The Alhambra is Granada Spain’s most famous and important site. This complex of fortresses, palaces, churches, and gardens sits atop a hill looking out across the city. Not only is The Alhambra spectacular to witness from the inside, but its hilltop setting offers many striking images from throughout the city. During our recent weeklong stay in Granada, I went out one evening for a brief walk. But as often happens when I go out for brief walks while traveling, it turned into something entirely different. An epic quest for some of the best Alhambra viewpoints – a quest that included plenty of Google Maps frustration, Gypsies, Hippies, cave houses, a just-in-case-I-don’t come back phone call to Mrs. TT, some really sore legs, and some really great views. Let me take you along on my quest that evening.
Just Going for a Quick Walk, Dear
It was only our second full day in Granada. We’d visited The Alahambra the day before, and it had rained for most of that second day, keeping us inside. Mrs. TT was dipping her toes into the digital nomad lifestyle while on this Spain trip for the first time – working her usual job from abroad, but working on a US schedule. This meant that our days of touring together ended at 5pm each weekday evening. Sometimes I would also stay in the whole evening, working on this blog. But more often than not, I would go out for an hour or two and wander about on my own. I wouldn’t ever see major sites without her. I would simply explore and take photos.
On this particular night, I decided to walk up the road a bit from our AirBNB, near Granada’s Cathedral, and check out the Paseo de los Tristes. It’s a riverside promenade directly below The Alhambra. I didn’t plan on being gone long. The weather was still threatening rain.
At the Paseo, I enjoyed walking along the Darro river, checking out the various bridges across, and admiring The Alhambra towering directly above me.
Into the Albaicin
Once I was finished at the Paseo, I noticed that the weather seemed to be holding up. I wasn’t particularly anxious to go back and open up my laptop for the rest of the evening yet. I was still trying to get a handle on Granada, and so decided to explore further. I was standing next to the Albacian – home to many of the best Alhambra viewpoints – and sunset was approaching. The perfect time for Alhambra viewing. So into the Albaicin I went.
The Albaicin sits on a hillside opposite The Alhambra. It’s the former Arab Quarter of Granada. Like The Alhambra, this entire neighborhood is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It features narrow cobble-stone streets, small town squares, and white-washed Moorish houses.
I had briefly visited the Albaicin at sunset on our first night in Granada – when I sought out what is considered to be the very best of The Alhambra’s viewpoints – Mirador de San Nicolas. This is my favorite photo from that night and the viewpoint was indeed great…..
As I entered the Albaicin once again near sunset, I decided that on this night, I would walk up to the Mirador San Miguel Alto – the highest of the best Alhambra viewpoints.
“It’s Way Up There”, Google Maps Couldn’t Warn
Now usually, I’m a better planner when it comes to visiting popular sites. But this was a spontaneous decision. I had only a very rough idea of the where Mirador San Miguel Alto was. In fact, I wasn’t even entirely sure of the name. It’s certainly helpful to have the internet in our pockets now though, and I quickly Googled “Best Alhambra Viewpoints” to be sure I was going to the right place.
A look at Google Maps then told me that it was 1.5 km away. This didn’t seem far, and it didn’t look far on the map either. So I decided to indeed go for it. I figured I would arrive at the perfect time for some nice sunset photos.
Now here’s the thing about Google Maps. It’s not in 3D. If I had understood what I was really getting myself into, I probably would have sought out one of The Alhambra’s other best viewpoints that night.
What Google Maps couldn’t show me was how high Mirador San Miguel Alto sits above the Albaicin. Before I headed off, I knew that there was going to be some climbing involved – the Albaicin is on the side of a hill after all. What I didn’t understand is how much climbing was ahead of me.
Here’s a fuzzy enlarged picture of the Ermita de San Miguel Alto – it’s a 17th century church and the viewpoint (mirador) is from the courtyard in front. I unknowingly took the photo of San Miguel Alto from The Alhambra the day before. I remember commenting to Mrs. TT about how cool the old city wall looked “way on top of the hillside over there”. That’s Ermita de San Miguel Alto at the very top of the 11th century wall. Yep…. I would be doing some climbing.
I Guess I’m in Sacromonte Now
So, innocently, I set out following the blue line on Google Maps to Mirador San Miguel Alto, up through the steep streets of the lower Albaicin.
Here’s something else that’s tricky about Google Maps in this part of Granada. The streets are narrow and maze-like. Side allies and staircases are constantly presenting themselves. You can think you are following the correct route – but odds are that you took at least one wrong alleyway two turns back.
Consequently Google Maps was constantly resetting my route.
At a certain point, I quit trying to follow it closely, just checking from time to time to make sure I was still headed in the right general direction. Then, I turned a corner and was greeted with this view….
As I mentioned, I hadn’t completely familiarized myself with Granada yet, but I did know enough to realize that I wasn’t in the Albaicin any more. Instead I had found my way to its adjacent district – Sacromonte.
Sacromonte is known as the Gypsy Quarter of Granada. Here, the Roma people built their homes into the side of the mountain over generations, creating a community of cave dwellings. Sacromonte extends into the canyon behind The Alhambra.
And it was here that I had unintentionally stumbled upon another of the best Alhambra viewpoints…
A Gypsy Told Me to Go This Way
At this point, I was all kinds of confused. I knew I was in Sacromonte, I knew I probably didn’t want to be in Sacromonte, but Google Maps was still showing me a fairly direct pathway to Mirador San Miguel Alto In fact, it was showing me three different routes (all with the same estimated arrival time).
But, none of them really made any sense. I couldn’t in reality see any sort of road nearby.
Did you know that Google Maps also includes narrow dirt paths in its directions? I do now….
As I was looking around, clearly confused (and clearly a tourist), a Gypsy man who was walking past, pointed repeatedly at a dirt pathway in between two cave house, while repetitively saying “Bonita”. I know enough Spanish to know that means Beautiful. So, I presumed that he was giving me Directions? to a Beautiful View? Hopefully?
I consulted Google Maps again and it seemed to be offering me that same pathway as my closest option. Hesitantly, I decided to follow it, determined that I was going to find the #@%! viewpoint.
Should I Even Be Here?
Once I passed those first two cave houses, the dirt path narrowed to a steep dirt trail, and suddenly, I was truly in the middle of the “rustic part” of Sacromonte – all by myself. When I first stumbled upon Sacromonte, the cave houses were really quite nice – refurbished and enlarged with framed entries. Now, I found myself, surrounded by true holes in the ground, many strewn with trash all around, and every single one with a barking dog.
At this point, I felt fairly certain that the Gypsy man had either tricked me, or that I had misinterpreted Bonita Bonita Bonita for a different phrase that meant – “my friends are going to pull you into a cave up ahead”.
But I pressed on, zigzagging up the hill, still the only person in sight. Google Maps was still showing me a defined path to the Mirador, and the estimated arrival time was narrowing, so I figured I was at least going in the right direction – the chorus of barking dogs be damned.
Ultimately I reached a crest and could see the ancient city wall. At this point, I understood where I was – remembering my view from the Alhambra the day before.
Soon, I discovered another of the best Alhambra viewpoints. I don’t think you’ll find the “Rustic Sacromonte Viewpoint” on most online guides, but if you’re up for the challenge (or lost), it’s a really good one…
Is That Where I’m Going?
As I continued to climb parallel to the wall, I could see a building and some other structures at the top. They looked quite run-down, and given that I’d started this adventure without any planning, I wasn’t even sure at this point that I had Googled the correct destination.
But I had no choice but to press on and so I did. There was no way I was going back down through rustic Sacromonte.
When I reached the top, I immediately came across a large parking lot. I took this for a positive sign. There were a few campers in the lot, but no one was around. Given that this was supposed to be one of the Alhambra’s most popular viewpoints, I remained confused. So confused in fact, that I didn’t take any photos of the building to show you.
When Hippies Stare
As I entered what was in fact the Ermitage de San Miguel Alto, I could only see four hippies at the end of the entry road – no other tourists lined up for the view. (Granada is well known for its Hippie community). Again, concern. Was the Gypsy man and these Hippies in cahoots . And again, no photos….too on guard…..
The Hippies stared me down a bit and so I just kept walking past. I did finally spot two other tourists. This helped me feel a little better, but I just kept walking through the courtyard viewing area and started down the other side of the wall where the coast seemed clear.
At this point, I pulled out my iPhone for a picture. Honestly I was disappointed with the view as soon as I saw it – when my eyes first unlocked from the Hippies’ stare. I think that The Alhambra is really too far away at this Mirador for a great photo. The viewpoints down below were much better.
How Do I Get Out of Here?
So now what? Still unsure that I was even in the right place, and not really wanting to hang with the (harmless I’m sure now, but not in the moment) Hippies, I once again consulted Google Maps. I plugged in our apartment and looked at my options. What I saw was multiple zig-zagging blue lines leading me straight down the steep hill in front of me. Really??
So let me pull up this picture again…
See Ermita de San Miguel Alto at the top? See the wide dirt pathway just below? And see the steep hill just below that? I’m standing on that wide dirt path at this point, and Google is telling me to head down the steep face of the hill.
At this point, I’m pretty tired and my legs are aching. And I’ve just had an imagined run-in with Gypsies and Hippies while surrounded by barking dogs and trash. I can see more really run-down cave houses ahead. No other tourists in sight. I’ve been gone much longer than I intended.
For the first time ever, I called Mrs TT and let her know where I was at…..just in case……
And then I headed down the steep zig-zagging dirt trail in front of me.
Zig-Zagging through Cave Houses
And here’s what I saw……
I later learned that many of these cave houses had been abandoned over the years, but that there has been a resurgence of interest, and restoration is taking place in many parts of Sacromonte. Later during our time in Granada, we visited the Sacromonte Cave Museum (near where my Gypsy friend did send me in the right direction). Here, we were able to visit a restored cave house complex and learn more about this fascinating way of life.
Sunset over the Albaicin
As I descended the steep hill through the cave houses, the sun started to set over the Albaicin below me. I did get my great sunset photos after all.
Wandering Tiredly Home
Once I made it back down into the Albaicin, I put away Google Maps. I knew where I was headed and I knew I would take some wrong turns along the way.
But sometimes when you take wrong turns, you see things that are magical.
And some of the best Alhambra viewpoints are the ones that you find by accident….
In retrospect, I could have taken a taxi to Mirador San Miguel Alto, and had a much easier evening. A paved road accesses the Mirador around the other side of the Albaicin. But also in retrospect, I don’t think that I would change a thing about this 4.5 mile, 2.5 hour odyssey to find one of the supposed best Alhambra viewpoints. I discovered so many other great Alhambra viewpoints along the way, completely familiarized myself with two of Granada’s most famous districts, and returned to our apartment with a great story to tell Mrs. TT.
If you want to read more about wonderful Spain, then check out the other posts in my Spain series:
And click here to read about another trip where I was completely enthralled with the local neighborhoods in The Three Cities of Malta
And here’s a post about another evening quest in Lisbon Portugal