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The splendors of the Alhambra, the magnificent fortress that crowns the city, have entranced princes, paupers, and poets for centuries. The golden hillsides, white rooftops, and vistas of the Sierra Nevada still bless Granada (pop. 238,000) today, but the city first blossomed into one of Europe’s wealthiest, most culturally advanced cities after being conquered by Muslim armies in AD 711. As Christian armies turned back the tide of Moorish conquest in the 13th century, the city became the last Muslim outpost in Iberia. Fernando and Isabel capitalized on the chaos, capturing Boabdil—Granada’s last Moorish ruler—and the Alhambra on the momentous night of January 1, 1492. As Boabdil fled, his mother berated him for casting a longing look back at the Alhambra, saying, “You do well to weep as a woman for what you could not defend as a man.”
Although the Christians torched all the mosques and the lower city, embers of Granada’s Muslim past still linger. The Albaicín, a maze of Moorish houses and twisting alleys, is Spain’s best-preserved Arab quarter and the only part of the Muslim city to survive the Reconquista intact. Since then, Granada has grown into a university town, reveling in throngs of backpackers and Spanish youth. Granada’s huge student population gives rise to spirited graffiti, lively tapas bars, and a thriving hippie subculture. A few days will give you a taste of Moorish Spain and Granada’s vibrant nightlife, wonderfully rich in tapas and teterías—smoky, aromatic Arabic tea rooms. But do not be surprised if, like Boabdil, you leave longing for more days in this Andalusian gem.
The center of Granada is small Plaza Isabel la Católica, at the intersection of the city’s two main arteries, Calle de los Reyes Católicos and Gran Vía de Colón. Just off Gran Vía, you’ll find the cathedral; farther down Gran Vía by Pl. de la Trinidad is the university area. Uphill from Pl. Isabel la Católica on C. Reyes Católicos sits Plaza Nueva, and the Alhambra rises on the hill above. From Pl. Nueva, Calle Elvira, lined with bars and eateries, runs parallel to Gran Vía. Downhill, the pedestrian streets off C. de los Reyes Católicos comprise the shopping district.
Today, the Alhambra is one of Spain’s most visited sites, and it offers visitors a treasure trove of art history, design, and craftsmanship to explore. But Granada is far from a one-stop destination. The city retains strong elements of its cross-cultural history, from the remnants of the original city walls built by Boabdil to the timeless gypsy barrio of Sacromonte to the Arab neighborhood of El Albaicín.
Plan your perfect trip with our shortlist of top attractions in Granada. Click the links to reserve tickets or local guides.
Granada’s cusine, like its art and architecture, reflects the region’s Arab influences and draws heavily on the wealth of vegetables, meat, and seafood available in the mountains and shores nearby. Look for classic dishes like “La tortilla del Sacromonte” (an omelette with ham and sweetbreads), “las habas con jamon” (ham and broad beans), and “la pipirrana” (a summery pepper salad).
Sweet delicacies here are often made with almonds and caramelized sugar; popular choices include “la barreta” and “roscos de de San Lázaro” (almond cookies).
You’ve probably been to a tapas bar, but you might not have known that tapas is not a type of food—it simply refers to the way the food is presented. The bite-sized portions served at the bar are not to be mistaken with appetizers. Spaniards eat tapas most commonly after work, well before dinner, or while just out drinking with friends.
If you’re in Spain during the summer, you will most likely end up getting gazpacho, a chilled tomato soup. One thicker variety of gazpacho is salmorejo; think of it as the delicious lovechild of normal tomato soup and traditional gazpacho.
No matter what you eat, your primary goal in Spain should probably to get your hands (and tongue) on some jamón ibérico. In simple terms, it’s Spanish ham. But there is so much more to it than that. The ibérico pigs are treated like royalty, allowed to roam the countryside stuffing their fat faces with acorns for two years. After being butchered, the ham is salted and cured for two years, during which time it loses at least 20% of its weight and gains about 400% of its monetary value. Make it your life goal to find some of that thinly sliced piece of heaven.
Sangria is Spain’s drink much the same way that a vodka Red Bull is America’s—it gets you drunk, and most people would never drink it in the light of day. It’s made by mixing wine with fruit juice and whatever cheap liquor one can easily acquire. Usually it’s rum, bourbon, and whiskey. Yes, we meant to say “and,” not “or.” Think of it as the Spanish version of frat boy punch. Another way to utilize bad wine? Tinto de verano—“red wine of summer.” Just take the old/cheap/bad-tasting wine you have/found/made and mix it with some lemon soda. Mix it with Coke, and you have a kalimotxo. The hotter the day, the more mixer you use, and you’ve got yourself a refreshing summer drink.
If beer is more your thing, Spain isn’t famous for its selection. Most bars will just have one beer on tap, and it will most likely be a Mahou, though Cruzcampo and San Miguel are also popular.
Situated at the crossroads between Western Europe and Africa, Andalucía is steeped in thousands of years of cultural heritage. Its intoxicating mix of Roman, Moorish, and gitano cultures can be found not only in Granada but in the tiniest mountain villages of the Alpujarras. Andalucía has no single image: Roman ruins, monumental churches, medieval castles, sun-drenched beaches, snowy peaks, orange trees, and shimmering silver olive groves all have their place. But while Andalucía is far more than a stereotype, it is also home to Spain’s most notorious icons. Bullfighting, sherry, and flamenco are all andaluz, and the region celebrates holidays and festivals like Semana Santa (Holy Week) and Carnaval with famously wild abandon.
The ancient kingdom of Tartessus grew wealthy off the Sierra Nevada’s rich ore deposits, and the Greeks and Phoenicians established colonies and traded up and down the coast. The Romans cultivated wheat, olive oil, and wine from the fertile soil watered by the Guadalquivir, and in the 5th century AD, the Vandals passed through on their way to North Africa, leaving little more than a name—Vandalusia (House of the Vandals). The Moors, in control under various dynasties from 711 until 1492, had the most enduring influence, forming lasting ties to Africa and the Islamic world. They preserved and perfected Roman architecture, creating the distinctive Andalusian patio, furthered industry and technology, and developed the region’s greatest cities. Granada reached the pinnacle of Islamic art and scholarship in these centuries, and the Alhambra is a prime example.
Through the turbulent 20th century, Andalucía retained its strength and solidarity—the region was one of the last strongholds against Franco during the Civil War. Many residents still describe themselves as Andalusian before Spanish and proudly draw from the melange of cultures that first made the region famous.
World-famous poet and dramatist, Granada’s Federico García Lorca is finally receiving his due. His poetry, full of olive groves, lemons, gypsies, Moors, and bullfighters, brought images of passionate Andalusia to the world. But upon the outbreak of civil war in 1936, Lorca was arrested by Franco’s Nationalist forces and killed near the hilltop town of Alfácar, northeast of Granada, following the outbreak of the civil war. As Lorca was both a known homosexual and a socialist-leaning public figure, the motivations for his murder—social, political, or personal—remain controversial to this day.
Romanesque architecture is characterized by semicircular arches, heavy stone walls with small windows, and simple interiors; many of the most austerely beautiful spaces in Spain are in this style. Gothic architecture is probably a bit more familiar—pointed arches, huge stained-glass windows, and the famous flying buttresses. Though there is some overlap, Romanesque architecture generally precedes Gothic, with the transition occurring in around the 13th or 14th centuries in most places.
As conquering Christian forces drove south, the Spanish adopted many aspects of Islamic architecture and incorporated it into a new hybrid style called the mudéjar style. This originated on the Castilian plain, most likely in the town of Sahagún, and spread all across the regions of Castile and Aragon. Some chief characteristics of this style are intricate, patterned brickwork as the chief material, with some Islamic-inspired ornaments and motifs, including glazed tile or azulejo.
It’s probably best to fully adapt to “Spanish time,” or you might end up missing out on most of what Spain has to offer. Besides the little things, like being 15-20min. late for meetings or events, the Spanish basically overhaul their entire day’s schedule to better fit their night-owl lifestyle. A prime example: meals. Lunches don’t happen before 1pm; most occur around 2pm and are usually followed by a siesta, during which most businesses will close. As for the evening, Spain is not constrained by any of the Puritan influences that Americans have to deal with—nothing closes at 2am and you can buy alcohol well after 11pm (looking at you, Boston).
How does this work, you might wonder? Let us walk you through a normal day. Wake up around 9am and eat a light breakfast. Work until lunch around 2pm, take a siesta, then head back to work from around 4 or 5pm until 8 or 9pm. Dinner is usually around 10 or 11pm. For the younger crowd, the bars only get interesting around midnight or 1am, and clubs only around 2 or 3am. Dance until 5 or 6am, stumble home to your bed, and get ready to wake up and do it all over again.
You’ve probably realized by now that Spain is a pretty divided country, meaning that Spaniards have a huge sense of pride in their home neighborhoods and regions. In fact, many of them would probably be pretty insulted that we keep writing “Spaniards.” Consider them Catalans/Basques/Andalusians/Romani/Madrileños first and Spaniards second. Another tip? Avoid discussing the Spanish Civil War unless you know for sure which side the family of the person to whom you are speaking was on. Same goes for soccer. Unless you know with certainty that your audience is full of Barça supporters, you might want to hold off on describing that recent goal in excruciating detail.