What You Need to Know About Granada
Located in the southernmost region of Spain, Granada is a relatively small city with a population of 232,208 (in 2018) but it abounds with interesting sights, food, entertainment options, and history. The city is particularly famous for the Alhambra, which is essentially its own mini city consisting of a fortress, Nasrid Palaces, and the Generalife gardens that picturesquely overlook Granada capital. A trip to this city is never complete without visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site that was constructed over several centuries, starting in approximately the mid-11th century, as well as catching a glimpse of it from the Albaicín or other vantage points. (Read more below.)
The city’s gastronomy is recognized for its unique tapas culture. While small servings of food known as tapas (or alternative versions of pinxtos or montaditos) can be found in many regions of Spain, what makes the culture one-of-a-kind in Granada is that it is customary for bars to provide these small plates of food free of charge with every purchased beverage! This is something that can be found in some other regions, such as Almería, or particular bars such as El Tigre in Madrid, but it is not so widely prevalent anywhere else in Spain.
Please note: There are some exceptions and rules of etiquette you should be aware of before you visit Granada to make the most of this! Read more in detail about that here.
Granada is also well-known for its university, La Universidad de Granada, which was founded in 1531 by King Carlos V, and is now one of the most popular Erasmus destinations in Europe. In case you are unfamiliar, “Erasmus” is a European Union student exchange program that promotes the mobility of university students by allowing them to study or gain work experience in another country for a year or semester without interrupting their degree. The result is that the city is even more lively due to the influx of students during the school year, with distinct parts of town (ie. Calle Pedro Antonio and Calle Gonzalo Gallas) particularly popular and affordable for the younger crowd, but much less crowded during the summer and holiday periods.
Fun Fact: Granada means ‘pomegranate’ in Spanish and once you realize this, the detailed homage paid to this fruit throughout the city will not be missed! You’ll notice it worked into the bollards (the steel posts designating pedestrian streets), the design on doors and windows, as well as in other artwork throughout the city. If you’re lucky, you’ll happen upon a granado (pomegranate tree) in one of the many parks, there’s even one right in the center of the Puerta Real intersection!
Transport options to arrive: Bus, Train, Car (or Plane)
While Granada does have an airport, keep in mind that it is very small and therefore flights are infrequent and often very expensive. However, if you are flying from or through a major airport, you may be able to find a bargain. Thankfully, Granada’s train station—which had been under construction and cut-off from any trains that didn’t involve a bus journey to another station first—has recently been reconnected to the RENFE AVE system, meaning you can find relatively affordable high speed train options to Madrid as well as some other major cities. Bus tickets, especially from other cities in Andalucía, are generally quite economical. Alternatively, traveling by car allows for much more flexibility so if you are interested in renting a car be sure to check out this article as well as this article on traveling with Bla Bla Car if you do not have a vehicle but would like to rides-hare with someone who does.
Recommended time of year to visit, based on climate: Year-round, avoiding December―March if you can’t stand the cold and late June―late August if you can’t stand the heat. Keep in mind that Granada’s climate can be quite different from some of its neighbors in Andalusia. Because of the city’s location at 738m (over 2,000 ft) above sea level, enclosed by the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the weather is varied and more extreme than other cities you may visit alongside it, such as coastal cities like Málaga as well as landlocked cities like Sevilla and Córdoba. Be prepared for a lot of variation throughout the individual day as well, especially in the winter time when it can easily be below 0°C (32°F) at night but a warm 13°C (55°F) at midday. Be sure to check out this video for more tips on what to expect from the weather in Spain.
Recommended length of visit: While small, Granada has so much charm and variety that you can easily spend 3-4 days in the city. In fact, to really take in everything Granada has to offer we would recommend allotting a week in which you have enough time for those 3-4 days in the city center as well as time for day trips (or overnight trips) to other attractions in the province, such as visiting the beautiful white villages of Las Alpujarras, hiking in the their surroundings, visiting the caves in Gaudix, or going skiing in the Sierra Nevada.
Unfortunately, (at least from our point-of-view) it’s very common for travelers to know less about Granada than other popular cities in Andalusia and thus plan a bus trip directly to the Alhambra and back to the other city they are staying in. While we understand the great interest in seeing this palace city, organized trips from outside of Granada leave little or no time to get to know the city, which is a real shame! We know everyone has different time restraints and needs, still we generally recommend you allow yourself the possibility to explore other aspects of what the city has to offer, even if you only have one night to spend in Granada.
Top three must-sees:
1. La Alhambra and El Generalife: Although you will definitely find this as the number one recommendation in every other guide as well, it is for a reason. The Alhambra is more than a beautiful palace! It was once a full Moorish city, which was overtaken by the Catholic Kings, and is the setting of so many moments throughout Spanish history. You can read more about visiting the Alhambra here.
Pro-Tip: It is recommended to book a ticket in advance, which you can do here on the official website. (Although we also wouldn’t advise against splurging for a guided tour!) If need be, you can usually get tickets very early in the morning the day of (ie. planning to be at the ticket booths by 7am) or by refreshing the official site repeatedly around midnight the night before you plan to go in order to catch the allotted day-of tickets that are released on the website at that time. Also keep in mind that the possibility of finding last-minute tickets decreases greatly during high tourism season, so do your research.
2. Paseo de los Tristes: The stroll up this riverside street (Carrera del Darro) is beautiful from its beginning in Plaza Nueva to the very end (the area technically called Paseo de los Tristes), but some of my favorite tranquil scenes are actually of the cobblestone bridges before you reach the view of the Alhambra.
3. Albaicín: While the guidebooks will direct you to the most famous look-out point, the Mirador de San Nicolás (which is absolutely worth a visit!) the true beauty of this neighborhood of steep winding streets and steps is in losing your way. Attempt to find other look-outs like San Miguel Alto and popular squares like Plaza Larga, but rest assured that even if you don’t find any specific places, your ambling adventure will be worthwhile!
One thing to drink: Moroccan-style mint tea
While we can’t recommend the free tapas enough, we’ve already discussed this option at length. Thus, we also recommend you make time to enjoy a tasty tea in one of the many tea houses, or teterías, along Calle Calderería Nueva. The atmosphere in these tea houses, which will transport you back to the days of Moorish influence in Granada, is so laid-back and chill you may want to order another tea or indulge in a homemade Arabic pastry, crepe, or smoothie and share a hookah, or shisha, with some friends! If you enjoy window shopping or are in the need for souvenirs, the many colorful shops along this road will probably strike your fancy as well. Just don’t forget you are welcome to bargain!