The town district known as Albaicín, declared a World Heritage Site in 1984, stretches over the hill between the calle de Elvira, the Plaza Nueva and the Carrera del Darro, to San Cristóbal. During the Moorish occupation, the Albaicín quarter was a group of different independent town centres, and it wasn’t until the modern period when it was considered a district as a whole.
The Albaicín originally extended to the northeast of the former Cadima Alcazaba Fortress. There are several versions as to where the name Albaicín originally came from. The most accepted one refers to an Arabic word used for the district of the falconers. It wasn’t until the late XV and the early XVI Century that the name referred to the small original area on the outskirts, and the entire district opposite the Alhambra.
To stroll through the Albaicín quarter is to take a trip through the history of Granada itself. The buildings, squares and the very streets allow the observant visitor to recognise the variety of cultural and social changes wrought on the city.
The Gateway of Elvira, found at the foot of the hill and of which only the arch remains, was the former traditional entrance to the city of Granada, and is today the perfect starting point to visit the district. Below is the square called now the Plaza de San Gil, and known as the Plaza de Hatabin or the Woodcutters during the time of the Moorish occupation. It was a hive of activity during this period, as it was a meeting point between the city and the outskirts and medinas found on the opposite bank of the river Darro.
The visitor entering the Albaicín for the first time will discover a lively area, and will feel transported to the splendid moments of the Histrory of Granada. Little is known of its first settlers, as there are hardly any traces of its Iberian or Roman past, but the long centuries of Moorish occupation can be recognised, not only in the buildings and the characteristic appearance of the quarter, but also in the aroma of jasmine that fills the streets, the Moorish gardens, the typical houses of this district called cármenes, or the decoration of the villas.
Elvira Street, which starts from the Archway of the same name, was one of the most important central streets of the city, until the Gran Vía was created. Going in a straight line, it features the Church of San Andrés, complete with minaret as a symbol of its past as a former mosque.
At the end of the street, we come to the Plaza Nueva, which dates from the XVI Century. The buildings here show clear signs of Christian influence. Here stands the Royal Chancery and the church of San Gil y Santa Ana, a forerunner of the Mudejar buildings developed in the city during the early years of the XVI Century.
Continuing the walk from the Santa Ana square, the visitor reaches the Carrera del Darro, one of the most picturesque and attractive streets of Granada. Its location in the river valley, the contrasts of light and shadow caused by the narrow street, the magnificent buildings flanking the road on either side such as the House of the Condes de Arco, the Convent of Santa Catalina de Zafra, the Castril House or the Bañuelo Moorish Baths, all won over the French and English Romantics, who made it the ideal scenic background for many of their tales.
La Carrera del Darro leads to the Paseo de los Tristes, another emblematic area of the Albaicín quarter, where the Cuesta del Chapiz hill begins its steep ascent which leads you to the Sacromonte district. On the Cuesta del Chapiz hill, the visitor must stop to admire the splendid Casa Morisca, or the Palace of the Córdova, based on a XVI Century building that was reconstructed in this site in the mid-sixties of the XX Century. It is now home to the Municipal Archives.
The route to the Sacromonte district reveals the caves, another typical architectural curiosity of Granada. They used to be inhabited by the neighbourhood gypsies, and have now been converted into flamenco stage shows, restaurants, discothèques and tourist accommodation, although there remain some that are still inhabited.
Continuing the Cuesta del Chapiz hill, we reach the perimeter wall of the Alcazaba Cadima, or the old Fortress, and the nearby Church of San Salvador, built on the Grand Mosque of Albaicín. The former courtyard of ablutions has been left intact both here and in the Convent of the Tomasas.
On the right, going down through the Aliatar Square and Panaderos Street, we reach the Plaza Larga, the main square of the Albaicín district. From there, we can go to the Mirador de San Nicolás, a terrace with the best views of the Alhambra, allowing us to get a complete picture of the palatial monument. Alternatively, we could walk along the calle Larga de San Cristóbal to the viewpoint of the same name, which has a spectacular panoramic view of the city. Nearby is the Church of San Cristóbal, which features an Arabic cistern .
These Moorish aljibes, or cisterns, which we find at every turn in the Albaicín quarter, are one of the most typical features of the district. Their use was more functional than purely decorative, as they are associated with former sites of mosques, for the purposes of ablution. The abovementioned cistern in the church of San Cristóbal and the Trillo cistern, complete with an interesting horseshoe arch, are particularly good examples.
Leaving San Cristóbal, we can either climb the Cuesta de la Alhacaba hill that follows the ancient fortress wall built by the Nasrids, or go down the Carril de la Lona, enjoying the wonderful views of the eastern part of Granada, especially from the Viewpoint of the same name.
Close to the Mirador de la Lona Viewpoint is the Plaza de San Miguel Bajo, a lovely square, and a good place to have a rest and enjoy some delicious typical cuisine from Granada, served in the open-air restaurants. It is also pleasant to stroll through the narrow streets and alleyways leading off from the square to find the Convent of Santa Isabel la Real, or the Palace of Dar-Al-Horra, the home of the mother of the king Boabdil. This building features a sharp contrast in its wealth of decoration on the inside to the austere-looking outside façade.
The Santa Isabel la Real Street, which further on is re-named the Camino Nuevo de San Nicolás, after a left turn will bring us back to the bustling Mirador de San Nicolás with its unparalleled views of the Alhambra, thus rounding off our visit to the Albaicín quarter.