Drawn by the allure of the Alhambra, many visitors head to Granada unsure what to expect. What they find is a gritty, compelling city where serene Islamic architecture and Arab-flavoured street life go hand in hand with monumental churches, old-school tapas bars and counterculture graffiti art.
The city, sprawled at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, was the last stronghold of the Spanish Moors and their legacy lies all around: it’s in the horseshoe arches, the spicy aromas emanating from street stalls, the teterías (teahouses) of the Albayzín, the historic Arab quarter. Most spectacularly, of course, it’s in the Alhambra, an astonishing palace complex whose Islamic decor and landscaped gardens are without peer in Europe.
There’s also an energy to Granada’s streets, packed as they are with bars, student dives, bohemian cafes and intimate flamenco clubs, and it’s this as much as the more traditional sights that leaves a lasting impression.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Granada.
The Alhambra is Granada’s – and Europe’s – love letter to Moorish culture. Set against the brooding Sierra Nevada peaks, this fortified palace started life as a walled citadel before becoming the opulent seat of Granada’s Nasrid emirs. Their showpiece palaces, the 14th-century Palacios Nazaríes, are among the finest Islamic buildings in Europe and, together with the Generalife gardens, form the Alhambra's great headline act. Tickets sell out, so book ahead; you’ll have to choose a time to enter the Palacios Nazaríes.
This is the stunning centrepiece of the Alhambra, the most brilliant Islamic building in Europe, with perfectly proportioned rooms and courtyards, intricately moulded stucco walls, beautiful tiling, fine carved wooden ceilings and elaborate stalactite-like muqarnas vaulting, all worked in mesmerising, symbolic, geometrical patterns. Arabic inscriptions proliferate in the stucco work. Admission to the palacios (included in the Alhambra ticket) is strictly controlled. When you buy your ticket, you'll be given a time to enter. Once inside, you can stay as long as you like.
The richly decorated Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of Two Sisters), in the Palacios Nazaríes section of the Alhambra, sits on the northern side of the Patio de los Leones. Probably named after the slabs of white marble flanking its fountain, it features a dizzying muqarnas (honeycomb vaulted) dome with a central star and 5000 tiny cells, reminiscent of the constellations. This may have been the room of the emir's favourite paramour.
The celebrated Patio de los Leones (Lion Courtyard) sits at the core of the Palacio de los Leones, the palace built in the Alhambra in the second half of the 14th century by Mohammed V. Its best-known feature is an 11th-century fountain set atop 12 carved marble lions.
This is one of the star rooms in the Alhambra. Boasting a mesmerising octagonal stalactite ceiling, it's the legendary site of the murders of the noble Abencerraj family, whose leader, the story goes, dared to dally with Zoraya, Sultan Abu al-Hasan's favourite concubine. The rusty stains in the fountain are said to be the victims’ indelible blood.
The Chamber of the Ambassadors is where the emirs would have conducted negotiations with Christian emissaries on the Alhambra. Located in the Torre de Comares, it has a marvellous domed marquetry ceiling containing more than 8000 cedar pieces in a star pattern representing the seven heavens of Islam.
The Royal Chapel is the last resting place of Spain’s Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs), Isabel I de Castilla (1451–1504) and Fernando II de Aragón (1452–1516), who commissioned the elaborate Isabelline-Gothic-style mausoleum that was to house them. Commenced in 1505, it wasn't completed until 1517, hence the royals' interment in the Alhambra’s Convento de San Francisco until 1521. Their monumental marble tombs (and those of their heirs) lie behind a 1520 gilded wrought-iron screen by Bartolomé de Jaén.
Built between the 16th and 18th centuries by the Carthusian monks themselves, this monastery features an imposing sandstone exterior and some incredibly lavish baroque decor. A highlight is the sagrario (sanctuary) behind the main altar in the church, a dizzying ensemble of coloured marble, columns and sculpture capped by a beautiful frescoed cupola. To get to the monastery, take bus LAC or N7 from the city centre.
From street level it’s difficult to appreciate the immensity of Granada’s cavernous, boxed-in cathedral. But it’s nonetheless a monumental work of architecture, and one of Spain's largest cathedrals. Built atop Granada’s former mosque, it was originally intended to be Gothic, but over the two centuries of its construction (1523–1704) it underwent major modifications. Most notably, architect Diego de Siloé changed its layout to a Renaissance style, and Alonso Cano added a magnificent 17th-century baroque facade.