Why go now?
This ancient Moorish stronghold is today one of Andalucia's most scenic cities, with a dramatic setting in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, crowned by the graceful Alhambra Palace (1).
This week, the city becomes easier to reach when British Airways starts a new route from London City airport from Thursday – reinstating a direct air link from the UK which has been absent for the past three years.
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) will fly four times a week from London City to Granada's airport, 15km west of the city centre (granadaairport.com). The main alternative is a flight to Malaga followed by a two-hour bus journey.
Buses from Granada airport into town are operated by Autocares José González (00 34 958 490 164; autocaresjosegonzalez.com; 5.25am-8pm daily) taking around 40 minutes to reach the Cathedral of Granada (2); single fare €3. Taxis cost €25.
British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com) offers also packages: two nights with flights and room only at the Hospes Palacio de Los Patos costs from £339 per person, for travel in August and September.
Get your bearings
Granada was the last bastion of Al-Andalus – the southern section of Iberia that was conquered by North Africans in AD711 and ruled by them for four centuries.
After Córdoba and Seville were reclaimed by the Catholic Kingdoms in the 13th century, Islamic refugees fled to Granada, where the Nasrid Emirate had established a separate state for themselves. The Nasrids had taken up residence in a lavish royal palace high up on a hill in the heart of the city. They reigned for more than 250 years from the Alhambra (1) – which still dominates the city today – before finally succumbing to the besieging Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile) in 1492. It was the last city to fall and endures today as the place where the old Moorish Spain feels most present.
The Albaicín district is particularly evocative. Rising on a hill north of the Alhambra (1) with sugar-white houses and steep, slender streets, it was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1994, along with the ancient citadel. To the south is the atmospheric Realejo quarter, where the Jewish community settled during the Moorish period, and the modern Centro district, with its bountiful boutiques and tapas bars. The main tourist office (3) (00 34 958 24 71 46; turgranada.es) is at Plaza del Carmen.
For sheer grandeur, spend a night on the site of the Alhambra at the Parador de Granada (4) (00 34 902 54 79 79; parador.es). Housed in a 15th-century convent on the hill, it's now a four-star hotel with startling terrace views over the city (doubles from €195, room only).
In Albaicín, Casa Morisca (5) on Cuesta de la Victoria 9 (00 34 958 22 11 00; hotel casamorisca.com) is a characterful retreat with rooms around a central courtyard. Doubles from €100, room only.
For a budget option, aim for the colourful tiled exterior of the Hostal La Ninfa (6) on Plaza Campo del Principe (00 34 958 22 79 85; hostallaninfa.net), with rustic rooms and doubles from €40, room only.
Take a hike
Wander amid the whitewashed houses and winding streets of the Realejo. When the Moors still held sway, this old quarter on the southern flank of the Alhambra was known as al-Yahud Garnata (Granada of the Jews), so strong was the Jewish population here at the time. The two religions managed to coexist in relative peace, but when the Catholic Monarchs took the city back, the Jewish community was expelled and the area rebranded as "Realejo", in honour of the crown.
The Campo del Principe (7) is the main meeting point. Lined with a handful of bars and restaurants, it also holds the Iglesia De San Cecilio, built on the site of an ancient mosque and named after the city's patron saint.
From here, wind your way down the narrow streets of Calle de los Damasqueros and Cuesta de Rodrigo del Campo, to reach the new Sephardic Museum (8) at Placeta Berrocal 5 (00 34 958 22 05 78; museosefardidegranada.es). The museum was opened earlier this year by a Spanish couple who spent years fundraising to make it happen. It tells the story of this old Jewish neighbourhood (open 10am-2pm and 5-9pm; entry €5.
Lunch on the run
Lovers of seafood should make for the Plaza Pescadería (9), where fresh fish and jugs of sangria are served to tightly packed tables in the midday sun, with a jubilant band often on hand to entertain.
Oliver (00 34 958 262 200; restauranteoliver.com) is one of the best, with seafood paella for €15pp.
The Gran Vía (10) is the place to wreak retail havoc. Here, you'll find stylish Spanish fashion outlets such as Bimba & Lola (00 34 958 22 97 02; bimbaylola.es), smaller boutiques, such as Susanna Cruz (00 34 958 22 06 54; susannacruz.com), and international brands including Longchamp (00 34 958 22 73 14; longchamp.com) running on to Calle Reyes Católicos.
Start the evening on the Paseo de los Tristes (11), where Rabo da Nube (00 34 958 22 04 21) joins a string of tapas bars under a vine-draped pergola beside the River Darro and the Alhambra. The city maintains the tradition of free tapas – anything from a few slices of manchego to a full plate of Iberico ham, bread and olives. Order a cerveza (€2.50) and wait for your appetiser to arrive while the moon rises over the Moorish palace in front of you.
Dining with the locals
Next, tackle the steep, tangled streets of the Albaicín to unearth the restaurants with the best views of the Alhambra. Midway up the hill, the Mirador de Morayma (12) (00 34 958 22 82 90; miradordemorayma.com) rustles up delicious dishes such as Iberian pork shoulder (€18), with wines from its own vineyard in the nearby Alpujarra hills.
At the top, El Huerto de Juan Ranas (13) at Calle Atarazana Vieja 6 (00 34 958 28 69 25; elhuertodejuanranas.com) offers lamb tagine (€17) on a spectacular terrace, while Restaurante San Nicolás (14) (00 34 958 27 28 42; restaurantesannicolas.com) specialises in elegant fine dining.
Sunday morning: go to church
Rising above the Gran Vía, the Cathedral of Granada (2) (00 34 958 222 959; catedralde granada.com) is an early example of the Spanish Renaissance style. Its foundations were laid in 1518, on the site of an earlier mosque, after the Nasrid Emirs were supplanted.
One of Spain's most prolific architects, Enrique Egas, began the work, which took 180 years to complete. Today, white marble columns soar up, effigies of King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella kneel in the chapel, and a gilded altarpiece draws the eye. You can visit the cathedral on a Sunday only if you attend mass at 10am, 11am and 12.30pm; otherwise, opening hours are 4-8pm.
Out to brunch
The Spanish don't do brunch, they do churros – sickly-sweet long, thin donuts, with a molten cup of hot chocolate. Try them at the Gran Café Bib-Rambla (15) (00 34 958 256 820; cafebibrambla.com), in the square of the same name, which has been serving them for more than a century (€1.50 for three pieces).
Book your tickets to the Alhambra (1) well in advance (00 34 958 027 971; alhambra- patronato.es). You can choose to visit the rambling rose-tinted complex from 8.30am-2pm, from 2-8pm, or from 10-11.30pm (Tuesday to Saturday only) when the site is bathed in dramatic moonlight.
Book a specific time to see the Nasrid Palaces, ideally at the halfway point of your session. This series of elaborate rooms, adorned with latticework, Moorish tiles and marble courtyards, gives an insight into the opulence of the era (€13; evening €8).
Walk in the park
The Generalife Gardens (16) are included in your Alhambra ticket. Bursting with rose bushes, their elegant cypress avenues ascend gently to the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles – named for the plants that surround the building), before arriving at the Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel), where relaxing water features surround you as you take in the city views.
Icing on the cake
In 1998, the Hammam Al Andalus (17) on Calle Santa Ana 16 (00 34 958 229 978; hamm amalandalus.com) – a decorative Arab baths – opened five centuries after the Catholic Monarchs shut the original baths on the same site.
Their intricate mosaics, arches and Arabesque motifs give an exotic taste of a bygone era. Relax in the hot and cold water and steam rooms (€24) or raise the indulgence level with a half-hour massage (€36).