When asked to picture Granada, most people conjure visions of the Alhambra. But the city’s historic heart has always been the Albaicín (or Albayzín). For thousands of years, this hilltop was Granada. Only after the 16th century did development shift to lower areas – leaving the Albaicín’s medieval layout intact. Today the entire district is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a living complement to the Alhambra complex. Architectural remnants spanning over two thousand years mingle with structures from the Moorish Golden Age, while steep slopes offer the best views of the city.
Most of all, the Albaicín is a place to wander. Serpentine lanes glide between vines spilling down whitewashed walls. Sleepy plazas transform into swirls of color at sunset when locals gather with boomboxes, guitars, or drums. We’ve put together some of our favorite spots which can be explored in a few hours or stretched out over days. All sites are marked on our Google map.
The Darro River runs along a long canyon between the two hills of historic Granada. The Sabika hill is dominated by the Alhambra; the other forms the center of the Albaicín quarter.
The stretch along the Darro River, from the Plaza de Santa Ana towards Sacromonte, is one of the most scenic parts of Granada. Directly behind the waterfront, the slope begins. The first few streets contain mostly shops, with the residential areas beyond dominated by carmens, Granada’s traditional garden-centered homes. At the top of the hill, the area around the Mirador San Nicolás offers justly-famous views.
A few mini-bus lines serve the neighborhood, but walking is the best way to move around the warren. Thanks to the absence of parking, even residents don’t attempt much driving.
Although Iberian tribes occupied the hilltop at least as far back as the seventh century B.C.E., the oldest surviving structures are from the Roman era. A few spots have been excavated, but most of the Roman buildings were buried or scavenged once the empire collapsed and Visigoths moved into the peninsula. When Muslims invaded in 711, they focused more on the nearby settlement of Elvira to the west, and Granada shrank to a small Jewish community. The dissolution of Cordoba’s central government in the early 11th century destabilized the peninsula and opened the way for Granada’s dominance. Around 1013, a group of Berbers from North Africa took control of the area, and moved the community of Elvira en masse back to the more easily-defensible Albaicín.
Lower Albaicín & Along the Darro River
Walking along the river’s edge, with the palaces of the Alhambra looming overhead, is one of the city’s great pleasures. The Darro River emerges just past the exquisite Renaissance-era Plaza de Santa Ana, splashing along a lush culvert spanned by stone bridges. Medieval structures mingle with later churches and palaces, culminating in the Paseo de los Tristes, a park laid out in 1609 along an old funeral route. Plenty of restaurants and cafés make the area lively in the evening without quite hitting the point of feeling crowded.
Along the way, the Archaeological Museum of Granada holds a modest-sized collection of local artifacts dating from the Stone Age to the 16th century. The building itself – a 16th century palace – merits a visit, and entry is free for EU residents or €1.50 for everyone else.
One of the peninsula’s best-preserved bathhouse complexes also lies along the river. Generally referred to as El Bañuelo, a diminutive form of baño (“bath”), it’s also known as Baño del Nogal (“Bath of the Walnut”) or Hammam al-Yawza. Constructed in the 11th or 12th century, this was the largest of a dozen or so hammams in the city, and the only one to survive besides the Comares Baths in the Alhambra.
Besides providing a place for religious ablutions and promoting hygiene, the baths also served as hubs for socialization.
In most respects, hammams were modeled on the traditions and technology of Roman bathhouses; the main exception being that they didn’t include pools for submersion. Visitors would begin in the reception space, where a square basin of water invited relaxation. Today this area is open to the sky, but originally it featured a wooden ceiling with a cupola on top. After passing through the changing room, the route went through a series of steam rooms: cold, warm, and hot. The warm room is the largest of the three, but all of them feature octagonal and star-shaped openings to let in light and vent the steam. Builders typically re-used columns and capitals from older structures to support the horseshoe arches.
Carrera del Darro, 31. Daily 9-2:30 & 5-8:30 May 1-September 14, 10-5 September 15-April 30. Admission free with Andalusian Monuments or Dobla de Oro tickets.
A traditional teahouse just behind the baths has a balcony in the back with a surreal view of the roof structure. Tetería El Bañuelo: Calle Bañuelo, 5. Monday-Friday 3-10:30, Saturday-Sunday 12-10:30.
From the 11th century onwards, the population in Granada swelled with Moorish and Jewish refugees from Christian conquests on the rest of the Iberian peninsula. The Albaicín grew in both size and density, prompting the Nasrid kings to relocate their citadel to the neighboring Sabika hill. In its heyday, over 40,000 people lived in the Albaicín – four times its current population – and records document more than 500 registered professions. The hilltop’s evocatively-named neighborhoods included the Barrio of Delights, the Barrio of Solitary Worshippers, and the Barrio of the Falconers. Some think the latter’s Arabic name, ar-rabad al-bayyzin, eventually morphed into “Albayzín”.
Several residences provide a tantalizing glimpse of domestic architecture during the Nasrid period (1230-1492). Like the palaces in the Alhambra, they feature long central courtyards with pools surrounded by loggias and carved plasterwork. Boundaries between inside and outside dissolve, creating a sense of spaciousness. The sky’s reflection in the water can make it feel as if the edifice floats above the city, an effect enhanced by delicate columns and frilly arches. Given the ever-increasing density of the city, these quiet spaces must have felt like luxurious retreats.
Palacio Dar al-Horra
The Dar al-Horra is the most impressive of the three Nasrid-era residences. Although the pool is now empty, the rest of the structure is more complete than the other dwellings, making it easier to discern how the original inhabitants lived.
For a time, this building housed the formidable Aixa la-Horra (A’isha al-Hurra), who orchestrated the overthrow of her husband the king in favor of her son. She scolded the latter when he proved unable to stop the Catholic invasion in 1492; the Spanish refer to her as Madre de Boabdil, mother of Granada’s last Moorish king.
Callejón de las Monjas Albayzin. Daily 9-2:30 & 5-8:30 May 1-September 14, 10-5 September 15-April 30. Admission free with Andalusian Monuments or Dobla de Oro tickets.
Casa de Zafra
As an upper-class residence rather than a home for royalty, the Casa de Zafra is not as opulent as the Dar al-Horra. It’s possible to explore the rooms off the courtyard, although little of the original structure remains in them. The building now houses the Albaicín Interpretation Center with small exhibits and information on local history. Calle Portería Concepcíon, 8. Tuesday-Saturday 10-2 & 4-7, Sunday 10-2. Admission €3 (free on Sundays) or with Dobla de Oro ticket.
Casa Horno de Oro
Of the Albaicín’s three Nasrid-era residences open to the public, the Casa Horno de Oro is the most modest. Originally only a single story, the 15th century structure was incorporated into later expansions. Most of the building has been converted into a hotel, but the courtyard is open to visitors. Calle Horno del Oro, 14. Daily 9-2:30 & 5-8:30 May 1-September 14, 10-5 September 15-April 30. Admission free on Sundays or with Andalusian Monuments / Dobla de Oro tickets.
Less than three months after taking possession of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella began forcing non-Christians to convert or be expelled from the peninsula. Several rebellions prompted multiple sackings of the Albaicín by royal troops; by 1570, only about 4,000 males between the ages of 10 and 70 remained to be rounded up and imprisoned. In the ensuing centuries, Catholic monarchs focused new development on the lower areas of Granada, and the Albaicín reverted back to a near-wilderness of overgrown gardens. Over time, some of the city’s residents began to restore the hilltop properties as pastoral retreats.
Hidden behind walls, the new homes incorporated gardens and generally featured an open-air level on top. The name carmen evolved from the Arabic karm, meaning grapevine, into a colloquial term for a rustic dwelling with a garden.
Mirador San Nicolás & Mosque of Granada
No visit to Granada is complete without a stop to admire the Alhambra from the Albaicin. The Mirador San Nicolás is the most famous vantage point, especially at sunset.
Besides the view, this spot serves as the location for both the old San Nicolás church and the new Mosque of Granada. The latter was constructed in 2003 in a traditional style, complete with intricate muqarnas and tilework.
If the Mirador San Nicolás gets too crowded, plenty of other spots nearby also offer incredible views. We especially liked the multi-level terraces of the Placeta Cristo de las Azucenas.
Plaza Larga & Arco de las Pesas
Often described as the “heart of the Albaicín”, the Plaza Larga morphs according to the time of day and the weather. On Saturdays from 10-3, it hosts a bustling food and flower market. Nearby, the 11th century Arco de las Pesas (Gate of the Weights) got its name from the merchants who were hung there after trying to cheat customers by rigging their scales.
A number of carmens now offer lodging as B&Bs or small hotels, although those in the upper Albaicín involve plenty of walking up and down the hill. Staying closer to the river makes accessing the rest of the city easier without sacrificing atmosphere.
Our hotel, the Palacio de Santa Inés, felt peaceful and central. The beautifully-restored 16th century palace features Alhambra views, a great staff, and intriguing artwork courtesy of the art-dealer owner.
Andalusian Monuments & Dobla de Oro Tickets
Many of the sites mentioned above are covered by the “Andalusian Monuments” or “Dobla de Oro” tickets, both of which can be purchased on the Alhambra/Generalife website. The Andalusian Monuments ticket is an independent purchase, and requires reserving a specific day for visiting. The Dobla de Oro is a combination ticket with the Alhambra, and has the advantage of allowing access to the smaller monuments over a three-day span (the day before, the day of, and the day after the Alhambra visit).
Both offer tickets access to the Arab bathhouse El Bañuelo and two Nasrid-era residences (the Dar al-Horra and Horno de Oro), as well as the Corral del Carbón, a caravanseri (merchants hostel and exchange site) outside the Albaicín. However, the Andalusian Monuments ticket also includes the remains of the former Maristán hospital, while the Dobla de Oro includes the Casa de Zafra and the Cuarto Real palace (the latter is on the other side of the Alhambra).
Granada: A Pomegranate in the Hand of God is author Steven Nightingale’s love letter to the Albaicín, combining generous amounts of history and cultural insights with anecdotes about restoring a carmen and raising a young child in the district.
For a more general history of the city, we recommend Helen Rodgers & Stephen Cavendish’s City of Illusions: A History of Granada.
Our other posts on Moorish Spain include:
Islamic Architecture and Enlightenment in Córdoba’s Mezquita
The Mosques, Churches and Synagogues of Toledo