Granada, like other modern cities, continues to grow and change with the times. Yet, one thing remains the same: the
This is the most relaxed, friendly and welcoming district. The official language school is here so you see lots of young foreign students on their exchange programs taking time out in the bars and internet cafés, mixing freely with the locals. The residents like to hang around in their doorways, the shops and the squares, passing the time and gossiping.
You can sit outside to eat and drink in peace in any of the restaurants in Campo del Príncipe Square. This district was the city's Jewish quarter for centuries before the Inquisition's reign of terror and persecution. The Christian rulers who conquered Granada in 1492, and their successors, systematically expelled all Jews and Muslims from Spain during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The area around this square then became royal gardens for a while. Now the narrow winding streets and pretty whitewashed houses are nice to wander around without any specific purpose.
There's an atmospheric new Arabic quarter at the foot of the
The rest of the district, further up the hill, is a warren of alleys and cobbled streets running between whitewashed houses and villas with orchard or gardens called cármenes. The wealthy Arabs living here between the 12th and 15th centuries wanted privacy and sought to hide their prosperity in case they became the targets of envy and hostility. So they built high walls around their houses to keep out prying eyes. Look through the gates and grilles and you'll still see the geometrically designed gardens and patios with their fountains, irrigation systems, fruit trees, plants and flowers.
There are lots of pretty little squares up here too. The Plaza San Miguel Bajo, for example, fills up on sunny days with people sitting outside on the bar and restaurant terraces. The square's huge church, like most other churches in this area, was built on the site of a mosque after Christians took control of the city from the Moors in 1492. The Plaza Larga was once an Arab souk (market) and is still the venue for a market on Saturday mornings. You get the best views in the city from nearby
On your way back to the center you'll pass the historic buildings on
THE OLD QUARTER This area has been the city's main religious and commercial center since the 14th century and still offers great shopping for arts, crafts and souvenirs in the narrow little alleys of the
SHOPPING CENTRES AND NIGHTLIFE
Head for the lower, southern part of the city for large department stores like
The main reason that so many people come to Granada is to experience its rich and varied history. It's easy to walk through all the different districts, past the well-preserved historic buildings, and imagine yourself living in an earlier and more exotic time. The most evocative sight is undoubtedly the Alhambra, a complex of marvellous Moorish buildings on a hill that includes a fortress, palaces and gardens, built during the city's golden age.
According to archaeological research, Stone Age people were living in Granada province as long as 400 000 years ago. The big game hunting and the abundance of caves to shelter in attracted these early people. Later peoples took advantage of the well-irrigated plains to cultivate food and the natural mineral resources were used to produce weapons, cooking utensils and eventually, jewelery. You can see an interesting collection of artifacts dating from the Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic eras in the Archaeological Museum.
Between the tenth and the fourth centuries BC, a series of Mediterranean trading states, including Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Greeks, settled on the province's coastal fringe. They came to exploit the vast mineral deposits and the good fishing.
The first written documents available to historians are from the fifth century BC and record a Jewish community living in what's now Granada.
By the end of the fourth century AD, the Romans had completely colonized southern Spain. After the Romans, the next wave of invaders were the Visigoths, from Northern Europe, who occupied the city in the fifth century AD but made few changes to the civil, military and religious status quo.
Little is known about the Jewish community that settled here, but it must have been significant because it's mentioned often in fourth century AD legal documents. Jewish leaders are believed to have collaborated with the Arab invaders in 711 to overthrow the Visigoth monarchy. The tower you see in San José Church and the Red Towers were built immediately after the Arabs and their Berber mercenaries took control of Granada in the eight century. The mainly Muslim Middle Eastern and North African invaders—called Moors—conquered almost the whole of Spain within a decade.
At first Granada became an important outpost of a new Western Islamic Empire ruled by Abd ar-Rahman III based in Cordoba. However, fighting between different ethnic and cultural Muslim factions and an on-going Christian crusade to expel the Moors created a chaotic political situation in Andalusia. Ibn al-Ahmar, of the Arab Nasrid tribe, used the situation to his advantage in 1238 to establish an independent Moorish state of Granada. Independence was maintained by paying tribute to the encroaching Christian king of Castile, Fernando III. So, as the rest of Spain started to fall into Christian hands, Granada—the last Moorish state—received the Muslim and Jewish refugees fleeing from other cities and continued to expand and prosper. In fact, the 13th and 14th centuries were the city's glory days when commerce, art and culture flourished, and the Alhambra and the Arab University were built.
Towards the end of the 15th century, the ruling Nasrid family ended up fighting among themselves. The now united Catholic Monarchs of Castile and Aragon, having conquered the rest of Spain, besieged the city and persuaded the last Moorish ruler, Boabdil, to surrender in 1492. For the first few years of Christian rule, Muslim citizens were permitted to live according to their religion and culture. But, by 1499, Cardinal Cisneros was trying to force all Muslims to convert to Christianity. They were later banned from speaking their language, wearing their traditional clothes and practicing their customs, and they were charged excessively high taxes.
During this period the Christians also destroyed many mosques or turned them into monasteries, churches or public buildings. San Miguel Bajo Church, Santa María Church, San José Church and many more, all stand where mosques used to be. In response to this religious and cultural persecution, the Muslims held an unsuccessful rebellion in 1568 and then had to flee to find refuge in the Alpujarras on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains. They lived there until they were expelled from Spain altogether following their final defeat at the Battle of the Alpujarras in the 17th century. By confiscating Muslim property and taking a percentage of the riches entering Spain from the New World during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown became enormously rich. This was when Granada's great cathedral, churches, monasteries and convents were built.
From the late 17th century until the present day the city has kept a low profile.
The only event that brought it international attention during the 20th century was a tragic one. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, reactionary supporters of General Franco's military uprising murdered thousands of innocent Republican sympathizers, including the outstanding local poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca.
Granada remained the prosperous administrative capital of a fairly backward agricultural province until relatively recently. Over the last few years the university and private language schools have attracted thousands of foreign exchange students, the city's historic sights have attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors and Granada's official bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics has helped to raise the city's international profile.
Sacromonte district is where you'll still find gypsies living in caves that have been excavated from the hillside. The front of one might look like the entrance to an ordinary house, but once inside you'll notice the difference. Many of these cave-dwellings have been converted into entertainment venues where gypsies perform their traditional flamenco music and dance. Try the show at Los Tarantos, for example. While you're here, it's also worth visiting the 17th-century Sacromonte Abbey and Museum and the Museo de la Zambra (Museum of Gypsy Traditions). The best time to come up here is during Semana Santa when religious statues are paraded through the streets all night long. The mix of incense, candles, bonfires and singing creates a highly charged atmosphere. There's a cheerful pilgrimage up to the abbey on St. Cecil's Day, February 1st, and an open air picnic in the countryside afterwards.
THE OLD QUARTER This area has been the city's main religious and commercial center since the 14th century and still offers great shopping for arts, crafts and souvenirs in the narrow little alleys of the Alcaicería. The nearby Cathedral dominates this flat ground below the Alhambra and Albayzín hills. One block south is the pretty Bib-Rambla Square, full of florist's stalls and restaurants, like Manolo. If you're interested in looking good, you'll find loads of fashionable clothing retailers around here, including Los Muñecos, Mango, and many more.
SHOPPING CENTRES AND NIGHTLIFE
Head for the lower, southern part of the city for large department stores like Corte Inglés (El), indoor shopping centers like Centro Comercial Neptuno and the greatest concentration of nightlife in the bars and clubs lining Calle Pedro Antonio de Alarcón. You can choose from an endless number of bars with different themes and atmospheres.
Granada has understandably become a popular tourist destination and the range of places to stay has grown to meet the increase in demand. You'll find every category of accommodation available, from campsites to youth hostels to simple guest houses and hotels. There's something to meet most needs in terms of price, comfort, facilities and location. If you're looking for something close to the historic sights, you won't be disappointed. There are lots of comfortable, family-run, mid-range hotels within walking distance of the city's major attraction, the Alhambra.
Most visitors only spend two or three nights here, so there's a rapid turnover of rooms and as long as you're flexible about dates you'll always find somewhere to stay. The busiest times are during Easter Week and the Day of the Cross, at the start of May. If you want to see the colorful processions and dancing in the street, book a room well in advance.
If you're not short of money, the most memorable place to stay is inside the Alhambra complex itself, in the exclusive four-star San Francisco Parador. If you're looking for something unusual and different, try El Abanico Caves.
There are several hotels on the Alhambra hill set in leafy surroundings within walking distance of the historic complex: Los Alixares, Guadalupe, Washington Irving, Los Ángeles and the Hotel Alhambra Palace.
For cheaper accommodation that's still within walking distance of the Alhambra and the other historic sights, try Hostal Austria, Hotel Carlos V, Hotel Niza or Hostal Cónsul.
The area around the Cathedral and Royal Chapel has some more expensive and sophisticated bases for exploring the city's cultural and artistic heritage, in Anacapri, Gran Vía and NH Inglaterra.
If you want to be close to the central commercial and business district and the Conference and Exhibition Hall, look out for the eight-story Hotel San Antón with its prime location on the banks of the river Genil and its space-age external glass elevators. It's popular with business travelers and offers great views from the upper floors. For even greater luxury, close to the riverside, choose Hotel Tryp Albayzín. Two central hotels offer rooms specially equipped for disabled visitors, Hotel El Carmen and Saray.
You'll find three accommodation options all belonging to the same chain in the Camino de Ronda district alongside all the big department stores and shopping centers and close to the student nightlife area. Hotel Luz de Granada is popular with tour groups. Business travelers prefer Gran Hotel Luna de Granada. While families like the freedom offered by the self-catering facilities in Apartahotel Luna.
Away from the bright lights and noisy traffic, you'll find peaceful places to stay on the outskirts, including Hotel Sol Inn Alcano, Hotel Camino de Granada (near the airport) and Hotel San Gabriel, which has wonderful views of the Albayzín district.
You're never short of something to do in Granada. The range of entertainment on offer is vast and covers a wide spectrum of formal and informal events. One of the first things you'll notice is the amount of posters displayed in public places advertising pop concerts, orchestras, ethnic bands, theater shows, dance classes, photography exhibitions and lots more. Get a list of events from the tourist office.
Another thing you'll notice is that the locals like to dress up, go out and enjoy themselves. Many colorful traditional festivals are still celebrated with gusto. Even on ordinary weekend evenings you'll find a vibrant atmosphere in the streets and squares and bars. It's a university city with over 60000 students aged between 18 and 25. That means one in every six inhabitants is a student, and you know what students are like, always celebrating something.
Performers and spectators from all over the world flock to Granada during June and July every year to take part in the prestigious Festival Internacional de Música y Danza. The performance venues could hardly be more romantic and atmospheric and include the Generalife gardens and Charles V's Palace. The Festival Internacional de Teatro, the Festival Internacional de Tango and the Festival Internacional de Jazz Granada are just three more world-class cultural events hosted here annually.
The local fiestas are like big street parties where everyone is welcome and everyone gets involved. They all have religious origins but that doesn't stop anyone from dressing up in traditional costume, drinking lots of fino sherry and dancing sevillanas (lively folk dances) without inhibition until the early hours of the morning. That's what happens on the Day of the Cross on May 3rd when the streets and squares are covered with pretty crosses made out of flowers by the local residents. No sooner have you recovered from that excess than it's time for Corpus Christi, another religious celebration with a hedonistic flavor. After watching the processions of saints through the streets, people dress up in traditional costume once more and head out to the special arena on the outskirts of town. There's a children's amusement park with rides for the kids and tents where the adults get together to sing, dance and drink more fino sherry. The atmosphere is always relaxed and friendly and visitors are welcome to join in the fun.
The big student spring festival takes place at the end of March or the beginning of April with the support of the Town Hall, which hosts a weekend's worth of live music, theater, poetry and more. Students also celebrate the start of term in September and October and the end of exams in February and March.
There's a regular calendar of live theater in the Alhambra Theatre and Isabel la Católica Theatre with a selection of classic and modern drama. There's no shortage of cinemas either where you can catch up on the latest releases.
You could spend the day quietly soaking up information in the Archaeological Museum, Manuel de Falla's House and Museum, Federico García Lorca's House and Museum and the Museo de la Zambra (Museum of Gypsy Traditions).
Doing a bar crawl along the famous Calle Pedro Antonio de Alarcón is a popular way of spending Friday or Saturday night. See if you can make it from one end to the other still standing after stopping in at Soho or one of the many other bars and clubs along the way. Then turn up Calle San Juan de Dios to try El Rincón de San Juan de Dios before finally hitting the dance floor at Granada 10, Planta Baja or Sala Príncipe.
There are lots of outdoor attractions in the immediate vicinity as well. The Sierra Nevada ski resort is fully equipped and just 35km away. There are beaches and water parks on the shores of the Mediterranean only an hour's drive from the city center. For great trekking in pristine countryside, head for the Alpujarras, on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, an hour and half's journey by car or public bus.