It pays to know how to drive a manual car because in Europe it is much cheaper to rent one than an automatic. We don’t have our own vehicle in Madrid so we rent from Europcar. Zipcar hasn’t added Madrid to the map yet but they are in Barcelona. If you only want to rent a car for a couple hours every now and then in Madrid then you should check out Bluemove Carsharing. I haven’t tried it myself but I know a few friends who really like it.
There are a lot of car rental agencies out there with tempting cheap prices online but we always stick to Europcar. For a while there was a glitch in their websites between their US and Europe sites where you could rent a car with unlimited miles from the US site much cheaper than the Spain site but unfortunately they figured it out and corrected the glitch. Tip: always shop around. Also, renting from the airport and train stations usually adds on an additional cost.
When we rent we always use an American Express card. They have an auto insurance plan that costs $25 per use and covers more than the “packaged Europcar insurance”. Once we even had an accident where the frame was damaged, it would have cost us a lot without insurance (I can’t remember but it was over $400). But American Express covered it all, it just took a long time and some communication on our part to connect the 2 companies to settle the issue.
If you do rent a car, it doesn’t hurt to get your international driver’s license from AAA; It only cost $15. I’ve rented cars without one but you can never be too sure what to expect if you get pulled over.
Driving in European cities can be really annoying, there are a lot of roundabouts but don’t be intimidated. The roads and highways are fairly easy to navigate and it is worth the cost because you have more freedom to travel and can explore all the hidden places off the beaten path that Spain has to offer.
Last year we went to Granada twice but it is such a wonderful city we went back this April and will probably go again during the summer months. This time we had a chance to see the Alhambra gardens.
You can purchase general entrance to the Alhambra and the Generalife gardens for only 8.40 euros per adult. This ticket covers in and out entrance into the fortress plus the tower, gardens, garden palace, but minus the Palacios Nazaries. This is a great purchase if you are just showing friends around but make sure your friends have entrance tickets to the Palacios Nazaries (if they’ve never been) because they are incredible. Last year we were at the Alhambra in December and didn’t have extra time so we skipped the gardens. But this year we took our time and it was beautiful. If you have never visited the Alhambra and are trying to cram a visit in during the spring or summer months then I would definitely recommend booking 2 separate days to view the place, especially if you are older. There is just so much to take in and you could and should spend hours here, it is like a whole other world.
This year we visited during the height of Semana Santa. We had a bit of drama booking a hostel but in the end Hostal Costa Azul hooked it up.
Whenever I’m in Granada I try to find a great spot to watch the sunset. The Mirador de San Nicolas is one of the most touristy spots for a view of the Alhambra as the sun sets, but not really the best spot (head to Sacramonte). But this year we went up the San Nicolas bell tower for 2 euros for some great views. And below us was the Asociación Artesanos de San Nicolás selling all kinds of wonderful jewelry and crafts. After the sun went down we headed back down through the Albaicín and flamenco dancing into the darkness and came out upon the lights of a triumphant Easter procession. A great end to our wonderful day in Granada.
From Madrid you can take the Alsa Bus to Granada for around €30.00 it takes about 5 hours. The bus company owns a rest stop at the halfway mark so you get about a 30 min break to split up the ride.
From the Granada bus station you can catch the 3 or 33 bus line to the city center. Don’t buy a map from the tourist table at the bus station because you can get a better one for free from the tourist office in the center. They always have helpful suggestions at the tourist offices but Granada is one city in which you should get lost in. It was raining the day we arrived but we took to the streets anyway.
First stop, the Albayzín; it is a mass of winding maze like streets with many secret vistas, nooks and alleys. As you wind your way uphill you should veer toward the Mirador de San Nicolas where many stop to admire the Alhambra and watch the sunset over the city.
When your legs grow weary from wandering the stone streets head toward Calle Elvira and the surrounding streets, hop into one of the many teterias for some tea or opt for a bar and some free tapas.
If you are there when we were, then check out the Christmas Market @ the Plaza de Bib-Rambla (with the fountain of trolls) and stop in one of the many churrerías in the square for some hot chocolate and churros (great on a rainy night).
We started out early and walked along el Paseo de los Tristes ( Carrera del Darro) which had the feel of being in a fairytale as you walk along the river under the impressive Alhambra. Don’t head up the side roads to the Alhambra just yet instead keep walking until you reach Sacromonte.
Sacromonte is a must see on my list because well, how could you pass up seeing a gypsy district where many live in cave homes? And the views of the city and the Alhambra just get better and better the higher up you climb. We headed to the Museo Cuevas Sacromonte to see if it was worth an entrance fee. When we got there we were more interested in hiking the hills above the museo but they said we couldn’t access them. So we left and luckily ran into an old gitano and his fierce looking scroungy dog. They were super friendly so we got to talking and he told us how to climb above the museo. There are paths you can access but they are above people’s cave homes so tread carefully. His home guards the entrance so it is probably wise to get permission before walking over his roof. Never hold back in using the little Spanish that you know because this was the best part of our trip. The views were amazing and the cave homes were fascinating.
Next stop, the Alhambra. Definitely book your tickets in advance and when you pick them up just use the ticket machines don’t wait in line to claim them from a teller. Plan your trip to the Alhambra in advance because the tickets can be a little confusing. To save yourself from any worry, plan to have a full day at the Alhambra. We had reservations to catch a bus back to Madrid at 17h so we were gambling with time. When you make reservations you base the time on when you want entrance into the Palacios Nazaries (a must see). Our entrance was for 14h but this meant that our hours of visitation to the rest of the Alhambra were from 14h-18h. So we had to rush the rest after we saw the Palacios. We thought you could see the whole of the Alhambra any time and that the timed ticket was just for the Palacios. The truth is this: There are two options for viewing the entire Alhambra (8:30-14hour, or 14h-18hour) if you buy the 14h-18hr like we did then you can’t view the rest of the Alhambra like the towers until after 14h. So keep that in mind when you schedule the time to see the Palacios. And remember you only have a 30 min slot to enter the Palacios Nazaries from the time stamped on your ticket. You have to wait in line for the Palacios but the line moves fast and you’ll only need to line up maybe 10 min in advance.
There is a lot more to see and experience in Granada and the outskirts but that’s for another trip!