If you visit only one city in Andalusia, make sure it’s Granada.
At least, that’s what everyone always told me. Having just been, I have to say: if you visit only one city in Andalusia, make sure it’s Granada.
Yeah, I get it now.
From the windy streets of the Albaicín to the Flamenco dances performed on seemingly every plaza and, of course, the Moorish Alhambra palace lording over the city from its central hill, everything conspires to give Granada a magical quality.
This quality had been completely lost on me when I first visited Granada 20 years ago on a holiday with my parents. My head was buried waaaay too deep into the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy compendium to even notice the city. I do remember the Alhambra making a big impression on me, but my eye-rolling-heavy puberty phase was probably not ideal for appreciating Granada.
I’m glad I recently got to see the city again with fresh — and older — eyes.
Keep reading as I share with you a few of my highlights from Granada.
Staying in a cave house
If you’re looking for a charming area to stay in Granada, simply aim your searches at the once-Arabic quarter of Albaicín, or the adjacent hillside neighborhood of Sacromonte.
It’s in the latter area where I ended up staying. Sacromonte is traditionally the neighborhood of the Granadian Romani, who first settled there during the Middle Ages. The area is typified by its many whitewashed cave houses built into the hillside.
It’s still a highly traditional neighborhood where flamenco dances are performed every night in a string of cave-bars along the main road.
Just further up the hill, some of the cave houses are now occupied by foreigners or function as B&Bs. If you go to the very top of the hill you’ll find these cave dwellings occupied by a mixture of free birds, squatters and eccentrics.
It’s the middle of the Sacromonte hill that’s most beguiling with its cute houses and steep donkey paths. Pretty much anywhere here will offer panoramic views of the Alhambra on the opposite side of the valley. And as a bonus, it’s really fun to stay inside a cozy cave.
You can find at least a dozen or so cave houses on Airbnb. Just type in ‘Sacromonte, Granada’.
Alternatively, look for hotels or guesthouses in the Albaicin area, an old neighborhood with white houses with little walled gardens and windy streets looking out onto the Alhambra palace.
Seeing a flamenco show
Granada is the perfect place to see the Flamenco dance. The area of Sacromonte is one of its birthplaces and home to a unique version of it called the Zambra. It’s typically described as a fusion of Flamenco and Arabian belly dance.
Shows are regularly performed for tourists in small ticketed venues, but if you’re traveling on a budget and want to avoid the expense, you’ll still inevitably stumble upon some flamenco on the streets of Granada.
It’s fantastic to see how the dance is alive and well in Granada, with many young performers busking on plazas and street corners. It’s obvious the city has Flamenco running through its veins.
But for a personal Flamenco show, it’s highly worth going to a paid event, especially inside one of the unique cave theaters.
I went to see a show at the Cuevas Los Tarantos just at the beginning of Sacromonte. I was a bit worried by its initial tourist-trappy appearance, but the show was absolutely phenomenal and featured a generational-spanning series of dancers and singers.
Larger organized tours do seem to end up at Cuevas Los Tarantos during the tourist season, so if it seems full, try walking to some of the smaller cuevas further up the road and get a ticket there.
Enjoying free (not really free) tapas
One thing Granada is famous for is its tapas (small portions of food) given with your drinks for free in most of the tapas bars. Of course, this tapas is already priced into the cost of your drinks.
Unlike elsewhere in Spain, the trick in Granada is not to order a-la-carte. Instead, just order a glass of wine or beer and some tapa will be brought to your table as well.
It’s a bit of a drink-inciting scheme where — so long as you keep ordering drinks in the same establishment — you’ll slowly level up your tapa. Your first unlock may be just some common tomato on toast, but keep going and you’ll get to the rarer tapas eventually.
I did quite enjoy this system for its novelty factor and it’s fun to let yourself be surprised.
Just resist the urge to order from the menu in a tapas bar. These are usually larger portions to be shared among several people — like booster packs to be added on to any freebies already given.
Visiting the Alhambra
The Alhambra is an epic royal palace and fortress complex dating back to the times of Moorish (Arabic) rule in Spain. It is surely the most sprawling and impressive tourist site in Andalusia and well worth spending a full day inside its walls.
Keep in mind though that visitor numbers are strictly controlled. It’s absolutely essential to have advance tickets for The Alhambra, at least to see its most famous part. Entry to the inner Nasrid Palace can be booked out many weeks in advance, especially for weekend days.
Your ticket will be for a specific date and time. You have to be at the Nasrid Palace entrance at this time, which is inside the Alhambra, and not just at the outer gates.
You have to take this timeslot seriously or you will miss it! This actually happened to a couple just in front of us in the queue. They were at the Nasrid Palace too late and so forfeited their entry, despite their pleading to the staff. Don’t make this mistake. Get your timeslot and be there at that time inside the Alhambra complex in front of the Nasrid Palace doors.
The Nasrid Palace is a beautiful example of Islamic art, its many courtyard walls covered with intricate geometric shapes and Islamic calligraphy. It’s worth getting the audio tour and taking your time to absorb all the little details.
If you don’t manage to get a ticket for Nasrid, it’s still possible to see other parts of the Alhambra. Some parts of it are free to walk around in, offering views of the city below. Tickets to the Albacaza (the fortress part) and the Generalife (palatial gardens) are also easier to get, as they don’t run out as quickly and aren’t for a specific time slot.
This blog has done a great job explaining everything you need to know about Alhambra tickets.
If you want to see other impressive Islamic architecture, consider also seeing the Real Alcazar in Seville, or the Mezquita in Cordoba, a unique half-Cathedral-half-Mosque hybrid.
Even if you don’t manage to get a ticket to the Alhambra’s inner palace, Granada as a whole has a distinct je ne sais quoi (or, should I say, a yo no se que?) that makes it highly worth visiting.
Taking a walking tour
As I mentioned before, even if you can’t snatch a ticket to the Alhambra’s inner palaces, you should still come to Granada. There is loads to see throughout the city — and it’s simply a wonderful atmospheric place to spend some time.
A walking tour is a great way to get to know the city, though I made the error of trying to follow the city’s official self-guided tour.
You’ll see information signs with numbers below them throughout Granada, which correspond to numbers in an official audio tour app. Sadly, this app is an utter disaster, with pins placed in the wrong locations, no GPS navigation, and missing or broken audio. This app is just an embarrassing botched job and not worth your time.
A better idea is to get a small guided tour to take you around some of the historical sights. There are well-rated tours available on platforms like GetYourGuide, as well as plenty of local options when you get there.
The fantastic Cathedral of Granada also has a good audio tour including in its ticket. It was built in the 16th century atop the site of the city’s then main mosque, with an unusual layout including five instead of three naves.
I’m usually quite like “ok, yep, yep…” when visiting a church and looking at the different religious artifacts, but the audio guide did a terrific job of adding context and bringing everything to life.
Besides such targeted sightseeing in Granada, the city lends itself perfectly for just a lazy stroll, a tapas crawl, or some shopping at the Alcaiceria Market. Often the best way to experience a city like this is to just have a wander and let yourself be surprised!
When to visit Granada
I visited in December, which was a surprisingly good time to visit. Even though the city is 738m above sea level, making it colder on average, the temperatures still reached a pleasing 14°C. The trees around the Alhambra showed beautiful autumn colors while the tourist sites were alive but not too crowded.
How many days do you need?
If you’re travelling in Spain with only limited time available, then 2 days should be the bare minimum for Granada (one day for the city, one day for the Alhambra). There is enough potential for many more days, especially if you add trips to the Sierra Nevada mountains and other nearby points of interest.
Where to stay in Granada
As I mentioned earlier, I think the old quarters of the Albaicín and Sacromonte offer some of the best hilltop views and the cutest little streets. Try finding some nice accommodation in either of these neighborhoods.
How to get to Granada
Thanks to the new high-speed rail connection opened in 2019, you can get from Madrid to Granada in about 3 hours by train. From Cordoba, it’s about 1,5 hours by train. If you’re coming from Seville, you can either take a direct bus, or go by train with a change at Cordoba (both taking around 3 hours).