Hammams, palaces, shopping, and more: Experience Spain’s Islamic past in the city of the Alhambra.
Granada, the sparkling Spanish city in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, may be known for its gutsy flamenco dancers, humming street life, and best-in-Andalusia tapas crawls, but its most distinctive feature, bar none, is its lasting Moorish heritage. The Islamic influence is palpable here—in obvious places like the Alhambra, the sumptuous palace complex that’s the second-most visited landmark in Spain (after the Sagrada Familia); in ancient neighborhoods like the Alcaicería, once home to Granada’s Great Bazaar; and even beneath your feet in buildings like the Iglesia de El Salvador, whose stone floor is the only remnant of the historic main mosque.
With Spain’s myriad of cathedrals and Christian rituals, it’s easy to forget that the Moors ran the show on the Iberian Peninsula for the better part of 700 years and contributed immeasurably to Spanish culture as we know it. They brought advanced mathematics, science, and astronomy (“algebra” is an Arabic word); sophisticated agriculture; and dozens of foods that remain stalwarts on Spanish tables today including lemons, oranges, artichokes, sugar, and rice.
In fact, al-Andalus (the Arabic name for Muslim Spain) flourished under Islamic rule. By the 10th century, Córdoba was likely the largest city in Europe and had an intellectual culture rivaling that of Golden Age Rome. The works of Aristotle, overlooked for centuries, were rediscovered and reinterpreted. Some of the greatest thinkers of the Middle Ages, such as Maimonides and Avicenna, were Cordobeses.
When that city fell to the Christian kings in the 13th century, the Emirate of Granada became the nerve center—and final holdout—of Islamic Spain. With the rest of the empire crumbling around them, Granada’s Nasrid monarchs dug in their heels, fortifying the city walls, investing in new infrastructure like public hammams and schools, and building some of the most opulent, mesmerizing palaces the world had ever seen. It’s as if they foresaw their impending doom and set out to immortalize their culture, to create a sliver of Jannah on earth, before it was too late.
The ingenuity of the Nasrids and their Islamic predecessors can be found throughout Granada, but certain sites—places where, if you close your eyes, you can almost smell the incense, taste the rosewater, and hear the muezzin’s calls to prayer—are truly transportive. These are a few of them.
The Alhambra, a 1,000-year-old Palatine city perched above the old town, is the crown jewel of Mudéjar architecture and a non-negotiable stop on any tour of Moorish Granada. Peer down, and low, scallop-edged fountains burble by your toes; look around, and you’re engulfed by a sea of vibrant mosaics and florid arabesques; gaze up, and stalactite-like mocárabes drip weightlessly from the ceiling. Set aside several hours to take in the complex’s many unfurling sections, from its soaring ramparts to its paradisiacal gardens, sprawling barracks, and voluptuously appointed royal chambers. Tickets to the Alhambra are in such high demand (the site receives nearly 3 million visitors a year) that advance booking online is a must.
Hammam Al Ándalus
To the untrained eye, Hammam Al Ándalus could pass as a bona fide relic of Moorish Spain as opposed to a recreation. Its poly-lobed arches, tile floors, and dank, candlelit nooks are a time warp to centuries past. The only hints of modernity are the nontraditional co-ed (and swimsuit-required) baths and sundry 21st-century perks like lockers, fluffy towels, and quality emollients. Decompress here after a day of foot-pounding tourism—your body will thank you for it.
Moorish Granada comes most alive in the Albaicín neighborhood, which sits at eye level with the Alhambra on the opposite side of the Darro river. In its heyday, more than 30 mosques were located in this district alone. The Islamic faith ran so deep here that in 1499, locals staged an armed revolt against an archbishop who was trying to forcibly convert them to Christianity. The fury rippled out from the Albaicín across Andalusia in a full-scale insurrection called the Rebellion of the Alpujarras, a pivotal moment that led to the complete Christianization of Spain.
Start your stroll at the Plaza de Santa Ana and trace the Darro eastward, being sure to pop into the 16th-century Iglesia de Santa Ana (a Mudéjar triumph with magnificent coffered vaulting) and El Bañuelo, an immaculately preserved 11th-century bathhouse complete with star-shaped skylights, a garden pond, and arches cobbled together using leftover Roman and Visigothic capitals.
Corral del Carbón
Granada once boasted dozens of alhóndigas, noisy grain bartering centers that doubled as inns for Silk Road merchants. Only one has stood the test of time: the Corral de Carbón. Built in the 14th century, it’s perhaps the oldest Nasrid monument in the city. Pass under the grand horseshoe-arch entryway and into the grapevine-shaded courtyard before perusing an abbreviated exhibit that explains the building’s significance.
A welcome respite from Granada’s tidal wave of tapas bars, this Moroccan hideaway serves deeply satisfying stews, tagines, and savory pastries redolent of garlic, lemon, and cinnamon—Moorish aromas that have wafted through Granada’s kitchens for centuries. Don’t be fooled by the kitschy décor (think Aladdin but with Vegas-y neon lights)—Arrayanes is beloved by the local Muslim community for its real-deal North African comfort food.
Hotel Casa 1800
You’ll feel like a sultan at Hotel Casa 1800, a charming boutique hotel occupying a 16th-century mansion. Echoing the Moorish floor plans of Islamic Granada, its 25 rooms look out onto an airy interior patio decorated with potted plants and trickling fountains. Breakfast—a cornucopia of Andalusian pastries, Ibérico charcuterie, and fresh local produce—is served here to the soundtrack of whisper-quiet classical music. For an all-out Morisco experience, request the first-floor room with vaulted ceilings painted with Mudéjar motifs.
The south of Spain is synonymous with quality leatherwork, and that’s largely due to the Moors, who brought the tradition to the Iberian Peninsula. Beds, tables, gloves, shoes—you name it. In Islamic Spain, leather was used to make all sorts of household items and farm tools. Take a piece of this heritage home with you at Munira, run by a seasoned craftswoman who selects only the finest local leather for her exquisite handmade purses, wallets, jewelry, and more.