Granada See And Do
Calle Elvira, a street of tapas bars and nightlife hot spots, lies just behind the Gran Vía de Colon—the main artery of the bustling city center. This marks the beginning of the Albaicín neighborhood with its walled gardens and mazelike alleys, the historic quarter where the Muslims were once forced to live after the topple of Moorish rule by the Catholic Monarchs. These days the neighborhood still retains its Arab heritage and plays host to a full-fledged economy, with restaurants, bakeries, health-food shops, halal grocers, and cafés where patrons sit on cushions smoking hookah pipes. Take time to explore the Albaicín's labyrinth of whitewashed alleyways. Check out the fantastic views of the Alhambra against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains from Plaza Mirador de San Nicolas, a lookout point with a lively bar and restaurant where everyone goes to see and be seen.
Cuesta de Gomérez
Tel: 34 902 441 221; 34 915 379 178 (for tickets)
Millions of sightseers flock to Granada for one reason: the extraordinary Alhambra citadel, the most exciting and sensual of all European monuments. It was the palace-fortress of the Nasrid sultans, rulers of the last Spanish Muslim kingdom. There are four distinct sections of the citadel on the Alhambra hill: the Casa Real (The Royal Palace), the palace gardens of the Generalife, the Alcazaba, and the unfinished Palacio de Carlos V.
It is amazing that the Casa Real (Royal Palace) has survived at all, as it was built (crudely in many places) from wood and clay brick. Its 14th-century buildings are essentially a stone canvas for ornate decoration, in which Arabic inscriptions feature prominently. The palace is structured in three parts, each arrayed round an interior court and with a specific function. The sultans used the Mexuar, the first series of rooms, for business and judicial purposes. In the Serallo, they would receive embassies and distinguished guests. The last section, the Harem, formed their private living quarters and would have been entered by no one but their families and servants.
The main entrance to Alhambra is Generalife, a collection of gardens and summer palaces of the sultans. The name literally means "garden of the architect." Deeply evocative, the Patio de los Cipreses is a dark and walled garden where the Sultana Zoraya was suspected of meeting her lover. Nearby is the inspired flight of fantasy of the Camino de las Cascadas, a staircase with water flowing down its stone balustrades.
The Alcazaba is the oldest—and most ruined—part of the fortress, a military stronghold dating back to the ninth century. Visit its Jardín de los Ardaves, a 17th-century garden laid out along the fort's southern parapets. There is access from here to the Alcazaba's watchtower, the Torre de la Vela, named after a huge bell on its turret.
The exit from the Casa Real to the Generalife is through the courtyard of the Palacio de Carlos V, where bullfights were once held. Begun in 1526 but never finished, this distinctly European building seems totally out of place amid the Moorish splendor, but is a distinguished piece of Renaissance design in its own right.
16 Calle Santa Ana
Tel: 34 958 229 978
After a visit to the Bañuelo, it's likely you'll want to experience the historic baths for yourself. Just across the river you'll find a deceptively large and beautifully decorated network of rooms cut into the hillside, where you can submerge yourself in the cold, tepid, and hot waters, then enjoy a massage (included in the admission price). The baths are lined with ceramic tiles and Mudejar arches with intricate plasterwork, while the relaxation areas have soft lighting, warm air, and jewel-colored walls—the perfect place to sip a mint tea and zone out.
Open daily 10 am to midnight.
Gran Vía de Colón 5
Tel: 34 958 227 848
Granada's cathedral offers a Spanish Renaissance break from the Moorish mood of the Alhambra citadelbut not from the ornate richness. Built between 1521 and 1714, the highlights are the 17th-century facade designed by painter Alonso Cano, with a trio of tall arcades, and the intricate Capilla Mayor inside. The Capilla Realentered around the side of the cathedralis a late-Gothic fantasyland built from 1506 to 1521 to house the mortal remains of the conquering royal couple, Isabella and Ferdinand, whose last wishes were to be buried not in their native Castile or Aragon but here, in the capital of Moorish Spain, where they achieved their greatest victory toppling the Moorish kingdom and uniting Spain under Catholic rule.
Heading northwest from the cathedral, you can go on a good church crawl down the Calle San Jerónimo, taking in a succession of half-forgotten churches, each more sumptuous than the last. Attached to the Basílica de San Juan de Dios, built in 1759, is the still-functioning 17th-century hospital San Juan de Dios at the end of Calle San Jerónimo. There's nothing clinical about its columned and galleried cloisters planted with palm and orange trees and painted with 18th-century frescoes illustrating the miraculous life of the saint (entrance at 23 Calle San Juan de Dios). Nearby the hospital is the Monasterio de San Jerónimo, a Renaissance building founded by the Catholic Monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the nearby town of Santa Fé that was later moved to Granada (9 Rector López Argüeta).
31 Carrera del Darro
Tel: 34 958 027 800
Formerly part of the Mezquita del Nogal (Mosque of the Walnut Tree), these beautifully restored baths date from the 11th century and are among the oldest and most complete in Spain. It's easy to miss the entrance, just off the Carrera del Darro, and first impressions are not overwhelming, with an unremarkable small courtyard centered around a fishpond. But inside you'll find a series of perfectly preserved brick-vaulted chambers complete with typical horseshoe-shaped arches. These were used as cool, warm, and hot rooms; the pretty star-shaped skylights were to let light in and steam out. The columns, which look incongruously Western, were pilfered from Roman and Visigothic ruins. Baths in Moorish Granada were important meeting places for both sexes (on separate days), as well as having religious significance. Today these rooms are used as a venue for cultural events such as concerts and poetry readings; if you want to actually take a dip, visit the Baños Arabes across the river.
Open Tuesdays through Saturdays 10 am to 2 pm.
The Albaicín is full of carmines, houses with walled gardens hidden from public view. The Carmen de la Victoria is a residence for guests of the university, but its gardens, which date from the 19th century, are open to visitors. Halfway up the road that marks the northern edge of the Albaicín, look out for a beautiful gate with intricate ironwork, offering a glimpse of the lush greenery inside. An expert in Islamic gardens planted Carmen de la Victoria with flowers and bushes dating from Nasrid times (from 1232 to 1492), although there are also more recognizable species, including bamboo, palm, honeysuckle, and wisteria, as well as the city's namesake, granada (pomegranate). Arranged along terraces facing the wooded hill topped by the Alhambra and the Generalife, this peaceful place has small fountains, cobbled pathways, and hidden pergolas where you can escape the hordes.
Another respite from the crowds can be found in the extensive and ornamental Carmen de los Martires, situated on the other side of the Alhambra's hill, just up from the Alhambra Palace Hotel. Very few people know about this place, which has spectacular views over the city toward the Sierra Nevada and is dotted with baroque fountains, statues, and grottos, and populated by peacocks. Carmen de los Martires is where the Christian prisoners who were forced to build the Alhambra were held captive, so it also forms an integral part of the city's rich history. Bring bottled water, as there's no café and it's a steep climb up the hill.