View of the Alhambra and Granada from Mirador de San Miguel Alto as taken from my iPhone
Granada’s roots trace back to the Umayyad Caliphate’s conquest of Spain that entrenched Moor and Muslim control of most of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moors established the city of Gárnata, which would later be renamed to Granada, at the foot of the Sierra Mountains. Interestingly, Granada is the word for pomegranate in Spanish. Accordingly, the city was renamed after the fruit, which is a key produce grown in the city. The pomegranate was also adopted as the official symbol of the city. In addition to mountains, the rivers that run through the city also provided the location with geographical and militarily strategic advantages for the Moors. Consequently, Granada became one of the most important cities during the Caliphate’s reign over Spain. Near the end of the Muslim rule of the country; the palace and fortress, Alhambra, was completed in Granada. The Emirate of Granada, which held the Alhambra, was the last Muslim state to fall in 1492 when the Christian Reconquest of Peninsula concluded. If the year sounds familiar, it should. 1492 is the same year that the Christopher Columbus set sail and would accidentally discover the “New World”. The decision to fund his voyage occurred after King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella completed the Reconquest of Granada. Accordingly, Granada is simultaneously linked to two significant events in world history: the end of the Reconquest of Spain and the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas. As the crown jewel of Granada, the Alhambra shares in that past and has plenty of stories of its own. In addition to its historical significance, the Alhambra offers amazing views of Granada as it overlooks the city. It is the number 1 attraction in Spain and designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The beauty of the fortress, palaces, and gardens and its breathtaking views of the city are truly magnificent. For those reasons, the Alhambra is the primary reason to visit Granada.
In terms of the overall city, I was underwhelmed. The city center has plenty of shops and restaurants. However, we arrived on a Saturday afternoon and stayed through Sunday. In total, we only spent a day and a half in Granada. Most of the stores close around 4 PM on Saturday and are closed all of Sunday. Nevertheless, I walked around the city center. There was also a river that runs through it and a walk that runs parallel to the water. In general, it was like any other city and nothing out of the ordinary. In terms of food, there are plenty of options. In addition, restaurants in Granada provide a free tapa if you order a drink. Nonetheless, my taste buds did not connect with the local food. However, there are a plethora of options. Visitors should be able to find some good food if they look enough. From my short experience, I was not blown away by anything. On the other hand, an interesting aspect of the city is that the neighborhoods are built on the side of hills. My family and I stayed at a home, via AirBnB, on the side of a hill right below Alhambra and slightly north east and away from the main part of the city center. Nonetheless, the Albaicín neighborhood is the more famous part of Granada on a hill. First, there are multiple viewpoints from the hillside that provide picturesque views of the Alhambra and the city. Next, the Albaicín still features the winding and sometimes narrow streets from its Medieval Moorish history. In addition, Arabic influences are still very evident in the architecture. When I was walking downhill through the narrow streets, homes, and shops with the Alhambra in the background; I felt like I stepped through a time machine and could picture myself living like an ordinary citizen that walked the streets many centuries ago during the reign of the Moors.
Granada was my second stop on a family trip through Spain in early November. We also visited Madrid, Seville, and Barcelona. As part of the Iberian Peninsula, Spain is a large country with plenty of cities and places that have diverse climates and people for travelers to explore, experience, and enjoy. In addition, the country has a rich, long, and fascinating history. The Alhambra is certainly a key part of it. Personally, it was the most memorable attraction in Spain and the highlight of our trip. It was a once in a lifetime experience that made the stop in Granada totally worth it. If historic sites are not your flavor, there are plenty of other places (coastal/ beach cities, islands, etc.) for you to choose from and indulge yourself in Spain. In terms of visiting in late October/ early November, I felt it was a great time to go. Of course, it is colder than the hot summer. Although you will need a jacket, I did not think it was too cold. Personally, the value of lesser numbers of tourists after the high season of the summer compensated for colder temperatures. I was fine trading warmer weather for less crowds.
- Alhambra y Generalife
Alhambra is the number 1 attraction in Spain and UNESCO World Heritage Site designated. Within its walls, the Nasrid Palaces are the top attraction. In order to get tickets to go into those Palaces within the Alhambra, you need to book the tickets 2-3 months in advance since there is a strict limit on visitors that can enter each day. Unfortunately, I did not know if I could join my family on their trip to Spain until less than a month to go. I definitely missed out a little because my family got to see the Nasrid Palaces, which definitely features the most beautiful architecture within Alhambra. They booked a general admissions ticket, which included a specific time to enter the Nasrid Palaces, and toured Alhambra on their own. In contrast, I booked a tour with Sixthrills and my visit to Alhambra was still the highlight of my trip to Spain. My tour guide, Jannah, was an incredible story teller and really brought the history of Alhambra to life. I could visualize the past through the narrative from her words. I usually forget the stories from audio or real tour guides immediately. However, Jannah’s stories about the Alhambra are powerful and resonate so much that I remember most of them and can retell them to others when I speak about my amazing trip to Alhambra and Granada. From the explanations of the subtle genius of specific details and designs of the fortress that made it impenetrable to the Alhambra’s significance to the Moor’s rule of Spain, I was completely enamored with the rich and colorful stories from its past.
Our tour began by walking from the center of the city, Plaza Nueva, through the Puerta de las Granadas [Gate of the Pomegranates] on the Cuesta de Gomérez road. There are multiple roads and entrances that reach Alhambra. The Puerta de las Granadas is the most popular historic gateway. The stone gate was actually built after the Christian Reconquest. It does not really matter which entrance you enter through if you are touring on your own. However, it is an uphill walk since the Alhmabra is on top of the hill. Accordingly, take a cab or bus to the top if you have a physical limitation. If you look at an overhead view of the Alhambra on a map, it looks like a weird shaped boat.
Our tour guide took us through the front of that boat: the Alcazaba or fortress. I definitely enjoyed her explanations of the subtle strokes of engineering genius that made the Alhambra an impenetrable fortress in medieval times. First, the entrance of the Alcazaba is a massive stone gate with a gigantic, thick steel door. There is a big, slippery stone step right before the door. The defensive brilliance in that feature was that a charging horse would need to slow down and hop on top of that elevated step. In doing so, any horse would lose its momentum. Moreover, hot oil [olive oil, which is prevalent and tastes exceptional in Spain] would have also been thrown down at the assailants from the windows above to make that stone step even slipperier. Spears would also rain down from above to inflict death on attackers. Our guide also pointed out how getting through the gate of a Christian fortress would have been the beginning of the end for the defenders. In regards to the Alcazaba, getting through the gate would be the beginning of new horrors for attackers. Once someone gets through the door, the hall is very dark in contrast with the light outside. It takes a person’s eyes 2 seconds to adjust and see. If you are an attacker, those seconds means certain death. Moreover, there are 3-4 corners with smooth stone floors that sloped downward. Again, oil would be dumped on the ground to make it slippery. Defenders would be armed with 20 foot spears to stab intruders. When you add up all those factors, those 3-4 corners from the gate were murder boxes on attackers. It could take up to 8 hours to take just 5 feet. Moreover, invaders would need to constantly remove their dead colleagues to continue the fight. It made me think of the movie 300, which reenacted the Battle of Thermopylae and how the Spartans made the fight a living hell on the much larger Persian army by using their phalanx formation and narrowing the battle to a small corridor which greatly diminished the advantage of their numbers. Our tour guide was absolutely thorough in explaining how the mental and physical strain of that endeavor would cause attackers to lose the will to fight. For those reasons, the Alhambra was never taken militarily.
Once we were into the Alcazaba, our guide pointed out the key parts of the fortress, including the flooding system and the military officers’ quarters. In addition, she brought us to the weapons armory and a tower. Both spots offered extraordinary, panoramic views of the city below. Without a doubt, they were some of the best views of Granada. Naturally, the Alhambra also has a rich history and incredible stories. The most epic story was about the capture of the fortress. Since it was never taken militarily, the tale is legendary. Our tour guide did an amazing job teasing the tour group until she revealed the conclusion. Boabdil was the last sultan of the Emirate of Granada. He engaged in multiple schemes that failed before he successfully procured the support of the people to complete a coup against his father. Our guide described it perfectly when she noted it was like a plot from Game of Thrones. In acquiring power, he made a deal with the Catholic rulers, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, for their support. They initially agreed to allow him to rule Granada as long as he was answerable to the throne. Of course, they changed their minds after Boabdil took power. Since Granada was the last remnant of Muslim domination over the peninsula and the final step in the Reconquest of Spain, it was not surprising that the Catholic rulers wanted to snuff it out too. Ferdinand and Isabella demanded the surrender of the city and Boabdil obviously initially declined. As such, Ferdinand and Isabella’s forces took all the land around Granada then laid siege to the city. They offered a final ultimatum. The first option was that their armies would take the city with great loss of life on both sides. However, they would kill Boadbil and his entire family once they were done. The other option was that Boadbil surrenders the Alhambra peacefully and he and his family would be allowed to leave and live out the rest of their days in Morocco. They completely intimidated Boadbil and he took the latter offer. It is either history or myth that he took a final look at his home as the Catholic armies marched in then sobbed. In response, his mother scolded him by saying “You do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.” Whether it actually happened or not, those words have reverberated through the annals of time. Our tour guide noted that Spanish mothers, including hers, have repeated those words when they want to tell their children to get off their butts and do something about their current predicament. As one could deduce, it is an awesome story.
Next, our guide took us to the Palace of Charles V. It has been a subject of debate whether the Palace of Charles V is really a part of Alhambra because it was built after the last Nasrid sultan ceded control of it. It was also never completed. Nonetheless, it is worth a few minutes to see. It is a unique structure. There is a circular shape imprinted inside the external rectangular structure. The shapes have interesting meanings. The circle represented the perfection of God. The rectangle symbolized man, who is flawed. Charles V saw himself as a medium between the two. In addition, the palace has tributes to the Greek demi-God, Hercules. Not surprisingly, Charles V idolized Hercules and saw himself as a real life Hercules. Our tour guide was totally correct in noting that Charles V had a gigantic ego. When you are inside the palace, it feels like you are inside a Roman gladiator arena. You may think it was used for bull fighting. Ironically, it was meant to be an opera stage. Our guide demonstrated by going to the middle of the room and singing a short tune downward in what looked like a sewage drain. Her voice travelled through the small tunnels that subtly runs throughout the palace and her voice echoed throughout the chamber.
Again, I was unable to book a ticket or tour that allowed me to enter the Nasrid Palaces. However, the most northern palace, El Partal, is available to all visitors. It is the remains of the residence of Sultan Yusuf III. The tower, series of arches, and pond are very photogenic. The pond has a mirror effect that makes it look like an “Infinity Pool”. That pool was one of my favorite spots in Alhambra. Of course, El Partal offers scenic views of the city. The surrounding gardens and courtyards are pretty too. There are also other towers you can enter around El Partal. On the walls and ceilings of the structures, you will see plenty of beautiful Moorish architecture.
Our tour concluded at Generalife, which is Arabic for the garden of the architect. Due to the airflow of the location, it can be 10 degrees colder there than elsewhere in Alhambra. As a result, it was an ideal place to build a palace for hot weather. Accordingly, it was known as the summer palace. Technically, it is outside the city and separate from Alhambra despite being right next to and connected to each other. The gardens, courtyards, and amphitheater that lead up to the main group of buildings at the Generalife are gorgeous. Nevertheless, they are the appetizers for the main course. After you enter the main area, the Patio de la Acequia [Patio of the Irrigation Ditch] steals the show. There is a water channel that streams water from the irrigation ditch. Jets shoot water up along its sides like fountains. Moreover, there are beautiful gardens that run along the water. Of course, the original gardens are no longer present since they were replaced by the subsequent Christian rulers. In addition, make sure to look out the windows of the Patio. The views are among the best in Granada with the Alcazaba of the Alhambra and the city below it. Another main area in the Generalife is the Court of the Sultana’s Cypress Tree. It is a beautiful courtyard with multiple ponds, a stone fountain, jets that shoot water like the Patio, hedges, and other colorful flora. It is also the site of a famous story. Legend has it that Boabdil’s wife was having an affair and met her lover at the Cypress Tree, which is now dead but left at the same spot because of its historical significance. The sultan knew that it was a knight in the Abencerrajes family. He did not know the identity of the exact offender. Consequently, he invited all the males of the family to the palace. He ordered the executions of all of them and forbade the family name from being mentioned or used again. Ironically, the “Hall of Abencerrajes” in the Nasrid Palaces is named after that family to memorialize that notorious event. Of course, Boabdil would not have been happy with it. On the other hand, we already know that it is not nearly the greatest humiliation he suffered in his life. As one could see, Generalife features beauty and stories that rival the Alhambra. Since I did not see the Nasrid Palaces, the Generalife was definitely the most beautiful part of my tour. Nonetheless, my sister-in-law saw both and still picked the Generalife.
As an important reminder, bring your passport or a copy of it for the random passport/ ID checks at various checkpoints. My tour guide noted that a security guard accepted a copy of someone’s plane ticket with his name on it as verification of identity. However, do not chance relying on the mood of a security guard. Security can deny access to anyone without proper ID. My tour took 3 hours. I felt it was the perfect amount of time to enjoy the Alhambra y Generalife.
Restaurante Jardines Alberto (Paseo de la Sabica, 1, 18009 Granada, Spain)
If you are hungry after a visit to Alhambra y Generalife, I recommend Restaurant Jardines Alberto that is located right outside of Alhambra. It looks like it is built into the side of a hill. However, the stairs lead you to dining areas on top of the hill. I went with the daily prix-fixed menu that offers 3 courses, bread, and a drink [includes alcoholic options]. For my appetizer, I ordered the fried mushrooms and asparagus. They were delicious. They were pan fried, not deep fried. For my entrée, I had the cod. The fish was very fresh. On the other hand, the side of vegetables were bland especially compared to the appetizer of vegetables that had plenty of olive oil. The accompanying bread was fresh and very good. For my drink, I asked for a glass of red wine. It was sweet like I prefer wine. I finished with the cinnamon custard for my dessert. It was unique and delicious. I did not like it at first but it grew on me. Overall, the prix-fixed menu was a good deal. It was also a pretty restaurant.
- Great Views in the City [In Albaicín]
1. Mirador de San Miguel Alto (Calle Patio de la Alberca, 36, 18010 Albaicín, Granada, Spain)
When I was touring the Alhambra, my guide pointed up at the Mirador de San Miguel Alto and recommended it as the best view of Granada. She also noted that former U.S. President Bill Clinton once visited the viewpoint and said it was the most beautiful sunset in the world. Was he just trying to charm the city of Granada as a politician might do? Perhaps. I can definitely not declare it as the best in all the world because there are a lot of exceptional places for sunsets. Nonetheless, it certainly provides spectacular panoramic views. The views of the Alhambra, the city of Granada below, and the Sierra Mountains in the back provide a perfect backdrop for sunset. I made my way up to San Miguel then started coming down more than an hour before the sun set. Nevertheless, the sun started descending and looked like it was shining directly upon the Alhambra. It was a breathtaking sight.
Visitors can take a cab right to the top of San Miguel. I took the steep walk up. If you are a hiker or physically active on a regular basis, it should not be that big of a deal. It took me less than an hour to walk from the Alhambra and through the Albaicín neighborhoods to get to the viewpoint. It will take similar time or less to make your way from Plaza Nueva. I made my way to the Carril de San Miguel. There is a cross, Cruz de la Rauda – Mirador, and the steep stairs to the top are behind it. You walk through shacks that are built into the side of the mountain. At times, I felt I was walking through a shady part of town but no one bothered me and other tourists were also walking up and down the stairs. Regardless, the walk was worth it. San Miguel had the best view in the city. Moreover, the trek up prevents it from being as crowded as the most popular spot for sunset: Mirador de San Nicolas.
- Mirador de San Nicolas
It offers awesome views of the Alhambra and Granada with the Sierra Mountains in the background. It is not as high up as the Mirador de San Miguel Alto. Accordingly, the view is slightly less impressive. Of course, it is a lot less effort to get to San Nicolas. Again, the views are obviously still exceptional. On the other hand, it is usually packed with people and especially busy at sunset. Definitely take a walk through Albaicín when you visit Granada and San Nicolas is worth a stop no matter the time of day. Naturally, sunset is the prettiest time.
- El Huerto de Juan Ranas (Calle Atarazana Vieja, 6, 18010 Granada, Spain)
If you want the same great views of the Mirador de San Nicolas but less people around you, try walking a block down and stand in line to grab drinks at El Huerto de Juan Ranas. There was a line when we went but it did not take long for us to get seated. Of course, it may be dependent on the time of year and the given day. It provided a stunning background as the sun set. It was also beautiful once it became completely dark because the Alhambra is lighted at night. I ordered a café con leche [i.e. coffee with milk or latte]. I am usually very picky with my coffee and only like specialty coffee shops. Although it was not specialty coffee quality, it was not bad. It is also a full restaurant if you want to grab a meal when the kitchen is open.
- Cathedral of Granada
The cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Granada. Accordingly, it is the biggest and most important cathedral in the city. A unique aspect of this cathedral, compared to most cathedrals across Spain, is it was constructed after the 16th Century since Granada was the last region that was retaken by the Christians in the Reconquest. Accordingly, it does not have the Gothic style of the cathedrals before it. Instead, it has a Spanish Renaissance style. We viewed it from the outside at the Plaza de las Pasiegas. We went inside and passed on walking around since it was a 5 Euro admission. There are a lot of famous basilicas and Cathedrals throughout Spain. Rather than paying to go inside each one, we were very selective in picking and choosing which one we wanted to get a full tour of during our trip to Spain. Nevertheless, it is one of the main attractions in Granada. There is unique architecture, gold, and large paintings inside. A tour can certainly be worth it.
Again, there are plenty of options. I did not find anything exceptional but I was only there for a day and a half. There are Michelin star rated restaurants so there is likely better food to be had in Granada than I found. Our AirBnb host left a list of recommendations. A Michelin star pick on her list was Damasqueros (Calle Damasqueros, 3, 18009 Granada, Spain). If you are willing to splurge and make a reservation in advance, there are higher end places to try in Granada. In addition, the business hours are different in Spain. With siestas in the middle of the day, a lot of restaurants closed around 4 or 5 PM then re-opened at 8 PM. It is an important fact to keep in mind when you plan your dinner.
- La Bollitería (Calle Varela, 10, 18009 Granada, Spain)
It was a solid place for dinner with good food. It had an enjoyable ambiance. I consider it casual fine dining. There was also plenty of space for our group of 8. We ordered drinks. Since it was Granada, we got a complimentary appetizer which was a tuna dish. It was awesome. As an additional appetizer, I ordered a Castellana soup. It is a garlicky chicken soup with a dash of sweet paprika, ham, egg, and croutons. In my opinion, it was probably a little hit or miss based on your personal tastes. For me, it was not bad but not great either. For my entrée, I ordered a steak. It was solid. The meat was chewy and tender. On the other hand, I asked for medium rare. Some parts were medium but most of it was medium rare. Overall, it was a good steak. Others in our group ordered the salmon salad. I tried a little. It was more like a salmon tartare stack with avocado. The presentation was exceptional. The fish was fresh but a bit salty.
- Los Altramuces (CAMPO DEL PRINCIPE S/N, 18009 Granada, Spain)
Our AirBnb host walked us to this local spot. Campo del Principe has a row of restaurants if you are looking for a local experience and to get away from the more touristy areas in the city center. It is bar and our AirBnb host recommended most of the fried dishes. We ordered the berenjenas fritas [fried eggplant], bacalao [cod], cazon [dogfish], and boquerones fritos [anchovies]. The only non-fried dish we ordered was the ensalada de piminetos asados [red peppers salad]. Of course, we had complimentary appetizers come with our drinks because we were in Granada. We got ham croquettes, tuna sliders, and chips. Those appetizers were good. I was not a big fan of the fried food. The fried fish was too salty. The fish was fresh so I would have preferred it simply steamed. On the other hand, I am usually not a fan of eggplant but it was actually my favorite fried dish there. It was very good. I also liked the red pepper salad a lot. Overall, Los Altramuces is a better bar than restaurant. I would go there for a local experience, drinks, and a dish or two. I would not go there for a full meal.
La Finca (Calle Colegio Catalino, 3, 18001 Granada, Spain)
It is a coffee shop around the corner from the Cathedral of Granada. There was no bitterness in my latte. The art was great. However, the drink was a bit watery. Nonetheless, the taste was mostly smooth throughout the drink. Overall, it was a solid latte at a specialty coffee shop. It is cash only.
- Traveling to and from Granada
The options are bus, Renfe high speed rail, or plane if you do not rent a car to drive around Spain. We were coming from Seville so we opted to take the bus. It was a three hour ride and relatively comfortable. If we were coming from Madrid or Barcelona, a bus ride would have probably been too much for our liking. Once we arrived, we caught a cab to our AirBnb. The city and Alhambra was walkable from the AirBnb. We took the bus a few times when necessary. However, a cab can be difficult to catch in Granada. Moreover, there is no Uber unlike other cities we visited. After Granada, we flew to Barcelona via the Federico García Lorca Granada Airport. It is 30 minutes outside the city. Our AirBnb host called cabs that drove us there. If you do not get assistance from an AirBnb host or your hotel, you can also arrange cabs through www.granadataxi.com. In regards to the airport, it is a small regional airport and we got through security relatively easily.
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