Albaicín and El Darro, Sightseeing in Granada
Albaicín is one of the most charming neighbourhoods in all of Andalusia. This old Moorish quarter, located near the famous Alhambra, is a tangle of winding cobblestone streets, small shops and hidden restaurants. As we walked through its hilly pathways, we felt transported back into a different era.
There weren’t that many tourists on its streets, although it was still holiday high season in Andalusia. We were able to wander the Albaicín neighbourhood in some solitude and soak in the charming medieval atmosphere.
History of Albaicín
The barrio Albaicín is the Medieval heart of Granada. This UNESCO World Heritage neighbourhood dates back to the 13th Century when Granada was under the Nasrid rule. Like all medieval townships, it has winding cobblestone streets and narrow city blocks. “Medieval urban sprawl”, some scholars call such towns.
Such “sprawl” is characterised by a disorganised but charming network of roads and apartment blocks, mixing spaces for living and working. This barrio reminded me much of Lisbon’s Alfama District. Another old neighbourhood with tightly packed low houses and narrow pavements. Historical urban sprawl these places might be, but today they are charming, lively areas enjoyed by visitors and locals alike!
Walking around Albaicín
An excellent place to start the walk into Albaicín is at the Gate of Elvira. Its a simple Medieval gate that was the main entrance into Granada during the city’s rule under the Moors. From here, walking down Calle Alhacaba will take you into the winding mesh of streets that is Albaicín.
On the day we ventured into the neighbourhood, it was sunny, with a fresh breeze blowing through. In other words, it was perfect weather. The light was beautiful, casting a warm glow on the buildings around us.
Architecture in the Albaicín
We much enjoyed wandering the streets of the Albaicín, in the shade of the low buildings. The buildings here were not high, mostly between two to three stories. They had a straightforward design, most of them were plain, whitewashed blocks with terracotta roofs. Despite their simplicity, there was a tranquil beauty to the neighbourhood. Occasionally, we would encounter a building painted in a different earth-toned colour, standing out brilliantly against the whites and greys of its surroundings.
Courtyards in the Albaicín
While walking through Albaícin, we ended up in various hidden courtyards, sheltered by residential buildings. I was quick to conclude that the courtyards were there because of the barrio’s Islamic history.
This is because courtyards are a popular architectural feature in Islamic homes and cities. I don’t know this for sure – Granada’s Christian rulers could have added them when they conquered the city. Nevertheless, they added a sense of specialness to Albaícin.
Mirador de Los Carvajales
We accidentally stumbled upon the Mirador de Los Carvajales without really looking for it. We tend not to plan our walking pathways, preferring to simply wander around until we feel we’ve covered most of an area.
Generally, we do find most impressive sights this way, without the stress of trying to orient ourselves with GPS, which is difficult in such small, squiggle streets. However, we almost missed this one. Luckily, we encountered a Dutch couple while wandering around the labyrinthine streets, who told us about it. They said it was an incredible place, so we had to go and see it for ourselves.
It was a charming courtyard. In the centre was a long, still, pond lined with trees and ahead, the Alhambra rising before us. There were very few people here so we could enjoy this incredible view of the Alhambra in perfect tranquillity. There was also something theatrical about how the fortress rose out over us and how the pond perfectly reflected the fort walls.
Mirador de San Nicolás
Not to be missed of course is the Mirador de San Nicolás. We came here on our first full day in Granada, specifically, so we could get our bearings. Walking to the Mirador de San Nicolás through Albaicín was a great way to get acquainted with the neighbourhood.
We got to experience quite a bit of the vibe of this barrio just trying to find the Mirador. It’s not that hard to find – just keep walking up and up and sooner rather than later, you’ll start seeing groups of people trying to get somewhere. They are all headed for the Mirador de San Nicolás. It is a bit confusing at the top because of all the winding streets and cul de sacs, but we found it in the end.
The pay off was worth it. Here, we got our first majestic view of Alhambra, one of the jewels of Andalusia! The garden fortress stretched out before us in an incredible panorama, arising out of the lush green Mediterranean forest around it. In the distance, the dark blue shapes of the mountains of Southern Spain rose over the horizon.
History of Granada
One of the great cities of the Middle-Ages, Granada still retains its flair from the 11th Century. As we walked through the city, we could feel its multi-layered and multi-cultural heritage. While strolling through the streets of Granada, we truly experienced this melting pot of cultures and traditions.
In the 11th Century, a Berber chief, Zawi ben Ziri, established Granada as his independent kingdom. (Berbers are a proud tribe from the north of Africa. They were our gracious hosts during our visit to the Atlas Mountains). Zawi ben Ziri was a tolerant ruler, and under him and his Jewish vizier, different religions existed peacefully. Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together.
Granada retains much of this spirit today. While most of the population is Spanish speaking, a large portion are immigrants from Latin America. As we explored its streets, we also saw many North Africans who had come to make the city home.
El Darro – the Enchanting Riverbank
One of the most beautiful areas in Granada are the streets that go along the riverbanks of the El Darro river. These streets are narrow and filled with life.
Sure, there’s a lot of tourists, but that is what keeps these streets bustling and filled with charm. For example, we saw a poet who had set up a little stand with her typewriter and would write a poem for a small fee for passers-by. If it weren’t for the visitors to the city, such an unusual and charming activity could not possibly have existed!
The history of the El Darro itself is quite fascinating. Granada was a bustling city under the Romans, and they panned for gold along the river banks. The river was then known as aurus, as the Roman word for gold. It was the Moors who named it Hadarro before King Ferdinand conquered Granada and christened it the river Dauro.
The Bridges of El Darro
Four bridges cross the river. The two we noticed the most were the Puente de Espinosa and the Puente de Cabrera. Both date back to the 16th Century. These two cross the river around the heart of the restaurant and bar area of the river.
I remember I had to cross the Puente Cabrera to get to Negro Carbón, a highly recommended steak and grill restaurant in Granada.
The area around the El Darro
The area around the river is a lovely place to spend some time exploring. The portion with lots of attractive buildings and excellent restaurants isn’t substantial, so it won’t take up too much time. Like the Albacín, there are a lot of winding streets here ending up in cul de sacs or doubling back around.
There is also the Plaza de Santa Ana, which is at the beginning of Carrera del Darro. The Plaza has a lovely fountain and some benches. Lots of things seem to happen here. It is a place where people come to wait for their friends or to enjoy an ice-cream on the benches.
Granada city itself can be quite a touristy place – to both its advantage and detriment. People all over the world come here to visit Alhambra and Generalife.
Some bits of the old town can get very crowded and dirty. However, it still has some lovely areas. First and foremost, Albacín – an attraction in its own right, and the banks of the river Darro. We spent most of our time in Granada in these locations (that is when we were not in Alhambra itself).
FAQs for Albaicín, Granada
We would recommend heading straight up for the Mirador de San Nicolás, which gives you stunning panoramas of Granada and a great view of Alhambra. Also, try to find the Mirador de Los Carvajales, a secluded, treelined courtyard with great views of Alhambra..
You can walk from Albaicín to Alhambra – it will take roughly 30 minutes. It’s a bit of a longer walk, but there are lots to see along the way, especially if you take the longer route up the Carrer del Darro, which follows the riverbanks of the river Darro.