Tucked in the low peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalucía is the small, rugged, historic city of Granada. A quick train or a five hour drive from Madrid, Granada is an ideal city for a weekend getaway. Surrounded by mountains, and only one hour from the southern coast, Granada is becoming more and more of a prime travel destination.
Fortunately, I had already been to Granada before; however, it was under some not so fortunate circumstances. When I studied abroad in Seville we went as a group with the directors as API. But with awful weather and bad timing, none of us really enjoyed the city. So this time I did not have high expectations to fall in love with Granada.
On Friday, I arrived and it was once again cold and rainy. I thought to myself… boy, Granada really better prove me wrong this weekend. And lo and behold, it did! Once the sun came out, the city came alive and it totally changed my opinion. I’d now say that Granada is one of my favorite places in Spain, which says a lot!
Just like all other cities in Spain, Granada has a distinct personality. It is quite a spicy city! There are a mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tapas bars and Arabic markets tucked into the downtown. Many of the local people are very earthy, a lot of Philadelphia Folk Festival-kind of tattooed hippies with no shoes and dreadlocks. We ran into an old man singing John Legend on the street and a group of pierced hipsters in rags with eye patches singing Jamaican rap near the main plaza. This is only a taste of the lively culture.
Not only does Granada have a crunchy-granola type of vibe, it also has an extensive history that has added another layer to the complex character of the city. As a matter of fact, the tough attitude of the granadinos may actually stem from the fact they the city has been through so many transitions of culture, religion and power.
Back in the 7th Century, Spain was called Al-Andalus the Visigoths had the majority of control in Andalucía. In 711, the Muslims conquered the city with the aid of a large Jewish community in the Albayzín (old district) and remained there for hundreds of years. After the fall of Seville and Córdoba in the 13th Century, Granada became the richest and most powerful city not only in Spain, but in all of medieval Europe. Thus explains the massive, Arabic fortress that overlooks the city, called La Alhambra.
In 1492 the Catholic monarchy, Ferdinand and Isabel, took over the city and expelled the Jews, Muslims and Arabs from Spain (Or at this time it was called Hispania). The city of Granada slumped for the next couple hundred of years. It wasn’t until the 19th century period of Spanish Romanticism when the city reclaimed its identity and embraced its original Islamic heritage.
Modern day Granada is known for being a lively university city with an earthy and genuine attitude. It is also especially popular for being the city that gives FREE tapas when you order a drink. My friends and I completely took advantage of this; we never actually got a full dinner, but tried a variety of different drinks and small plates. Friday night when I arrived we went to our first tapas bar, La Bella y La Bestia. There are two, the oldest bar is next to the riverbank at the foot of the mountain, the other is near El Albayzín, the historic Moorish quarter of the city with building foundations that date back to the 13th century. Upon ordering three glasses of wine at our first bar, we we served three sandwiches of jamón serrano and french fries.
We also went to a traditional Spanish tapas bar/restaurant that was recommended to us by our Airbnb hosts, called La Chantarela. Hidden within the less-charming, shopping district of the city, this place was packed with locals enjoying the Friday night with friends and family. We got a round of beer (one spiked with tequila called Desperados) and these delicious cheesy, pork rolls. The next day we went to a popular seafood bar called Los Diamantes, right across from Plaza Nueva, the main square in the center of the city. This place came to us highly recommended by both Lonely Planet and Anthony Bourdain, and it was amazing. As it was super crowded, we were able to grab a small corner of the bar and order drinks, the tapa that followed shortly after was a plate of perfectly-salted, fried fish.
Other places that I would recommend for food: Café Lisboa next to Plaza Nueva, Minotaur for tapas by the river, Om Kalsoum where we got 8 tapas and a bottle of wine for 15€, and Café Bohemio, a library/jazz bar near Plaza de los Lobos.
Now, the food isn’t the ONLY reason why Granada is such an awesome city. In my opinion, the other main attraction is the giant fortress on top of the hill that overlooks the city. This is a view of La Alhambra from the balcony of our Airbnb, a small one bedroom apartment in El Albayzín. Along with the terrace, the balcony also had old wooden ceilings and archways, and tiny, little lizards scampering across the walls.
So construction of The Alhambra began back in the 1238 by the Nasrites, specifically the emir Muhammed Al-Ahmar. During the 18th and 19th century the castle became neglected and overrun with trash, bats and beggars. In 1870 the palace was declared a national monument and in 1984 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are multiple parts that complete The Alhambra experience: Los Palacios Nazaríes, La Alcazaba, La Medina, el cementario, y los jardines y Palacio de Generalife.
Over the years the palace has changed drastically, but still has the original Moorish character with old tiles, archways and dramatic sparkling ceilings. With elaborate Arabesque styled details and Islamic calligraphy lining the walls, the fortress exudes a feeling of ancient history, mystery and wonder. The Muslims believed that geometry was the connection between reality and the spiritual world, so the architecture is brimming of shapes, lines, repeated patterns and symmetry.
Because the palace is so incredibly unique, historical and beautiful, it has become quite the tourist attraction over the past couple of decades. I was stunned while at one point during our visit, I looked around to see a tour group of thirty Chinese tourists all taking selfies instead of actually appreciating the architecture for what it really is. Because of the fact that The Alhambra gets about 6,000 daily tickets, it is recommended to get ticket ahead of time online or from another source the morning of your intended visit.
But even if you don’t have a ticket, The Alhambra grounds are still worth checking out. You can walk through the gardens and enjoy the smell of the orange trees and the trickling water of the ancient irrigation system that lines the paths. You can get into the beautiful central courtyard of the Museum of Fine Arts inside the Palacio de Carlos V or the 17th century Iglesia de Santa María.
Of course, a visit to Granada would be incomplete if you didn’t wander back down past Gran Vía and around the city center. The main cathedral is gorgeous, hidden in between colorful apartment buildings, the front facade of the church is along side of a main plaza where children play fútbol and the parents drink their cervezas.
If you look past the obvious monuments of the city you may come across the beautiful artistic details that often are under your feet or high on walls. Most paths and streets of Granada are created with small stones and pebbles that are perfectly aligned together in patterns and puzzles. (Which at time, yes, makes it very difficult and distracting to walk). Sometimes on the sides of buildings you can find random plaques with dates and facts, and plates or plants that hang gracefully and provide the city with such charm.
These details create Granada’s artistic flair that permeates the city and manifests itself in the daily lives of the people. Up at the Mirador de San Nicholas, an overlook of The Alhambra in El Albayzín, you can find artisan jewelers, leather makers or jugglers. Plaza Nueva is also a popular spot for artisan crafters, musicians and performers.
Overall this past weekend I was so happy that Granada finally proved to me its worth as a beautiful, creative city and strong contribution to Spanish culture. It is amazing how much weather can effect a traveling experience, and I almost felt guilty for not giving the city a chance the first time around. Now I find myself thinking that rain or shine, Granada is a unique part of Spain that is 100% worth the visit.
For those who haven’t been to Spain, think of this comparison – I like to think that if Madrid is the NYC of Spain, Seville would be like Key West and Granada would be… Seattle or Portland. Not that I have ever actually been there (haha) but I can tell, and have heard from others that the down-to-earth, hip vibes in Granada are especially reminiscent of the Northwestern American attitude. So if you find yourself intrigued, come join me in Spain and go to Granada to see for yourself!