The Koran describes paradise as a shaded, leafy garden decorated with running water and where the “fortunate ones” may take their rest. This seems to have been the vision behind the creation of Generalife, the gardens and summer palace of the Moorish sultans of Granada. What am I talking about? I am trying to describe Alhambra, or rather a part of the opulent complex, which is one of the biggest attractions in Spain. Drawing up to 6000 daily visitors, it is the most exotic charm of Andalusia, a Moorish dream, an unforgettable experience. Located against the backdrop of snow-capped Sierra Nevada, this fortified palace complex encompasses the glory and power the Moors once had in Spain. The complex, which started as a walled citadel slowly flourished into the magnificent seat of Granada’s Nasrid dynasty. Consisting of the 14th century Palacios Nazares, along with the gorgeous Generalife gardens, Alhambra proudly boasts of some of the finest Islamic architecture of Europe.
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History of Alhambra and its rediscovery
The origins of the Alhambra are debatable. It has been first mentioned in some 9th-century literature, though most believe that the complex buildings date back to Roman times. However, it is commonly agreed upon that Alhambra in its present form goes back to the 13th and 14th centuries when the Nasrid sultans turned it into a fortified palace complex. Alhambra just like the city of Granada has faced a lot of turbulent times and the changing of the rulers was not easy for the complex. After the Christian Reconquest of Granada in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella took up residence at Alhambra. They left it relatively untouched except for restoring some rooms and converting the mosque into a church. It was their grandson, Emperor Charles V who wreaked havoc in the complex and he demolished a whole section of rooms to build a Renaissance palace, which still bears his name. Later, in 1812, it was occupied by Napoleon’s forces when they were invading Spain and the French Napoleonic army looted and destroyed most of the palace. They even attempted to blow it apart, when luckily the plot was undone by a brave old soldier. Twenty years later, Alhambra shot into recognition when the American writer Washington Irving set up study at the empty palace rooms and started writing his beautifully romantic ‘Tales of the Alhambra”. After the publication of the book, Alhambra was recognized as a national monument and ever since serious restoration work has been meticulously putting together the palace complex back to its Moorish glory.
The four main parts of the Alhambra complex
Alhambra is made up of four distinct sections: the Palacios Nazaríes (Royal Palace, or Nasrid Palaces), Charles V Palace, the palace gardens of the Generalife, and the fortress Alcazaba. Of all three, the fortress dated back to the eleventh century and was made by the Ziridian rulers. In fact, it existed at the time the Nasrid ruler Ibn al-Ahmar made Granada his capital and its deep tawny walls rendered the name: Al Qal’a al-Hamra which means “the red fort” in Arabic. It is possible to see all the three sections of Alhambra and below are some of the most beautiful (and Instagrammable) spots of this vast fortified palace complex. them all when you visit the Alhambra.
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The Nasrid Palace of Alhambra
This is the main attraction of Alhambra. This requires a separate ticket and time slot and make sure that you do not miss your appointment. The complex authorities are very strict about the booking time and restricting the number of visitors so don’t be late, otherwise, you won’t be let in. Constructed mainly from wood, brick, and adobe, the Nasrid Palaces are a beautiful contrast of simplicity and details. While the architectural style of the palaces is pretty simple in designs, the exquisite ornamental stucco decoration steals the show. Arabic inscriptions feature prominently in the ornamentation, with some poetic eulogies to the buildings and sultans. There are three main buildings inside the Nasrid Palace and each section is arranged around an interior court and has a specific function.
- Mexuar – The first series of rooms were called the Mexuar and the sultans used them for business and judicial purposes. The grand facade of the Patio del Cuarto Dorado led to the splendid Serallo where the sultans received the ambassadors and other distinguished guests.
- Serallo – Serallo opened out from the marble-columned arcades at each end of the long Patio de los Arrayanes (Patio of the Myrtles) which has the emerald green reflecting pool. This is one of the most photographed spots of Alhambra and rightly so.
- Harem – The Harem was the last and innermost section of the palace and it formed the private royal residential quarters, which were entered by none other than family or servants. The Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) forms the heart of the harem. The stone lions sit beneath a fountain in a court which was designed as an interior garden and opens onto three of the palace’s finest rooms. The largest of these, the Sala de los Abencerrajes, has the most beautiful ceiling in the Alhambra: the sixteen-sided artistic marvel, supported by niches of stalactite vaulting, lit by windows in the dome and reflected in a fountain on the floor.
Charles V Palace of Alhambra
The grandiose Charles V Palace or Palacio de Carlos V seems as out of place in Alhambra, as it rightly is. It stands in its Renaissance finery in the midst of Moorish exotic beauty and just does not blend in. Quite understandable, since Charles V actually demolished an entire wing of rooms of the Nasrid palace to make space for this oval building. An austere stone structure, the Charles V Palace started getting built in 1526 and was never finished. It is the only surviving work of Pedro Machucha, one of the former pupils of Michelangelo and has Ionic columns projecting up to an open sky.
Generalife literally means the “Garden of the Architect”, and the grounds are the perfect spot to take a break during the Alhambra tour. Dating back to the 14th century, Generalife used to be the sultan’s summer estate. It is a beautifully landscaped area filled with pathways, pools, fountains, gazebos, trees, and flowers. Derived from the Arabic term ‘jinan al-arif’, Generalife consists of the Jardines Neuvos, the whitewashed Palacio del Generalife, and a beautiful staircase known as the Escalera del Agua. According to the descriptions of the Generalife found in the accounts of the 14th-century historian, Ibn Zamrak, the grounds used to host beautiful summer festivities like horse racing at dusk, fireworks display, and acrobatic shows. Though much of his flowery description can be called embellished, Generalife survives till today as a wonderfully landscaped area of respite.
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The Alcazaba is the oldest part of the Alhambra fortified complex. It is also the most ruined and at its summit, which is called the Torre de la Vela, there used to be a huge bell. Until recent years, the bell used to ring the irrigation hours for workers of vela, Granada’s fertile plains. It was also at the Torre de la Vela, that on January 2, 1492, the Cross was first displayed alongside the royal flags of Aragon and Castile, thus marking the end of the glorious Moorish rule of Andalusia. During the Nasrid times, a ravine used to divide the royal palace and the Alcazaba and today it is a walkable area called the Plaza de los Aljibes. After the reconquest of Granada, this ravine was filled up to hold two rainwater cisterns and the surface above was paved with fortifications, thus making Alcazaba a part of the Alhambra complex.
Alhambra Travel Facts
The Alhambra is the most visited site in Spain. It draws up to 6,000 visitors every day and visiting this famous fortified complex needs planning. The most important aspect is to avoid queueing up for tickets. For this reason, you MUST book tickets in advance. We did not do this and the result was Tarek standing in the queue at 6 am for a few hours to get buy a ticket. This is due to the fact that only 300 people are allowed to visit the Nasrid Palace every day and every visitor is allotted a specific time of entry.
How to buy the Alhambra ticket online
To avoid all travel hassles and book your Alhambra ticket online.
- Visit the official Alhambra website,
- choose the day of your visit and the preferred ticket option,
- select the Nasrid Palace time slot,
- enter the visitor details (ID for EU nationals and Passport for others) and
- pay online, upon which you will get an email confirmation of your ticket.
- Print the ticket and skip the famous Alhambra queues.
Now, even when the online purchase of Alhambra ticket can be quite bamboozling due to the overwhelming range of options and you can opt for the Alhambra General, which gives you access to all sites including the gardens.
Get guaranteed Alhambra access with your Granada City Card
You can also get guaranteed access to the Alhambra with your Granada city card, available at the Granada Tourist Office. Priced at 37 Euros, it is way more expensive than the standard entry price of €14.85. However, you get access to several other attractions of Granada with this bundle pack.
Ticket prices and Things to Remember before visiting
14.85 Euros is the cost of a General Daytime ticket. The Alhambra ticket bookings open 90 days in advance and sell out immediately during the peak season. You can book tickets online up to 2 hours before your visit. Being a highly protected monument, there are many strict rules for visiting Alhambra. Selfie sticks, tripods, and backpacks are not allowed inside the Alhambra.
Alhambra Visiting Hours and Timings
Day Time Opening Hours
- 15 March – 14 October: 8:30–20:00 daily. Ticket office hours: 8:00–19:00
- 15 October – 14 March: 8:30–18:00 daily. Ticket office hours: 8:00–17:00
- Closed – 25th December and 1st January
There are two time-slots available in the morning and afternoon. Morning tickets are valid from 8:30 to 14:00 and afternoon tickets from 14:00 to 18:00 (20:00 in summer). It is mandatory to enter the ticketed areas like Nasrid Palace, Generalife, and Charles V Palace within your appointed times.
Night Opening Hours
Experiencing the Alhambra at night is supposedly very romantic. Though you can visit the Alhambra at night throughout the year, the night visits to the Generalife and Nasrid Palace cannot be combined. That means you cannot visit both on the same night.
- 15 March – 14 October: 22:00–23:30 Tuesday – Saturday. Ticket office hours: 21:00–22:45
- 15 October – 14 March: 20:00–21:30 Friday and Saturday. Ticket office hours: 19:00–20:45
Ticket prices – 8 Euros (Nasrid Palaces) 5 Euros (Generalife)
Best Time to Visit Alhambra
Alhambra is most crowded from April to June. July and August are also scorching hot with the temperature soaring up to to 40 degrees Celsius. In summer, the morning session is more popular and in winter, Alhambra is busiest in the afternoon. Afternoon slots at Nasrid Palace are very popular with large group tours and are best avoidable. Try visiting Alhambra in spring or fall, when blooming flowers or fall colours make Granada resplendent and crowds of tourists are low.
How to reach Alhambra
- By Bus – Hop on the C3 bus behind the statue of Isabella and Columbus. The ticket costs 1.2 euros and takes you up the hill almost to the front entrance.
- By Taxi – Taxi charges 6 Euro one way and is the easiest and most convenient way to reach Alhambra.
- By Car from Granada – Follow the route is signed from the Puerta Real, to the south of the cathedral of Granada. This marked route will guide you along paseos del Salón and de la Bomba, eventually reaching the Alhambra’s car park, close to the entrance and ticket office. The Alhambra parking fee is 5.45 euros for 3 hours, 7.00 euros for 4 hours. It takes about 15 minutes from Granada city center to reach Alhambra by car. Upon entering the parking lot, you will get a ticket. Keep the ticket with you throughout the visit and remember to pay at the machine in the parking lot before you leave.
- By Tourist Train – The Hop-on-Hop-off tourist train of Granada is another option of reaching Alhambra. The ticket costs 8 Euros for one day and the green day route has Alhambra at the end of the circuit. Please note that the night train route does not include Alhambra.
- By Minibus – The Alhambrabus is a minibus service dedicated to Alhambra. The lines #30 or #32 operate daily between 7 am to 10 pm. Shuttle service is available every 10 minutes and the ticket costs 1.20 Euros. The minibusses depart from Plaza Isabel La Católica near the cathedral and drop the visitors outside the Alhambra’s entrance and ticket office.
- By Walking – To reach Alhambra by foot, start at Plaza Nueva and follow Cuesta de Gomerez. Turn left at the Puerta de las Granadas (Gate of the Pomegranates), and continue until you reach the Puerta de la Justica (Gate of Justice) entrance at the Alhambra. The entrance and ticket office to the Alhambra which lies at the eastern end is a further five-minute walk uphill. It’s a steep uphill walk of around 1 kilometer from the city center and the Cuesta de Gomérez is a semi-pedestrianized road that goes uphill from Granada’s central Plaza Nueva. The only vehicles allowed on this road are taxis and residents’ cars.
Though most Alhambra visitors stay in Granada, many people opt for a self-drive day trip or organized tour from Seville or Malaga. It is a 90 minutes drive from Malaga to Alhambra. From Seville, the one-way drive takes a bit less than 3 hours. Parking is available near the main entrance of Alhambra at Camino Viejo del Cementerio. Go early since the parking spot gets filled up fast. Buy your ticket and then walk 10-15 minutes to reach Nasrid Palace from the main gate. Continue to the Carlos V Palace and the Alcazabar, after finishing Nasrid Palace and end your Alhambra tour with Generalife. Retain your ticket as it might be checked at major sites.
What to see at Alhambra
Alcazaba – It is the site of the original 13th-century citadel. The Watchtower or the Torre de la Vela is its highlight. Climb the winding staircase to the top for sweeping views of Granada city.
Charles V Palace or Palacio de Carlos V – A signposted path from the entrance pavilion leads to the Charles V Palace. There are a few religious buildings en route. These are –
- Convento de San Francisco or the Parador de Granada Hotel (Isabel and Ferdinand lie buried there, though their tombs are located at Capilla Real)
- Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Alhambra ( a 16th-century church on the site of the Alhambra’s original mosque)
- Museo de la Alhambra (has an impressive collection of Islamic artifacts)
- Museo de Bella Artes ( displays a collection of 15th- to 20th-century artworks)
Nasrid Palace or the Palacios Nazaríes –
- Patio del Cuarto Dorado
- Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room)
- Palacio de Comares
- Patio de los Arrayanes or the Court of Myrtles
- Salon de los Embajadores or the Chamber of the Ambassadors (has a magnificent ceiling)
- Palacio de los Leones or Palace of the Lions (Lion Courtyard) – this courtyard uses the proportions of the golden ratio and has 124 slender columns supporting the ornamented pavilions.
- Sala de los Abencerrajes (has a mesmerising octagonal stalactite ceiling)
- Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings)
- Sala de dos Hermanas or the Hall of Two Sisters (has a stunning honey-combed vaulted ceiling)
- Jardines del Partal
Leave the Partal gardens by a gate facing the Palacio de Carlos V, or continue along a path to the Generalife.
- Jardines Neuvos
- Palacio del Generalife
- Patio del Cipres de la Sultana (has the trunk of a 700 years old cypress tree)
- Escalera del Agua
Alhambra with Children and other tips
Yes, though a few things must be kept in mind before visiting Alhambra with children. Strollers are not allowed inside Generalife or Nasrid Palace. Free baby carriers are available for Alhambra visitors and the staff help adjusting them. Keep in mind that you need to dedicate at least half a day to explore Alhambra to the fullest. There are not many dining options inside the complex and the best bet is Alhambra Parador hotel. There is also a kiosk and a small vendor next to the Alcazaba. Stock up on light snacks and water, especially if you have just started the tour.
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