The many tourist attractions of Granada make this historic city one of the highlights of southern Andalusia. The city is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada and is full of tourist sights with always those snow-capped mountain peaks in the background. The well-known palace complex of the Alhambra is one of the most visited historical monuments in the world. But the old town is also packed with other must visited sights and very interesting neighbourhoods you don’t want to miss. In this blog, we will tell you everything about the best things to do in Granada and you will learn more about the impressive sights of this Spanish city!
Read more: you can find all our Andalusia blogs here.
Why Granada is worth a visit
Granada is one of the most visited cities in Spain and for a good reason. This city has everything: a rich history, beautiful architecture, unique sights and beautiful nature. In addition, Granada is also very atmospheric with charming squares, tapas bars and beautiful streets.
The history of Granada goes back centuries. The city is therefore one of the oldest in Spain. The most important period in the city’s rich history is the time of the Muslim Moors who lived and ruled here for centuries. This is also the period in which the Alhambra was built, which is still one of the best-known and most impressive sights of Granada. Many other highlights of Granada also come from this period. The Moors have left their mark on the city for centuries and their beautiful architecture is still one of the main reasons to visit Granada.
In the fifteenth century, after a long siege, Granada was conquered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, making it part of the Christian Kingdom of Spain. The Moors were expelled or had to convert. This is also the case for their impressive monuments. They were reused for Christian purposes – almost every mosque became a church – or simply smashed to the ground.
The result of that turbulent history is a city with a special mix of Islamic and Christian elements. Add unique elements such as a hippie area with cave houses and endless squares with tapas bars and you understand why Granada is worth a visit.
Where is Granada in Spain?
Granada is located in the extreme south of Spain, in the Andalusia region. The south is known for its elongated beaches, but you don’t have to be in Granada for that. This city is more inland and located in the mountains, so it is not near the coast as most Andalusia highlights.
The city has its own airport, Granada-Jaén Airport, but there are no direct flights from most countries. The nearest international airport is in Málaga, which is about a 1,5 hour’s drive to Granada. Another international airport with direct flights from many neighbouring countries is Seville, about a 2,5 hour’s drive from Granada. Our experience is that it is easiest to find cheap Andalusia flights for Málaga. As Málaga is closer to Granada than Seville, this would be our top pick when looking for a flight.
We highly recommend that you not only visit Granada, but take a road trip along the many beautiful places of Andalusia. We already mentioned the destinations Seville and Málaga, where you will find an international airport and you can easily pick up your rental car for Spain. Other popular attractions in the region? Head to Cordoba with its famous mosque-cathedral, the seaside resorts along the Costa del Sol such as Marbella and the picturesque ‘pueblos blancos’ with their white houses and charming streets.
Where to stay in Granada: the different city districts
If you are looking for accommodation in Granada, it is good to get to know the neighborhoods of the city first. Granada has very different neighborhoods, each with its own atmosphere and tourist attractions. You can roughly choose from three types of areas if you want to stay close to the sights of Granada: the historic district of Albacin, the old center around the cathedral and the hippie district of Sacromonte.
The historic district Albacin is located on a hill and offers beautiful views over the city. This part of the city mainly houses students and artists and you will find many small boutiques, trendy cafes and nice restaurants here. Albacin is a nice and safe neighborhood to walk through in the evening and you quickly feel at home. The accommodation options in Albacin are all gems. Our favorites are:
- Hotel Casa Morisco in a 15th-century property with traditional beamed ceilings and views of the Alhambra
- Shine Albayzin for modern luxury in a sixteenth-century palace with a courtyard
- Hotel Santa Isabela La Real in a cosy and authentic historic building, including an extensive fresh breakfast
The hippie district Sacromonte is on a hill, just like Albacin, at the very edge of the city. This neighborhood is mainly known for the gipsies, immigrants and hippies who live here in caves without electricity or other facilities. Flamenco is an important part of Sacromonte culture and the district is full of bars with flamenco shows. The neighborhood is a 20-minute walk from the historic center of Granada and is the best place to stay in Granada if you want to get away from the busy city life and experience a unique culture. You will not find hotels here. If you stay in Sacromonte, you’ll have to book one of the cave houses with a local. You can find them mainly on Airbnb, like this modernly decorated cave or this cave house that doesn’t even look like a cave from the inside.
The old center around the cathedral of Granada – El Centro – isn’t on a hill, so this makes the perfect base for travellers who don’t enjoy climbing the Granada hills to their hotel. Most hotels, hostels and accommodation in Granada can be found in this part of the city. Recommendations in El Centro are:
- Toc Hostel Granada for a very neat, modern and cosy hostel with private rooms and dormitories in a prime location
- Hotel Anacapri for a stylish boutique hotel in a historic building
- Khu Hotel which is 100 meters from the cathedral and in a street full of tapas bars
- Casa de Reyes for a beautiful hotel with classically furnished rooms that are an attraction in themselves
The best things to do in Granada: 10 sights you don’t want to miss
#1 The Alhambra
The most famous attraction in Granada is of course the Alhambra, an ancient palace complex on one of the hills of the city. The Alhambra is best known for its Moorish architecture with beautiful arches, chapels and gardens. The murals and mosaics in the palace complex are also impressive. This makes the Alhambra one of the best-preserved Moorish monuments in the world.
The name Alhambra comes from al-Ḥamrā’, which means ‘the red one’. This name refers to the red bricks used for the construction of the palace complex. Construction began in 1238, but the complex has been expanded several times over the centuries. The last resident was King Boabdil al-Ahmar, the last Moorish king of Granada who eventually had to surrender himself and the city to the Christian royal couple Isabella and Ferdinand. After the fall of Granada in 1492, the palace complex was used as a palace for the Christian kings of Spain. King Charles V demolished part of the complex to make way for a Renaissance-style royal palace. With that he ruined part of the Moorish palace, but he replaced it with a very special building with a round courtyard.
The palace complex was opened to the public in 1812 and has been a popular landmark ever since. In 1984 the Alhambra was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, giving it the status that this special palace complex absolutely deserves.
The Alhambra complex has an area of 140,000 m² and is a citadel, so basically a city within a city. It consists of several parts. The Alcazaba, the Generalife and the Palace of the Kings are the parts for which you need a ticket. The tickets for the Alhambra can only be booked online and are sold out very quickly in high season. It is therefore wise to book your ticket for the Alhambra well in advance. In high season you should count on claiming your ticket weeks in advance.
You can also visit a large part of the Alhambra complex for free. The gardens, the entrance gates, the old chapel, the hammam and the museums in the Charles V Palace are freely accessible.
#2 Alcaicería, Granada’s Moorish silk market
Not far from Granada Cathedral is the best place to get some souvenirs. Here you will find Alcaicería, the old silk market of Granada that was once built here by the Moors. The silk market was once the place where silk was traded and now it is a tourist market. It is a kind of Arabic souk with souvenirs in mainly Arabic style. It’s like taking a trip to the Middle East!
Did you know that Granada’s silk market used to be one of the most famous places in the world for silk? People traveled to this place from all over the world to buy top-quality silk and learn how to make this silk from the locals. This came to an abrupt end when the last Muslims were driven out of the city by the Christian king. The Muslim population made this silk and was the hub of the silk market. When as many as 300,000 Muslim residents of Granada were expelled from the city, their knowledge of silk weaving also disappeared.
The silk market consists of several small streets with quaint shops. In these shops you will find souvenirs such as Moroccan lamps, oriental spices, Moorish mosaics and oriental lamps. When we walked through the narrow streets of the old market, we doubted how authentic the place was. Was this place with all those Moorish details really that well preserved? Later we heard that the historic silk market was indeed located here, but you can now see a replica of the old market. The Moorish details are therefore not original, but they do show what it looked like here. When you are in Granada, a visit to the Alcaicería market is definitely recommended!
#3 The old quarter Albaicin
One of the best things to do in Granada is to visit the old quarter of Albaicin. This neighborhood is located on a hill and is the oldest part of Granada. Did you know that Albaicin is also much older than the famous Alhambra? Compared to Albaicin, the Alhambra is even relatively new.
Albaicin is a beautiful, picturesque neighborhood to wander through. This place is on the UNESCO World Heritage List for a reason. The steep streets are paved with river stones, colorful plants grow along the walls and in the squares you will find buskers and children playing. You will find a surprising number of fountains scattered throughout Albaicin. Be sure to fill your water bottle there as well. The water comes from the mountains around Granada and is more than drinkable. And do you notice that you see such a fountain next to a church remarkably often? Then, in the time of the Moors, this church was a mosque and the fountain was then used by the Muslim population to cleanse themselves for prayer.
Want to make a quick stop after climbing those steep streets? One of the parks or squares is a wonderful place to sit on a bench and people watch. If you fancy a drink, Boabdil Restaurante is the place to be for traditional Spanish bar. Or visit the tea house Kasbah in Calle Calderia Nueva.
#4 The viewpoints of Granada
Albacin is known for the beautiful views of the city. From here you have the best view of the Alhambra. The most famous viewpoint is without a doubt Mirador de San Nicolas. From here you have a magnificent view over the city and the Alhambra. Gypsy’s dance flamenco here for tourists and street vendors offer all kinds of souvenirs.
Other viewpoints include Mirador Placeta del Comino, Mirador Morente, Mirador Cuesta de los Chinos, and Mirador Cruz de Rauda. A final recommendation is absolutely Mirador de San Miguel Alto. This is one of the highest points in the city and also the place to watch the sunset.
#5 The Granada Cathedral
One of the most visited sights of Granada is the cathedral. This enormous building does not really come into its own in the crowded El Centro, because where you normally have a large square for these kinds of highlights, the cathedral is almost completely surrounded by buildings. Be sure to walk around the cathedral to admire all sides.
A nice point of interest during such a tour around the cathedral are the many markings that the Spanish royal couple Ferdinand and Isabella have left behind. They expelled the Moors from Spain and for their Christian ambitions went so far as to expel the Jews from their country as well. In order to get publicity among the people, they had devised some sort of elaborate marketing campaign and the Cathedral of Granada was part of that. If you look closely, you can see the initials of the royal couple everywhere. The F and I have been incorporated into the facade in many places – and, for example, also on the facade of the university right next to the cathedral. You will also often see a large eagle with under its wings the weapons of the United Kingdoms united by the royal couple.
Anything else to watch out for? The graffiti on the cathedral walls! In the seventeenth century it was customary to write your name and the term “victor” on the cathedral walls after graduation. You had to belong to the wealthy elite, because daubing the cathedral was not free of charge. Not only in Granada by the way, because this was done all over Spain. The Seville cathedral has the same kind of historical graffiti on the walls.
But back to the beginning of the cathedral. The cathedral was built on the site of a mosque in Moorish times. It was demolished and replaced by a Christian building. Although the result of this construction project is one of the largest cathedrals in Spain, the construction was never completely finished. In the original design, the cathedral would have two impressive towers. There is now only one tower and another half. Nevertheless, the construction of the cathedral took decades. Construction was halted again and again due to lack of funds. The church is therefore a mix of different architectural styles, depending on what was fashionable at the time. For example, the interior of the cathedral is decorated in a Renaissance style and the facade is a clear example of the more extravagant Baroque style.
Tip: did you know that another church has been built against the cathedral? This is the Iglesia Parroquial del Sagrario and you can visit it for free.
#6 The Royal Chapel at the Cathedral
The royal couple Isabella and Ferdinand had their own royal chapel built at the cathedral. Or Capilla Real de Granada, in Spanish † For themselves and all royal generations after them. Those ambitions were ultimately not fully realized, as only five members of their family are buried. Another monarch moved the capital of Spain to Madrid and from there it was a lot of hassle to bury the family in Granada. Especially in times when bodies could not be cooled and preserved.
So who is buried in the Royal Chapel before the capital was moved to Madrid? Ferdinand and Isabella herself, of course. In addition, their daughter Johanna the Mad and her husband Philip II the Fair are also buried here. The fifth relative is that of a child. Isabella’s first daughter was married off to a Portuguese prince and then died in childbirth. Her son was also only two years old and this grandson of Queen Isabella was buried in her royal chapel in Granada.
The Royal Chapel can be visited separately from the cathedral. The entrance is in the building right next to the chapel itself. You are not allowed to take pictures inside.
#7 The gypsy district of Sacromonte with the cave houses of Granada
Anyone visiting Granada should not miss the Sacromonte district. The gipsies of Granada have lived here for centuries. Nowadays there are also many hippies living in Sacromonte, coming from other countries, and you will also find many different nationalities here because poor immigrants unfortunately often end up in a neighborhood like this.
The cave houses that you will find here are special. The gipsies built their homes in caves and cave houses. The difference between the two? A cave is a classical cave, in which a facade with a door and window has been built in the opening. A large house is half a house for such a large house, so you have part house and part cave. The caves and cave dwellings are all roughly the same laid out. The bedroom is at the back – because daylight is less important there – and the kitchen is at the front.
The houses have few amenities and many houses have no electricity or water. This does not apply to all caves, by the way. Some have even been converted into bars and there is also a supermarket in a cave. Sacromonte’s bars are also well worth a visit in the evening, when the vibrant nightlife is here. Be sure to visit a flamenco show in one of the cave bars. The district is famous for flamenco and these shows and it is one of the great attractions of Granada.
#8 El Bañuelo, the oldest hammam in Spain
The oldest hamman in Spain can be found in Granada. El Bañuelo dates back to the eleventh century. That was the time when the Moors ruled in Granada and built their bathhouses here. Many of these Arab baths did not survive the arrival of the Christian monarchs, but this one did.
The bathhouse is now one of the finest examples of historic bathhouses in Andalusia. It consists of three rooms where there were different baths – cold, lukewarm and warm – but the warm room is absolutely the most beautiful. The large arches and star-shaped holes in the ceiling make it a beautiful sight. If you have been to the Alhambra and also visited the hammam there – the entrance is free – you will recognize those star-shaped holes. There you also have the holes for ventilation and light.
You will find the bathhouse at the foot of the hill of Albacin. You can visit it for free on Sundays.
#9 The Sierra Nevada
If you visit Granada, a day trip to the Sierra Nevada should not be missed. This snow-capped mountain range – which is also literally what ‘sierra nevada’ means in Spanish – is located in the vicinity of Granada and you can see it from everywhere in the city. It is the second-highest mountain range in Europe after the Alps. You can ski there, but also enjoy hiking.
It is an important ski resort in Spain. But you can also enjoy a nice walk. Near Granada you can go to the point Collado Sevilla, where you can park and where several walking routes start. In any case, walk to the Mirador de los Alayos del Río Dílar, near that parking lot. The walk there is very easy and flat. There is even a wheelchair path to the viewpoint. From the viewpoint, you have a phenomenally beautiful view over the mountains. Erratic rocks, snow on mountain tops and deep valleys. You can see the Sierra Nevada at its best here!
If you walk further from there, you can climb a mountain top for an even more beautiful viewpoint. On top of that mountain top is a small, glass structure that you can already see from the mirador. There is a guest book in it and visitors sometimes leave a stone or something else behind. Although climbing a mountain top sounds tough, it is a short hike that is not extremely difficult. To give you an idea: we did the walk with our ten-month-old baby in the baby carrier. This short hike is called the Sendero de la Boca de la Pesca and is also indicated on Google Maps.
#10 Eating and drinking in Granada: tapas bars and terraces
If you go to Granada and you are looking for a place to eat or drink, you don’t really need any tips. The city is packed with nice terraces, an atmospheric restaurant and above all a lot of cosy tapas bars. You can’t leave the city without a nice tapas evening.
Are you ready for a modern hipster opportunity after all those local experiences? We found Noat Coffee to be a very good coffee spot with affordable sandwiches. The interior is very clean and basic, as you can expect in such a hipster place. By the way, right next to Noat Coffee is the vegan restaurant Vegano Hicuri, which serves really great dishes for a good price. Meat eaters will certainly appreciate this too! More vegan in Granada? Wild Food at Plaza Isabel La Católica with two menus, one vegan and one with meat dishes.
Another great spot for coffee – when Sebastiaan visits a city, espresso bar hopping is always part of that – is La Finca Coffee. This is a very small cozy place in the historic center near the cathedral with really good coffee. A third coffee tip is La Tienda de los Unicornios, a hip vintage-style coffee shop. You can also have a nice breakfast there. A final recommendation is Sur Coffee Corner for coffee to go. You can also sit there with your coffee, but there is not much space. You will also find this spot in the heart of the city center.
Back to local food tips again? Then we don’t want to leave the churros unnamed. We know this originally Spanish delicacy all too well in the Netherlands, but here in Spain you can find it everywhere. Churros to go is very normal here, but you can also settle down on a terrace and eat your churros as it is intended. With chocolate sauce, in which you have to dip those long fried dough sticks.
Finally, a local gave us the tip to buy sandwiches for breakfast in the morning at the many kiosks in the city. These small kiosks are only open in the morning. The locals buy their bread there and as soon as it is sold out, they also close.