Upper Albaicin: This district (a long-ago Roman settlement) was the first area of Granada settled by the Moors, starting around 1030. It sits on a hill opposite the Alhambra and predates it by several hundred years. The cobbled streets and alleys are narrow (some barely one meter across) and wind up, down, and around like a maze. The houses are whitewashed, with small windows and tile roofs. Many are bare on the outside but built around pretty central courtyards, which you can sometimes glimpse through an open door or iron gate.
Unlike the lower Albaicin, which is dark and crowded with Arab-style tourist shops, the upper Albaicin feels more open and airy, with fewer tourists and better views. It’s a wonderful, exotic place to wander. Don’t worry too much about finding your way; just head uphill to get there and downhill to get back. (As long as you keep going downhill, you’ll eventually run into a main street you can find on a map.) Several bus lines run from Plaza Nueva or Gran Via de Colon up to the Albaicin if, like us, you’d rather ride uphill and walk back down. There are several miradors (lookout spots) in the Albaicin with unparalleled views of the Alhambra.
Some guidebooks make a big deal out of the risk of crime in the Albaicin. But don’t let that constrain you too much. In three weeks of roaming the narrow streets (generally as a pair) at all hours between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m., we never had any problems or felt unsafe. If you’re worried, just stick to streets with more lighting or other pedestrians or cars.
Centro de Interpretacion del Sacromonte: A wonderful newish museum that shows the traditional cave houses, crafts, culture, and microclimate of the Sacromonte region, home of the gitano (gypsy) residents of Granada for many years. The Sacromonte district is as distinctive in its way as the Alhambra or the Albaicin. It’s an area of scrubby hills just above the city that is covered in large agave plants (with great spiky, prehistoric-looking stalks), prickly pear cacti, and herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage).
When you scan the hillsides, small whitewashed patches on the slopes, bare holes, or woven fencing, chairs, and other items outside signal the site of a cave home built into the hill. Some have a facade of white-washed stone added onto the front—with a room or two and a patio—while the other rooms (small, with arched ceilings and white wash) go back into the hillside.
The cave houses, or cuevas, cluster in three barrancos (ravines) and along the main road, Camino del Sacromonte. This part of Granada is quiet. It feels very close to the green terraced hills on the other side of the Darro River, which stretch out behind the Alhambra complex. It also feels very far away from the bustle and noise of the central city below.
The museum (also called the Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte) does a great job of explaining the culture and living patterns of the area. It’s open from 10 to 2 and then later in the afternoon, but go in the morning for the best light. It’s well worth the 5 euro entrance fee for the views alone, as well as to learn about another fascinating aspect of this varied city.
El Monasterio de La Cartuja: The church at this monastery is the most riotous, eye-popping example of Baroque style we’ve ever seen. Whether you like that style or not (Chris generally doesn’t) is immaterial; this is such a well done example that it’s dazzling nonetheless. We wish we could show you pictures, but photography isn’t allowed there, so you’ll have to see it for yourself.
The sheer volume of carving, gilding, painting, plasterwork, marble, statuary, and marquetry in the church—and the masterful integration of those various media—will make you gasp out loud. We’ve never seen anything like it. The carved and painted wooden figures of saints and angels are especially beautiful and lifelike.
Other things of interest at the monastery include a collection of fairly disturbing paintings of monks being martyred (which the brothers got to contemplate while dining together) and some astounding trompe l’oeil wall paintings. Immense amounts of various artistic skills went into the making of this place. The Carthusians were an extremely ascetic order, subsisting on a minimal diet, following an almost total vow of silence, and spending most of their time in solitary meditation rather than labor. We can only think that this wonderously ornate church was meant to show them that the beauties of heaven were worth their suffering below.
The monastery is an easy ride on the #8 bus (or the “C” bus on weekdays) from Gran Via de Colon and costs a few euros to enter.
Casa de Los Tiros: This 16th-century house is a very cool, little-advertised site. It’s located on Calle Pavanares, which comes out of Plaza de Isabel (the one with the big statue of the queen in her flowing robe, surrounded by fountains). The casa is a museum of local culture with changing exhibits, but the real attraction is the house itself, which belonged to a wealthy and important family.
The opening hours are erratic and the signage is minimal, so go past it whenever you can and hope you get lucky. Look for a brown stone building with carved soldiers on the facade and battlements on top, opposite the Plaza Padre Suarez. If the big wooden door is open, go in and make a left up the stairs (it’s free).
Upstairs are grand portraits of Spain’s main 15th- and 16th-century kings and queens and rooms with some wonderful tiles floors. But the piece de resistance is the grand reception room at the front with an intricately carved and painted wooden ceiling from 1531, including faces in profile. The walls sport remnants of fresco paintings from the same time, including a well-preserved one of a soldier and another of Hercules swinging a club (in the adjoining room). Don’t miss the beautifully carved doors in the next room that lead into the grand salon. All designed to impress visitors with the wealth and power of the owner. This is an almost-hidden jewel.
Museo Arqueologico (Casa de Castril): This museum on Carrera del Darro is an interesting place to spend an hour or two. (It’s free for EU citizens, and 1.50 euros for others.) The museum contains a small collection of artifacts from a wide range of periods: paleolithic, neolithic, copper and bronze ages, Roman, Iberian, and Moorish. They reinforce just how long people have lived in the Granada area.
But the best part of the museum may be the house itself—a late 16th century mansion built by the Zafra family (heirs of Ferdinand and Isabella’s secretary). The view from the open courtyard of the house up to the Alhambra is especially nice.
Palacio de Dar al-Horra: Talk about your hidden jewels! We only knew about this amazing 15th-century Moorish house because our Spanish teacher told us to go. (It’s listed on the standard tourist map, but there’s no description there or in any of the guidebooks.) The house is bare of furnishings, but the fragments of Moorish carving and especially the painted wooden ceilings have survived their 600 years surprisingly well.
Best of all, rather than just wandering on the ground floor, you can go up several flights of stairs to see the upper rooms, including a wonderful cupola/sleeping porch at the very top of the house with 360-degree views of the city, including the Alhambra, the mountains that surround Granada on all sides, and the large flat plain on which it sits. This is like a tiny piece of the Alhambra that almost no visitors know about.
The palacio is only open from 10:30 to 2 and isn’t easy to find, but it’s worth the effort. From the pleasant Plaza de San Miguel Bajo in the lower Albaicin (a stop on bus #32), follow the maze-like Callejon de Gallo along winding graffiti-filled walls and past a small garden, then a few more twists and turns until you see a signpost for the palacio next to a nondescript building. Look for a brown door with a buzzer around the corner from the signpost. If it’s open, go on in (don’t be dissuaded by the handwritten “Privado” sign on one of the inner doors). There’s no charge to view the house.
Cathedral and Capilla Real: The handover of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 marked the end of the centuries-long Christian reconquest of Moorish Spain. As such, the city was especially beloved by them and their grandson, Carlos I. In the 1520s, he ordered that the former grand mosque in central Granada be converted into a cathedral. Work continued sporadically until the 18th century.
The resulting space is huge and open and austere, with vast white Corinthian columns and drop-plaster fretwork ceilings and small, plain windows up high. All of the stone is painted white, which feels colder and starker than the warm brownish-yellow stone of Malaga’s cathedral. The side chapels are dark, so the colors of the gilded altars and paintings are muted. The only signs of life are in the center of the great space, where two fantastical organs flank the aisle to the main altar-in-the-round. Here, everything is a riot of carving and gilding on the white stone. Still, it feels very formal and 17th/18th century.
We didn’t like it much. (Melissa’s verdict: “This is a really lame cathedral.”) But it may be worth seeing for its historical value.
The royal chapel (Capilla Real) next door is more interesting. It’s the resting place of Ferdinand and Isabella and their family. Besides big marble tombs with effigies, you can see their lead coffins in the crypt underneath. It’s odd, and slightly creepy, to think that those boxes contain the remains of 500-year-old kings and queens.
The chapel also has some especially well-carved statuary; a huge and amazing painted iron grille that looks just like carved wood; and Isabella’s crown and sceptre, 1496 prayer book, and collection of Flemish religious paintings, including some lovely works by Hans Memling (one of Chris’s favorites). There’s also—a rare thing in Spain—a pamphlet in English for about 60 cents that explains what you’re seeing. (Alas, no photography allowed.)