Granada is without a doubt the best place in Spain to feel truly connected to history. With nearly the entire city in view of the Alhambra palace, narrow medieval streets, markets in continuous operation since the Middle Ages, and an impossible to ignore Moorish influence, the whole city feels like taking a step back in time. Verdant gardens hide between ancient palace walls and buildings, offering an oasis from the strength of the Spanish sun.
On our family trip with our three year old twin boys across the south of Spain, Granada stuck out as one of the most memorable stops thanks to this blend of history, great food, and the incredible weather, even in September. Sampling the town’s best churros while the boys ran around a public square, riding the tourist train around the city’s attractions, and walking around between sights and restaurants, we loved what Granada had to offer on a family vacation.
What makes Granada great is that it feels like a historic movie set while being entirely genuine. It’s populated heavily with tourists but doesn’t feel touristy. The old closed in streets that traverse up cobblestone steps up the side of the hills feel just like they must have centuries ago. Walking through the Alhambra palace and gardens feels like a scene from Game of Thrones, because it actually was used for some. But even with the number of tourist focused sites, it remains an approachable and affordable city with a laid back vibe.
Of course like just about every other major city in Spain, the train is a great way to get around and visit Granada. With connections to so many other cities, it’s a realistic way to get around entirely.
However, since we were traveling with the kids, a bunch of luggage, and were visiting some smaller less accessible towns, we rented a car and drove into town. After a difficult drive through the maze of one way streets and pedestrian areas which I admittedly shouldn’t have even bothered with, we never made it directly to our hotel, but ended up parking in the public lot near the cathedral which we should have just started with. Once parked, we didn’t move the car at all since the town is so easily accessed on foot.
Where to stay:
We had an absolutely incredible time staying in an apartment suite in Oro del Darro. Located right along the river and looking up to the Alhambra Palace, the location was incredible for getting round and seeing the major sites. Our room was modern and spacious with a foldout couch for the boys, a kitchen to make breakfast, and great wifi and air conditioning, perfect for relaxing during siesta time. The best part was the sunny terrace patio with an unobstructed view of the palace where I enjoyed a local brew while the boys napped and I made our plan for the day.
What to see and do:
Any trip to Granada has to visit the Alhambra Palace. Sticking out over much of the town it’s impossible to miss. As probably the best example of Moorish architecture in Spain, the original palace is entirely viewable including the intricate carved details and wood work. The interior courtyards are also spectacular with impressive marble and large fountains and ponds that offer as much of a respite as is possible in the Spanish heat in the days before air conditioning.
The gardens are also worth a walk through as they are massive, extending all along the hilly ridge the palace is built on and contain a number of large tropical trees. Make sure to leave plenty of time for visiting not only the palace but to explore the gardens as well. The Nasrid palace requires special tickets with assigned times, so it’s good to leave time for the gardens before or after.
Getting up to the palace isn’t easy thanks to the steep slope up. While we did take the direct route up the stairs, it was pretty strenuous, so after exploring the palace we didn’t want to walk back down. Instead, we took the tourist train on a loop around the palace and town center as well as to some of the sights a bit further out in town we wouldn’t have otherwise seen like the bull fighting ring. The boys loved riding on it and making train noises as we wound around and through town.
Perhaps the best spot to actually see the whole Alhambra palace complex is from the Mirador San Nicolas viewpoint. Though it takes a bit of a steep walk up above the palace through several narrow windy streets, it’s completely worth it. With a feel like Monmarte in Paris in miniature, the square above is popular with street musicians and is lined with numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants overlooking the palace and the square, perfect for an evening with a romantic sunset over the palace or people watching.
Like any city in Spain, the Cathedral of Granada is both a major landmark and cultural destination. The town essentially radiates out from it, so it’s easy to find. Outside the square in front is always busy during the day with activity and lined with shops and more cafes. The cool dark interior offers some shade and cool from the sun during the day as well as containing some of Southern Spain’s more interesting architecture and art.
Granada’s past is unique in terms of the influence of the Moorish culture that shifted to catholic Spain after the reconquista of the 1490s. Because of this mix and shift in culture, Granada has not only palaces and cathedrals, but fascinating open air marketplaces like those found in Africa and the Middle East where each culture regularly mixed with the other. At the Alcaiceria, the main market, shop stalls still line the alleys and alcoves, though while some still sell traditional items like spices and jewelry, the majority now sell tourist items.
For a great example of the courtyards popular in this part of Spain enjoyed by the mercantile class, the Corral de Carbon is a little slice of history. Walking into the courtyard is like stepping back in time to the medieval period of Granada. The area also still boasts numerous shops in the traditional style.
Where to eat:
Any good morning in Spain starts with churros, coffee, and chocolate sauce. For arguably the best in the city, Cafeteria Alhmabra is the perfect option. With the feeling of a traditional café that takes diners back to the 50s and a spacious shaded outdoor area in the large square with a view over the Alhambra overhead, it can actually be hard to leave and get the day started. The churros were some of the best we had in Spain, not to small, not too crispy, and not too greasy. We even got to enjoy some coffee while we finished them and the boys ran around in the square.
For something to eat a bit different than the normal Spanish tavern food, Restaurant Teteria Marrakesh provides a halal menu that’s both affordable and tasty. Maybe it was just the nearby view of the Alhambra from the San Nicolas viewpoint and the historic mosque down the way, but the food also made me feel more connected to Granada’s past and enjoy food I otherwise may not have tried out. All of the grilled meats from shawarma to kebab are top notch with plenty of spice without being overly spicy.
For a more traditional meal at a Spanish tavern, there’s Antigua Bodega Castaneda. Inside is a completely traditional tavern with legs of jamon and mounted boar heads on the wall and casks of sherry acting as high top tables. Outside is a pleasant alleyway patio hat was perfect for us on a warm night. All of the traditional food items like jamon, meatballs, and pork chops were filling and tasty. We even ended up trying some local craft beer and topped it off with sherry to go with the atmosphere.
Granada sits between large town and small city, perfectly balanced as a tourist destination that has to be on any agenda in Southern Spain. Offering some of the best of the region with a fascinating history that is still evident in the main destinations today and some truly awesome local food and drink, it’s a standout spot even in an excellent around trip through Spain. From touring the grounds of the Alhambra palace, gardens, and the moorish market to sampling sherry and jamon in a tavern, Granada has the best of Spain all together in one easily walkable spot.