10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Granada
Granada is the soul of Andalusia, a place of breathtaking beauty at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This mystical city was the capital of a Moorish kingdom from the 13th until the 15th centuries. To the Moors who arrived from North Africa, the lush setting of Granada was like heaven on earth. The Nasrid Dynasty reigned with a splendor unlike anywhere in the world. The hilltop fortress of the Alhambra Palace was a paradise of greenery, rose gardens, and endlessly flowing fountains. After flourishing for centuries, Granada became the last bastion of the Moors in Spain when the Catholic Monarchs captured the city in 1491. Although now predominantly Christian, Granada has inherited rich Islamic, Jewish, and Gypsy influences. The Renaissance Catholic cathedral was once a mosque. The Albaicín (old Moorish town) and the Alcaicería (spice market) have an authentic Arabic flavor. Colorful Gypsy culture and fabulous flamenco dancing is found in the caves of the Sacromonte quarter.
See also: Where to Stay in Granada
1 Alhambra: A Masterpiece of Islamic Architecture
The Alhambra stands majestically on a fortified hilltop with the snow-peaked Sierra Nevada Mountains as a backdrop. This UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site is the main reason to visit Granada and is an absolute must-see attraction. The Alhambra was the residence of the Moorish rulers of the Nasrid Dynasty for 250 glorious years, from the 13th to the 15th centuries, and is a veritable museum of Islamic architecture. Surrounded by ancient walls, the Alhambra appears from afar to be an impenetrable fortress. This site was the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain.
The Alhambra complex consists of four groups of buildings in carefully landscaped grounds. The Alcazaba is the original 13th-century Moorish fortress, the oldest part of the Alhambra. All that remains of the Alcazaba are the ramparts and the towers. The Nasrid Palaces are the most splendid buildings of the complex, with marvelous accommodations and public spaces used by the Sultans of the Nasrid Dynasty. Typical of secular Moorish buildings, the Nasrid Palaces are plain on the exterior but sumptuous on the interior with decorative tile work and peaceful courtyards. The Palace of Charles V was built in the 16th century after the conquest of the Moors and was used by the Spanish emperor as his summer palace. Leave time to explore the Generalife, especially the gorgeous Moorish gardens filled with shady patios, fountains, fragrant roses, and flower-adorned terraces.
To save time standing in long lines at the palace entrance - especially on hot days - consider purchasing a Skip the Line: Alhambra and Generalife Gardens Half-Day Tour. This great-value ticket includes convenient pickup and drop-off from centrally located hotels; priority access; and an informative 2.5-hour walking tour of Alcazaba Fortress, the Palace of Charles V, and the Nasrid Palaces.
2 Albaicín: The Old Arab Town
For an enchanting experience, get lost in the hillside neighborhood of the Albaicín, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. This historic Arab quarter is nestled into the slopes of Sacromonte. Picturesque little lanes and whitewashed houses reveal the atmospheric Moorish character. The Albaicín was once surrounded by defensive walls. From Puerta Nueva (Puerta de los Estandartes), a well-preserved stretch of the town's old ramparts runs west to the Puerta Monaitia. The best view of the walls is from the Cuesta de la Alhacaba near the ninth-century Puerta de Elvira, once the town's principal gate. Many places in the Albaicín offer stunning outlooks onto the Alhambra Palace, which is separated from the Albaicín by the dramatic gorge of the Río Darro.
The Church of San Salvador was built on the site of an earlier mosque and is noteworthy for its Mudéjar style (Christian architecture influenced by Islamic design). Beyond the Church of San Salvador is the 16th-century Church of San Nicolas at the heart of the Albaicín quarter. The terrace of this church (Mirador of San Nicolas) offers sensational views. Admired by many tourists and frequently painted, the panorama captures the Alhambra Palace and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Another fabulous view of the Alhambra is found on the Carrera del Darro, one of the oldest streets in Granada, which runs along the north side of the Río Darro. Building number 31 on the Carrera del Darro is the 11th-century Baños Arabes (Arab Baths) that still have the original changing room and three bathing rooms with Moorish arches.
3 Capilla Real
The grandeur of Spain's Catholic Monarchs is best seen at the Capilla Real (Royal Chapel), which houses the royal tombs. This impressive 47-meter-high domed chapel is attached to the Catedral Santa María de la Encarnación but has a separate entrance; it was an addition to the cathedral built from 1506 to 1521 in Late Gothic style. The interior features beautiful 16th-century stained-glass windows and seven large paintings by Alonso Cano. An elaborately wrought grille by Bartolomé de Jaén encloses the richly decorated royal tombs. To the right is the Tomb of Ferdinand and Isabella in a monument of Carrara marble created by sculptor Domenico Fancelli of Florence. The crypt houses sarcophagi of other kings and princes. To the left is the tomb of Philip the Handsome and Joan the Mad by Bartolomé Ordóñez. A large beautifully carved retablo behind the royal tombs features statues of the Catholic Monarchs by Diego de Siloé. In the transepts are richly decorated relicarios (side altars) by Alonso de Mena. The north transept displays the famous Triptych of the Passion by Dieric Bouts.
A highlight of the Capilla Real is the sacristy, a treasure trove of artwork, including Botticelli's Christ on the Mount of Olives painting, Rogier van der Weyden's Pietà, and Hans Memling's Descent from the Cross. The collection also displays polychrome wood figures of the Catholic Monarchs in prayer by Felipe Vigarny; King Ferdinand's sword; Queen Isabella's crown; and a prayer book, which belonged to the Catholic Monarchs.
Address: 3 Calle Oficios, Granada
4 Catedral Santa María de la Encarnación
To discover the finest Renaissance church in Spain, visit Granada's Cathedral of Santa María de la Encarnación near the Plaza Nueva. The cathedral was built by Queen Isabella as a monument to the victory of Christian Spain over the Moors. It stands on the site of a former mosque. Begun in Gothic style in 1523 and continued in Plateresque style from 1525, the cathedral was consecrated in 1561 while still unfinished. The 16th-century west facade features a large relief by José Risueño over the main doorway. The northwest side of the cathedral is also richly decorated with ornate sculptures. On the entrance arch pillars are statues of the Catholic Monarchs and bronze statues of the Apostles.
Enter the cathedral through the main doorway and revel in the Renaissance splendor of the interior. The sanctuary features massive pillars and double aisles; the nave and transept are surrounded by various chapels adorned with many sculptures and paintings. Each of the chapels has a different artistic style; the most interesting is the Chapel of Nuestra Senora de la Antigua. The choir boasts two impressive Baroque organs, which sound out sacred melodies during religious services. The cathedral's museum displays a collection of religious art; highlights are the large silver monstrance and the Flemish tapestries.
Address: 5 Gran Via de Colón, Granada
5 The Gypsy Quarter of Sacromonte
Granada's colorful Gypsy quarter on the Sacromonte is a fascinating place to visit. This hilltop neighborhood begins around the Cuesta del Chapiz where the Camino del Sacromonte ascends the hill. The Gypsies (Gitanos) have had a presence in Granada since 1532 and settled in the caves of Sacromonte in the 18th century. Wander the hillside roads of this atmospheric neighborhood to discover the artistic Gypsy homes, some are decorated with vibrant handcrafted ceramics. The caves in the upper area of the Camino del Sacromonte are in the best condition. Take a peek into the numerous cave dwellings occupied by Gypsy families, who have adapted well to the 21st century. It's easy to spot homes with televisions and other modern trappings. However the tradition of flamenco has been well guarded by the Gypsies of Granada. Tourists can find many cave venues in Sacromonte where authentic flamenco is performed. One small but renowned venue on the Camino del Sacromonte is the legendary Cueva de la Rocio, which has two tiny caves plus a large outdoor terrace for dining. The Cueva de la Rocio has received many famous guests including the King of Spain, Bill Clinton, and Michelle Obama.
The Sacromonte offers some of the best views in Granada, with panoramas over rugged ravines, the Valparaiso Valley, and the Darro River. Some vantage points look out to the Alhambra Palace and the Albaicín. A steep and picturesque footpath (a difficult walk) climbs through deeply indented gullies to the Ermita San Miguel de Alto. This 17th-century Baroque hermitage has a magnificent viewpoint of the Alhambra and the Albaicín. Another noteworthy religious monument is the Benedictine Abbey of Sacromonte. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Sacromonte Abbey stands on Mount Valparaiso. Accessible by the Camino del Sacromonte (a 10-minute taxi ride from the Plaza Nueva), the Abbey is open for guided tours between 11am-1pm and 4pm-6pm. Several caves were found on this site, which possess precious relics of the 16th century as well as a cross of Saint John.
6 La Alcaicería (Arab Spice Market)
This traditional Arab souk is a recreation of the old Moorish market that existed here before the fire in 1843 destroyed the area. Close to the cathedral, the Alcaicería runs on the Calle de la Alcaicería from the Plaza Alonso Cano. The entire neighborhood of the Alcaicería, a maze of narrow streets, once held the silk and spices market. Today's Alcaicería recalls the original souk with many crafts and souvenir stalls. Nearby is Plaza Bib Rambla, a spacious public square that teems with people and activity. An artistic fountain stands at the center of the square surrounded by decorative ironwork and colorful flower stands.
Address: Calle de la Alcaicería, Granada
7 Hammam Al Andalus: Traditional Arab Baths
The Moors brought the ritual of the hammam (Arab Baths) from their homeland in North Africa to Andalusia. Today, visitors can indulge in a pampering experience in the ancient Arabic tradition. The Hammam Al Andalus are authentic Arab Baths in the Moorish style. On the ruins of an old hammam at the foot of the Alhambra, the complex was completely renovated and reopened to the public. Restored to their former glory, the baths feature graceful arches and exquisite tile work in the traditional Islamic style. The Hammam has three bathing pools: cold water, warm water, and hot water. After a dip in the baths, visitors can opt for a relaxing massage and select from spa treatments such as fragrant Andalusian essential oils and exfoliating treatments.
Address: 16 Calle Santa Ana, Granada
8 The 16th-Century Monasterio de la Cartuja
This serene 16th-century monastery is on the outskirts of Granada, about 25 minutes from the center (one kilometer north of the Plaza del Triunfo). The Monasterio de la Cartuja, also known as the Monasterio de la Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, belonged to the Carthusian order that was founded in France in the 11th century. Behind the simple exterior and courtyard is a surprisingly opulent interior. The monastery's ornately decorated church is one of the most extravagant religious buildings in Spain. The 17th-century Baroque sanctuary leaves visitors awestruck with its marvelous display of lavish paintings, marble statues, gilded details, and impressive altar pieces. The most striking feature of the church is the sacristy, designed by Luis de Arévalo, with a riot of elaborate stucco ornamentation and marble pilasters. The refectory displays a painting of the Last Supper by Fray Juan Sanchez Cotán.
Address: Paseo de Cartuja, Granada
9 International Festival of Music and Dance
The wistful melodies of Gypsy guitar and flamboyant flamenco captivate audiences who attend this world-class festival. Held during June and July at wonderful venues, mostly historic monuments throughout Granada, the music and dance festival showcases the city's rich cultural heritage. The history of the festival dates back to 1883 when concerts were held at King Carlos V Palace. The festival continues the tradition with its showcasing of diverse Spanish musical styles and genres, such as opera, zarzuelas, and flamenco. Concerts performed by large symphony orchestras are held at King Carlos V Palace. Dance and ballet performances are held at the Generalife Gardens open-air theater, and music recitals take place at El Patio de los Arrayanes in the Alhambra. Morning concerts are held in some of Granada's historic churches and buildings. Evening flamenco shows and world music are performed at various venues in the Albaicín and Sacromonte neighborhoods. The festival draws more than 30,000 people every year.
10 Religious Events and Festivals
Most of Granada's religious festivals originated during the Renaissance after the Reconquest. On January 2nd, Granada celebrates Conquest Day with a religious parade commemorating the conquest of Granada by the Catholic Monarchs (Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand) in 1491. The Three Wizards Parade on January 5th features a motley entourage of camels, horse and carriages, and circus characters in a lively procession through the city. February 1st is the Pilgrimage of the Patron Saint Cecilio in the Sacromonte neighborhood at the Abbey of Saint Cecilio, with religious events, music, dance, and delicious regional foods.
Holy Week is an important religious festival that celebrates Easter with religious masses, parades, and folkloric events. A highlight of Holy Week, the Cristo de los Gitanos (Christ of the Gypsies) procession to the Sacromonte is a special event with bonfires and saetas (traditional devotional songs). One of Granada's most important festivals, the Corpus Christi Procession on June 7th, features zambras moriscas (Moorish dances) and a parade of mythical characters such as giants, demons, and Tarasca, a woman on a dragon. On September 15th, pilgrims leave bouquets of flowers and single blossoms in front of the Basílica de la Virgen de las Angustias for the Floral Offering to the Virgen de las Angustias, Patron of the city. On the last Sunday of September, the Festival of Saint Miguel is held in the Albaicín neighborhood with a religious parade near the Chapel of Saint Miguel - the legendary site of a miraculous olive tree.
Where to Stay in Granada for Sightseeing
Although no hotels sit close to the Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Granada's main attraction, it is easy to reach this hilltop complex on the hop-on-hop-off tourist bus from the center. Many of the other attractions are in this old center, within walking distance of the cathedral and Alcaicería (old Moorish silk market). These highly-rated hotels in Granada are close to the central attractions:
- Luxury Hotels: Gar-Anat Hotel Boutique is in a neighborhood filled with cafes and restaurants, a few blocks from the cathedral. Also a short walk from the cathedral, Hospes Palacio de los Patos is in a renovated palace, with a spa, pool, sauna, steam rooms, a garden, and a good restaurant. AC Palacio de Santa Paula, Autograph Collection has a beautiful courtyard, not far from the cathedral and the old Moorish silk market.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Near the scenic Mirador of San Nicolas Alhambra with its sweeping views, Santa Isabel la Real offers free breakfast in charming surroundings. Some rooms at the Belle Epoch NH Collection Granada Victoria have balconies with views; it's on a main street a few blocks from the cathedral. On a small side street beneath the Alhambra, the beautifully restored Palacio de Santa Ines is farther from the cathedral but at the edge of the atmospheric Albaicin quarter; breakfast is included.
- Budget Hotels: Hotel Monjas del Carmen is near restaurants, the cathedral, and the historic Albaicin area, as well as the tourist bus service to the Alhambra and other sights. Surrounded by restaurants and shopping, and a short walk from the old town, Hotel Dauro Granada has parking and is easy to access by car. On a quiet street close to the cathedral and Albaicin, Las Nieves Hotel is also surrounded by shops, cafes, and restaurants.