Things to Do in Granada
The Albaicin (also spelled Albayzin or Albaycin) is Granada's old Muslim quarter, and its steep twisting streets still have a medieval feel. With its white buildings and deep-gardened mansions spilling down the hill, the Albaicin is beautiful in itself, but what makes it particularly stunning is its views of the Alhambra. (The views of the Albaicin from the Alhambra enhance that experience as well!) There's a viewing point by the church of St. Nicolas that offers particularly good Alhambra vistas.
The Albaicin was heritage-listed in 1984. Its name may have derived from settlers fleeing the Christian invasion of the town Baeza, or it may derive from an Arabic phrase meaning 'quarter of the falconers.' Despite the Christian conquest of the city in 1492, it survived as a Muslim quarter for some decades, and you can still see the remains of Islamic bathhouses, mansions and fountains.
Sacromonte is traditionally Granada's Gitano quarter, and these days is the epicenter of the city's flamenco-based tourist trade. Spilling down the sides of its hill (the 'sacred mountain' of the name - the district is actually named after the Sacromonte Abbey), the area has been extensively commercialized, but still has plenty of magic. At dusk, with the lights twinkling and the Alhambra views, it's hard to resist.
It was in the 19th century that Sacromonte became the province of the Gitano. The local rock has enough clay to be soft, but enough rock to be stable when formed. Hence, many of the poorer people shaped caves into the sides of Sacromonte and lived in those. The community - and flamenco - thrived. During the 1960s floods rendered many of the caves uninhabitable, and many of the locals evacuated.
The biggest draw of Granada’s UNESCO-listed Albaycin quarter is the hilltop Mirador de San Nicolás, a small raised plaza that lies in front of the San Nicolás Church. This is the city’s most renowned lookout point, from where the magnificent panoramic views span the city center, the distant Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Rio Darro canyon and, most famously, the grand Alhambra palace.
The small public square is a lively place to be at all times of the day, with a handful of craftsmen setting up shop along the paving stones and a roster of street musicians and flamenco dancers on hand to entertain visitors. The most atmospheric time to arrive is at dusk, when crowds of locals and tourists turn out to watch the sunset over the palace grounds, before adjourning to the restaurants and teashops of nearby Elvira Street.
Located at the foot of the Alhambra, and just past Santa Ana Church, sits the tranquil Hammam Al Andalus Granada. This is where after a long day of padding through the Alhambra’s gardens, palace and fortress, you’ll want to rest your tired feet and relax your muscles – just as Granada’s Moors did so long ago.
The Moors didn’t do so precisely in this building, though, which only dates back to the 13th or 14th century. It is believed, however, that this is in fact the site of previous Muslim baths, given its location near the former mosque (now the Santa Ana Church), as well as the water cisterns discovered below the land. What happened to those ancient baths? At the time of the Reconquista, when Granada became occupied by the Christians, it is likely that—along with many other Muslim traditions and sites—these original baths ceased to continue.
As Granada’s oldest city square, Plaza Nueva has long been at the center of local life and its strategic location at the foot of the Alhambra palace means many tourists will pass through on their way to the city’s top attraction. Laid out in the early Christian era, the square was built over the Darro River and once served as an arena for sporting tournaments and bullfights, as well as public executions.
Today, the bustling plaza is best known for its abundance of stylish bars and tapas restaurants, coming alive in the evening hours when both locals and tourists congregate on the lamp-lit terraces. There’s more to Plaza Nueva than its nightlife though and the elegant square is also home to a number of striking landmarks, including the 16th-century Royal Chancellery and Mudejar-style Church of Santa Ana, both the work of Renaissance architect Diego de Siloé, and the House of Pisa, which now houses the Juan de Dios Museum.
Situated side by side, the Cathedral and the Royal Chapel (Capilla Real) together make an impressive monument to the power of Christian monarchs. The cathedral was begun in the early 16th century, and even though it didn’t achieve its full intended glory (it lacks, for instance, two immense planned towers), it’s still an impressive feat of Gothic-Renaissance magnificence. There are paintings by Ribera and El Greco and, in the main chapel, carvings of Ferdinand and Isabel kneeling in prayer.
The Royal Chapel is built in the Isabelline style, a flamboyant version of Gothic, and was finished in 1517. Ferdinand and Isabel, who commissioned the chapel as their mausoleum, died before its completion, so their remains had to be housed elsewhere for a time before moving to the chapel. They rest there today beneath their marble monuments, along with several of their relatives.
A walk down Granada’s Paseo de los Tristes is an essential, if not quite unmissable, part of your Granada experience. This riverside stretch of narrow road cuts between the canyon that separates the Alhambra fortress from the Albaicín neighborhood, and it also leads you to the famous cave-laced, flamenco-filled hillside area called the Sacromonte. At one time, it also served as the route for funeral processions as they made their way to the cemetery – hence the route’s name, which means “Promenade of the Sad.”
But it’s not just an area for simply passing through; it’s also the perfect spot to stop and take in close-up exterior views of the Alhambra, even better enjoyed by grabbing a drink or bite to eat at one of the many outdoor restaurant terraces. Once you’ve had your fill of the wide, plaza-like walkway and its views, you can easily move on to the aforementioned destinations, including the Sacromonte and Albaicín neighborhoods.
More Things to Do in Granada
Southern Spain is so much more than just sandy Mediterranean and Atlantic coastlines. Andalucia is in fact home to mountains – loads of them – many of which make up Sierra Nevada National Park, the largest of its kind in Spain. This nature-filled wonderland, also considered a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve given its flora and fauna, is home to more than 20 peaks that reach over 3,000 meters, and some 50 high-mountain lakes. Not surprisingly, it’s ripe with opportunities for outdoor activities, ranging from hiking to biking, bird watching and skiing (given that it is home to Europe’s southernmost ski resort). It’s not just about all things outdoorsy here: darling villages speckle the Sierra Nevada, and particularly in the region of La Alpujarra. This is where, amidst slithering mountain roads, you’ll happen upon the famous pueblos blancos, or white villages, a collection of idyllic towns whose architecture and style of flat roofs and tiny terraced streets harken back to Muslim times.
A maze of narrow streets running between Plaza Nueva and Plaza Bib-Rambla in the historic Arabic quarter of Granada, the Alcaicería was once a lively Arab bazaar and the center of the city’s Muslim silk exchange. Sadly, the original gated bazaar was almost entirely destroyed by a fire back in 1843 and today the restored shops occupy a much smaller space, dotted around Calle Alcaiceria, in the shadows of the Cathedral of Granada.
Despite it’s pared down size, the Alcaicería is still one of Granada’s most atmospheric areas, with a plethora of traditional craft and souvenir stores crammed with ceramics, silver jewelry, and alpaca knitwear, and stalls hawking an array of exotic spices, silks and incense. Wandering around the markets is an experience in itself, but with vendors happy to barter for goods, it’s also a great place to pick up some bargains. Look out for local specialties like fajalauza (hand painted ceramics) and granadino farolas (stained-glass lamps).
Also known as the Plaza de las Flores (Square of Flowers), the pedestrianized Bib Rambla is an elegant and ancient square at the epicenter of Granada’s bustling and late-night street scene Central to the plaza is a 17th-century marble fountain featuring Neptune supported by four giants, and to the northeast, the bell tower of Granada’s imposing Spanish Renaissance cathedral peers over townhouse façades decorated with wrought-iron balconies and arcaded doorways.
The piazza was used for bullfights in Moorish times, and a labyrinthine silk souk grew up in Alcaicería just to the east, of which only a few remnants now remain among the souvenir stores. But following the Christian re-conquest of Granada by King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I in 1492, it became the center of purges of Islamic literature as well as autos-de-féenforcing Muslims to convert to Christianity.
The great Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel founded the Monasterio de San Jerónimo in the 16th century. They tried situating it in Santa Fe, but the monks were so tortured by mosquitoes that they had to move them to the present site.
. Built by Diego de Siloé, this monastery is hardly austere: it’s a heavily ornamented riot of gilding, carving and celestially-hued painting.
Granada is hardly short on impressive lookout points, but when it comes to the one that rises above the rest — both literally and figuratively — La Ermita de San Miguel Alto wins the prize. Situated atop one of Granada’s northeastern hills, the tiny church offers views of the whole city, from the Albaicín neighborhood to the Alhambra fortress, and even beyond to the distant and often-snowcapped mountains.
The hermitage dates back to 1671, when it was built on the site of a former Muslim tower. The church was destroyed come French occupation during the 19th century, and then later reconstructed again. Today, what you see is a humble-but-sweet place of worship, featuring a simple, single-balcony façade, and a far-from-simple panorama of the surrounding landscape. Though it currently isn’t possible to visit the church’s interior, the views and solitude will make the journey well worth the uphill effort.
The church of the Monasterio de la Cartuja is where Spanish late-Baroque hits its lavish heights. It was begun in the 16th century and building continued for another three centuries; it was never completed.
The Carthusian monks that lived in the Monasterio de la Cartuja lived a humble life. They practiced silence, ate simple vegetarian fare and spent their time praying, studying, working and making rosary beads from rose petals (you can still buy these from the souvenir shop). But their low-key lifestyle must have been made up for by the wild profusion of their surroundings.
Translated as Field of the Prince, this Granada square is said to be named after Prince Juan, whose late-15th-century wedding was supposed to be celebrated here. Today, however, it’s more popularly known as a pilgrimage destination come Holy Week, during which the 17th-century Cristo de los Favores cross plays the star.
Year round, people also come here to enjoy the many tapas bars that surround the square — perhaps while letting the kids burn some energy on the plaza’s playground. Humble as the square may seem, it has a special allure thanks to its historic cross, its typically Andalusian pebble-designed ground, and because it’s very much considered one of the most important places in Granada’s Realejo neighborhood, once the city’s Jewish quarter.
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