Set in Andalucía, Spain’s southernmost region, Granada is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, and with good reason. The city is in an astounding setting at the confluence of four rivers, backed by the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada, and there are plenty of things to do.
The extraordinary palace and fortress of the Alhambra, visible from almost anywhere in city, dominates the skyline. Students of the University of Granada keep downtown lively, while the Moorish neighbourhood of Albaicín is a perfect place to stroll for an hour or two. And, with free tapas in most of the bars, you won’t burn a hole in your pocket.
The Alhambra – meaning “the red one” in Arabic, due to the fiery hue of its fortress walls – is the most visited monument in Spain, and shows off the culture of the last centuries of Moorish rule, which lasted here for several centuries until Christian forces conquered Granada in 1492 and took over the palace.
Make sure you book well in advance online, and arrive an hour before your allocated time slot so you can queue for your tickets. It’s a steep climb to reach the entrance, but worth every step.
The Royal Palace, Palacios Nazaríes, the pride of the complex, is no ordinary ruin. As you stroll from chambers to fountained courtyards, through narrow corridors and under glorious arches, your eyes are drawn to the rich detail that – incredibly – hasn’t been washed away over the centuries, despite periods of disastrously careless occupiers, such as Napoleon’s forces.
Once you’ve seen the palace, the grounds of the Generalife gardens are a relaxing place for a shaded break, before heading up to the ramparts of the Alcazaba, the oldest and most ruined part of the complex, and from where the views down over town are spectacular.
Back in town, after you’ve rested your legs, take a walk through the steep, winding alleys of the old Moorish neighbourhood and UNESCO World Heritage site, the Albaicín. While half the fun is getting lost in these maze-like streets, make sure you don’t miss the Mirador (viewpoint) at Plaza de San Nicolas.
Not far from the foot of the Albaicín is the city’s Catholic relic, the vast Catedral de Granada, first built in 1583 and a gothic masterpiece. Its impressive exterior has a dark, foreboding feel, while the marble-floored interior is light, bright and extravagant, with no shortage of gold statues and ornaments.
Eating in Granada is an experience you’ll find in few other places. The majority of tapas bars will provide customers with free small plates with every drink ordered. The portion sizes and quality of the food varies wildly, so it’s a very good idea to know where you want to go before heading out.
The centre of town is best for tapas. A good place to start is Los Diamantes, by Plaza Nueva, an upmarket seafood bar where quality wines are paired with free tapas of fried anchovies (boquerones fritos).
Cerveceria la Riviera, down the road from the cathedral, is cheap and cheerful, always buzzing, and they serve very generous tapas portions. You can even select the free tapas from a menu with a dozen or so options – try the fried octopus tentacles (patas de pulpo) or chorizo in wine (chorizo picante al vino).
Russian-naval-themed tapas and sushi bar Potemkin, on Placeta Hospicio Viejo, serves delightful free tapas such as spicy squid on thinly sliced and delicately flavoured potato slices, and nearby Los Altramuces, on leafy Campo de Principe, is a traditional, low-key family-run bar, with a warm welcome and hearty free tapas such as chicken and tomato stew.
For something different, try Om-Kalsum, a cheap North African and Middle Eastern tapas bar, where seven tapas and a bottle of wine will set you back just €14.
On the outskirts of the centre, the stylish Taverna Saint Germain, always packed with locals, is a fantastic place to sample some lovely local wines by the glass, while staff efficiently serve a range of appetising free tapas, with a modern twist on traditional Spanish dishes.
Start your day with the best breakfast in town from Café 4 Gatos in Albaicín, where wholesome, hearty tostadas – such as grilled aubergine and goat’s cheese – are served up with fresh juice, friendly service and great coffee.
It’s worth paying a little extra for a meal at Samarkanda, close to the markets at the base of the Albaicín, where top-notch Lebanese food is on offer, such as superb hummus with mincemeat and a rich and fragrant lamb tagine.
Granada’s teahouses, the majority of which are clustered in “Little Morocco”, around Calle Caldereria Nueva, are peaceful, atmospheric places to take a break with a fresh mint tea and a puff on a shisha.
For a cocktail, boozy coffee or milkshake, head to the Bohemia Jazz Café, on Plaza de los Lobos, where a huge array of well-crafted drinks is available. The low-lit café’s 1950s kitsch style is maintained with typewriters on the wall, an old hairdresser’s booth, black-and-white photos, an ancient jukebox and hundreds of books lining the walls.
Granada is well known for its passionate flamenco performances. It can be tricky find authentic shows – Le Chien Andalous, in a narrow cave down by the River Darro, is a good call and excellent value at €8.
Numerous bars on Calle Elvira and Calle Pedro Antonio de Alarcón stay open well into the small hours.
Out of the centre, at club El Camborio, cheesy music belts out to a student crowd in an unusual venue set into caves. Here, in the suburb of Sacramento, high up in the hills, is where the Gitano Gypsy community live. Alhambra, visible across the valley and lit up at night, looks breathtaking.
Once the city’s silk souk, the tightly knit streets of Alcaiceria, behind the cathedral, are now jam-packed with Moroccan shops, selling everything from lamps and leatherwear to artwork and rugs. Make some room in your luggage, and get your bargaining hat on.
Explore more of Granada with the Rough Guide to Andalucía. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Top image: Alhambra, Granada, Spain © Seelypix/Shutterstock