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Granada: Spain's Best Kept Secret - A Traveler's Guide

Madrid and Barcelona are fine, but check out Granada for some deep Spanish experiences. Madrid and Barcelona are fine, but check out Granada for some deep Spanish experiences.


The Spain most tourists know usually includes a trip to two well-trodden destinations: The city of Barcelona, home of Antoni Gaudí's surrealist acid trip of an architectural legacy; or to Madrid, the nation's capitol and its largest city. There is, however, another Spain. It's located down south, in a region called Andalucía. Andalucía is a land that almost doesn't fit with the rest of Spain's euro-centric aesthetic. Instead of modern high-rises and perfectly paved streets, Andalucía boasts small, white washed homes and narrow, impossible to navigate labyrinths of cobble-stones that are laid down by hand, even today.  

Andalucía is located along the Mediterranean and borders Africa and Portugal. Its unique geographical position has had a major influence on its multitude of culture, language and on the lives of its diverse people. Some of the better known cities in Andalucía are Cordoba, Sevilla, Malaga and the jewel on top of the Andalucían crown, Granada, which is the city we're focusing on here. These are places where the cosmopolitan mixes with the sacred and the history is alive and well, right there on the tiny, winding streets.

The story of Granada is straight out of a utopian fantasy novel -- that is until an invader comes and blasts the place to smithereens. Without going into too much detail (because that's what Wikipedia is for) Granada once boasted a progressive medieval society where Jewish, Muslim and Christian city dwellers lived in harmony for hundreds of years.

Unfortunately for them, the invaders did come. They were King Ferdinand and his queen, Isabella. The Catholic king and queen were responsible for the Spanish Inquisition, an event that changed the kingdom of Andalucia forever. They drove out the sultans and anyone else who refused to covert. They killed numerous people and destroyed some of Granada's most iconic landmarks.

The good news is that some of the fruits of that previously peaceful coexistence are visible today in the architecture, music, dance and foods of Granada. So if this travelogue moves you, here is your to-do list for the upcoming adventure in the south of Spain.


The first place to go? Without a doubt, the Alhambra fortress and Generalife gardens. The Alhambra is an ancient Islamic structure built in the 14th century by Moorish sultans. Its reddish clay exterior, breathtaking ornate interiors, and fragrant patio gardens are a constant inspiration for artists and poets from all over the world. Avoid going on the weekends as it does tend to get packed (probably with artists and poets). Also, make sure to arrive at the time your ticket is issued for, otherwise you won't be allowed into the most mystical parts of the fortress, like the Sala de los Abencerrajes.

The Alhambra was almost left to ruin, and only recently restored to its medieval glory. Prior to becoming a tourist hotspot, it was a squatter's paradise. Imagine that: a fortress full of scared Moorish geometric designs, swooping archways, columns as tall as buildings and secret passageways free of any bureaucratic tourism.

After visiting the Alhambra, make your way around the Albaicyn, a medieval Moorish medina (village). It is filled with cobble-stone streets, secret alleys and hidden carmens (gardens). The beauty of the Albaicyn is hidden behind its walls. The carmens are never in full view, unlike North American gardens. Instead, fig trees and bright oleander bushes remain secretly tucked away so as not to be showy. The real truths of the medina are never easily accessible, they require finesse and a little digging in order to truly appreciate their beauty.

The Albaicyn offers some of the most spectacular views of Granada. There are no maps of the Albaicyn, so it's definitely an adventure to walk through because you'll never know whether an alley will lead to a big, open courtyard or a total dead end. Find your way to the Mirador and enjoy what is Andalucia's most beautiful place to watch a sunset.


In one word: Tapas. Tapas are small portions of food served free at most bars, which only happens in Granada! With every drink purchase, a plate of tapas arrives. You never know what you'll get because tapas are prepared fresh daily and may never be seen again. Some quintessential tapas dishes include patatas pobres, tortilla, and of course, anything containing jamón (ham), aceituna (olives), or queso Manchego (Manchego cheese), which might just be Granada's three official foods.

One way to choose a restaurant in Granada is by the terraza (terrace). You're better off outdoors than indoors during the evenings because the real Granada doesn't usually wake up until way after the midday siesta. (Consider the flow of Granada to be on Spanish time - slow, relaxed and often good for a party.)

Try the Aben Humeya Restaurant or Restaurant San Nicolas for some good opportunities to start your night.

There are also restaurants that offer a free flamenco show with your meal. More on flamenco later, but for now, Jardines de Zoraya offers traditional Spanish fare with a side of bailar (dancing). Look for Paella de Mariscos, Arroz Negro con Pulpo, or Gazpacho on the menu for a delectable taste of Spanish gourmet.


On warm days, there's nothing better than these Spanish drinks:

Tinto de Verano - Wine mixed with lemonade. It's like sangria, but simpler.

Clara - Beer mixed with lemonade. It may sound unusual, but it's truly refreshing.

Alhambra - Spain's famous brand of beer, it is the eponymous Spanish lager.


The best shows start late and may be held in the caves of Sacromonte, a basement bar on Calle Elvira, or at the aire libre stage of the Sacromonte Caves Museum. Plan to have a few drinks and clap your hands along with the powerful songs of the Gitano people.

Visit the Sacromonte Caves Museum, dedicated to showing visitors Granada cave-homes as they were for the Roma people.

Visit the Archaeological Museum to see the incredible collection of artifacts from prehistoric Iberian cultures.

Take a 20-minute bus ride out to Monachil and either enjoy a hike on the pristine protected lands or go mountain climbing at Los Cachorros, one of Southern Spain's most popular rock climbing spots.

As for nightlife, you'd be remiss if you didn't catch a Flamenco show. Flamenco is a dance form and a musical style that originated in the caves of Andalucia as a means for storytelling and expression by the Roma people. It's a culture-transcending genre of art because it was influenced by the many peoples that lived in medieval Granada before the inquisition.


The tradition of artisan craft  is regarded strongly in Granada. Family members have been in the same business of ceramics or woodworking for generations. The pride Granadinos take in this line of work is visible in the details, there are no knock-offs sold here.

Tarecea (marquetry) woodwork is an ancient type of wood inlay style that pairs wood with shell, mother-of-pearl and other natural materials to create everything from chess sets to tables.

The distinctive style of ceramic pottery called Fajalauza is rooted in its Moorish past. To this day, this style of pottery remains as wildly popular as it was over 500 years ago. The Fajaluaza Ceramics Factory has remained in operation for almost that long and they're open for visiting tours.

How about a guitar? Spanish flamenco and classic guitar makers are some of the best in the world. Check out a street known for guitar shops called Cuesta Gomérez for an inside peek into the workshops of these master guitar makers.

Granadinos adhere to their own relaxed timelines and laid-back philosophies, so practice your Spanish language and attitude starting with “no pasa nada,” which means no problem. After that, it's all bueno. This magical land that sometimes feels like a relic from the past is vibrant and breathing an abundance of life into the travelers that are lucky enough to take a trip off of Spain's beaten path.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 14 August 2012 18:34

Laura Vladimirova is a freelance journalist currently based out of New York City. Years of long-term travel abroad have made her a passionate lifestyles writer. Her favorite subjects include art, people, archaeology, travel, cultural events, health, and green living. When she's not typing away at her keyboard or getting her passport stamped, she's probably enjoying the great outdoors.

Website: www.rosebudmag.com/LauraV

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