Suggestions for activities and accommodations in Madrid and Granada
October 24, 2013 4:57 AM   Subscribe

Help me plan a trip to Granada/Madrid for early December!

My mother and I will be going to Granada and Madrid for a week in early December (Sunday the 8th through Sunday the 15th). We will be flying into Madrid, staying there for probably three days, then taking the train to Granada and staying there for four days.

Things we like:
Old religious buildings (especially mosques or churches or churches that used to be mosques or mosques that used to be churches)
Walking around very old neighborhoods

Things we don't like:
Dealing with transportation more than necessary

We don't care so much about shopping or more modern stuff, we're really most interested in history, especially architectural history.

With this in mind, several questions:

1) Where in Madrid should we stay? We are looking for somewhere pretty upscale hotel-wise (up to my mother's accommodation standards which are way higher than mine), ideally close to or in older neighborhoods so we can walk around. Our tastes skew more old-fashioned but location is the priority so a business hotel in the perfect area trumps a gorgeous old house somewhere less convenient. We also like stuff that used to be other stuff so hotels that used to be churches or monasteries or whatever get bonus points.

2) Where in Granada should we stay? Again, we'd like somewhere very convenient to the sights we'd like to see. We are thinking about the Parador Granada actually in the Alhambra but are looking at other options as well.

3) What should we make sure we see and do? We have some basic places on our list but is there anywhere we definitely shouldn't miss in either Madrid or Granada? Please feel free to assume that I don't know anything about where we're going and give very, very obvious suggestions.

Thank you so much for any help and guidance you can provide!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl to Travel & Transportation around Cájar, Spain (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In Granada you will want to do the Alhambra - book tickets early and get a tour. You will also want to pop into the cathedral since Ferdinand and Isabella are buried there.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:43 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just got back from Spain and you are going to love it. Granada especially is a place I would go back to in a heartbeat.

We stayed in more mid-range places so I don't have any specific hotel recommendations. I'm sure the Parador in Granada is lovely, but one thing to consider is that you'll need to take a bus any time you want to go back to the hotel from sightseeing (except for the day you visit the Alhambra itself). Granada is very hilly, and the Alhambra hill in particular is very steep. Also, if you don't have tickets yet for the Alhambra you need to get them immediately because it will sell out.

The guidebooks we had were not too keen on Granada's cathedral but we loved it. Definitely worth a look - I would personally put a higher priority on the cathedral itself than the adjoining Royal Chapel.

Get Rick Steves' book if you don't have it. We spent most of our trip doing exactly what he said to do and he was always right about everything.
posted by something something at 5:47 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hotel Lope de Vega in central Madrid is nice.
posted by dortmunder at 5:50 AM on October 24, 2013

Oh, one other thing - the big museums in Madrid all have certain days and times when they waive the entrance fee so definitely check to see if that works with your schedule. We saw people waiting in a huge line for the Prado just before one of these times began, but if you go about 15 minutes after the free period starts you can walk right in. Once we were inside, the museums were remarkably uncrowded and we felt like we had plenty of time to see what we wanted to see.
posted by something something at 5:53 AM on October 24, 2013

Oh, I have stayed at Lope de Vega as well and it was nice! Seconding that. It is right by all the best stuff - Retiro, Sol, Plaza Mayor, etc.
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:01 AM on October 24, 2013

Madrid has three of the best Art museums in the world. You want to stay near them. The perfect hotel, location-wise is the Ritz.

That said, we have stayed at the Hotel Urban on the last couple visits to Madrid. It is right between the museums and the Puerta del Sol/Plaza Mayor area. So, perfect. Its a chic, upscale, art deco hotel. I highly recommend it.
posted by vacapinta at 6:31 AM on October 24, 2013

If your interest is really mosques and churches, you might think about a day trip from Madrid to Toledo. It is a 30-minute train ride so very do-able as a half-day or full-day trip from Madrid.
posted by vacapinta at 6:37 AM on October 24, 2013

For mosques and churches, your biggest sights in Spain would generally be in Barcelona, Cordoba, and Sevilla, but Granada and Madrid have their own versions. Just not with the same reputation.

When I was in Madrid, we stayed at the Hotel Vincci Soho in the Huerta neighborhood, which was fairly upscale and conveniently located to the major sights in Madrid. It's a modern hotel that's been squeezed into older buildings so the rooms aren't exactly palatially sized, but it was one of the nicer places we stayed during our whole trip to Spain.

In Granada we stayed at the Hotel Saray, which was pretty nice, but it took a couple minute walk to get across the river to the older part of town, but there were a bunch of restaurants along that walk so it wasn't a chore. The hotel is fairly modern and rooms are more of a standard size.

My wife and I only stayed in Madrid and Granada for two nights each, so we didn't have much time to see anything other than the big stuff. For Madrid, that was the Museo Reina Sofia and the Prado, El Parque del Buen Retiro, and walking down the main drag to the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor. For Granada, it was the Alhambra.
posted by LionIndex at 6:58 AM on October 24, 2013

We stayed at the Hotel Parraga Siete in Granada last year. It had an upscale boutique hotel vibe to it and when we booked prices were extremely reasonable. It was maybe a 5 minute walk to the sights in Granada and just close to to the bus taking you up to the Alhambra.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 6:58 AM on October 24, 2013

Best answer: Madrid is my area of expertise, so I will confine myself to that and let others give suggestions for Granada.

First of all, you should be aware that December 6-8 is a holiday weekend in all of Spain, so you should get on those hotel reservations ASAP, as many people extend their holidays into the next week. Be prepared for all shops/museums/bars to be packed.

If you like old buildings and old neighborhoods you will want to stay in the area called Huertas or Barrio de las Letras, and wander down to the parts of La Latina that are close to Plaza Mayor. All of the hotels recommended above look good to me. If you are both good walkers, you won't have to bother with transportion apart from going to/from the airport. The center of Madrid is suprisingly compact and walkable. Bring comfortable shoes.

The Prado is free on Sunday evening, but if you like the kind of art they have there, I would spring for a ticket intead of trying to get in gratis. There is no way you can do it justice in 2-3 hours, especially if you're tired from having just flown in that morning. The Reina Sofia is the modern art museum, and totally worth it if you're into that sort of thing, but I like the Thyssen very much. It has a nice mix of very old art and very new art. All of these museums are within walking distance of each other.

Madrid is not known for its churches or mosques (though Granada will more than make up for that), but the Basilica de San Francisco is old, gilt, and lovely. I would also recommend taking a tour of the Royal Palace, which is gorgeous.

As vacapinta has mentioned, Toldeo is an excellent day trip for people who like old neighborhoods and old churches, if you find that you've done everything in Madrid in two days and need a filler.

Feel free to memail me if you'd like some suggestions for bars or restaurants. I won't add them here since you didn't specifically mention it.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 9:08 AM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

I know this is probably going to be on the wrong track, but I'll offer it up anyway: go see bull fighting.

I went to MSPCA camp as a kid, I love animals, I'm mostly on board with the breadth of anti-animal initiatives in business practices. But, I was in Madrid and my ex-girlfriend convinced me that this was a thing worth taking in, and I like to try to new things.

It was barbaric, no doubt. It wasn't overly bloody or grisly, but it was sad. It shows a real window into a different time in Spain's culture. It's also an amazing performance in terms of drama and athleticism. I won't describe much more except to say it was different than I expected in positive ways.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:10 AM on October 24, 2013

The Prado is open for free every weeknight from 6-8. It's a great option if you're in Madrid for more than a day or so, because trying to get your money's worth by doing it all in one day is just asking for exhaustion. We went two or three days in a row, and that worked out really well.

Granada's a great city for just wandering around. There's excellent shopping, cool old neighborhoods winding up into the hills, and lovely scenery. We spent a full day just walking, without a real goal, and it was lovely. I second or third the recommendation for the Alhambra: it was quite something.
posted by suelac at 3:24 PM on October 24, 2013

Best answer: My wife and I spent three weeks in Granada in 2008, two weeks of which were at a Spanish school. Our Spanish teacher was a history buff who pointed up to all sorts of wonderful old places around the city.

The Alhambra is definitely the jewel of Granada. If you can spring for the more expensive and much less crowded night tour, it's worth every penny (see if first by daylight and then go back for the candlelight tour, which is gorgeous). Given your interest in churches, I strongly recommend the amazing Carthusian monastery, too. But here are a bunch of ideas:

Upper Albaycin: This district (a long-ago Roman settlement) was the first area of Granada settled by the Moors, starting around 1030. It sits on a hill opposite the Alhambra and predates it by several hundred years. The cobbled streets and alleys are narrow (some barely one meter across) and wind up, down, and around like a maze. The houses are whitewashed, with small windows and tile roofs. Many are bare on the outside but built around pretty central courtyards, which you can sometimes glimpse through an open door or iron gate.

Unlike the lower Albaycin, which is dark and crowded with Arab-style tourist shops, the upper Albaycin feels more open and airy, with fewer tourists and better views. It’s a wonderful, exotic place to wander. Don’t worry too much about finding your way; just head uphill to get there and downhill to get back. (As long as you keep going downhill, you’ll eventually run into a main street you can find on a map.) Several bus lines run from Plava Nueva or Gran Via de Colon up to the Albaycin if, like us, you’d rather ride uphill and walk back down. There are several midadors (lookout spots) in the Albaycin with unparalleled views of the Alhambra.

Some guidebooks make a big deal out of the risk of crime in the Albaycin. But don’t let that constrain you too much. In three weeks of roaming the narrow streets (generally as a pair) at all hours between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m., we never had any problems or felt unsafe. If you’re worried, just stick to streets with more lighting or other pedestrians or cars.

Centro de Interpretacion del Sacromonte: A wonderful newish museum that shows the traditional cave houses, crafts, culture, and microclimate of the Sacromonte region, home of the gitano (gypsy) residents of Granada for many years. The Sacromonte district is as distinctive in its way as the Alhambra or the Albaycin. It’s an area of scrubby hills just above the city that is covered in large agave plants (with great spiky, prehistoric-looking stalks), prickly pear cacti, and herbs (rosemary, thyme, sage). When you scan the hillsides, small whitewashed patches on the slopes, bare holes, or woven fencing, chairs, and other items outside signal the site of a cave home built into the hill. Some have a facade of white-washed stone added onto the front–-with a room or two and a patio-–while the other rooms (small, with arched ceilings and white wash) go back into the hillside.

The cave houses, or cuevas, cluster in three barrancos (ravines) and along the main road, Camino del Sacromonte. This part of Granada is quiet. It feels very close to the green terraced hills on the other side of the Darro River, which stretch out behind the Alhambra complex. It also feels very far away from the bustle and noise of the central city below. The museum (also called the Museo Cuevas del Sacromonte) does a great job of explaining the culture and living patterns of the area. It’s open from 10 to 2 and then later in the afternoon, but go in the morning for the best light. It’s well worth the 5 euro entrance fee for the views alone, as well as to learn about another fascinating aspect of this varied city.

El Monasterio de La Cartuja: The church at this monastery is the most riotous, eye-popping example of Baroque style we’ve ever seen. Whether you like that style or not is immaterial; this is such a well done example that it’s dazzling nonetheless. The sheer volume of carving, gilding, painting, plasterwork, marble, statuary, and marquetery in the church—and the masterful integration of those various media—will make you gasp out loud. We’ve never seen anything like it. The carved and painted wooden figures of saints and angels are especially beautiful and lifelike.

Other things of interest at the monastery include a collection of fairly disturbing paintings of monks being martyred (which the brothers got to contemplate while dining together) and some astounding trompe l’oeil wall paintings. Immense amounts of various artistic skills went into the making of this place. The Carthusians were an extremely ascetic order, subsisting on a minimal diet, following an almost total vow of silence, and spending most of their time in solitary meditation rather than labor. We can only think that this wonderously ornate church was meant to show them that the beauties of heaven were worth their suffering below.

The monastery is an easy ride on the #8 bus (or the “C” bus on weekdays) from Gran Via de Colon and costs a few euros to enter.

Casa de Los Tiros: This 16th century house is a very cool, little-advertised site. It’s located on Calle Pavanares, which comes out of Plaza de Isabel (the one with the big statue of the queen in her flowing robe, surrounded by fountains). The casa is a museum of local culture with changing exhibits, but the real attraction is the house itself, which belonged to a wealthy and important family. The opening hours are erratic and the signage is minimal, so go past it whenever you can and hope you get lucky. Look for a brown stone building with carved soldiers on the facade and battlements on top, opposite the Plaza Padre Suarez. If the big wooden door is open, go in and make a left up the stairs (it’s free). Upstairs are grand portraits of Spain’s main 15th and 16th century kings and queens and rooms with some wonderful tiles floors. But the piece de resistance is the grand reception room at the front with an intricately carved and painted wooden ceiling from 1531, including faces in profile. The walls sport remnants of fresco paintings from the same time, including a well-preserved one of a soldier and another of Hercules swinging a club (in the adjoining room). Don’t miss the beautifully carved doors in the next room that lead into the grand salon. All designed to impress visitors with the wealth and power of the owner. This is an almost-hidden jewel.

Museo Arqueologico (Casa de Castril): This museum on Carrera del Darro is an interesting place to spend an hour or two. (It’s free for EU citizens, and 1.50 euros for others.) The museum contains a small collection of artifacts from a wide range of periods: paleolithic, neolithic, copper and bronze ages, Roman, Iberian, and Moorish. They reinforce just how long people have lived in the Granada area. But the best part of the museum may be the house itself—a late 16th century mansion built by the Zafra family (heirs of Ferdinand and Isabella’s secretary). The view from the open courtyard of the house up to the Alhambra is especially nice.

Palacio de Dar al-Horra: Talk about your hidden jewels! We only knew about this amazing 15th-century Moorish house because our Spanish teacher told us to go. (It’s listed on the standard tourist map, but there’s no description there or in any of the guidebooks.) The house is bare of furnishings, but the fragments of Moorish carving and especially the painted wooden ceilings have survived their 600 years surprisingly well. Best of all, rather than just wandering on the ground floor, you can go up several flights of stairs to see the upper rooms, including a wonderful cupola/sleeping porch at the very top of the house with 360-degree views of the city, including the Alhambra, the mountains that surround Granada on all sides, and the large flat plain on which it sits. This is like a tiny piece of the Alhambra that almost no visitors know about.

The palacio is only open from 10:30 to 2 and isn’t easy to find, but it’s worth the effort. From the pleasant Plaza de San Miguel Bajo in the lower Albaycin (a stop on bus #32), follow the maze-like Callejon de Gallo along winding graffiti-filled walls and past a small garden, then a few more twists and turns until you see a signpost for the palacio next to a nondescript building. Look for a brown door with a buzzer around the corner from the signpost. If it’s open, go on in (don’t be dissuaded by the handwritten “Privado” sign on one of the inner doors). There’s no charge to view the house.

Cathedral and Capilla Real: The handover of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 marked the end of the centuries-long Christian reconquest of Moorish Spain. As such, the city was especially beloved by them and their grandson, Carlos I. In the 1520s, he ordered that the former grand mosque in central Granada be converted into a cathedral. Work continued sporadically until the 18th century. The resulting space is huge and open and austere, with vast white Corinthian columns and drop-plaster fretwork ceilings and small, plain windows up high. All of the stone is painted white, which feels colder and starker than the warm brownish-yellow stone of Malaga’s cathedral. The side chapels are dark, so the colors of the gilded altars and paintings are muted. The only signs of life are in the center of the great space, where two fantastical organs flank the aisle to the main altar-in-the-round. Here, everything is a riot of carving and gilding on the white stone. Still, it feels very formal and 17th/18th century. We didn’t like it much. (My wife's verdict: “This is a really lame cathedral.”) But it may be worth seeing for its historical value.

The royal chapel (Capilla Real) next door is more interesting. It’s the resting place of Ferdinand and Isabella and their family. Besides big marble tombs with effigies, you can see their lead coffins in the crypt underneath. It’s odd, and slightly creepy, to think that those boxes contain the remains of 500-year-old kings and queens. The chapel also has some especially well-carved statuary; a huge and amazing painted iron grille that looks just like carved wood; and Isabella’s crown and sceptre, 1496 prayer book, and collection of Flemish religious paintings, including some lovely works by Hans Memling. There’s also—a rare thing in Spain—a pamphlet in English for about 60 cents that explains what you’re seeing. (Alas, no photography allowed.)

For more information about all of the above sites, plus some good pictures, get the book “Granada and the Alhambra” by Rafael Hierro Calleja, available at many of the souvenir shops around tow
posted by mkuhnell at 7:01 PM on October 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much everyone for your help! I just got back yesterday and we had a fantastic time; we did end up staying in the Barrio de las Letras which was really convenient and Rick Steves' book was super helpful, especially the self-guided tours.

Mkuhnell: Your answer was unbelievably thorough and wonderful, thank you! I wish we'd had time to do everything you suggested.

If anyone is reading this in the future for vacation ideas and wants more specific information on what we did/liked for help in planning, please feel free to MeFi mail me. Thank you all again for all your contributions!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 5:09 AM on December 16, 2013

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