The great achievements of life and history often have humble beginnings and this was never truer than when speaking about Granada. It is one of the top cities to see in Andalusia and in Spain itself for its cultural heritage, modern appeal and unique layout yet it is often bypassed by the casual tourist who has so many other places to choose from like Madrid, Valencia, Seville and Malaga. The truth is that having been to these other places myself I can certainly attest to their worth, yet there is something very unique and special about Granada. It is a city that has been the focus and epicenter of many great historical initiatives, cultures, movements and triumphs. In all this it is a city that has endured and produced a fantastic legacy for the world.
The first way of explaining it that comes to me is really to describe it as a cross section of history and culture. Just as archeologists and paleontologists cut away at rock and soil formations to study layers of history, so too the visitor to Granada is invited and really can’t avoid doing the same. Everywhere one turns there are ancient Iberian ruins surpassed by those of the Nasrid Dynasty in the time of the Emirate of Granada and Spaniard buildings of the reconquest. This city for all its humility on the current world stage played a key role in the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella, both of whom are buried here. This was the last major battle of the reconquista of Spain and the buildings and culture left behind from the Moors. Today still it is a place of art and innovation as it serves as a center for a thriving art and music scene as well as a place of scientific exploration and development.
The natural layout of the area is enough to understand why the city’s founders picked this beautiful patch of earth. The city is situated at the base of the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains on a large plain and at the confluence of three rivers it is a stunning gem set between some of Spain’s Southernmost skiing and lies only and hour from the warm Mediterranean Sea. The best way to reach the city is honestly by bus. The bus system in Spain is efficient and affordable and one can connect from major cities on routes all day long. Once in town the bet way to explore the city is on foot. It is best to give the city at least two days and three if you can. The current downtown and pedestrian areas are best explored over the course of a day and the Alhambra fortress requires a full day unto itself if you plan on seeing the whole compound. A good way to plan things is to get your Alhambra tickets a day in advance. Some of the fortress is free access but the most stately sections require a ticket. A third day will give one more time to enjoy and hang out in the city or spilt up the city exploration into two days.
The best way to explore the city is to understand the neighborhoods into which it is divided and then to see the monuments and attractions in each which define them. The best place to begin naturally is in Centro. The heart of the city is filled with the Granada Cathedral, this massive church has impressively large ceilings is overlaid in gold and is Spain’s second largest church. The whole work is a compilation of gothic, renaissance and baroque styles. Attached is the royal chapel where the ornate tombs of Ferdinand and Isabella can be found. Around this part of the city one can follow wandering alleyways of time long past and enjoy many hole in the wall restaurants, beautiful plazas and boutique shops. An especially unique sector is the Alcaicera. This was the original Moorish silk market that now hosts a variety of shops and the defining ornate, al andalus stylized arches and architecture still stand. The next neighborhood worth seeing is the Realejo. This sector of town is the famed Jewish quarter and it is known today for its quiet atmosphere and beautiful homes and museums check out the (Federico Garcia Lorca museum) which have blossoming courtyards and abundant fountains. For me there was no place better for a stroll in the evenings and if you are looking for an out of the way tapas bar away from the noisier student crowds it is here that you will find one. A great recommendation is Seis Peniques a restaurant and tapas bar in a meditative and picturesque environment. The church of Santo Domingo is stunning as well. Finally while there are many other great places to explore the most unmissable is Albayzín. This neighborhood sits adjacent to the Alhambra fortress and like many Arabic neighborhoods worldwide is a stunning scene of gorgeous pearl white homes with opulent gardens, fountains and stonework which patterns into thousands of symmetric designs. Any stroll through this neighborhood is bound to kindle your senses and give one an even new understanding of Granada. Be sure and check out the main Mosque of Granada, the Plaza Larga and Hamman El Banuelo, Spain’s best preserved ancient Arabic bath house.
While Granada is certainly defined by its strong legacy and its historical ebb and flow of domination, culture and rule, all this would be an incomplete definition without considering the Alhambra. Set at the city’s highest point and housing some of the greatest historical relics and treasures this fortress is a testament to the art, culture and greatness, which have defined Granada’s legacy. The name Alhambra comes from an Arabic word meaning red. It is assumed that the largely brick exterior of the turrets and walls brought on the name. The entire compound was originally built as a fortress for protection, but it is very large and as such functioned as a typical medina (market) and as a city as well. Set on a hill it has a commanding view of the entire town beneath it and there are many segments to explore. From the first moment one will be impressed by the massive gate of justice, on which is carved many symbols of the conquerors and the conquered throughout history. Inside there is the Palace of Charles V with an amazing round courtyard. The greatest treasure is found in the Nazaries Palaces with the world famous Court of the Myrtles in which intricate fountains and pools reflect the ornate Arabic ceilings and pillars and the memorable court of the lions fountain trickles slowly and meditatively in the center of the courtyard. The labyrinthine halls, hammans and palaces aren’t all, be sure and wander the Generalife portion of the compound where wild and exotic gardens adorn the palatial walls and walkways. Granada is certainly a city worth seeing and to anyone who has anytime to spend in Spain it is assuredly worth the effort.