GRANADA, SPAIN: Located in Andalusia region of Spain, Granada is one of the most touristic places in Spain for its rich diverse history and culture. In 711 AD, after the city was conquered by the Moorish rulers, it became the center of Al-Andalus. Influenced by Moorish culture, Granada is the depository of one of the finest collections of Islamic art anywhere in the world.
Being surrounded by Sierra Nevada, there are many sports activities that anyone can do to get out of the city life. Also, if you are in Granada, don’t miss the chance to go to Cordoba or Seville to enjoy more Andalusian cities…you won’t regret it at all.
We stayed mostly in central Granada which is the historic center and the liveliest part of this city. Granada, home of world-famous Alhambra, the most iconic monument of the city and one of the most historic places that leaves you overwhelmed in awe in whole of Spain. Honestly, the city itself didn’t impress me much like the other Andalusian cities we’ve visited in this trip, such as Malaga, Cordoba, or Seville. But Alhambra alone makes it worthwhile visiting Granada.
TIME of TRAVEL: We were on the journey to explore Andalusia, Spain in February of 2014. We flew to Malaga from Belgium and stayed there for 2 days before coming to Granada. We had a rental car and it took us about hour and a half to reach Granada from Malaga. The weather here was nothing like Malaga. It was little more than just cold, especially the day we visited Alhambra; it was pretty chilly outside early in the morning. We were looking forward to some sunshine but got nothing but two gloomy days with some wind.
OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Best Western Hotel Dauro II in Granada. It wasn’t very close to Alhambra but was within the walking distance from the city center, Granada Cathedral, and Moroccan Bazaars. Parking was a bit problem but thanks to the hotel management who valet parked our car to the nearest garage. We didn’t have free breakfast (it was something like 8 euros per adult for breakfast) included but had Wi-Fi in our room. Best part was that there was a whole street of tapas bars and some other restaurants just outside our hotel.
EATING and SHOPPING: As I said, there were tons of tapas bars right outside our hotel in Granada. After checking-in, we were out to satisfy our growling stomachs. All the places there were packed with tourists and locals. We sat down in a restaurant called “El Ganehe”. Their chicken tapas with fries was out of this world and was free too since we ordered some variety of tapas. We had mixed seafood tapas which turned out OK, but nothing like the chicken one. Other than tapas, while in Spain, try cold gazpacho soup (tomato base), paella, Spanish omelets (with potatoes), and lots of different unique dishes.
Granada is known for its commercial activity which mainly takes place in the center. International brands and small business in this area are bustling and lively at any time of the day. Main shopping areas include Recogidas, Mesones, and San Anton. Everything you look for when shopping can be found here. I was happy with their Moroccan bazaars in the city center. We bought 3 Moroccan leather poufs for 25 euros each, a mirror for 50 euros, a Flamenco CD, and Spanish saffron. Spices are something very popular here as well as many other traditional Moroccan goods like babouche, leather items, lamps, and etc. If you are looking for something Spanish, flamenco dresses for little girls, depiction of Alhambra, Spanish bulls, and potteries were some of my favorites.
PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We were in Granada for a day and half. First day we arrived here right around lunch. After having some good tapas we were out to explore some squares, a beautiful and old madrasah (Quranic school), and then to the Moroccan bazaars for some pleasure shopping. Next day our visit to Alhambra was early in the morning (my husband booked the tickets for Alhambra online from Ticketmaster) and got the morning slot for us. After that we visited Granada Cathedral and the Moroccan market around the cathedral. That was about what we did in Granada.
Granada tourist office recommends four areas of the city for their tourists: Alhambra, Albayzin, Center, and Realejo. While Alhambra is the main attraction of this city, if you have time stroll around the Moorish neighborhood of the Albayzin. Although we couldn’t do it, Albayzin offers picturesque streets and squares, accompanied at all times by the silhouette of Alhambra which dominates the skyline. Another place we didn’t visit was San Nicolas square. Its viewpoint provides you with the chance to contemplate “The most beautiful sunset in the world” (Bill Clinton). Take a walk along the Carea del Darro which is considered as one of the most beautiful streets in Europe.
1) PLAZA ISABEL la CATOLICA: This is the central square of Granada, very close to the cathedral. The prominent statue in the middle of the square depicts the moment when Christopher Columbus asked permission from Queen Isabel to go and explore the Americas and outlines their agreement in preparation of his voyage. According to some historians, this even took place in Granada. A pleasant fountain surrounds the statue.
2) PALACIO de la MADRAZA: Our next stop was the cathedral here but since it was closed and we saw this madrasah opposite of the cathedral, so decided to check it out. Madraza or Madrasah is basically a Quranic/Islamic school where the students are taught Muslim’s holy book Koran (or Qur’an) and the correct Islamic etiquettes.
Palacio de la Madraza was founded by the Nasrid king Yusuf I in 1349 AD. It conserves a mihrab (chapel) from that date. It was built for only 20 students where they could stay and learn the Quran. The lady took us to the original Muslim prayer hall, wash room, and then to the conference room upstairs. Here the ceiling is from 16th century and the copula and stairs from 18th century still exist.
It used to be a country house in the 11th century. This is also happened to be the first Town Hall of Granada in the 16th century. From 1722 to 1729 it was rebuilt in Baroque style with galleries on its four sides. Now it’s part of Universidad de Granada.
It’s 2 euros per adult and can be visited only with a guide. The madrasah is open ‘til 10pm for the tourists.
3) MOROCCAN BAZAARS: There are two Moroccan bazaars in the center of Granada. One is near the cathedral and the bigger one is on the other side of the cathedral, about couple blocks away. The bigger one is actually quiet big and consists of few narrow alleys (some with steps) and beautiful neighborhoods. I felt like I was walking thru Middle-Eastern souks while there. You can find all sorts of things in these stores. These colorful shops with unique items are worth a visit even if you don’t buy anything. But if you are into souvenirs, these markets offers some traditional Moroccan or Islamic arts and items. Starting from spices, leather things, decorative lamps/lanterns, babouche, tea-sets, pillow covers, potteries, scarfs, and tons of other items are available here. Make sure to bargain whatever the price they offer, may be start with half price of whatever they are asking for.
This also a good place if you are looking for Middle-Eastern cuisines. I saw some Lebanese and Moroccan type restaurants serving kebabs, pita, falafel, rice dishes, and salads in nice cozy environment.
4) ALHAMBRA: This is the main attraction of Granada, an unforgettable site with rich heritage of historical sites that everyone should visit during their stay here. This medieval complex overlooking Granada is one of the top attractions of this country. Alhambra is the last symbol of Moorish power in Europe and it reflects the affluent Moorish civilization in Andalusia. This is known worldwide for its Nasrid palaces…the city’s most emblematic monument and a must visit site. I have never seen such magnificent and intriguing architectures in my life. Alhambra was a palace, citadel, fortress, and the home of Nasrid Sultans…overall, a hive of artistic activity. This vast place is a cradle of ornamental architecture, lush gardens, water fountains, spectacular view of the city, and firm history.
Founder of the Nasrid dynasty Muhammad I installed his Court on the hill of Sabika and started construction of the Alhambra in 1238. In 1333, 7th Nasrid ruler Yusuf I built the Comares Palace and in 1354 Muhammad V ruled over the heyday of the Nasrid sultanate when he completed the Palace of the Lions. In 1492, last Nasrid Sultan Muhammad XII surrendered Alhambra to the Catholic Monarchs. In 1516, Queen Isabella of Castile and her husband Ferdinand conducted extensive repairs and alterations to Alhambra. They installed the Royal House and the headquarters of the Kingdom of Granada in the Alhambra. King Charles V visited the Alhambra in 1526, after his wedding to Isabella of Portugal and built the Palace of Charles V, a prime example of Spanish Renaissance architecture. In 1870, the Alhambra was declared a National Monument and from 1923 to 1936 massive restoration of this place took place. Finally, in 1984, UNESCO World Heritage designated the Alhambra and the Generalife a World Heritage Site.
The main sections of Alhambra are Alcazaba, Nasrid Palace, and Generalife. You can see many types of elements that were used to decorate different parts of Alhambra, such as plastered walls and decorative motifs made from plaster, stairs, columns, fountains, water channels, paving, sculptures, and etc. made with stone, and finally decorative parts of buildings made with wood. There are many big and small off the beaten path attractions to explore at every corner of Alhambra, other than the main four sections, like Royal Sultan’s Water Channel, Water Stairway, The Mosque Baths (from 1302), Church of Santa Maria de la Alhambra, some archeological areas, many old gates, fountains, and towers.
Nasrid Palace is the main attraction, at least I thought, of Alhambra. There are three Nasrid Palaces from different periods in this complex. Mexuar Palace of Ismail I and Muhammad V is from 1362, Comares Palace of Yusuf I is from 1333, and finally Palace of the Lions of Muhammad V is from 1362.
We entered Nasrid Palace thru The Houses of the Partal. It was built in the times of Muhammad III that later became the traditional Nasrid Palace with a courtyard with a central pond and galleries around borders. Many of the walls of Nasrid Palace are curved with beautiful calligraphy, mainly with Quranic texts. Façade of Comares and Court of the Myrtles are some eye-catching spots in Nasrid Palace.
“The Fountain of the Lions” is one of the most beautiful courtyards of Nasrid Palace. This unique hydraulic device from the 14th century was created from marble for Sultana Muhammad V. A beautiful poem by Ibn Zamrak adorns around the edge of the twelve-sided bowl of the fountain supported on the backs of twelve lions which defines the fountain as a sculpture of pearls.
Every single room of Nasrid Palace is exquisitely decorated with Arabic calligraphy, stunning ceilings, many arch doors and windows, vibrant tiles on the walls. Make sure to check out the breathtakingly beautiful ceiling in the Hall of Two Sisters. There are many halls, courtyards, gardens and fountains all over here. Nasrid Palace alone took us little more than an hour to explore its all corners.
One of the first works completed in the Alhambra after the Christian conquest was the construction of a large cistern in the gully separating the Alcazaba (fortress) from the rest of the Alhambra. Alcazaba is the ruins of massive fortress that looks over the city and is one of the oldest parts of the Alhambra. Here you can visit the military quarter, Gate of Arms, and the gardens. Torre del Cubo (Round Tower) and Torre de la Vela (Watchtower) are two towers where we climbed up for a fantastic view of Alhambra and the city of Granada. Sierra Nevada Mountains and the whole panoramic view of the city from any point of Alcazaba are fantastic.
Palace of Charles V is a notable Renaissance style palace within the Alhambra complex. This structure with two levels and big circular courtyard ringed by a colonnade within is a beautiful 16th century structure.
It houses Museum of the Alhambra on the ground floor (with historical artifacts from the site) and Museum of Fine Arts on the upper floor. We also saw some temporary exhibition in the Palace of Charles V. These museums has examples of Nasrid art, elegant dress, and offers as insight into Andalusia’s societies and culture from the Moorish time.
Last part of Alhambra that we explored was Generalife. This is the finest example of Moorish gardens in Andalusia. You will find lush gardens, serene shades, colorful flowers, exquisite architecture, and elegant fountains. This area includes the lower gardens, the Generalife Palace, medieval access way to the Generalife, Court of Sultana, Water Stairway, and the upper gardens. It was constructed as the leisure area of the Granadian monarchs, where they escaped from the official routine. The Generalife’s New Gardens (also known as the Rose Gardens or Labyrinth Gardens) were created very recently in 1930. They are located south of the lower entrance to the Palace of the Generalife, occupying part of the old orchards of the medieval agricultural settlement from Hispano-Islamic times. Romantic gardens with a palace and beautiful fountains are appealing and worth spending time.
The highlights of Generalife are its palace and the gardens. Patio de la Sultana is one of the many beautiful gardens of Generalife. Have a little break sometimes, relax, and take in the landscape.
There are a lot to do and see in Alhambra. The parts of the Alhambra and Generalife sites open for public visits are divided into four areas: the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces, the Partal and the Generalife. When deciding on the order of the places to visit, bear in mind the allotted access time for your visit to the Nasrid Palaces, printed specifically on each ticket. After this time you will not be allowed access to the palaces, as the number of visitors allowed at any given time is limited. Don’t forget to wear appropriate footwear and enough sun protection…there are lot of walking to do in Alhambra and not all of them are smooth paved paths. Strollers are not allowed in Nasrid Palaces and backpacks or large bags must also be left at the left luggage service or locker.
We bought the ticket for Alhambra online way ahead of our trip. There are different types of visits to the Alhambra. It’s open every day throughout the year (except December 25th and January 1st. You can choose either morning or afternoon visit. We took the package of 15.40 euros per adult which included Nasrid Palace, Alcazaba, Partal Gardens, Palace and Gardens of the Generalife and we chose the morning visit from 8:30am to 2pm. Average recommended time to visit Alhambra is 3 hours, but it took us about little more than 5 hours and still couldn’t visit all the stuff here. Its 7 euros for just Alcazaba, Partal Gardens and Generalife. Alhambra also offers some night visits, like “Alhambra at night Palaces” for 8 euros and “Alhambra at Night Generalife” for 5 euros. The entrance fee doesn’t include audio-guide, you have to buy it separately for 7.50 euros.
5) GRANADA CATHEDRAL: We were done with Alhambra by 2:30 pm, had lunch, and walked over to the cathedral. This is a huge edifice in the center of Granada surrounded by Moroccan markets and other stores. The cathedral is a mix of architectural styles from different eras. A portion of Granada cathedral occupies the site where the Major Mosque of Granada used to stand. The central part of it is covered by a hemispherical dome and the four sides of the transept by domical vaults. The present Baroque look of it is from 1705. Inside the cathedral looked a bit simple to me, but beautiful with white and golden combinations. Organs and the main altar were gorgeous. Royal Chapel of this cathedral houses tombs of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, the Catholic monarchs who conquered the city against Muslim rulers.
The main cathedral is the 2nd biggest one in Spain and one of the most impressive temples of Spanish Renaissance. It features elements from Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque all under one roof. The Renaissance part of this cathedral dates back to 1522. Emperor Charles V turned the cathedral into a royal mausoleum. In the building, five naves are juxtaposed to a rotunda with a double ambulatory. It houses a central tower, royal vault, an allusion to the Holy Sepulcher in Israel, and an emblem of imperial domain. The central altar indicates a very precise ideological program: the sacred sacrament of the Eucharist irradiating over a city that was still Muslim. It’s 4 euros per adult to enter the cathedral, kids are free.