The Alhambra is a magical Moorish palace and fortress complex in Granada, Spain. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most famous and best-preserved examples of Islamic architecture, as well as including fine examples of Renaissance architecture. The site is huge and will take a minimum of 4 hours to explore. It's easy to get to Alhambra from anywhere in Granada. There is public bus service (C30/320 from the city, taxi services, or you could walk. If you do choose to walk, keep in mind that it will be about a half-hour uphill walk. Tickets must be pre-booked online before arrival. The total number of visitors per day is limited but with timed entrances and a huge site, crowds are well-managed. A self-guided tour with audio guide, will cost 14€. Tickets go on sale 3 months in advance, and it is strongly recommended to book well in advance since this is one of the most popular attractions in Spain. Be aware that visitors need to show their ticket at each section of the Alhambra.
There are four main areas to visit at the Alhambra. Check your ticket carefully for your entrance time to the Nasrid Palaces. Latecomers will not be accommodated, so plan your explorations carefully.
In several areas of the Alhambra Palace, selfie sticks, camera lights, bulky backpacks, and tripods are prohibited. Drones are strictly prohibited throughout thee site. There are lockers near the Charles V Palace to store your stuff.
History of the Alhambra The Arabic word for Alhambra translates as "red castle" as a nod to the red clay used for construction. Originally a modest stronghold built on ancient ruined Roman foundations, the Royal Alhambra Palace was built in the 1200s by the Muslim king and founder of the Nasrid Dynasty, Muhammed Al-Ahmar who ruled over Granada for many years. For the next 200 years, other kings added and renovated.
At the end of the 1400s, Christians reclaimed Spain from the Moors during the Reconquista. Since then, it was only ruled by Christian kings. The architecture has remained mainly Moorish, with stunning interiors and exceptional exteriors.
The most significant renovations, excavations, and repairs were done in the 1930s by Leopoldo Torres Balbás. It is Balbás who built the ceiling in the incomplete Palace of Charles V.
The oldest part of Alhambra castle is the military fortress of Alcazaba. It is in a strategic location overlooking the surrounding city and beyond. It is believed that some sections existed before the arrival of the Moors.
The first monarchs used the castle as their residence while the Nastrid Palaces were being built and later repurposed it as a fortress.
Later, when the Christians arrived, it was turned into the state prison and eventually left to deteriorate until the 19th Century, when restoration began. The ruins of the old Moorish homes and even a dungeon can be found behind the towers in the former Plaza de Armas.
The Plaza de las Armas (Arms Square) was the original entrance and central square. Today visitors can see the foundations of the original buildings which served as the Military Quarters for the Castle.
The Torre de la Vela (Candle or Watch Tower) is the largest of the towers and offers the best views of the city and surrounding mountains. The four flags flown over the tower are representing the European Union, Spain, Andalusia, and Granada. Charles V Palace
The Palace of Charles V started during the Christian times in the 1500s under architect Pedro Machuca, who studied under Michelangelo. This palace is much more Renaissance in appearance, with a huge circular courtyard surrounded by two levels of columns.
When Machuca died before completing construction, his son, Luis took over. The building of the palace was financed by taxes imposed on the morisco (Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity). The moriscos eventually got fed up and rebelled. The lack of funds left the palace without a roof until the early 20th century.
The top floor is the Fine Arts museum featuring a collection of sculptures and paintings from the 12th to 20th centuries. The lower floor includes the Alhambra museum with columns, ceramics and other antiquities. Nasrid Palaces The Nasrid Palaces are the most famous and photographed buildings of the Alhambra. These three palaces are the original royal palaces built by the 14th Century Nasrid Rulers. These were the primary homes of the Moorish kings.
The palaces were built to impress and are considered to be some of the best Moorish architecture in the world. Visitors will be awed by the typical Muslim architecture including intricate stone carvings, beautiful tilework, courtyards with impressive fountains, and stunning baths. The carved stonework is intricate with complicated patterns and designs.
Palacio del Mexuar
The Palacio del Mexuar (Palace of the Mexuar) is one of three palaces in this section. The Mexuar was originally an audience room for meeting with the emir. When the Christians took over, these rooms were converted into a chapel.
The Cuarto Dorado (Golden chamber) features a gorgeous wooden roof. This is also known as the Gilded Room because of the gold leaf that was added in Christian times.
The Patio de Machuca (Court of Machuca) includes a lovely 16th-Century garden and fountain which would have been the original entrance to the Palacio del Mexuar.
The Comares Palace was the official residence of the king with several rooms that surrounded the Court of the Myrtles (Patio de los Arrayanes).
The rooms have galleries with porticoes at the ends. Some examples are the Hall of the Boat (Sala de la Barca) to the north and the Hall of the Ambassadors (Salón de los Embajadores) inside the Comares Tower (Torre de Comares) which offers splendid views of the Darro River.
Palacio de los Leones This palace includes the private rooms of the royal family and is built around the Patio de los Leones (Lion Courtyard), with a fountain of 12 marble lions enclosed by several beautiful galleries accessing different rooms.
Each of the lions is unique. The lions stand with their backs to the fountain. The four water channels that run from the central fountain represent the four rivers of the Islamic Garden of Paradise.
The Moors probably would not have made these lions because the Koran discourages the representation of living creatures. It is thought that the lions are from the 11th century (predating the building of the Alhambra), and were originally owned by a Jewish vizier, who gifted them to the sultan.
Palacio del Parta
Partal comes from an Arabic word meaning “the portico”, and is the remains of the residence of Sultan Yusuf III, the northernmost of the Nasrid Palaces. All that remains now are the archaeological excavations of several of these homes visible among the terraced gardens (planted in the 20th century) – and the picturesque arcade, tower and pond of El Partal.
Generalife is the incredible gardens of Alhambra, full of shaded walkways, fountains, pretty hedgerows, beautiful flowers, and giant ancient trees.
It is on the hillside opposite the Alhambra and to get to it you need to walk through the Jardines Nuevos with its elegant rectangular plots with water features. Generalife is a soothing arrangement of patios, pathways, pools, fountains, flowers and trees, with beautiful views over the city.
The Generalife Gardens are divided into 3 parts – Lower Gardens, the Palacio del Generalife and the High Gardens. The tranquil gardens are the perfect place to cool down on a hot summer day.
Patio de la Acequia
The Patio de la Acequia connects the lower gardens and upper gardens and includes a pavilion. There is a long pool framed by flowerbeds and 19th-century fountains, with arched porticos at each end.
Escalera del Agua
The Escalera del Agua (Water Stairway) was built during the Muslim period. The stairway is divided into three flights, each with a fountain channelling running water. The stairway is flanked by a canopy of laurel trees.
Palacio del Generalife
The Generalife also includes a small palace, which was the summer palace for the kings when they wanted to escape the politics of the principal residences and courts. It is noticeably less ornate, demonstrating that this was more of a family retreat than a place to receive visitors.
The Alhambra is immense but absolutely worth your visit. You will need to be prepared for plenty of walking with comfortable shoes, a full water bottle, and a fully charged camera. Most tour groups arrive mid-morning, so consider booking your entrance for early morning or later in the day.
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