This Ancient City in Spain Is Like a Tapas-Filled Fairytale

Oh, and the tapas are often free.

a woman standing in a rose garden looking at a castle
The Alhambra is truly something out of a dream. | Christian Langenegger/EyeEm/Getty Images
The Alhambra is truly something out of a dream. | Christian Langenegger/EyeEm/Getty Images
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After a while, most cities begin to feel the same. That will never happen in Granada, which easily sits at the top of the list of Spain's most underrated cities. Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas in the country's laid-back southern region of Andalusia, Granada offers a cityscape that echoes across time with its unique fusion of narrow, classically European cobblestone streets and North African whitewashed architecture. Looming dreamlike over it all is its iconic castle, Alhambra, which will make you feel like you’re in a fairytale no matter where you turn.

Aesthetically, culinarily, and culturally, Granada is about as distinct as places come, and—speaking from experience, after living there for a few years and spending the following years dreaming of a return—its easygoing, decadent lifestyle will leave you wishing you could live within its magic forever. There are few other places in the world where the good life—one of delicious food, incredible art and architecture, ancient history, lively nightlife, and a generally warm atmosphere—is so readily available. Here's where to find all of that and more.

How to get to Granada

Most travelers head straight for Barcelona or Madrid, while Granada—with its more diminutive population of 230,000 and location further afield—remains an enigma. Mysterious though it may be, it’s still easy to reach from Spain’s better-known cities via air, train, or car. If you can, I highly recommend renting a car in Barcelona and making your way down the Mediterranean Riviera by way of Valencia.

people walking down a narrow European street
Wander the narrow streets of the Albaicín. | grahamheywood/Getty Images

Each of Granada’s neighborhoods is a unique experience

Much of your impression of Granada will be formed by where you stay. The 13th-century city, on the whole, has a pretty consistent vibe, but several neighborhoods offer distinct experiences.

Centro, essentially the downtown region, is thrumming with life. Here, you’ll find hip shops, plenty of food, and two architectural hubs: the impressive Granada Cathedral and lively Plaza Nueva.

The Albaicín (or Albayzin) is arguably the most popular district among the younger backpacking crowd. With its Moorish architecture, beautiful vistas, and delightful array of restaurants, bars, and Arab markets, there’s plenty to see and do. It is extraordinarily hilly though, so physical fitness is an unofficial prerequisite.

Sacromonte sits on the hill opposite Alhambra castle (read: fantastic views) and you can stay in some pretty amazing cave houses and hotels. While there’s a smattering of bars offering flamenco, there isn’t a whole lot in the way of entertainment in this area, so be prepared to trek into town when you want to get lively.

Tucked quietly beneath the castle is Realejo, an old Jewish district that is, for the most part, quiet and residential. Still, Realejo offers some great hole-in-the-wall restaurants and opportunities to hear multicultural musical performances.

Meanwhile, this writer’s favorite region is a nameless expanse that includes the upper part of Centro up to Gran Via and the lower hip of the Albaicín. Let’s call this the University District, as it is where, as you may have guessed, the University of Granada is. Here, you’ll find a slew of great restaurants, bars, clubs, and other fun offerings. A good rule: Anywhere between Plaza de la Trinidad and Calle Elvira is going to be rad.

a tree lined lane leading to a hillside city
Surprises hide around every corner. | Tatiana Popova/Shutterstock

Venture into every nook and cranny

Granada is relatively easy to explore. You can pretty much walk anywhere in town in under 30 minutes, and the local bus service is relatively straightforward. True, it is easy to get lost in some of the older, less organized districts—the streets of which can be winding and narrow, pretty typical of Europe's ancient cities—but you’ll enjoy disappearing into the charming streets and alleys, and can always count on emerging onto a main thoroughfare after not too long. Stop for food and refreshment often—you will not be disappointed.

Everyone should spend time unwinding at the Hammam Al Ándalus, tucked into the hill beneath the castle. Established in a series of Arab cave baths first constructed during the Middle Ages, this spa not only boasts a gorgeous design that draws heavily from the intricate mosaics and architecture of North Africa, but offers a unique experience as you move through its various pools—warm, hot, then ice-cold—before enjoying a steam, massage, and scrub down. It is a supremely tranquil place.

There are great shopping opportunities all around, but I suggest checking out the Arab markets at the foot of the Albaicín, as well as the spice and tea stalls just on the other side of Gran Via behind the Catedral Granada. Here, you’ll often also have the opportunity to watch street performers: flamenco guitarists with dancer accompanists, jugglers and acrobats, puppet shows, and other entertainers are everywhere.

According to Daniel Galán, tourism executive at the Granada City Council and travel blogger at El Viaje del Mapache, there are many ways to get off the typical tourist track. A guided tour of Granada’s LGBTQ+ sites provides a look at an often underappreciated aspect of the local culture, and the Granada City of Rock Route will bring you to a string of local musical performances at a variety of venues—bars like Candela or Amador, clubs like Planta Baja, music stores, and more—offering everything from traditional flamenco to Irish pub music, EDM, and punk rock.

Take a day trip into the Sierra Nevadas

If you’re looking to venture out of town, about an hour away in the nearby foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, you’ll find a rural village called Soportújar that's known for its connections to witchcraft. Don’t be afraid: It’s a welcoming little place where you can snap photos of Pagan statues, enjoy the local eats, and take in the pleasant, quiet atmosphere of small-town Spain.

Speaking of the Sierra Nevadas: Fans of winter sports will find a variety of downhill opportunities a short drive into the mountains southeast of Granada. Continue another hour south, and you’ll end up at popular coastal towns like Málaga or Salobreña. And a bit further down from there, you’ll hit Gibraltar and the delightful town of Tarifa, from which you can see the lights of Morocco at night.

people walking past restaurants and diners on a narrow European street
Free tapas. Need we say more? | Luis Overlander/Shutterstock

The world’s best tapas are everywhere—and they’re free

When I arrived in Granada, I had just started my career in earnest and had no money. Luckily, it turned out to be the perfect place for a go at the impoverished writer’s life thanks to one magical word: tapas. Yes, Granada is the true home of tapas. You will find them all over Spain and in hip neighborhoods around the world, but Granada is the one place where they do them right, by which I mean delicious and free.

Order a drink—a two-euro caña, or a tubo of the region’s light Cruz Campo beer, or a glass of wine, or even a soda—and you’ll get a small plate of food. “Primera tapa!” the waiter calls back to the kitchen. At the least, you’ll receive a small bowl of olives and some bread topped with melted cheese—Spanish olives, Spanish bread, and Spanish cheese, mind you, all incredible—but it can get much more extravagant. A seafood stew, perhaps, or some slices of roasted pork in gravy.

You finish your drink and order another: “Segunda tapa!” the waiter calls out. And before you’ve even had a chance to finish your first plate, an entirely different dish appears. It goes on like this, and after three or four little beers, you’re buzzing and full.

Virtually every restaurant provides free tapas. I have no idea how they make any money, and maybe they don’t, but it is how it is, so don’t freak out when free food arrives—it is genuinely gratis. A few places you need to check out: Bodegas Castañada, located just off Gran Via at the top of El Centro (also a great place to buy and fill a leather wine bag); Poe in the heart of El Centro, where the surly British owner is a sweetheart once you get him talking; Taberna La Tana, an Albaicín spot with Anthony Bourdain creds; and El Bar de Fede—tell Fede that Nicholas, the American writer who used to live upstairs, sent you.

For non-tapas times when your appetite requires something heartier, Restaurante Albahaca, tucked on a charming backstreet of Realejo, has a great “lunch special,” three courses of Spanish meat or seafood dishes for just 12.50 euro. El Mercader in El Centro’s Plaza Nueva, meanwhile, provides a fantastic dining experience of delicious Spanish cuisine and first-rate service. Make reservations in both cases.

If you’re just in it for drinks and atmosphere, check out the delightful, literary-themed hole-in-the-wall Bohemia Jazz Café in the University District. Its bookshelves, portraits of classic actors and musicians, and various pianos teleport you to a different era. Or hit lively street pub Bar Candela on the border between El Centro and Realejo, the sort of vibrant place where you meet everyone and make new friends.

And if after a few drinks you find yourself feeling rowdy and ready to dance, get up to no good at the aforementioned Planta Baja or Boogaclub. Load up on the aforementioned tapas before you go—you’ll need the energy to stay up all night.

a large castle in front of snow-capped mountains
The Alhambra comprises gardens, palaces, and a fortress. | WillSelarep/Getty Images

Visit one of Spain’s greatest cultural treasures

Food alone is a perfectly fine reason to visit Granada, but arguably the reason to go is the Alhambra. Constructed over a 500-year period by the Romans, then the Arabs, and then the Catholics (but mostly the Arabs), it is a true masterpiece of (primarily) medieval Islamic architecture, with sophisticated geometry and astronomical inspiration.

The Alhambra is one of those experiences that is emblematic of Spain, its history and architecture representing the overlapping destinies of so many cultures, figures, and movements. So much has happened here: It was the last holdout of the Muslim Emirs when the Christian Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula came to an end. It’s where Isabella and Ferdinand established what we now know as modern Spain, and where, in 1492, they gave Christopher Columbus the nod to go and do his infamous New World thing.

The castle consists of three main sections: the looming Alcázar Fortress, the intricate geometric kaleidoscope of the Nasrid Palaces, and the Generalife Gardens. You can see all three for just 14 euros, but be warned that they do have a limited number of tickets per day, so it’s usually best to get yours well in advance.

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Nick Hilden is a travel, fitness, arts, and fiction writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Health, the Daily Beast, Vice, Greatist, and more. You can follow his weird adventures via Instagram or Twitter.