Welcome to Andalucía
I can’t possibly begin to describe how much I enjoyed my time in Andalucía, Spain. Going there with little expectations probably helped. The Moorish architecture, the rich history, the Flamenco and the food. It was all just perfect.
Our trip in the first week of June started in Málaga, continued in Granada, followed by Seville and finished in Córdoba. An itinerary that worked out perfectly for us. Travel-wise we went from place to place by coach and train, which is super easy to organise. Read on for all the insights on the best cities to visit in Andalucía.
The city I had least expectations of on this trip is Málaga. For some reason, I was only familiar with the city because of the stories about Northern European pensioners who spend their winters on the beaches in the Costa del Sol. Then there are the tales about partying youngsters who trash those very same beaches. A soulless city. That’s what I expected from Málaga. How wrong could I be.
Málaga Old Town
Málaga is the birthplace of Picasso, has loads of art museums as well as shops. It’s home to a lively creative district, Soho, and has a few Michelin star rewarded restaurants to its name. But it’s Málaga Old Town that is the real eye catcher of this seaside city.
The Old Town isn’t big, but has enough to provide a first taste of what this region is about. A beautiful cathedral, a Roman amphitheatre and the bullring were only a few of the sights we visited. We also took plenty of photos of the dreamy facades and enjoyed our morning coffee on bustling Constitución Square.
Even though it was only the first week of June, the temperature rose to at least 35 degrees Celsius in the afternoon. That didn’t stopped us from climbing the fortified walls of La Alcazaba, the fortress dating back to 700. It was built conveniently on a hill, that nowadays provide visitors with picture-perfect views of the city, the harbour and the mountains around Málaga.
At night, the city really comes to life when restaurants serve fresh sea food and bars provided us with some delicious cocktails. The weather was lovely, so we stayed out for the rest of the night, mulling over the fact on how wrong we were about this beautiful city.
Visiting Alhambra – some practical advise
We can’t discuss Granada without talking about the Alhambra: Andalucía’s number one attraction. But before we delve deep into the ‘secrets’ of this Moorish fortified palace, first some practical tips. Tips we wish we had known before we visited. Due to a daily visitor limit to certain areas of the palace, it’s important to book your tickets in advance. We’re talking about at least three months in advance if you’ve the chance. This ensures you that you’ll pay the best price, and get access to all areas of the palace. We on the other hand booked our tickets one day in advance of our visit. This meant that we paid three times as much as we should have and that we weren’t allowed to visit Palacios Nazaríes. Despite all of this, I feel that our visit was totally worth it!
We took a bus up to the palace early, in order to avoid the heat. We collected our audio tour headphones and entered through the beautiful gardens. These led to Generallife, the sultan’s summer estate. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Gorgeous patios, pools and paths lined by the most beautiful flowers is what we discovered here.
Next, we headed towards Palacio de Carlos V. We walked through more gardens and passed by a church and a former convent turned hotel (Staying overnight at Alhambra would be a dream come true!). Not much later we arrived at Palacio de Carlos V. The style of this palace is completely different from Generallife. It has a monumental facade, and inside we found a huge circular courtyard ringed by Roman-looking columns. Two museums are housed in the palace: Museo de Belles Artes and Museo de la Alhambra. We visited the latter and discovered more about Islamic artefacts.
Our final visit of the day was to the remnants of Alcazaba, the sites original citadel. Dating back to 13th century, you can still climb the original watchtower and enjoy breathtaking views of Granada.
Albaicín is a former Islamic district of Granada and comprises of the area between the hills of Alhambra, San Cristobal, Sacromonte and Elvira. We really got to know this area from the free walking tour we joined on a beautiful Tuesday evening. I can truly say that this district was my favourite!
At the height of the splendour of Albaicín during the years of Nazarid dominance, the district was home to more than fourty thousand inhabitants and thirty mosques. Today, there’s only one mosque left. When the Catholics gained power, all of the mosques were destroyed and Catholic churches were built on top of the remains. The strong Muslim influence is still visible though. Traditional public baths and a few houses with courtyards can still be visited today.
We were all too happy exploring the winding streets and steep alleys which at times felt like challenging a maze. But once we reached the top of the hill, we were rewarded by the best views of the Alhambra and the snow topped hills of the Sierra Nevada from Mirador de San Nicolas.
It wasn’t just the rich history, the picturesque streets or viewpoints that made this district my favourite. It was also the overall atmosphere. After we thanked our guide for the sublime walking tour, we headed to the main square of the neighbourhood and enjoyed a dinner of cheese and Spanish sausages. We watched people walking by, listened to music being played and just enjoyed the nice weather and good vibes all around.
Sacromonte is another fascinating neighbourhood of Granada. When a large group of Roma settled here in the 15th Century they built cave homes, which gave Sacromonte its fame. Nowadays, the neighbourhood houses a fascinating mix of gypsies, artists and misfits from all over the world.
We visited the cave home museum (Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte) that gave us a good insight into how people would live in these caves until fairly recently. The in total ten caves are rendered to show bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and stables – exactly like how it used to be in the olden days. The museum also gave us a better idea of the origination of flamenco. An exhibition showed how the Roma group of Gitanos mixed the traditional Spanish flamenco with Arab belly dancing and called it Zambra. It’s a raw form of flamenco which is performed at local bars at night. During Semana Santa, the locals perform it outside on the streets.
We took a bus up to Sacromonte as it’s located high up Valparaiso Hill. However, we walked down on our way back and very much enjoyed the views of the Alhambra and the city centre of Granada.
While I liked Granada Centre, it couldn’t compare to the Alhambra and Albaicín – at least, that’s how I feel about it. The centre definitely has a certain charm: the giant cathedral, the Alcaiceria market (on the site of Granada’s former Moorish bazaar) and beautiful large squares make it worth a visit. Of course you can also find some really good restaurants and bars here, making it an easy place to go to at night.
Seville is the capital city of Andalucía and an absolute blast to visit. The blend of cultures and religions comes out perfectly in the city’s architecture. The tapas are to die for and flamenco is as alive as ever. There’s just too much about this city to cover in a short post like this, so we’ll break it down and focus on the highlights.
Game of Thrones fans, pay attention now, because we’re about to talk about a familiar location from the series. Real Alcázar is a Unesco-listed palace and features a combination of breathtaking Christian and Moorish architecture.
The site started as a fort, but quickly grew out to be a lush palace, complete with beautiful gardens, richly decorated facades and large courtyards. There’s so much to take in here that you’ll need at least a few hours to explore all of it – and that might even not be enough.
Cathedral de Sevilla
Cathedral de Sevilla is the world’s largest Gothic cathedral. While that is an interesting fact in itself, it’s probably more interesting to tell you that the cathedral was built over the remains of the city’s main mosque. The original mosque’s minaret can still be seen in the bell tower. Inside, visitors can find the monumental tomb of Christopher Columbus.
Santa Cruz, my personal favourite part of the city. The narrow streets, colourful buildings and affordable, yet excellent tapas places deserve my praise. This is the former Jewish district of Seville and a place where Jews and Christians lived together troublesomely, but in peace until Catholics took over and demanded for the Jews to either convert or leave the area. More on this particular part of history can be found in the Centro de Interpretation Juderia de Sevilla.
Plaza de España
In 1929, Seville hosted the Exposición Iberoamericana, a world’s fair with guests from the Central and South Americas. For the occasion, they built a grotesque plaza in the Parque de María Luisa, featuring a large brick-building, canals, fountains and Venetian style bridges. It’s all a bit too over the top if you’d ask me, but it’s impressive how they managed to build all of this in relatively short time.
Metropol Parasol was designed by German architect Jürgen Mayer to resemble a large sun parasol. The structure is entirely made of wood, and is claimed to be the largest of its kind in the world. While opinions about ‘The Mushroom’ vary, one can’t say that the views from the top walkways aren’t incredible.
During our stay, we embarked on a cycle tour of the city and ended up in the neighbourhood of Triana. People in Triana prefer to see themselves as independent from Seville. The former gypsy district even has its own traditions and slang words.
Just cross the iconic Isabel II bridge over the Guadalquivir river and you will be greeted by riverfront cafes, a beautiful food market and a long main street featuring bars and tapas restaurants. It boasts a vivid flamenco culture as well.
From Seville we took a train up to Córdoba, which only took about an hour. People we met in Seville ensured us that if we’d only to visit one place in Córdoba it should be the mosque-Cathedral Mezquita.
This spacious mosque-cathedral shows us perfectly how Christians, Jews and Muslims used to live side by side in the colourful city of Córdoba – and in all of Andalucía. Countless of pillars and arches are spread out in the main area of the mosque-cathedral. Then there are the stained glass windows which let in the sunlight, creating almost mystical shapes on the floor. We also found some more signs of Moorish architecture on the side of the huge hallway that is spectacular. We completely understood why the people we met in Seville recommended Mezquita to us. You simply can’t visit Córdoba without visiting the mosque-cathedral.
Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos
Another fort-palace built on the remains of a former Moorish palace – the Moorish structures really needed to be gone, didn’t they? – Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos. We walked the fortress walls, climbed the towers and found some shade underneath the orange trees. The palace is the location where Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel, met with Christopher Columbus. Here, he pitched his idea to look for a western route to discover India.
Puente Romano is worth a mention, as its Roman construction and location spanning Río Guadalquivir makes for a lovely stroll. It used to be part of Via Augusta, the road that ran from Girona in Catalonia to Cádiz, in southern Andalucía. Apparently (sorry guys, I don’t watch Game of Thrones), it also featured in the popular hitseries as the Long Bridge of Volantis.
Here it is, the best cities to visit in Andalucía. I completely agree that I’ve only scrapped the surface of this beautiful Spanish region. It just means that I need to go back one day to explore some more. Have you been to Andalucía? What was your favourite place to visit?