Just the right size to get to grips with on a short trip, Granada is one of the most beautiful jewels of Andalusia’s glittering crown. Darren Loucaides dismantles the mixed Arab and Iberian identity of this architecturally stunning city, the last Moorish stronghold to fall in the 15th century.
Granada doesn’t truly come to life until mid-morning, but it’s worth taking a first stroll around the city while it’s quiet and cool – there are some 300 days of sun a year here, which can make idle wanders in the afternoon less leisurely than they ought to be. Granada is one of the undisputed architectural treasures of the southern Andalusian region, with elegant Renaissance and baroque buildings from the height of Imperial Spain’s pomp and grandeur hemmed in by verdant hills. Take an admiring walk down the grand cream-coloured Gran Vía de Colón until you reach the almost hidden cathedral. Built in the 15th century after the Reconquista, it stands on the site of a former mosque. Continue up Calle Reyes Católicos until you reach the wide pedestrianised Plaza Nueva, beyond which lies the feet of the hill that leads up to the Alhambra.
Having worked up an appetite, you’ll find Plaza Nueva is full of bars and cafés with outdoor terraces for a little breakfast. For one of the best in the area, head further up the narrow Carrera del Darro to Ras, a terrific traditional spot with old stone walls and timber-beam ceiling. Order tostada con tomate – toast rubbed with tomato – preferably topped with cured Spanish ham. Afterwards, keep walking along the pretty Rio Darro, more babbling brook than river, which streams its way beneath medieval stone bridges. The Alhambra begins to loom up formidably above you, which means it’s almost time to begin your ascent.
One of the most important sites in Europe, the Alhambra is Granada’s unmissable attraction, and is worth getting to early as there is a daily cap on visitors (Real de la Alhambra, 958 027 971). Built by the Nasrid sultans in the 14th century, the fabled citadel sits atop a lofty hill beneath the Sierra Nevada mountains. It is the most iconic treasure left behind by the Moors, who ruled Spain for four centuries, and contains painted tiles, incredibly intricate arabesques and stilted arches. Almost as breathtaking as the fortress itself are the palace gardens, which are a joy to stray amongst whispering cypress trees, dreamy pavilions, reflecting pools and tinkling fountains.
Reward yourself at having climbed the Alhambra by not only dining in its shadow, but eating at one of the finest restaurants in Granada. Hidden amongst the maze of little streets in the Albaicín district, Mirador de Morayma (Pianista García Carillo 2, 958 228 290) is housed within a ‘carmen’ – an enclosed house with a terrace and garden in the Moorish style. Apart from the idyllic setting (said to be the home of Princess Morayma, wife of the last King of Granada), there’s the heavenly food, including smoked sturgeon and codfish with almonds. Don’t over-indulge on the wine fermented on the restaurant’s own Alpujarra estate, for Albaicín awaits – the ancient Moorish quarter of the city. Granada was the last Moorish city to fall to the Catholic Reconquista in 1492, and this well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage site gives an accurate idea of what it would have been like to live amidst its traditional white-washed architecture.
Granada is a great place for shopping, especially because it combines typical Spanish boutiques and brands with North African-style bazaars. Towards the south of the Albaicín district, there are little souk-like streets with spots to partake of mint tea and shisha. The highlight is probably the Alcaiceria (Plaza Bib-Rambla), the old Moorish silk market, an authentic Middle-Eastern shopping experience of stalls and shops selling traditional Moroccan wares such as rugs, lanterns and clothing. For high-quality handmade products, visit Al Aire Artesania (16 Plaza Aliatar, 622 364 651), a shop in the heart of this district, with ceramics, paintings and jewellery. Over on the streets leading off Plaza Bib-Rambla, you’ll find several fashion boutiques and high-street names such as Massimo Dutti and Zara.
After the noise and bustle of shopping in the souks, recovering in luxurious Moorish baths is a must. Hammam Al-Andalus (Santa Ana 16, 902 333 334) is a sumptuous setting for an afternoon of pampering in a stylish spa which masquerades under the guise of a traditional North African bath. For the real deal, head to Banuelo (Carrera del Darro 31). It’s no longer a functioning bathing option, but this well-preserved 11th-century hammam of golden stone arches will give you a taste for what bathing was like during Granada’s Moorish era.
Andalusians tend to dine late, with restaurants only starting to fill up as evening fades to night. Dine in style in the old Jewish quarter of Realejo at the tricky-to-find Damasqueros (Damasqueros 3, 958 210 550), with innovative approaches to Andalusian cuisine by native chef Lola Marín. Try the Iberian pork with couscous, yoghurt and apricots in a romantic wood-panelled setting. With a view to turning dinner into an all-night session, locals favour tapas bars, where the price of a drink gets you a small plate loaded with an often generous portion of food. The lively Bodegas Castañeda (Almireceros 1, 958 215 464) is a local favourite, with a legendary reputation for fine cheeses and cured hams.
At this hour, locals are still finishing their dinner but you can get a head start on the nightlife by heading over to La Tetería del Hammam (Santa Ana 16, 958 210 205). This cultural hub features live music, traditional storytelling and authentic dances, a throwback to Granada’s Moorish past. The city is home to a huge student population, and there are plenty of hip bars and huge music clubs to party until dawn. To see up-and-coming Spanish bands perform live, Plantabaja is the place (Horno de Abad 11) – an intimate alternative venue favoured by those in the know.
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Written by World Travel Guide.