A visit to beautiful & mystic Granada – Useful Tips & Impressions

Visit Spain, fourth stop: Granada

After a visit to Barcelona, Valencia and Úbeda, we arrived in Granada, in the heart of Andalusia. Granada, world famous & mysterious Granada.  

Beforehand, we had booked an apartment in the old Arabian neighbourhood of Albayzín. Characteristic for this part of Granada are its narrow streets. Winding up & down through the old barrio or neighbourhood, that lays below the hill of the Alhambra. 

One of the many narrow streets of the Albayzín neighbourhood, Granada
The narrow streets of the Albayzín, Granada

The Albayzín is a perfect base when you visit Granada. First of all, because it’s just a few minutes away from the city center. But also because the neighbourhood has its own attractions, including some mini-markets, shops, bars & restaurants. We easily could get lost in this part of town, … and wouldn’t mind. 

We rapidly settled in our temporary abode and went out to get to know the neighbourhood & the city center. Obviously, after our days in Úbeda, we had to get used to mass tourism again. Soon though we perfectly understood why so many people want to visit Granada.

Obviously, the magical Alhambra is Granada’s number one. An attraction you can’t miss. However, Granada has a lot more to offer, attractions you can’t miss.

Throughout this post you’ll find some affiliated links, provided by TravelPayOuts. Links that may help you plan your next trip to Granada. If you click on them & buy a ticket for a museum, book a tour or rent a bike a small percentage of your purchase will go to me (paid by by TravelPayOuts of course). To finance my work as a travel blogger.

TIP: Getting around in Granada

I can really be very short on this one. Staying in a central neighbourhood gave us the advantage of being able to walk to every point of interest. The only time we used public transportation was to get to the Alhambra (see below). However, if needed you can use taxi & buses and there’s even a single metro line.

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TIP: Use of your phone/access to the internet 

If coming from another country, I recommend you to buy a Prepaid Sim-card for your phone. On our first day in Spain we bought one, which easily covered the three weeks we travelled through the country.

Alternatively you can buy an affordable international Sim card (operational in 229 countries) beforehand, through the following link: DrimSim.

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TIP: Discount with Student card

If you have one, bring your student card. Even our daughter – who’s studying in Quito, Ecuador – got discounts on tickets everywhere in Spain. Entrances to museums, monuments, churches & other attractions. Not all of them, but many!

Historical Intermezzo: Last Islamic stronghold

In my earlier post on our visit to Úbeda, I introduced you to the Islamic occupation of Spain. An occupation that lasted almost eight centuries. Some parts were reconquered rather soon, like the northern regions of Spain. But for other regions, it took much longer. Granada was the last one, in 1492.

Under the leadership of the catholic kings – Ferdinand of Aragon & Isabella of Castile – Spain little by little reconquered the last remnants of Islamic Spain. Of course, that meant war, death & destruction.

Surprisingly though Granada got away with it, because just before the Castilians planned the final battle, one of the muslim leaders decided to hand over Granada peacefully. (His name was Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII – better known by the Spaniards as Boabdil. A man who, because of his act for some was a traitor, but for many others a hero.)

In short, Granada was reconquered without a siege or real man-to man battle.

Painting of Francisco Pradilla Ortiz, Boabdil surrenders Granada the Catholic Kings
Boabdil hands over the key of Granada to the Catholic Kings (Painting by Fancisco Pradilla Ortiz)

This way the beautiful muslim palaces of the Alhambra, high above the city, were spared destruction. Something we, as well as the city of Granada, may be very thankful for. 

A visit to the Alhambra, Granada

Of course, one of our first goals in Granada was to visit the Alhambra – the Red Castle. Something we planned to do the first full day of our stay there.

The Alhambra, high above the city center of Granada
Part of the Alhambra, Granada
A magical spot

From the moment we arrived at the Alhambra, we knew – rather, felt – that we were visiting a historical place. A magical spot really. Mainly because of the beautiful palaces & gardens in their interior. 

The ones that stood out the most for me were the palaces that are built in the Arabic style. These are not only more beautiful than the European palaces, they are also – in my opinion – better constructed. That is to say, better thought out, more lifestyle friendly. As well as healthier to live in – warmer in winter, cooler in summer. 

These Arab palaces were obviously built as little paradises – like oases. Places were you still can image yourself playing a small part in the tales of One thousand and one nights.

Arabic Art style: Mudéjar

The only thing the Spanish conquerers after 1492 did, was adapt the Arab style a little. In other words, use the Arab style construction as a base and embellish them with typical European style decorations. A style we nowadays call Mudéjar. Actually a mixture of Arab & Spanish styles of decoration.

A style we can admire all over Spain, but mostly in the south. In that sense, the Arab culture has continued to be a visible part of Spain’s DNA. Not only through its architecture, but also through certain food & the presence of tea houses, thermal baths. As well as certain old traditions & festivities, names of neighbourhoods, streets, et cetera. And by the way, many muslims live in Granada today, as they do in many other European cities.

European Renaissance style

Besides that, the Spanish kings planned their own building projects on the grounds of the Alhambra. Like the Palace of Charles V or Carlos V, which he – by the way – never saw finished himself.

  • To build his own castle, apparently a wing of the Nasrid Palace-ground was destroyed. Too bad, but at least it was only a wing.
The Palace of Charles V at the Alhambra, Granada
The Palace of Charles V

A unique and impressive Renaissance building, but – for me – not as impressive as the Arabic neighbours. In that sense it’s almost amazing the Spaniards didn’t copy more elements of the Arabic palaces around. Maybe not so much the artistic style, but more the construction itself. For example, the way the Arabs led water through their palaces, planned interior gardens or the manner in which they ventilated the high ceiling rooms. 

The Alhambra, little by little forgotten

During the 17th & 18th century – after the Spanish Empire lost its leading role in Europe definitely – the Alhambra little by little fell to ruins. Its historical value was only rediscovered when French troops under Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the country and for a few years occupied the Alhambra (almost destroying it, using the buildings to house their troops and store their ammunition).

The real rediscovery of the Alhambra by a North American writer

In 1828 Washington Irving (1783-1859) brought a visit to the Alhambra. Although in ruins, he was in awe of the buildings and temporary settled in one of the rooms of the Nasrid Palaces & started to write a book about the magical place.

His Tales of the Alhambra (1832) finally brought the first tourists to the Alhambra. Tourism which – more than anything else – rescued the Alhambra from oblivion. Nowadays, you’ll find Irving’s book for sale in every bookstore or souvenir shop you visit in Granada.

We stayed in the Alhambra from early morning until late afternoon. We did see a lot, but surely not everything. However, we managed to visit every mayor palace, the gardens, the local church of Santa María & passed the beautiful convent of San Francisco.

  • An interesting fact about this last place is that it held both the bodies of Queen Isabella & King Ferdinand. That is, until finally the Royal Chapel in the city center was finished in 1521. Their final resting place, which was commissioned by their grandson Charles V. An impressive monument & the second MUST SEE in Granada, (see below). 

All in all, an unforgettable visit, and a memorable day.

Tips & recommendations on your visit to the Alhambra, Granada

TIP: Visit to the Alhambra, Granada

First of all, you have to buy tickets in advance! Preferable on the oficial website of the Alhambra itself (www.alhambra.org).

There are different options. From a general visit to access to certain parts. In daytime or nighttime. With or without a guide. There are even exclusive “skip the line” tickets.

Secondly, I would recommend you to go for the earliest hour available (gates open at 8:30 AM). That’s when you avoid the masses. At least, for the first hour or so. You have to know that besides  the tourists that stayed the night in Granada, a lot of visitors arrive each day on day trips from other places, mostly the southern beaches.

TIP: Head out to the Nasrid Palaces/Palacios Nazaríes first

If you arrive early, you are in the first group that are allowed into the main palaces, the Palacios Nazaríes. (If you bought the right ticket of course).

An absolute must to see these palaces on your visit to the Alhambra, Granada. But, be aware! The time of access on your ticket is the hour you have to be at the gate of the mentioned palaces.

The Nasrid Palaces require to be there at a certain time.  So, when you pass the main entrance, head directly to the “Palacios Nazaríes” (a 10 to 15 minute walk). We saw several people that obviously didn’t know, arrived too late and weren’t allowed in.

The Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra, Granada
The Nasrid Palaces

Every group is limited in total. This probably has to do with the fact that from the moment you enter these palaces everyone starts looking up, down, right, left, … so, not straight ahead anymore. In conclusion, it’s to avoid too many accidents.

There’s so much to see in the different palaces and grounds in between. Connected through small corridors, stately gates, little corners everywhere, beautiful gardens, pools, fountains, … It’s a kind of magic, really.

If you are inside these palaces, there’s no time limit to your stay. Once outside though, you can’t get back in.

Or, if you prefer a tour with a professional guide:

TIP: After your visit to the Nasrid Palaces

The Palacios Nazaríes are definitely the highlight of the Alhambra. However, the whole place is worthwhile a visit. Inside and out! Referring to the spectacular views you’ll almost constantly get of Granada & the surrounding area. One of the finest views is from one of the towers of the Alcazaba, the former military quarters of the Alhambra.

After a visit to the Palacios Nazaríes, the Palace of Charles V (with a small, but well-organized museum), the Alcazaba, we brought a quick visit to the church of Santa María & convent of San Francisco, before we ended up at the Generalife. The Generalife, that besides ample gardens, houses its own palaces, patios, corridors & what not. Enough to loose yourself again.

TIP: Buy a guide book beforehand

After that, we headed to the main exit and brought a visit to the giftshop. One of those shops where you feel almost obliged to buy something. Being at such an impressive historical place.

Our daughter bought a beautiful guide book of the Alhambra (see below). So good, she wished she had read it beforehand, instead of afterwards. So, highly recommend, but buy & read it before you’ll visit the Alhambra & Generalife.

The Alhambra And Generalife In Focus by Aurelio Cid Acedo

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After our visit to the Alhambra, we took a bus back downtown. The same that took us up and starts/ends at the Plaza Isabel la Católica in the middle of Granada’s city center.

A visit to the Royal Chapel

The next day we started with a visit to the Royal Chapel/ Capila Real, integrated in the neighbouring Cathedral of Granada.

The chapel was especially built for Queen Isabella after her death in 1504, commissioned by her grandson Charles V. Because its construction wasn’t finished until 1521, Isabella’s remains were kept in the Convent of San Francisco on the Alhambra grounds (see above). 

In the middle of the Royal Chapel you’ll find an “majestic” monument, made out of white marble, representing the resting bodies of Isabella & Ferdinand. On one side, downward stairs lead to their crypt.

Besides Isabella, inside the crypt you’ll find the remains of her husband Ferdinand of Aragon (the couple who, for many, through their marriage unified the country). As well as of their daughter Joanna “the Mad” & her husband, the Habsburg prince Felipe “the Handsome”. Finally, there’s a small coffin containing the remains of Queen Isabella’’s grandson Miguel (*Miguel was heir to throne of Portugal, but died shortly before his second birthday).

You can’t go inside the crypt, but can watch the interior through an iron gate. You’ll see five simple lead coffins.

All in all, very impressive! More so, if you know something about Spain’s eventful history. I went down twice. 

The Cathedral & Royal Chapel are really worth a visit. Attached to the chapel there’s a small museum where you’ll find some personal items of the Royal family. For example, a dress that belonged to Isabel, her crown, as well as a sword that was Ferdinand’s. 

Strolling through Granada

The rest of our time in Granada we wandered the streets of the different neighbourhoods. As we did in earlier places we visited: Barcelona, Valencia and Úbeda. And would also do in the place we would visit after Granada, Sevilla

Rapidly, we all concluded that Granada has its own vibe. European & Arabian in one. A fascinating mixture. Also very touristic, with many shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, teahouses – the so called Teterías. Meanwhile you’ll pass monumental buildings, beautiful squares, historical statues and what not. 

Historical Intermezzo: Columbus

1492 was a special year for Spain. Not only because of the recovery of the last stronghold of the muslims, Granada. Also because it was the year Christopher Columbus “discovered” America

It was in Granada that Columbus finally got Queen Isabel’s approval for his revolutionary plans to sail westwards. A project he had presented to several European sovereigns before.  

Nowadays, the famous admiral lives on in many ways. In Spain, as well as in the Americas. In my earlier post about Barcelona I wrote about his meeting with the royal couple on the Plaza del Rey after his first voyage to the Americas. 

Right in the middle of the center of Granada there is a magnificent statue of his meeting with Queen Isabella before crossing the Atlantic. While at the next stop, Sevilla we would visit his grave. Well actually, one of his graves (see my post on Sevilla).

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Back to our wandering through the city of Granada 

Although a little higher up in altitude (a little over 700m) than other Spanish cities we visited, it was still fairly warm during daytime. Reason enough for us to incorporate a real time siësta around noon. Heaven.

Automatically, the evenings lent themselves perfectly to go out and enjoy the city. Having a bite & a drink in a friendly and inspiring environment.

TIP: Visit the lookout point, Mirador San Nicolás!

One late afternoon we climbed up through the small streets of the Albayzín to the Mirador San Nicolás. A lookout where every late afternoon hundreds of people gather to watch the sun go down and see the Alhambra change colors. With the Sierra Nevada as a back ground it’s perfect for the best pictures of the Alhambra.

Visit to El Mirador de San Nicolás, Granada
A visit to the Mirador San Nicolás, Granada

While we were there, a gypsy band was playing. I don’t know if they perform on the plaza every night, but for me it was another piece of the multicultural and mysterious vibe that hangs over Granada.

A must see, despite warnings about pick-pockets. When we climbed up the narrow streets, or in the time we were up there, nobody bothered us (still high-season). However, when you feel discouraged by the warning, you can take a taxi up to the plaza.

TIP: Eating out in Granada

At least once a day we went out for a bite, mostly in the cooler evenings. As mentioned in my earlier post about Barcelona, Valencia and Úbeda, be careful where you eat. Mass tourism implies a lot of so so food, for ho ho prices. Even in culinary countries like Spain.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to find a good place to eat & drink. Even look for a restaurant on the internet nowadays is a little treacherous, because of false reviews. So, take your time, … and be lucky. 

If you look for a place to eat in the middle of the city center, there’s a good chance you’ll end up in an average restaurant. A place you forget the minute you walk away from it. The main reason for that is because you are in the most expensive tourist zone. A zone most locals and Spanish visitors avoid.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t good restaurants in the town center of course, but generally they areharder to find. We made some wrong choices, before we found a good place, a “lucky” find actually. And because it was that hard to find and surprisingly good, I will mention it.

A restaurant that – at the time (2019) – just recently opened on the Plaza de la Alhóndiga. A place that obviously wanted to do things differently, namely Mostaza Green Burger. Maybe, to some of you that sounds to “fastfood-ish”, but really …

Besides great homemade burgers, they offered a good selection of fresh salads with delicious ingredients. We ate there twice in the few days we were in Granada. It was just what we needed, …and maybe you too.

To put our visit to Granada in a few words: 

For me personally our visit to Granada was the highlight of our journey through Spain. The heart of Andalusia. There’s still hanging a mystery around this place, ghosts of the past, footsteps that follow you, shadows in broad daylight. And I am not only talking about the main attraction – the Alhambra – but the whole center of town.

In Granada, you’ll discover something new every minute. You can easily stay a week or longer and keep enjoying yourself. Besides that, I think the Royal Chapel is an absolute must. As well as the lookout point from the church of San Nicolás. 

Details on the walls of the Alhambra in Granada.

Find the best & cheapest flight to Granada + the right hotel to stay

There are many sites to find the best & cheapest flights to your chosen destination.

One I prefer is CheapOAir. (click on name to search your next flight).

CheapOAir can also help you out finding the best hotel for you, or arrange a rental car.

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Alternatively, there’s Expedia.com to help you find the right place to stay.

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Day trip 1: Visit to the cave dwellings of Guadix, Granada

On our second day of our visit to Granada we headed out to Guadix. In our rental car, a drive of about 40 minutes. Guadix lies to the north of the city of Granada. On an elevated plateau, which is part of the northern foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

The town itself is worth a visit of its own. However, our main goal were the cave dwellings on its outskirts. 

Area of cave dwellings, on the outskirts of the city of Guadix, Granada
Area of cave dwellings, on the outskirts of the city of Guadix, Granada
A long…long history

Spain has a long history of cave dwellers. Above all, in this southern region of the country. They found paleontological remains all over the southern provinces. Mostly in the caves that served as habitats for the first human beings in this area.

For that reason, a lot of the cave dwellings have a long long history. However, a history that continues on to this day, because the caves are still used as residences. 

Some people occupy the whole cave. As we saw when we were invited in by one of the inhabitants of Guadix. Others use the cave partially, and have built a house right next to it, but in a direct connection to the cave. Mostly these houses/caves are visible, but sometimes you only see a chimney coming out of the rocks.

A living room in a cave dwelling (local museum), Guadix, Granada
Inside a cave dwelling in Guadix (local museum)

All in all a wonderful sight, all those cave houses. Above all, a cozy sight. Like being in a ferry tale, visiting the film set of the Lord of the Rings. It remembered me somehow of building huts with childhood friends.

That’s not the whole story though. For a long time the caves were the residences for the poorest people. Nowadays however they are popular among richer folks. Besides of course the local residents that live in these caves for generations.

Local museum

After our little tour through one of the inhabited cave dwellings, we visited the little museum on site. Formally, the Centro de Interpretación de las Cuevas de Guadix. A short, but interesting visit to a former cave dwelling. Our round through the different rooms started with a introduction video and explanation of the use of the caves in former times and its restoration.

Day trip: … further on to the Negratín Reservoir, Zújar, Granada

After our visit to Guadix, we continued on to the *Negratín Reservoir/Embalse de Negratín*, near the town of Zújar, also still within the province of Granada. From the cave area above Guadix to the reservoir took us less than an hour. 

The clear blue Negratín-reservoir is a beautiful site in itself, but we first of all wanted to relax in the thermal springs at the northwestern part of this artificial lake. The so called Baños de Zújar. A perfect stop and a well deserved rest for us. Besides the swimming pool and restaurant high above the reservoir, you can visit the natural springs in the lake itself. 

Afterwards we ate and drank something in the restaurant and that was surprisingly fresh, tasty & affordable. A tip in itself. 

Other day trip options in the area

Of course, we had the advantage of having our own, that is rental car. However, from Granada there are several agencies organising comparable tours in the wild & inspiring area around. For example,

  1. A trek through the mighty Sierra Nevada, with spectacular views you’ll never forget

2. One that takes you to the most famous town in this beautiful mountain range, namely Alpujarra

Day trip 2: Detour via Gibraltar

After our visit to Granada, our next stop was Sevilla. Beforehand however, we planned a stopover on our way there. We had two options: the old city center of Córdoba or Gibraltar. We chose the last one, for being a historical site and geographic rarity on our planet.

Besides that, our daughter Lisa had never visited the UK before. So, why not?

Now you would think, … too bad for Córdoba. However, later on we got a chance to visit that beautiful city also, on a Day trip from Sevilla. On what would actually be our last full day in Spain. You always have to make choices on the way, more so in a beautiful country as Spain!

But first, our visit to Gibraltar. For that we had to drive southward (remember, with had the luxury of a rental car). A big part of it along the southern coastline. A region full of known and unknown beach-spots.

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A visit to Castillo Monumento Colomares.

Just near one of the most famous ones, Torremolinos, we made a quick stop at the Castillo Monumento Colomares. A fantasy project of a local doctor honouring Columbus & others for their courage to sail westwards and “discover” a new continent, the Americas. The man dreamed up this castle in a mixture of styles on the lookout point to the Mediterranean, and actually built it.

Castle Monument of Colomares
Castle built in honor of Columbus & his companions

It was a welcome stop on our detour southwards, but to be honest less impressive than I hoped it would be. In other words, the dreamy idea was more spectacular than the final result. That said, it’s probably one of the few cultural highlights to visit for the thousands of visitors that fill the southern beaches each year in Spain.

After that quick visit to a man’s dream, we continued our way to the more famous Rock of Gibraltar.

A visit to Gibraltar, United Kingdom

My first impression of the rock was that it was actually bigger than I had thought beforehand. A sight I will never forget. 

The rock of Gibraltar
The rock of Gibraltar, UK

But then, visiting the rock itself was a disaster, to tell you the truth. Pricey, chaotic, sweaty, filthy even sometimes. 

Yes, of course – once up – we saw the famous monkeys and we had the beautiful views of the surrounding area. But that was it, the rock itself and many “attractions” on it need a fix up, attention….. Help! 

Crossing the border

The crossing of the border between Spain and Gibraltar, UK was not really a problem. Hundreds of people do that every day, so it was fast and without much ado. 

After the crossing there are several bus lines you can take further on. Line 5 sets out for the cable car, that brings you up to the rock.

Depending tourism, this bus leaves the border every 10 minutes or so. A long & boring bus ride through a busy, chaotic part of the city of Gibraltar follows. A part that, although many people live there, has an almost industrial feel to it. Not surprising, being a harbor area mainly.

  • The bus ride is even longer when a plane is coming in at the airport, because you literally have to cross the landing strip immediately after leaving the border.

Although a boring ride, it’s strange also because – of a sudden – you’re on United Kingdom territory….. and not really. 

The only positive about the ride was the bus driver who in a mixture of Spanish & English tried to cheer up the passengers on his turn. I think he knew the visit to the rock would be a disappointment. 

On to the rock…

It was super busy at the entrance to the cable car, but things went rather smoothly. Be aware though that before you buy your (overpriced) ticket, you have to decide what you wanted to do on the rock. Do you want to buy a one- or two-way ticket? Visit all or just some attractions? Or maybe, no attractions at all? 

Because we had limited time on our way to Sevilla, we decided for some basic attractions and walk the way down. Wrong!!! 

Once, on the rock it doesn’t take long to conclude that chaos reigns the skies. More a dumping ground than a historical place, was my second & real impression of the rock. It was there & then, I realised the rock in itself wasn’t the main attraction, but the views from the rock. 

So, without further ado I decided to climb up to the farthest point out to sea for the views. That is to say, without paying too much attention to the “attractions” on my way up & along the way.

Afterwards, I was happy with that quick decision. Mainly because that was really the “highlight” of my visit to the rock of Gibraltar. In other words, standing on the bigger-than-life intersection between Europe and Africa, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. That’s something, isn’t it? 

View from the top! Where the Atlantic and Mediterranean collide and you can behold Africa standing on the tip of the European continent.
A mighty view

In a few words, if the local, British authorities don’t give more attention to the rock, the only thing you can really enjoy are the views from the rock, instead of the rock itself. Too bad. Besides that, I have to admit that I didn’t visit the main attractions on the rock, like the famous Second World war tunnels. I can only hope they are worth a visit, … and probably are.

A last tip I would like to give is: buy a two-way ticket up…  When I reunited with my two girls, because of the heath the walk downhill turned much longer and more difficult than we expected. So we decided to take the cable car down. Somehow we escaped control of our one-way ticket, but normally you have to buy a new one.

And… the two-way ticket is only slightly more expensive than the one-way ticket. So, why bother? We simply made a mistake, but be warned.

And finally …a more serious note: 

Reading the newspaper the next day, I learned that Spain has its own “Gibraltar” on the African coast. Well, not one, but several “Gibraltars”. I really didn’t know.

An article informed us about some African migrants that recently climbed the fence between Morocco and the Spanish Gibraltar to “freedom”. 

Strange and fascinating geographical points on Earth. Not only between two countries, but also between two continents. For many, a line with more significance than just a stupid tourist attraction. A step to liberty, freedom, survival, a dream, … at least that’s what they hope for.

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