You can't visit Granada without marvelling at Spain’s great Moorish monument - but this vibrant, lively city has a whole lot more to offer as well
It doesn’t matter what time of day you visit the Alhambra, there are always people gazing from the ramparts of the old fortress towards the city of Granada, which unfolds before them.
You can’t blame them because it’s a wonderful view: the old Moorish district of the Albayzín across the steep little valley of the Darro river; the city centre with its tall churches, its squat cathedral and its elegant 19th-century arcades; and, beyond, the Vega de Granada, the fertile plain that provides produce for the city.
Visitors have plenty of time to ponder the sights while they wait for their timed entry slot to the Palacio de los Nazaries, the spectacular palace complex that was the high point of Moorish culture in Andalucía and is pretty much the highlight of any visit to southern Spain. Numbers are restricted to 8,800 visitors each day, which doesn’t sound like many but feels like a multitude if you’re waiting for a quiet moment to get that perfect shot of the famed Patio de los Leones or hoping to contemplate the beauty and symmetry of thousand-year-old tiled walls and ornate plaster ceilings.
It is possible to find yourself alone in the grounds of the Alhambra and its stunning garden complex, the Generalife. With amazing views of the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains as a backdrop, this is the perfect place for contemplating life and all its mysteries. And one to muse as the coach parties and families stream past is: ‘why don’t these people spend more time in Granada?’ The Alhambra may be thronged almost every day of the year, but it seems few visitors spend more than a couple of nights in town and, once they’ve added another tick to their list of ‘world’s greatest monuments’, head off to Córdoba or Seville or Rome or who knows where.
It’s their loss, because this is a city worth getting to know. Quite apart from the historic monuments, the quaint old passageways and cobbles, Granada is busy and interesting and vibrant. Much of that is down to the presence of the university – one of Spain’s oldest and most revered. The presence of 70,000-plus students in a city of a quarter of a million can’t help but enliven things.
The nightlife is plentiful – even frenetic. But the student population adds something more: youth, of course, but also a general sense of interest in the wider world, though Granadinos seem to prefer their encounters to take place on home turf. The world comes to study here or to visit its great palace complex, so why bother going to the world?
At first glance, the inhabitants might seem aloof, and they certainly have a reputation for conservatism. But spend a little time people-watching around the Plaza del Campillo and a different kind of Granadino becomes apparent. This is downtown, an area where locals still hold sway. Across the wide stretch of the modern-looking square there are people grouped in twos and threes or just standing alone, watching the city go about its business. Others – old men, mostly – take up residence on the benches and sit for hours chatting about anything that comes to mind or not saying anything at all.
There’s no coolness here. Ask for help or directions and you’ll be treated like one of the family. The only problem lies in getting away. The Granadinos are proud of their city and it shows. They are also aware that Granada is much more than the Alhambra. The locals don’t tend to give the palace much thought outside Sunday afternoons, when entry is free to residents of the city and they head up the hill in their thousands to stroll in the gardens and turn their over-excited offspring loose. Not, incidentally, the best time to take in the Moorish marvels on show.
The cathedral and the nearby Royal Chapel – resting place of the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella – lie in the heart of the city and tend to sit more readily in Granadinos’ consciousness. Maybe that’s because the streets around the cathedral comprise the main shopping district.
There are other attractions: the Arab baths and old Moorish city gates; the Garcia Lorca museum, which honours Spain’s greatest 20th-century poet; one dedicated to composer Manuel de Falla; even a new science museum.
Then there’s the Albayzín. Walk around this confused knot of winding alleyways and narrow streets in the morning and you’ll think you’re in a ghost town. As the afternoon wears on, though, the hill comes alive – with fellow tourists wandering at will and locals with more purpose in their step. The lower Albayzín is full of bars and Arab tea rooms as well as a string of smart hotels and cafes on the very French-looking Carrera del Darro.
The miradors and terrace bars at the top of the hill offer stunning skyline views of the Alhambra and the mountains beyond. You can see the visitors peering from the towers of the Alcazaba – the oldest part of the fortress. And you can’t help thinking, ‘I wonder whether they know that the view from here is even better’.
Bill Clinton certainly thinks so. The former President of the United States visited Granada as a student in the Sixties and vowed to return. He got his wish 30 years later when he broke off from a NATO summit in Madrid to bring wife Hillary and daughter Chelsea to the Albayzín. They timed their trip to arrive at the Mirador de San Nicolas just as dusk began to gather, honouring the President’s pledge to revisit the “most beautiful sunset in the world”.
WHERE TO STAY
AC Palacio de Santa Paula
By a long way, Granada’s best hotel. The go-ahead AC group has converted a beautiful 16th-century convent into a modern luxury hotel, combining five-star facilities with elegant patios and an atmosphere of calm. The food is excellent too.
Parador San Francisco
Great location, in a former convent inside the grounds of the Alhambra. The most famous hotel in the state-run chain, so book well in advance.
Mock Moorish interiors in a striking building close to the Alhambra. Impressive service and well-equipped.
El Ladrón De Agua
Great location with views up to the Alhambra. A super-tasteful palace conversion at a bargain price.
Casa Del Capitel Nazari
Another gem in the Albayzín and another 16th-century palace, recently renovated. There’s plenty of quiet style here.
Hotel Dauro II
Good, modern option right in the city centre, within easy reach of the shopping district and plenty of nightlife.
Hotel Los Tilos
Excellent value at this pleasant hotel overlooking the lovely Bib-Rambla square with its flower market.
Hotel Maciá Plaza
Rooms are fine though not outstanding. Location excellent, on another busy square.
WHERE TO EAT
Via Colón is a Granada institution – an elaborately decorated cafe with an excellent selection of tapas, sandwiches or more substantial Spanish cuisine. Gran Via de Colón, 13; +34 958 229 842.
Terraza las Tomasas, near the top of the Albayzín, has stunning views across to the Alhambra. Hard to find but worth the effort, and the food lives up to the setting. Carril de San Agustin, 4; +34 958 224 108.
Azafran, overlooking the Darro at the foot of the Alhambra, has lovely views up to the fortress-palace and a classy, modern interior where tasty, inventive cuisine is served. Carrera del Darro, 33; +34 958 226 882.
Iberos is top of the bill in Granada, with a celebrity chef and a mix of French and South American influences. Calle Escudos del Carmen, 36; +34 958 220 772.