If you ever visit Spain, I implore you to visit Andalusia, a region in the south comprising 8 provinces. To share some history, Andalusia was the centre of an Arab population for 8 centuries, but it ended when the Christians recaptured Granada city. The Christians then took over the mosques and converted them into churches, over time imbuing these buildings with a Catholic and Castilian character. With a combination of Catholic/Castilian and Arabic elements, this is why you would see the most amazing architecture in this region. The key city you should visit – is Granada.
Granada is a 5 hour bus ride from Madrid. Most of the tourist attractions are centrally located and contained within a small area. You can spend about 2-3 days in this beautiful city – and hit the must-sees below:
- The Alhambra
This is the most renowned building of the Islamic historical legacy in Spain, the reason why tourists flock to Granada every year. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the inspiration for many songs and stories. You will also notice everything in Granada is centered around the Alhambra. If you cannot get tickets to this place, it might not be that worth it visiting Granada.
The Alhambra is generally split into 3 parts for exploration – the Nasrid Palaces, the Generalife gardens and the Alcazaba fortress.
I wasn’t super into the history, but I loved the architecture of the Nasrid Palaces, the flowers in the Generalife (visit in Spring) and the views the Alcazaba offered of Granada city. I also recommend you to get their audio guide for the full experience.
How to get tickets: This is the very painful part. Tickets are released exactly 3 months in advance and very hard to get! Most of the time, the unsold tickets does not include the Nasrid Palaces – which everyone says is the highlight. If you are like me who didn’t manage to snag the full ticket 3 months in advance – you have 3 options:
- Buy a tour from Viator or Getyourguide (much more expensive, controlled timing and even then tour tickets are sold out really fast),
- Buy a ticket excluding the Nasrid Palaces, or
- Camp EVERYDAY at the official website (12 am Spain time) because they do release unsold/refunded tickets nearer to the date. That was actually how I managed to get my ticket (about 2 weeks before) and refunded my original ticket that didn’t include the Nasrid Palaces. I was really internally squealing with joy when I finally got the full ticket!
I actually really like the Generalife gardens and the Alcazaba fortress more than the Nasrid Palaces, regardless your experience wouldn’t be complete with the Palaces. Take note that when buying the ticket you have to indicate a fixed time to enter the Palaces and be there earlier! There will be a queue, and you cannot enter if you arrive after your slot.
2. The Albaicín
The Albaicín is an old Muslim quarter of the city. It is a very photogenic neighbourhood as all the buildings are white-washed to deflect the harsh sun rays during summer time. The houses were erected way before cars were ever contemplated so you will see many narrow cobble stoned winding streets and a huge maze of alleyways. You will also be able to see many remnants of Arabic architecture.
There are also many view points within the Albaicín to enjoy the view of the Alhambra with the Sierra Nevada mountains as backdrop. I remember being in awe of the snow-capped mountains, my first time seeing one. (It is not always snow-capped, best to come in Spring!) To properly understand the beauty of the Albaicín, I highly recommend you to join this free walking tour, their guides are so entertaining and knowledgeable! The tour doesn’t take place every day so plan your itinerary properly.
I think the caves of Sacromonte are my favourite part of Granada. Not only does this neighbourhood exude an elusive mystery, it is rich in history and offers the best uninhibited/ un-touristy views of the Alhambra.
It is assumed that the caves became housing for the marginalized Jews and Muslims when they were expelled from the main city. You will notice that each house is basically a cave dug deep into the hills. Sacromonte is also known as the gypsy quarter, where visitors flock to for music and flamenco dancing after dark. No wonder many artists choose to move here for inspiration.
You might not fully appreciate the caves if you hike here on your own. To savour its flavour and history I recommend you to join a free walking tour here like I did – they will also bring you to see the best views! But be prepared for a lot of hiking.
Granada in the past was known for its many Arabic bathhouses, so I really wanted to visit one. I chose Hammam Al-Andalus because this building was an actual Arabic bath in the 13th century, even though the mordern baths doesn’t actually use any of the old installations.
You get to enjoy different baths each at different temperatures in several rooms. I really love the intricate interior of the baths, I came here before visiting the Alhambra so I am even more impressed by the Moorish architecture here than the latter, you will feel like you are transported into another time or place (was not allowed to take any photos because it is a bath…) There is also free-flow tea. The dim lighting and soft music makes it a very surreal, yet peaceful and therapeutic experience. You can even purchase a short massage to complete your experience. There are other bath houses around the city but I thought this one looks the most authentic. Just know that it is not cheap…
For ideas on what to eat in Granada, click here!