Granada

Granada was the main reason I wanted to visit Spain this summer. While I’d never had much of an interest in Barcelona, Madrid, or even Sevilla (though, clearly I had been wrong about Sevilla), Granada has everything I’m passionate about: white-washed homes spilling down hills, seductive views of the Alhambra, diversity, a significant Arab influence, and incredibly cheap food.

Due to a scheduling issue, we had to catch a later train from Córdoba to Granada and arrived at our Airbnb two hours later than we had planned. Our affectionate Airbnb host Ana, who seemed to be more anxious than us to make our time slot for the Alhambra, gently rushed us out after we dropped off our luggage and ushered us to a taxi. As we drove through our winding cobblestone neighborhood of Albayzín, Anthony and I looked at each other and knew we were going to love our few days here.

We didn’t deserve to get into Alhambra, but Anthony coaxed the guard into letting us in fifty minutes after our time slot. The initial chaos was worth it! The Alhambra is a palace, citadel, and fortress that sits on a small plateau overlooking the entire city, enhanced by the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains. While Europe slumbered through the Dark Ages, the Moors were creating magnificent palaces like the Alhambra, with ornate stucco, plaster stalactite ceilings, ceramic tiles, scalloped windows that perfectly frame views of Granada, lush gardens, open-air courtyards, and water — a precious symbol of life back then — everywhere. It’s the last and greatest Moorish palace in the world and once housed a city of a thousand people fortified by a 1.5-mile rampart, built in the 13th century for the Nasrids (one of the ethnic groups of Spanish Muslims). In the 15th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel expelled the Moors from Granada and moved into Alhambra, and it was here that Christopher Columbus requested royal endorsement to fund his sea voyage that year. The Holy Roman Emperor eventually took over, but because he respected the Moorish palace, built his own palace using the existing Alhambra instead of destroying everything. Moorish craftsmanship of Alhambra is first-class. Lead fittings between the pre-cut section of the columns allow the structures to flex during earthquakes, preventing destruction.

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View from Alhambra
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Intricate carvings everywhere
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Patio de Arrayanes
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Patio de los Leones
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Views everywhere
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Islamic architecture
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Look at that stalactite detailing!
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Gardens
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Open-air rooms
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Geometric patterns
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One more view from above
After a rousing start to our time in Granada, we were ready for food. And what a city for food! Granada is one of the only remaining cities in Spain to offer a free tapa with every drink, which makes eating out in Granada almost ludicrously inexpensive. Most bars will cook a large pot of something and hand out a small plate of the dish with every drink. It’s a brilliant way to eat, but will sadly never exist in America. Our favorite tapas were at El Tabernáculo (a tiny tapas bar filled with kitschy religious decorations), Bar Los Diamantes (multiple locations throughout the city), Bodegas Castaneda (always crowded), and Taberna La Tana (perfect for wine snobs).

 

With our bellies full, we were finally ready to check out our Airbnb, the place I’d been most excited about staying at on this trip. Our neighborhood retains the narrow winding streets of its Medieval Moorish past and has been declared a World Heritage Site. Our room was on the second floor, with a direct view of Alhambra. Our rooftop, which is where we spent siestas and had breakfast every morning, had an even better view, and we loved that we didn’t have to trek out to the crowded viewpoint nearby, where all the other tourists have to wait around for hours.

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Wondering why we even deserve this rooftop
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Breakfast every morning
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Casual rooftop views
To get to the rest of the touristy sites, we had an entertaining downhill walk through Albayzín’s winding tight alleys. We never took the same path twice because it’s so easy to get slightly lost. But Albayzín is so hauntingly beautiful that you almost want to get lost in it, like you do in Venice.

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Typical street in our neighborhood
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Watch out for the tree!
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View of Alhambra from every corner
One of the most interesting things to do in Granada is to visit Alcaicería for Granada’s Great Bazaar, especially if you haven’t been to a Muslim country before. Like the souks we visited in Marrakech, Amman, Cairo, and Istanbul, you can find spices, precious goods, and other souvenirs. The original Alcaicería was built in the 15th century and survived until the 19th century, when a fire destroyed it. A replica was built, but only half the size of the original labyrinth. Nearby is Corral del Carbón, a caravanserai (protected place for merchants to rest their animals, spend the night and eat). This is the only surviving caravanserai of Granada’s original 14. Granada was a stop on the Silk Road, as silkworm-friendly mulberry trees flourished in the countryside.

While you obviously come to Granada for the Alhambra, we fell in love with this city for its views and its soul. We spent hours sitting on our balcony and aimlessly wandered the streets. It’s impossible not to be enchanted here.

Tips for future travelers:

If you’re sick of tapas, have a fancier meal. Make reservations at Mirador de Morayma and request a table with a view of Alhambra. For piononos (a small, sweet cylindrical pastry from Granada), try Casa Ysla, which offers piononos in various flavors.

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View during our dinner at Mirador de Morayma
Our default drinks to order at any bar in Andalucia were tinto (house red), tinto de verano (house red with carbonated water or lemonade, served with ice), vermút (fortified white wine we know as vermouth, sometimes served with soda), or a cerveza (beer).

Take in the views of the city at Mirador de la Churra. While we didn’t have to go to the crowded Mirador San Nicolas because the view from our apartment was basically the same thing, we did go to Mirador de la Churra for an incredible view of Albayzín. Most tourists don’t know about this viewpoint, as it was completely empty when we were there.

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Peeking through someone’s gate
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View of our neighborhood. Can you spot our Airbnb?
As soon as you know when you’ll be in Granada, book your tickets to Alhambra because tickets sell out months in advance. You must enter within 30 minutes of your selected time.

Córdoba

When I was a sophomore in high school, I took an art history class that changed my life. I didn’t end up majoring in art or art history in college like I thought I would. Nor did I become a curator like I had dreamt of becoming when I was 15. But I did gain an appreciation for and an insatiable drive to see what I had studied in real life. This is why I became obsessed with Istanbul and teared up when I finally visited Hagia Sophia. And this is also why I couldn’t visit Andalucía without stopping by Córdoba, a quaint little town conveniently located between Sevilla and Granada. Córdoba has the famous Mezquita, one of the most stunning sights I’ve ever seen. I’d put it up there with Petra, Mont St-Michel, Machu Picchu, Venice, and Abu Simbel as man-made sights that one must visit in one’s lifetime.

Stay

We stayed at an adorable bed & breakfast in Barrio Santa Marina, a neighborhood of winding cobblestone roads, low white-washed buildings, and lots of dogs. Oddly enough, it reminded us of Ollantaytambo in Peru. Our charming host María José brought our breakfasts of pan con tomate y jamón, fresh coffee and orange juice, and Spanish biscuits up to the rooftop in the morning.

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Buenos dias from our rooftop!
Do

Obviously, the highlight of our time was visiting La Mezquita. This former 10th-century mosque was once the center of Western Islam and rivaled Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul!). It contains over 800 arches which, despite appearances, aren’t painted red and white but are actually alternating red brick and white stone. The columns are topped with double arches — a round Romanesque arch above a Visigothic horseshoe arch. They were recycled from ancient Roman ruins and conquered Visigothic churches. They seem to recede into infinity. Ferdinand III conquered the city in 1236 and turned the mosque into a Gothic church, but 70% of the original mosque structure survives to this day. A giant 16th-century cathedral now sits awkwardly in the middle of the mosque. While the mosque is about 30 feet high, the cathedral’s space soars 130 feet up. Its glorious ceiling will make you forget you were in a former mosque just seconds ago. Though it would have been quicker and less expensive for Christian builders to destroy the mosque entirely when they wanted to build a church in the center of Córdoba, they respected La Mezquita’s beauty and built their church into it instead. The differences between Catholic and Islamic aesthetics and psychology are glaring in here: horizontal vs. vertical, intimate vs. intimidating, dark vs. bright, simple vs. elaborate…

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Over 800 of these columns
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Double arches
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One of the most important Islamic sites in the world
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A cathedral sits right in the middle of the mosque
In Córdoba, patios are taken seriously, especially in May, when the city even hosts a competition for most picturesque patio. You can pop your head into any wooden door that’s open, as homeowners love to show off their patios. Calle de San Basilio has the highest concentration of patio-contest award-winners.

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Flower pots of Calle de San Basilio
Walk along the iconic Calleja de las Flores. It’s congested for obvious reasons.

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Calle de las Flores
Eat

Eat dinner at Al Grano, where we had our best meal in Córdoba. We sat at an outside table overlooking a little neighborhood basilica tucked away from the touristy areas, and our squid ink paella was blowtorched at the table. We ended our meal with unlimited amounts of limoncello and hazelnut liqueur.

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Atmospheric setting
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Paellas
Order a “fino fresquito” for a chilled white wine from the nearby Montilla-Moriles region.

Other tips

  1. Buses are convenient to catch from the station into town. You can purchase a €1.30 ticket onboard.
  2. No need to make advanced reservations to La Mezquita. Just purchase a €10 ticket from the ticket booths inside the courtyard the day of.
  3. If you only have a limited time in Córdoba, I’d recommend arriving in the late afternoon, going straight to La Mezquita, which doesn’t close until 7 pm in the summer, and then enjoying the rest of the city at night, before leaving the next morning. Córdoba was the hottest city we went to — even hotter than sizzling Sevilla — so the evening was a much more pleasant time to appreciate other sights and take a paseo with the locals while all the daytrippers have left.

Sevilla

I fell in love with Sevilla, the first city on our ten-day trip to Spain this summer. Andalucía has always seemed like a region I’d find fascinating (it’s that blend of cultures that always gets me), but I didn’t realize that flamboyant Sevilla — stereotyped by other Spaniards as being kind of a tacky city — would be the place I loved so much that it made me cry on our last day there.

Stay

We stayed in a comfortable Airbnb in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, about a 12-minute walk from the touristy Barrio Santa Cruz district and surrounded by some of the best restaurants in town.

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Our street in Sevilla

Do

The most stunning site in Sevilla is the Real Alcázar, a lavish 10th-century palace built for Moorish royalty and the oldest palace in Europe still in use. I’m not usually a fan of palaces, but the Mudejar design (mix of Islamic and Christian styles) found throughout is absolutely stunning. For example, the place’s façade seems to be classic Islamic with scalloped arches and intricate stucco patterns, but there are also Christian elements, such as a coat of arms and depictions of animals. In the Courtyard of the Maidens, the first floor of the open-air courtyard has colorful ceramic tiles, coffered wooden ceilings, and intricate scalloped arches typical of the Islamic style, while the second floor has rounded arches and minimal decoration in Renaissance style. I could have spent an entire day at Real Alcázar.

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Entrance of Real Alcazar
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The iconic Courtyard of the Maidens. Notice how the first floor is Islamic, while the second floor is Renaissance style
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Look at that ceiling!
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Underground cistern – the coolest part of Sevilla
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Another room in Real Alcazar
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One of my favorite rooms – so sunny!

Our favorite thing we did in Sevilla was take a flamenco class, which is a must in Sevilla, the home of flamenco. We spent an hour and a half at a dance school called Maestdanza, learning about the fascinating history of flamenco (a result of the mix of cultures here, of course) and learning a pretty lengthy dance combination that we were able to record ourselves at the end. 

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On our first night, we took a tapas tour with Pancho Tours. While the tour itself was not the greatest (our guide offered little information to us as we sampled everything), we were taken to four fantastic and very different tapas bars, most of which we wouldn’t have stumbled upon on our own. We started at a historic bar, continued to a sleek restaurant, then onto a former convent, and ended the night watching the sunset from a swanky rooftop bar where we tasted orange wine and piononos for my first time.

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Traditional tapas and cava at the bar
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Former convent
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Fried eggplant with orange marmalade and a glass of rioja
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Orange wine from a rooftop bar
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Sunset

I loved wandering around charming Barrio Santo Cruz and entering any patio whose doors were left open for the public. In Andalucía, traditional homes have interior patios (much like Moroccan riads) and those who have decorated them extravagantly with flower pots and fountains like to show them off to the masses.

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Anytime the doors are open to a patio…
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…you’re welcome to peek inside

We visited Plaza de España and Metropol Parasol, two new sites that are almost comically flamboyant and, thus, extremely Sevillian. Plaza de España is a remnant of the failed 1929 international fair. It’s like Las Vegas attempting Mudejar style. Meanwhile, Metropol Parasol was built just a few years ago. It’s a giant undulating canopy of five waffle-patterned wooden structures that look like mushrooms. Locals still don’t quite know what to make of it, but no one is arguing about the shade that the large canopy provides.

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Extravagance at Plaza de Espana
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Lots of columns
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Nice views from the balcony
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You can rent a rowboat
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Fake bell tower
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Metropol Parasol
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You can go up to the roof and walk along the winding path

On our last night, we crossed the Guadalquivir River and roamed around Triana, the equivalent of Rome’s Trastevere (formerly working-class neighborhood across the river with good food and a lot of character). I had my best meal of the trip in this neighborhood, and as we sat outside after dinner at 11pm surrounded by locals, I teared up, realizing then how much I had fallen in love with Sevilla.

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Tearing up in Triana

Plaza del Cabildo is a lovely semi-circular square near the Sevilla Cathedral but tucked away from the crowds.

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Plaza del Cabildo

Eat

Every single meal we ate in Sevilla was incredible, which probably explains why this city is so dear to me. The best restaurants we tried were Las Golondrinas, Castizo, Bodega Dos de Mayo, and La Cata Ciega. Sit at the bar and order a tinto de verano (a popular summer drink of red wine and spritz) and share a few tapas. You will wonder why the rest of the world eats any other way.

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Grilled pork, mushrooms, and squid
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Best meal of our entire trip was at Las Golondrinas in Triana

Other tips

The city center is very walkable, but we took a cab from the Santa Justa train station into town since Ubers are cheap.

Sevilla is sizzling. Literally. It’s the hottest large city in Europe, and temperatures hovered in the high 90s each day we were there. However, it’s a dry heat, and we prepared properly by wearing our lightest clothing, walking on the shady side of the road, and taking siestas during the hottest time of the day (4-6pm). In the end, it was doable and most definitely worth it.

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Another flamboyant building in Sevilla