When I tell people that I studied abroad in Spain during college, their first question is usually “Madrid or Barcelona?” When I tell them I was in neither of these cities, but actually, in Granada, I get all types of responses from “Where’s that?” to “Cool! I’ve heard it’s amazing but I’ve never been.” And that’s about the extent of it.
Besides the friends who I have since persuaded to visit, not many people have been to, heard of, or considered visiting this Andalusian City in Southern Spain. Part of me loves that this city is still less of a tourist destination — it contributes to its charm — but I also can’t help but boast about how amazing Granada is to anyone who asks. And I also try my best to convince people that if they’re going to Spain and not seeing Granada, they’re seriously missing out. What makes this city so great? Let me tell you.
Here are 7 reasons why you need to visit Granada, Spain…
1. Free Tapas!
This is such a big deal, that I actually wrote an entire article dedicated to just this aspect of Granada’s culture. While every restaurant, café, and bar in Spain used to serve a small dish of food with each drink, this tradition has slowly faded and is what makes big cities like Barcelona or Madrid more expensive. But in Granada, the tapas tradition lives on.
Some places give a small dish, some give large dishes to share amongst your table. Some places let you choose, and some give you the chef’s specialty for the day. No matter what you get, it’s always delicious and always free! Drinks in Granada are cheap too, so you can get a whole meal for 10 euros or less if you order two or three drinks.
2. Siestas Still Exist
Speaking of traditions, another one that’s still going strong in Granada, and much of the Andalusian region is the siesta. If you don’t know, siesta literally translates to “nap” and is a daily break in the afternoon from about 3-6pm.
The practice started back when many people in Spain worked outside all day as a way to give farmers a break during the hottest period of the day. As the country has become more modern and labor has diversified, the tradition has slowly been going out of style — especially in cities where most people work inside with air conditioning.
But in Granada, most businesses still close for at least part of the afternoon. Spanish tradition also includes a big lunch around 2 pm, rather than a big dinner like in many Western countries, so the siesta is a great way to sleep off that food coma. When you visit the city, there are enough restaurants open to eat your lunch, but then you can take the siesta time to just walk around and explore, or do as the Spanish do and sleep it off. The practice of the siesta gives the city a much more relaxed vibe and, as a tourist makes your vacation less about consumerism and more about experiencing the city.
3. The Albaicín Neighborhood
Situated at the edge of the city, facing the Alhambra from the other side of the Daro river, are the winding streets of Granada’s Albaicín neighborhood. Here you’ll find the Arab artist markets, where you can buy tapestries, lanterns, jewelry, and flowing pants and scarves in every pattern imaginable.
Beyond the markets, you can get lost in the winding, narrow streets and feel like you’ve traveled back in time to when the Moors built the area. It’s quiet, charming, and the views are absolutely incredible. When you get towards the top, it opens up into the Mirador San Nicolas — a plaza that overlooks the Alhambra, the city, and the breathtaking snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The sunset here is unbeatable, and a well-deserved reward after wandering up through the hills of the Albaicín.
4. The Sacramonte
If wandering the Albaicín feels like you’ve stepped back in time, entering the Sacramonte feels like you traveled to another planet. In the hills beyond the edge of the modern city lies a Roma community (you may know these people better as gypsies, but this word has gained a negative connotation) that has been there since the 15th century.
Here, people still live in caves and the sound of flamenco floats through the air. During the day, you can hike up the paths, around the caves, and through the cacti and sheep. At night you can see an authentic flamenco show in a cave-turned-theater. There’s even a museum — Museo Cuevas del Sacramonte — dedicated to relaying the history and culture of the people and the area. It’s a fascinating place, and one of the only Roma communities left in Spain that hasn’t integrated into modern Spanish life.
5. It’s An Artist’s Paradise
If you like street art, street musicians, crafts, architecture — any type of art, really — this city is the place to go. The Roma and Arab influence, combined with the relaxed Andalusian vibes and the slowness of siesta culture, leave Granada with a very hippie-Bohemian feel that you can see and feel on every corner. Talented musicians play all sorts of instruments in the plazas and winding alleys, and flamenco shows can be seen throughout the city.
The Realejo neighborhood is full of amazing street art painted on the walls of almost every building. The markets are flooded with handmaid jewelry, clothing, and other crafts made by talented local artists. The city in itself even feels like a work of art with the amazing architecture of the Alhambra and surrounding neighborhoods. So whatever type of art you enjoy, Granada’s got plenty of it to go around.
6. The Alhambra
Of course, no trip to Granada would be complete without a visit to its most famous attraction, the Alhambra. The Moors invaded Spain from the 8th century onwards, establishing strongholds in the major areas of the country. Although there was a fort on the site since the 9th century, it was in the mid-13th century that the Muslim emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmer commissioned the building of the royal palace. The complex was expanded upon and used by other rulers of the Nasrid dynasty, and eventually by the Catholics, after the Reconquista.
The classic Islamic architecture of the Alhambra is simply some of the most stunning I’ve ever seen. High archways open up into cavernous rooms and large windows look out onto the city. Intricate geometric carvings, colorful tiles, and hand-painted Arabic scripture line the walls and ceilings. Beyond the wall of the main palace lie the Generalife, an area of stunning and sprawling gardens that were once home to the leisure and summer palaces of the Muslim rulers. You could spend an entire day getting lost in this amazing work of art and piece of history — I know I did.
7. The Great Outdoors
Not a city person? Don’t worry! Besides not being a very large or overwhelming city, Granada actually has amazing nature just outside its borders. Beyond the hills of the Sacramonte and behind the Alhambra, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains wait to be explored.
For the spontaneous adventurer, you can bushwhack your way up from the edge of the Daro River, ending up on top of the hills where you can explore various paths or have a picnic. For a longer hike on a set route, take a bus out to the village of Beas de Granada and trek the 16km back to the city, taking in amazing views of snowy peaks the whole way.
Looking for a shorter, but still scenic, walk? Head out on a short drive to Cahorros, an area blooming with flowers in the Monachil valley, where waterfalls and hanging bridges make for a pleasant nature walk. If hiking isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other outdoor activities in the area.
One of the things that attract many people to visit Granada is that, in about an hour, you can either be skiing in the mountains or lying on a beach. For sand and sea, the nearby coastal city of Malaga is easily accessible. For skiing or other snow sports, the high peaks of the Sierra Nevada provide great conditions almost all year round.
So there you have it! This city really has something for everyone! Granada is the place that taught me that sometimes going off the beaten path and straying from popular destinations can provide an even better travel experience than the typical vacation spots. Hopefully, this amazing city can teach you something too!
Author’s Favorite Travel Gear
Travelon Laundry Soap Sheets: On long trips, being able to wash your clothes in the sink — especially things like socks and underwear — can really save you time and space in your luggage. These are great because they dissolve into laundry soap when placed in water, but don’t take up room in your liquids bag if you’re only using a carry-on!
Activated Charcoal Capsules: If you’re prone to stomach problems, or going somewhere with a lot of street food and potential for food poisoning, these tablets are a must-have item. Activated charcoal helps to get rid of toxins in your body and can help you recover faster from even the worst sickness (including a hangover!) so you can get back to enjoying your trip.
Downy Wrinkle Release Spray: This travel-size clothing spray is especially helpful if you’re traveling with nicer clothing that you have to fold and squish in your luggage — it gets rid of horrible wrinkles in minutes without an iron.