adorning the walls here are very pretty and worth a close look.
4. Granada Cathedral
Built on top of Granada’s mosque at the start of the 16th century this magnificent building is Spain’s second-largest cathedral.
It was erected during a transition in fashion, so the foundations are gothic even if the main structure and interior are from the renaissance.
The person charged with trying to find some harmony between the styles was Diego de Siloé and his efforts won him a lot of contemporary acclaim.
To soak up the brilliance of this cathedral stand in the main chapel and lift your gaze to the stained glass windows, sculptures and paintings on the sides.
5. Royal Chapel
Next to the cathedral is the resting place of two of Spain’s most important rulers.
The Catholic Monarchs, Islabella I and Ferdinand II are interred here, and had completed the Christian re-conquest of Spain from the Moors at the end of the 1400s.
Their beautiful tomb is made from alabaster and was designed by the Italian sculptor Domenico Fancelli.
The tombs of their, successors Joanna of Castile and Philip I, are also in the Royal Chapel, as well as the Catholic Monarchs’ grandson, Miguel da Paz, the Prince of Portugal who died in infancy.
In the Islamic days this was the location for Granada’s Great Bazaar, where merchants would tout their silks and spices along several crisscrossing streets.
Nowadays what’s left is a single passageway full of souvenir shops, some of which hold more interest than others.
If you’re searching for a gift that really represents Granada and Andalusia, try Fajalauza ceramics, Moorish-style earthenware, hand-painted with blue or green motifs of plants.
Also authentic is taracea: Inlaid furniture and other wooden decorative items, with beautifully intricate patterns.
East of Albayzín and in front of the Alhambra is another of Granada’s traditional neighbourhoods.
After the city was retaken by the Catholic Monarchs Sacromonte became the home for the city’s gypsy community.
The neighbourhood is on the precipitous slopes of Valparaíso amid pines and cactuses, and at some point in the 16th-century the settlers began to hew their homes from the rock-face.
As you stroll past these dwellings you’ll notice how no two cave houses are the same, as their dimensions are determined entirely by the difficult terrain.
Naturally, if you want to see a true flamenco performance, these caves are the real deal.
8. El Bañuelo
From the street they may seem like nothing but the baths on Carrera del Darro are a real rarity.
Most bathing establishments were destroyed following the re-conquest as they had a scandalous reputation akin to brothels.
In fact these baths only survived because they were underneath a private home that was built at the time the city was taken, so you’ll get a rare glimpse inside a real hammam from the days of the Emir.
What’s fascinating is the way the columns supporting the arches inside have capitals that once belonged to Roman and even visigothic buildings.
All the chambers have star-shaped openings in their ceilings, creating eerie shafts of sunlight.
9. Corral del Carbón
The oldest remaining monument constructed during the Nasrid dynasty, the Corral del Carbón was a warehouse and shelter for merchants, built in the 1200s.
Like the Arab baths the structure is free to the public.
In its day was where traders who had travelled from afar to the nearby Alcaiceria could store their wares and rest for the night.
You’ll enter via a beautiful double-arched gate, which leads to a central courtyard around which are the lodgings that today serve as the offices for the city’s orchestra.
The courtyard occasional hosts plays and flamenco shows on summer evenings.
10. Granada Charterhouse
You can catch the bus to get to this lavish monastery just north of Albayzín or set off on a 20-minute walk through the city’s bustling alleys.
Construction began at the start of the 1500s, right after the city was reclaimed, but wouldn’t be completed for another 300 years.
The result though is one of Spain’s baroque masterpieces, with eruptions of lush decoration that will leave most visitors awestruck.
Outside is a peaceful cloister, with rows of Doric columns from the 1600s and leading off from this courtyard are rooms decorated with paintings of martyrs who met with bloody ends.
The sacristy is also very richly decorated with a dome painted by the 17th-century baroque master, Antonio Palomino.
Everybody knows about tapas, but what you might not be aware of is just much a part of everyday life it is in Andalusia, where it originated.
From about 1pm to 4pm and around 9pm to midnight you can head into a bar in Granada, order a beer or glass of wine and enjoy a free tapa picked from a menu as part of the deal.
From the outside many of these joints will look a little run-down or poky, but don’t be deterred as the less touristy bars are often the best.
Tapas can include anything from olives and Jamon serrano to patatas bravas, small panini sandwiches and deep-fried calamari.
Some picks include Bar La Buena Vida on Almiceros, or Bar Avila on Veronica on Veronica de la Virgen. (There are some Tapas Tours available as well)
12. Sierra Nevada
This national park lies just behind Granada’s eastern suburbs and has both the highest peak in Iberia (Mulhacén at 3,478m) and the southernmost ski resort in Europe.
It will only take half an hour to get from the old centre of Granada up to these majestic mountainscapes.
What’s great about the journey is the way the vegetation changes from the scrub of the plain to juniper bushes, wild olive trees and oaks as you get higher.
Finally around the resort are loft Scots pines in woodland where boar and wild cats roam.
The Ski Station at Sierra Nevada has a decent season because of the elevation, normally running from December to April.
13. Carrera del Darro
Beneath the Albayzín district is this street that traces the course of the little River Darro as it flows through the city where the old walls would have been.
It’s one of the most romantic walks, not just in Granada, but the entire country.
The street can taper to just a couple of metres-wide in places, and all the while you’ll have views down to the river and lush vegetation on its banks.
On the left are the renaissance buildings of the old city, many of which use stonework from original Moorish buildings.
At one point you’ll pass the Puente del Cadí, the vestiges of an imposing Moorish bridge emerging from the Alhambra’s woodland.
14. Science Park
After trailing around the historic city you may be in need of a change of pace, and this modern attraction just a 15-minute walk south of the centre is just that.
There are two main buildings: The Macroscopio has a diversity of exhibits including a “Journey into the Human Body” and installations that recount the achievements of Al-Andalus’ Islamic scientists.
In Foucault’s Pendulum Building meanwhile is concerned with physics, chemistry and mechanics.
This is where the Planetarium can be found, which puts on shows throughout the day using 110 mirrors to project 7,000 stars onto the screen.
15. Plaza de San Nicolás
At the top of the Albayzín district is the church of San Nicolás, fronted by this square.
It enjoys the definitive view of the Alhambra, set off by the vast peaks of the Sierra Nevada in the background.
After struggling to the summit of this hill you’ll probably be in need of a breather, so take five on one of the benches here, sit back and enjoy a panorama that has captivated people for centuries.