Granada, Spain: One of the Coolest Little Cities in Europe
Everyone seems to rave about Barcelona these days, but there’s another city nearby that is far more interesting. Ruled by Muslims until the late 1400s, Granada is a city full of history, style and natural beauty. There are some great small cities in Europe that sometimes get overshadowed by the iconic giants nearby — if you’re planning a trip to Spain make sure you don’t skip Granada.
We spent 5 nights in Granada; here are some highlights.
Palaces don’t get much more exotic than Granada’s lavish Alhambra. We visited the Alcazabar (fortress) first, which is the oldest part of the Alhambra complex, dating back to at least the 9th century AD. We climbed to the top of the towers for a sweeping view over the white buildings of the city below. On the other side we could see the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains. From there we explored various palaces, courtyards and gardens; it’s a huge place and it’s worth spending as long as you can there. We walked through intricately carved doors, stepped on colourfully tiled floors and marvelled at some of the most beautiful walls and ceilings I’ve ever seen. It gets busy at the Alhambra (and we visited in winter, it must be crazy in summer) but it’s possible to get some space to breath amongst the gardens and pools. The Alhambra is one of my favourite buildings (or series of buildings) in Europe; don’t miss it if you visit Granada.
Exploring the old streets and markets
I was sad to leave Morocco (it turned out to be one of my favourite countries) but walking the streets of Granada instantly transported me back there. The shops sold the same mix of leather bags and magical looking lamps, the restaurants served tajine and the same chaotic energy filled the streets (without the annoying touts though, thankfully). Albayzin is the best place to hit the streets in Granada; there are so many winding lanes, ancient churches and peaceful plazas to explore. You’ll find plenty of places to go eating and drinking all over Granada– combine the two with some tapas at pretty much any bar or restaurant.
Sunset at Mirador de San Nicolas
One of the best experiences you can have in Granada is joining an eclectic mix of locals, Roma musicians and tourists to watch the sunset at Mirador de San Nicolas. This Mirador (viewpoint) is one of the best places to see the Alhambra from a distance, and the warm evening sun gives the whole scene a perfect glow. The atmosphere provided by the fiery sunset, the buskers and the many dogs (some stray, some hanging out with their owners) is one of my strongest memories of Spain. We actually had a drink at one of the cafes close to Mirador de San Nicholas (before we knew it even existed) and paid way too much just to get the view. We left the cafe and 5 minutes later we reached the (free) viewpoint – and the view was even better!
This hilly suburb of Granada is home to a strange museum showcasing the cave houses that the area is famous for. It would have been nice to see inside some of the real houses but the museum was a decent simulation. Sacramonte is home to a large portion of Granada’s Roma population – apparently they are quite segregated from the rest of the city’s residents. It has a different feel to it but we loved exploring the streets of Sacramonte. We thought we were lost at one point until we rounded a corner and realised we were almost back in Albayzin.
Walking in the countryside – Beas de Granada to Granada
After navigating through hundreds of other tourists at the Alhambra, it was nice to get out into the wide open spaces of the Andalucían countryside. We took a bus to Beas de Granada, a small town just outside of Granada, and walked for about 4 hours, eventually arriving back in the city. We were all alone for hours at a time, the distant mountains and the rugged terrain our only company. We almost got lost a few times (signage isn’t great) but it was a memorable walk; do it if you’re up for an adventure. There are lots of other walks around Granada, so if you have more time than we did you should check out some of the other ones.
Further reading: Beas de Granada to Granada: A Scenic Half Day Walk in Spain
After spending 5 days in Granada we caught an overnight train to Barcelona, a city that I didn’t like nearly as much. Maybe it was a bit of a hangover from enjoying Granada so much; Barcelona had a hard act to follow and it failed. I’ll definitely be back to Barcelona to see what all the hype is (so many people seem to love that city, but I guess I didn’t give it enough of a chance), but you can bet I’ll be returning to Granada first.
Have you been to Granada? What is your favourite small city in Europe? Let me know in the comments below!