The Alhambra is the most visited of all the palaces in Granada. It’s also an important part of Spain’s heritage. With ornate Arabic stuccoes, stunning views of the Sierra Nevada and Valpairíso Valley, and rich insights into Granada’s past. But many feel put off by the queues and crowds, with the Alhambra attracting two million tourists every year.
Fortunately, there are quieter ways to explore Granada’s more distant history. The cooling patios of the Dobla del Oro, the views from the Albaicín’s Miradors (viewpoints), and the cave dwellings of Sacromonte village are all essential to Granada’s history and culture.
Be warned that exploring these isn’t for the faint of heart. The original part of Granada was built on hills and you’ll need to navigate steep alleyways and staircases. But you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views and rich insights into Granada’s culture.
This guide walks you from the Alhambra through Granada’s Moorish past, helping you get away from the crowds and explore the city’s rich history. Read on to learn more about the Moorish sites, houses and palaces in Granada.
The Alhambra: The grandest of all the palaces in Granada, let alone Spain
“Such is the Alhambra; – a Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land; an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West; an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people who conquered, ruled, flourished, and passed away.”
The American writer Washington Irving wrote the above account. He lived within the Alhambra’s walls during the early 19th century. This great red Moorish palace is now a wonder to all who look up at it from the Granada. Others flock to its palaces, towers and gardens to marvel at its stuccoes and interiors.
The Alhambra housed Islamic rulers up until Isabella’s and Ferdinand’s reign, during the late 15th century. Its main spectacle is the three Palacios Nazaries (Nasrid Palaces), with intricate Arabic stuccoes and fountains fed by the six-kilometre Acequia Real (Royal Channel).
You’ll need to book to see the palaces and you must arrive at the set time on your ticket. Fortunately, queues move fast. Near the end of the tour, look out for a plaque dedicated to Washington Irving. This marks the deserted ‘mysterious chambers’ that he claimed as his own during his stay at the Alhambra.
You don’t have to queue to see the Alhambra’s two remaining attractions. From the Nasrid Palaces, you can climb up to the top of the Alcazaba towers offering panoramic views of Granada and the Sierra Nevada. And you can wander through the tall cypress trees of the Generalife gardens, with plenty of shade for escaping the heat.
A free public path winds up the hill between the Generalife and Alhambra. It’s called the Cuesta del Rey Chico and it gives a good view of the walls of the Alhambra.
Note, the interiors of the Alhambra can get nippy so be sure to bring an extra layer.
The Dobla de Oro: Four palaces in Granada well worth seeing
Out of the 8,500 visitors to the Alhambra each day, only a select handful visit the Alhambra’s charming little sisters: the Dobla de Oro. These four Granada palaces offer many similar architectural features and decorations as the Alhambra. Yet they don’t have the crowds. €5 gets you combined entry to all three.
From the foot of Cuesta del Rey Chico, you can first visit El Bañuelo, the Arab Hammam baths, a national monument since 1919. The baths display Roman, Visigoth and Caliphate architecture across their three spacious rooms. Further up the road, into the Albaicín, is the Casa Horno de Oro, an example of a typical Moorish house. From the patio, you can look up to see stuccoes as intricate as those in the Alhambra’s Nasrid Palaces. But the most spectacular of the three and further into the Albaicín is the Palacio Dar al-Harra, formerly the home of Sultan Boabdil’s mother, Aixa. After the conquest of the Alhambra, Queen Isabella I of Castile handed this over to the nearby Santa Isabel la Real monastery. Its status wasn’t revoked until the early 20th century.
Each building has a balcony overlooking a patio with a central pond, reminiscent of the larger courtyards in the Alhambra. It’s restful to stand and gaze out from the balconies and imagine how the ancient Moors used to live their lives.
The final building, known as Corral del Carbon, is free to enter and is an important part of Granada’s cultural heritage. Built by Muhammed V, this ancient trading shelter and warehouse is near to the cathedral. As you enter, you’ll pass by a horseshoe arch with ornate stalactite-like features, known as mocárabes, hanging from it. Inside, you can find antique shops, craft workshops and a tourist information centre.
Granada from Mirador San Miguel Alto: see the palaces in Granada from up high
Another way of seeing the Alhambra is from a distance and plenty of viewpoints offer a view of the Alhambra, with vistas of the Sierra Nevada behind. The most famous of these is Mirador San Nicolas, where throngs of tourists gather for photo and selfie opportunities, whilst locals peddle bracelets, handbags and jewellery from rugs on the floor. Meanwhile, the occasional busker sits on the low wall, strumming on his Flamenco guitar, while his comrades clap to keep the beat.
Not as many climb to Mirador San Miguel Alto, where a lonely whitewashed monastery stands vigil over the Moorish Albaicín quarter. From here, you can gaze out over all the palaces in Granada, from those in the Albaicín right over to the Alhambra.
It’s a steep climb up a concrete stairway to the top, with motivational messages scrawled on the stairs and air that freshens as you rise above the city. At the top, visitors dangle their feet off the high stone wall as they gaze out in silence at Granada, the Alhambra, the Albaicín, the ancient Moorish fortifications, and the vast valley stretching out beyond.
Behind stands the lonely church, La Ermita de San Miguel Alto. This opens once a year on Saint Michael’s Day for a procession, when Albaicín locals carry a picture of Saint Michael up to the top. Here once stood the Torre del Aceituno – the largest Nasrid tower of the Moorish fortifications. This was demolished in 1671 to be replaced by the church.
After the climb, most follow the same path down. Instead, you can take the path behind the back of the church, following it all the way around to Sacromonte village where people live in caves.
Note: you can find more about San Miguel Alto in this post.
Sacromonte and the Caves Museum
No one quite knows who built the cave houses in Sacromonte. Some say it was the inhabitants of the Albaicín after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The locals of Sacromonte attest that these caves are a lot older and used to house the slaves who constructed the Alhambra and other palaces in Granada. During the 19th century, gipsies, bohemians and Flemish artists moved into the dwellings and they’ve lived there ever since.
People tend to visit Sacromonte from the main road, where most of the Airbnb accommodation lies. Not so many venture further up where the dwellings become less decorated and more rustic. The path from San Miguel Alto will lead you right into the heart of Sacromonte. There you can meet the local villagers and get a glimpse into how they live their lives. If you’re lucky, you might even get one of them to play you Flamenco guitar.
From Sacromonte village, it’s only a five-minute walk to the Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte or Sacromonte Cave Museum. This contains ten whitewashed cave dwellings with descriptions of how the Sacromonte people used to live. There’s also a lot about Andalusian culture in here, including an entire section on Flamenco.
In fact, Granada has its own style of Flamenco known as the Zambra. This dance became prohibited during the Spanish Inquisition, but the Sacromonte Gypsies kept it alive. Now, you can see live shows in Sacromonte, including in the Venta El Gallo bar just above the main road. These whitewashed Flamenco bars that are burrowed into the rock keep the Zambra tradition alive today.
From the main road, you can take the C2 bus back to Granada’s city centre.
Note: I wrote more about Sacromonte in this post.
Getting to Granada
Granada has its own airport with regular routes via easyJet from the UK. You can also get there via train or bus from the major Spanish cities. From Malaga by bus, the journey takes around two hours. If coming by plane, taxis run on set fares into the city centre, depending on where you’re travelling to. This costs between €24 and €34. Local buses run frequently and reliably within Granada. Granada Bus has an app that tells you when buses are due and can help plan routes.
One of the most authentic ways of experiencing Granada is to book an Airbnb in either Sacromonte or the Albaicín. Note that it might be a steep climb up to your accommodation and it may not be accessible by bus. Luxury travellers might also choose to stay in the Washington Irving Hotel just outside the Alhambra.
Thanks for reading my post at Being a Nomad about palaces in Granada. Have you visited any of the attractions listed above? If so, what did you think? It would be great to hear your thoughts.
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