This is the first post in a series dedicated to our road trip in Andalucia. For 9 days we traveled over 1500km in Southern Spain hitting the following places: the Alpujarras, Granada, Ronda, Jerez de la Fronteira, Costa del Sol, Malaga.
South of Spain has been on my bucket list for a while now. After visiting Barcelona, Seville and Madrid, a good road trip to discover more of the country was in order. We had started planning by booking flights and some accommodations about a month before we took off. Then things at David’s work came up and we were close to canceling the trip. Just three days before our flight to Malaga, he got the green light to go and it was a mad scramble to finish planning.
Keep reading for lessons and tips on traveling in Southern Spain.
First stop: Granada.
How to get tickets to Alhambra and Generalife
The main attraction in Granada is the exquisite Alhambra, a sprawling Moorish estate with palaces and gardens dating back to the 13th century. Rules around entry are pretty strict. When you buy a ticket, you specify a time slot for the Nasrid Palaces. And you must show up at that time to gain entry. Then you have either the morning or the afternoon (depending on your time slot), to visit the other ticketed areas: Generalife Gardens and the Alcazaba. The rest of the grounds are free.
Tickets go on sale three months in advance. By the time we planned this trip, all the tickets were sold out. There are guided tours you can purchase that also gain entry and they too were sold out. Some more research revealed yet another option: the Granada Card. Along with tickets to the Alhambra, it also gave us entry to other monuments and museums as well as 5 rides on public transport. We bought it online and booked our time slot for the Palaces.
We spent about 4 hours visiting the Alhambra. Our time slot for the Nasrid Palaces was early in the morning, so we did that first and then spent the rest of the morning touring the rest, stopping to have a packed lunch in Generalife Gardens with a view.
The whole site is impressive. The fact that something that large and expansive has withstood the test of time, over 800 years is amazing. I was left breathless by the coloured tiles covering the floors and walls, the honeycomb coved ceiling allowing in streams of light, and archways plastered in beautiful Arabic script. The Gardens were beautifully manicured and curated with flowers and trees in bloom. The whole time the addictive scent of orange blossom trees swirled in the air. The perfect escape from the hustle of the city. Lastly, the watch towers in the Alcazaba had the best views over Granada and the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Take a free walking tour
As soon as we parked our car, we joined Feel The City Free Walking Tour at Plaza Isabel. Our tour guide went into the history of the city, from the Moorish rule to the Catholic Monarchy. He brought us to notable places like Alcaiceria (the old silk market), Bib-Rambla, the Cathedral, Albayzin (the old Arab Quarter), a quiet park with a view of the Alhambra before finishing in Plaza Nueva.
He talked about how Christopher Columbus was poor and was denied 3 times when seeking out sponsors for his voyage to North America. He told us that a store of matches started the fire that burned the original silk market to the ground. Go figure! And he said you can still pay 600 euros to mark your name in bull’s blood and olive oil on the university walls when you graduate with honours.
I’m a huge fan of free walking tours and they rarely disappoint.
Pay attention to national holidays
We happened to arrive in Granada during the Dia de la Cruz (Festival of the Cross). That meant the city was alive with festivities. This must be one of the best times to visit. A few squares were decorated with crosses covered in flowers. Free Flamenco shows were performed around the city. Many women dressed in beautiful traditional gowns dominated the sidewalks. We loved watching the performances from toddlers who could barely stay in line, to women who commanded the performances with fierce shoe tapping steps and passionate glares.
The downside to arriving during a holiday (and not knowing it) was that things were closed. Including the Tourist office! By the time we got to the office to pick up our Granada Card, it was closed at 2pm due to the Holiday. We needed the card to enter the Alhambra the following day at 9:30am. But the tourist office would not open until 10am. Thus we thought we’d loose our spots.
After some running around trying to find an answer, we were assured that as soon as we picked up the Granada card we could go to the office at the Alhambra and change our reserved time slot. It worked out but not without some panic, frustration and anger. I don’t think it makes sense that a tourist office would close for most of the day, even on a holiday.
But we learned our lesson to always check holiday hours.
Respect siesta times
Siesta is part of the culture and a necessity during the scorching summer months. We quickly moved to Spanish time, often eating lunch at 1 or 2 and dinner at 8 or 9pm. On the first day, we went full force. We toured the city and saw as much as possible, soldiering through siesta time. But by 6pm, we needed a break before going back out to dinner.
That was a mistake.
The next day, we took our break along with all the Spanish during siesta time. We returned to the streets around 6pm to see the city come to life. People were having drinks in the square with family and friends. Flamenco shows and other festival activity were picking back up. Shops were open again for business. And you could sit at a café, and order churros.
I quickly learned if you miss the morning time slot for ordering churros, you have to wait until 5pm to order them again.
Stroll (or jog) through Sacromonte
This area of houses and Flamenco bars carved out of the hillside is a mecca for flamenco shows and nightlife. Since we had our fill during the day with free shows, we skipped this part of town until the morning where we went for a challenging, hilly run along the cobbled roads. If we had more time in Granada, I would have loved to check this area out at night. It also offers beautiful views of the Alhambra.
Eat and drink everything you can
Part of why I love Spain so much is the food. It’s hard to go wrong anywhere you go.
The best part about Granada is when you order a drink, you will get a plate of tapas. This was the best way to sample different foods that we otherwise wouldn’t even try. Like rice cooked in squid ink.
Here are some of the places we loved:
Los Diamantos: we ordered a variety of fried fish and beer among the locals at the crazy lunch hour.
El Trillo: For a lovely tapas dinner with a view of the Alhambra
Churros are a must when in Spain, and the best place to get them was at Gran Café Bib-Rambla (but as I mentioned, only for breakfast or afte 5pm).
Also sipping tea at a teteria, a Moroccan style tea house, is another great place to relax and take a break. Many also offer shisha along with a large variety of teas.
We loved Granada and it felt like a vibrant, fun city with lots to do and explore. We really could have used another sunny day there to dive deeper into the rich culture and culinary treasures it has to offer. However, with lots of ground to cover and more to explore in Andalucia we were on to the next place. Stay tuned for that post.
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Have you ever been to Granada? Did I miss anything you would add? Let me know in the comments.