Try to spend some time walking around Old Granada. About 3 hours will allow you to see the most interesting sights. No reservations are needed to take a Guided Walking Tour through the historic heart of the city. Departures are daily at 10:30am from Plaza del Carmen by the town hall. The cost is 15€ ($24); children 13 and under go for free. For more information, call tel. 60-041-20-51.
Puerta de Elvira is the gate through which Ferdinand and Isabella made their triumphant entry into Granada in 1492. It was once a grisly place, with the rotting heads of executed criminals hanging from its portals. The quarter surrounding the gate was the Arab section (morería) until all the Arabs were driven out of the city after the Reconquista.
One of the most fascinating streets is Calle de Elvira; west of it the Albaicín (old Arab quarter) rises on a hill. In the 17th and 18th centuries, many artisans occupied the shops and ateliers along this street and those radiating from it. On Calle de Elvira is the Iglesia de San Andrés, begun in 1528, with a Mudéjar bell tower. Much of the church was destroyed in the early 19th century, but several interesting paintings and sculptures remain. Another old church in this area is the Iglesia de Santiago, constructed in 1501 and dedicated to St. James, patron saint of Spain. Built on the site of an Arab mosque, it was damaged in an 1884 earthquake. The church contains the tomb of architect Diego de Siloé (1495-1563), who did much to change the face of the city.
Despite its name, the oldest square is the Plaza Nueva, which, under the Muslims, was the site of the bridge of the woodcutters. The Darro was covered over here, but its waters still flow underneath the square (which in Franco's time was named the Plaza del General Franco). On the east side of the Plaza Nueva is the 16th-century Iglesia de Santa Ana, built by Siloé. Inside its five-nave interior you can see a Churriguesque reredos and coffered ceiling.
The corrida isn't really very popular here, but if you want to check out a bullfight anyway, they're usually limited to the week of the Fiesta de Corpus Christi from May 29 to June 6, or the Día de la Cruz (Day of the Cross) observed on May 3. There's also a fight on the last Sunday in September. Plaza de Toros, the bullring, is on Avenida de Doctor Olóriz, close to the soccer stadium. For more information, call tel. 95-827-24-51.
Strolling Andalusia's Most Romantic Street -- The most-walked street in Granada is Carrera del Darro, running north along the Darro River. It was discovered by the Romantic artists of the 19th century; many of their etchings (subsequently engraved) of scenes along this street were widely circulated, doing much to spread the fame of Granada throughout Europe. You can still find some of these engravings in musty antiques shops. Carrera del Darro ends at Paseo de los Tristes (Avenue of the Sad Ones), named for the funeral corteges that used to go by en route to the cemetery.
Bargain Pass -- The Bono Turístico Pass, costing 30€ ($48) and good for 1 week, allows culture vultures to see Granada's major attractions for one bargain price. You can visit not only the cathedral and the Alhambra, but Generalife, Monasterio Cartuja, and Monasterio de San Jerónimo. Passes are available at Caja Général de Ahorros de Granada, at Plaza Isabel la Católica, and the tourist office. For more information, call tel. 90-210-00-95; www.turgranada.es.
Andalusia's Greatest View -- It's a tradition at sunset to flock to the Mirador de San Nicolás for what is arguably the greatest view in Andalusia. Tiled rooftops drop to the Darro River. On the far side is the Alhambra, which, if the night is right, seems so red in the dying glow it almost appears in flames. In the distance loom the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevada. To reach this spot from Peso la Harina, head northwest along Calle Salvador until you reach Calle Abad. At this point turn left (west), which will lead into San Nicolás.
Walking to the Alhambra -- Many visitors opt for a taxi or the bus to the Alhambra, but some hardy souls enjoy the uphill climb from the cathedral at the Plaza de la Lonja (signs indicate the winding roads and the steps that lead to the Alhambra). If you decide to walk, enter the Alhambra via the Cuesta de Gomérez, which, although steep, is the quickest and shortest pedestrian route. It begins at the Plaza Nueva, about 4 blocks east of the cathedral, and climbs steeply to the Puerta de las Granadas, the first of two gates to the Alhambra. The second, another 183m (600 ft.) uphill, is the Puerta de la Justicia, through which 90% of visitors enter the Alhambra. Watch out for so-called "guides" milling around; they may just be interested in picking your pocket.
Saving Time & Hassles -- The Alhambra is the most-visited monument in Spain, receiving 3.2 million visitors a year, more than the Prado. Only 7,700 tickets (preestablished quota) are sold per day, at a rate of 350 per half-hour. Each ticket indicates the 30-minute block of time during which you're granted access. Make the Alhambra your first stop of the day, and arrive at 7am, when the lines begin to form. By 11am these lines will resemble something at Disney World.
You can avoid the long lines entirely by purchasing advance tickets through any worldwide branch of the BBVA (Banco Bilbao & Vizcaya; www.bbva.es). You'll pay a service charge of just .90€ ($1.50) on top of the official rate of 12€ ($19) each. You can visit a branch of the BBVA yourself or call tel. 90-222-44-60 for advance bookings.
Often the day's quota of tickets are exhausted by 1pm, forcing gatekeepers to turn many hopefuls away, especially during peak season in spring and summer. After the day's allotment of 7,000 tickets has been sold, the curators will begin selling tickets just to the gardens and the fortress. These are not particularly desirable, and some visitors feel they've been ripped off. The gardens to which visitors have access are relatively small and creations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And the fortress, a ruin that survives without many changes from the Arab era, is big, sprawling, and austere, without the joy and architectural verve of the palace, which is the most photographed, most charming, and most evocative part of the Alhambra.
Another way to avoid standing in line to buy tickets is to take a guided tour. Most of the travel agencies in Granada charge between 38€ and 45€ ($61-$71) for a 3- to 4-hour visit, per person. It's probably worth the extra few euros, since agencies prebuy huge blocks of Alhambra tickets, sparing you the inconvenience of waiting in line.
Tours can be arranged through a company we've found reliable: Central Servicio Turísticos, Calle Estribo 2 (tel. 90-246-20-46; www.graqnadaonline.es).
Rates for private, officially sanctioned guides who will purchase your ticket in advance are between 120€ ($192) and 140€ ($224) for a 3- to -4-hour tour. Central Servicio Turísticos can arrange one for you, although they will probably request an advance deposit, payable by credit card over the phone.
Renting an audio guide costs 3€ ($4.80).
Experts recommend spending at least 3 hours for even the briefest visit to the Alhambra.
The Gypsy Caves of Sacromonte
These inhabited Gypsy caves near the Albaicín are the subject of much controversy. Admittedly, they're a tourist trap, one of the most obviously commercial and shadowy rackets in Spain. Still, they can be a potent enough attraction if you follow some rules.
Once, thousands of Gypsies lived on Sacromonte (Holy Mountain) named for several Christians martyred here. However, many of the caves were heavily damaged by rain in 1962, forcing hundreds of occupants to seek shelter elsewhere. Nearly all the Gypsies remaining are involved in one way or another with tourism. (Some don't even live here -- they commute from modern apartments in the city.)
When evening settles over Granada, loads of visitors descend on these caves. From each one, you'll hear the rattle of castanets and the strumming of guitars, while everybody in the Gypsy family struts their stuff. Popularly known as the zambra, this is intriguing entertainment only if you have an appreciation for the grotesque. Whenever a Gypsy boy or girl comes along with genuine talent, he or she is often grabbed up and hustled off to the more expensive clubs. Those left at home can be rather pathetic in their attempts to entertain.
One of the main reasons for going is to see the caves themselves. If you're expecting primitive living, you may be in for a surprise -- many are quite comfortable, with conveniences like telephones and electricity. Often they're decorated with copper and ceramic items -- and the inhabitants need no encouragement to sell them to you.
If you want to see the caves, you can walk up the hill by yourself. Your approach will already be advertised before you get here. Attempts will be made to lure you inside one or another of the caves -- and to get money from you. Alternatively, you can book an organized tour arranged by one of the travel agencies in Granada. Even at the end of one of these group outings -- with all expenses theoretically paid in advance -- there's likely to be an attempt by the cave dwellers to extract more money from you. As soon as the zambra ends, hurry out of the cave as quickly as possible. Be warned: Many of our readers have been critical of these tours.
A visit to the caves is almost always included as part of the morning and (more frequently) afternoon city tours offered every day by such companies as Grana Visión (tel. 95-853-58-75; www.granavision.com or www.visitargranada.com). Night tours (when the caves are at their most eerie and evocative) are usually offered only to those who can assemble 10 or more people into a group. The cost ranges from 29€ to 35€ ($46-$56). This might have changed by the time of your visit, so phone a reputable tour operator such as Grana Visión to learn if any other options are available.
You can, of course, visit the cuevas on your own. The clubs below offer a package deal including transportation to and from your hotel and your first drink. Most of these caves are along Camino del Sacromonte. The best of these zambras include Cueva María La Canastera (Cueva Museo) at Camino del Sacromonte 89 (tel. 95-812-11-83), which charges an admission of 25€ ($40). Shows are at 10:30pm. Three other leading Sacromonte clubs include Cueva La Rocío, Camino del Sacromonte 70 (tel. 95-822-71-29), with shows at 10 and 11pm. Entrance, including bus and drink, is 24€ ($38). Venta El Gallo, Barranco de los Negroes 5 (tel. 95-822-24-92), offers shows at 9 and 11pm nightly, including the bus and a first drink for 25€ ($40). If you want dinner, too, the total cost is 55€ ($88). Finally, Cueva Los Tarantos, Camino del Sacromonte 9 (tel. 95-822-45-25), features shows at 9:30 and 11pm. Bus fare is included in the cover of 25€ ($40), which includes your first drink, or 20€ ($32) without transportation.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.