The Alhambra palace and gardens in Granada have been a bucket list item for us for a while now. We simple love ornate architecture, buildings with history and a story to them, and places that stand the test of time. Sometimes places you long to see can disappoint when you see them in person, but we’re happy to say that doesn’t apply here. The Alhambra met and exceeded our expectations.
In a separate article, we’ll write all the info about the Granada Card, and all the other things we did and visited in Granada. This article will just cover the amazing Alhambra Palace and complex because there is SO much you could write about just on that alone.
How to get a ticket for the Alhambra – very important!
Oh dear, we didn’t even think about it in advance. We arrived in Granada (campsite details below) and checked on the internet for the price of tickets. That’s when we found out that you need to buy a ticket in advance, that the tickets are in very high demand, entrance numbers are strictly controlled, tickets are released three months ahead of time, and the only ticket we could get from the official website was 2 MONTHS away. We began to feel very silly that we hadn’t thought about it and at least checked it out earlier.
Luckily, buying your ticket directly from the official Alhambra website isn’t the only way to get in. A number are reserved for those buying the Granada Card tourist pass which includes a number of attractions throughout the city. Luckily we were able to buy the Granada Pass which gave us entry to the palace three days later. Phew, disaster averted. Don’t make the same mistake we did. Make sure to plan your visit, especially if visiting it around peak times.
It did cost us a bit extra for the Granada Card, because it included things we wouldn’t be using such as the free bus rides and some attractions, but we were just thankful to be able to see the palace at such short notice.
Where we stayed in Granada
We knew we would be in Granada for quite a few days and it was cold there, especially at night, so instead of looking for a free parking spot in the city, we decided on a campsite. Then we could be certain the van was secure when we left it all day, and we could have the heating on overnight on the electric hook up and stay nice and toasty!
Campsite: Camping Reina Isabel (website)
Location: La Zubia, 30 min scooter ride to the sights
SatNav: See our maps page for the exact location on the map and co-ordinates
Facilities: Showers, EHU, swimming pool (high season only), Motorhome service point, grocery shop, restaurant and bar, washing machines, dishwashing sinks, bus stop outside for Granada
Cost: €108 for 4 nights including EHU (varies according to season)
Tip – take spare camera batteries
We each took a camera, and when the batteries were dead we switched to using the phone to take pictures. Even when we just kept the best of the lot, we still had more than 600 left after the first pass – it’s a VERY photogenic place. So for this article, we will just show a few photos to illustrate various parts of the site and share some others in this slideshow. We’ve tried to include some photos you might enjoy other than the shots of the palace, architecture, and gardens you might usually see and be familiar with.
Be aware that tripods and selfie sticks are also not allowed for the comfort and convenience of other visitors. It’s very difficult to get the shots you would like without other people in them, so please be considerate, patient and good-humored during your visit!
Highlights of a visit to the Alhambra
TIP – BE ON TIME! When you buy your ticket, you’ll be assigned or pick a time for your entry to the controlled area of the Nasrid Palace. It’s really important to be in the queue and ready to visit before the time shown. When we were visiting, it wasn’t so busy so we only needed to be there 10-15 minutes ahead of time, but in high season the queue can be long and it’s recommended to be in the queue about 30 minutes before the time shown on your ticket. If you arrive late, you may be refused entry to the best part of the complex.
The walk into the complex
You enter through the main entrance usually (although there is also entry through the secondary entrance at the Puerta de la Justicia.) You’ll be given a map of the layout of the complex with each section color coded. Take note of where the Nasrid Palace entrance is so you can time your visit to be in the right place at the right time. You’ll walk through some gardens and archeological remains to start, as well as some more modern buildings, gift shops and administrative offices. Now is the time to get familiar with your audio guide, take a breath, take your time and start to enjoy what could be an all-day visit to this fantastic complex.
Your audio guide will give you fascinating information into the history of the palace and the Moorish rule throughout the region. It’s well worth the additional €6 each to gain the extra insight into what you are seeing. Pick up your audio guide at the entrance, and if the batteries get low, you can exchange it at the stand inside, in front of the Charles V Palace.
You might be so excited to visit that you walk through the Medina area without understanding it’s significance. The whole Alhambra complex is like an entire walled city within the city of Granada and so it needed all the utilities and facilities of any other city. The Medina area is not as eye-catching or imposing as the fancy palaces, and not so much is left standing, but it was the bustling heart of the city and its people.
Allow the audio guide to talk you through the daily life in the Medina and show you some of the archaeological excavations showing every day life in the city for the people who lived there and served their rulers. It’s a good foundation for understanding the history of the complex.
Charles V Palace
The first imposing view you’ll see as you head to the interior of the complex is the enormous Charles V Palace, complete with a row of canons outside. Built much later than the original Nasrid Palace, the Emperor ordered his palace built next to the Alhambra so he could enjoy its splendors.
Thick, heavy and completely overstated from the outside, it’s square edifice with enormous metal rings feels cumbersome and out of place in the otherwise delicate and ornate complex. Started in 1527, it was never really completely finished in its day because of the layout, although clever, wasn’t actually very practical.
Inside however is delightful and surprising. From the heavy square exterior you wouldn’t imagine the light-filled, and open circular interior. The 30 m wide courtyard is open to the sky and surrounded on two levels by a wide porticoe of 32 columns providing a cloistered feel. The roof pitches in towards the center of the courtyard and with the columns and architecture, there is a very strong Roman feel, reminiscent of the open courtyards in Roman homes from Pompeii we’ve visited before.
The Charles V Palace now houses the Fine Arts Museum and the Archelogical Museum of the Alhambra complex. There are some beautiful examples of Nasrid art and architecture, woodwork, tiles, stone carving, gold coins and pottery in the museum. The audio guide will fill you in with the significance of the pieces you are seeing.
Photos aren’t allowed inside but oops, we didn’t know that until we had snapped off a few. The Fine Arts Museum contains mostly religious art but there are also a few other stunning pieces to enjoy. Here’s one of my favorites.
You might not have time to visit everything if you are only there for a couple of hours, but if you can enjoy an all day visit, you really should enjoy the museums while you are there
The Alcazaba or Fortress
The Alcazaba is the oldest part of the complex and it is thought that similar Arabic defensive structures were in existence in this position as early as the 9th century. The early construction of the site as we visit now was in the 11th century, over the remains of a Roman fortress, however the main construction dates from the Nazarie period between the 13th-15th centuries.
It’s the redish color of the stone that gives the Alhambra it’s name.
The name Alhambra comes from an Arabic root which means “red or crimson castle”, perhaps due to the hue of the towers and walls that surround the entire hill of La Sabica which by starlight is silver but by sunlight is transformed into gold.
Later when the city was invaded by the Christians, the fort was used as a prison. It was later abandoned and much neglected until restoration works in the 19th century.
Today we can walk the ramparts, climb up stairways hidden deep within the thick defensive walls and see amazing views over the city and the mountains from the Tower of the Candle (Torre de la Vela), and other towers of the fortress.
Inside the Alcazaba, we can see remains of barracks, baths, water cisterns, and dungeons.
TIP – your ticket only gives you entry into the Alcazaba area once, so don’t dip in thinking you’ll come back for a longer look later on. Take your time, climb the tower, enjoy the mountain and city views, walk the ramparts and make sure you’ve seen it all before moving on.
The Nasrid Palace
The Nasrid Palace is the highlight of your visit. Be aware, it can be crowded and you’ll be unlikely to be able to get those stunning photos you see in magazines without 100 other people stood there trying to take the same thing. But be patient, don’t rush, take your time. Crowds ebb and flow and you can suddenly find yourself left in a courtyard with just a handful of people. Stop for a moment and enjoy the peace and quiet and imagine how it must have been to live in this palace in ancient times.
You start your visit in the Mexuar, and will immediately be blown away by the ornate plasterwork and the colorful tiles. Take note on the way in to see the heavy wooden door decorated with shell style metalwork, a nice detail usually missed as people file through into the Mexuar meeting hall.
This room is usually the most crowded as people take a hundred photos, but there are more amazing splendours to see just around the next corner. At the back of the room is an arch through to the Oratory – prepare to see the most amazing plaster work decoration and carved windows to fill your dreams at night. The Oratory was restored in 1917 after it had been damaged by an explosion in the valley in 1590. This room is roped off so you can only see from the doorway. It’s all white, so getting a good photo here is difficult — like photographing snow! (An Oratory is a small chapel for private worship. )
From the Mexuar, go through the small doorway in the bottom right hand corner to exit into the Patio of the Gilded Room. The patio plaster work was undergoing cleaning when we were visiting and it was fascinating to see the painstaking cleaning taking place with the tiniest of tools and cotton swabs. In the center of the patio is a fountain, and there are colorful tiles on the lower halves of the wall. Admire the doorways that promise more treasures on the other side.
Don’t forget to look up and you’ll be delighted with the two twin windows with canted festoon and a smaller one in the middle, surrounded by inscriptions from the Koran. The whole wall is beautifully decorated with ornaments and inscriptions, including the motto ‘Only God is Victor’. This is the ‘Comares Facade’ constructed in 1369. This façade was the entrance to the residential private area of the palace. On the upper floor there are the private rooms of the women, closed with the intricate lattice windows to preserve their privacy.
Here you can also get up close to the plaster work that adorns many of the walls and facades of the Nasrid palace. Please don’t touch, the plaster work is delicate and can easily be damaged if you lean on it or get too close with your backpack on.
The Court of the Myrtles awaits us next and here you will curse Instagram as people line up to selfie themselves and post to social media. Get behind a young lady wearing not enough clothes posing relentlessly for the perfect insta-shot and you’ll think your time will never come.
But patience pays off and you can usually get a reasonably good view of this part of the palace.
Fountains at each end feed water to the central pool. It’s a relaxing and private area, with the women’s residence down the two long sides of this courtyard. Porticoed galleries on each end lead into some of the most important rooms in the Comares Palace including the private areas of the palace and the throne room.
Again take time to admire the details that other people may miss. The entire palace is an architectural gem, and the details on doors and windows can capture your heart.
It is not only the formal areas of the palace that are highly decorated in order to impress visitors. The private areas reserved for the family are not spared. The Palace of the Lions comprises the royal family’s private chambers and lead onto the stunning Patio of the Lions. On each side of the patio you’ll find stunning rooms fit for a king and his family.
Here the Nazarie style reaches new heights where the light, the water and the exquisite decoration start to reflect a more Christian influence. This part of the palace was built from 1377 by the son of the original ruler and the galleries and columns almost resemble a religious cloister, giving access to each of the fabulous rooms off the courtyard.
In the center of the courtyard is the lion fountain. A huge basin supported on the backs of 12 lions, each spouting jets of water from their mouths. The fountain today is an exact replica from a description of the original from the 11th century.
In the centre of the patio there was originally a low garden and the galleries’ floor is made out of white marble. The garden went through many alterations over the years and it has now been eliminated in order to avoid the dampness it may cause. There are white marble channels, which start inside the end pavilions and inside the halls of the two other sides and which get together at the central fountain forming a cross. On the ends of the channels there are jets that send water to the central fountain.
Take your time to explore and admire the ceilings in the rooms that lead off the courtyard. The exquisite decorations in each of these rooms is perhaps the most intricate and exciting of the entire complex. The Hall of the Two Sisters was in the centre of a series of chambers where the sultana and her family lived.
The hall’s paving is made of marble and has a small fountain with a jet and a little channel that carries the water to the Patio of the Lions (Patio de los Leones). The most impressive element of the hall is the beautiful and perfect dome of mocarabes. Its lighting was carefully considered and it receives the light from lateral little windows.
Our journey through the Nasrid palace is almost completed. We will take a last lingering look as we pass through the more modern elements off the Emperors Chambers, the Patio of the Wrought Iron Grill and Daraxa’s Garden. Pause to admire the views over the whitewashed Albaicin district and the Darro river before emerging into the Pantal Gardens.
The Partal Gardens
When you come out of the Nasrid Palaces, sit and take a short pause and take in the view, before you enter the Partal Gardens. The terraced gardens feature the famous Torre de las Damas [Tower of the Ladies] and the enormous pond that was guarded until very recently by two majestic stone lions, which are today found in the Alhambra Museum. This is the perfect place to sit and reflect on your visit to the Nasrid palace, change the batteries on your camera and enjoy the sunshine once more.
The building is one of the most picturesque in the complex with fantastic views over the whitewashed houses on one side, and into the pool, gardens and fountains on the other side. It’s open and breezy and beautifully decorated, although it’s layout has changed several times since it was originally built.
It comprises the portico, a square hall and a staircase that leads to a mirador, which was built afterwards and from which it was possible to enjoy the view of the valley of the river Darro. The central arch is the only original of the five. The five arches of the portico rest on marble columns, although they used to be brick pillars.
To the left of this tower are three small Arab houses that were built after the tower and added to it. Some paintings were found in one of these houses. The paintings are deteriorated and incomplete, but they are of special interest, as they are the only ones of that specific type within the Muslim period in Spain that have been preserved. They were done during the first half of the 16th century and they represent hunting scenes, imaginary animals, men, women, musicians, singers and a war expedition arriving at camp.
You can’t go inside the houses, to protect these paintings, but the audio guide will tell you more about the houses and the treasures within.
The Generalife Palace and Gardens
The Generalife, built between the 12th and 14th Century, was a summer or leisure palace set apart from the main court, palace and administrative area. It was the perfect retreat for the Kings of Granada when they wanted to escape the official affairs and enjoy ‘me time’.
The name, of doubtful origin, seems to come from the Arabic Yanat- al- Arif or Garden of the Architect, in a clear poetical-religious symbolism that refers to God, Allah, as an architect, the creator of the universe.
This is also the area where crops were grown inside the city walls, and you can still see the orchards and agricultural gardens being cultivated today, alongside the formal decorative gardens.
Not the most romantic of names, but certainly a very romantic garden. The Patio of the Irrigation Ditch has a covered gallery down one side, with dazzling views over the mountains and the rest of the palace. Ornately decorated with plaster moldings from the 1300’s, one can easily imagine throwing down rugs and pillows in one of the niches, sitting back and enjoying the cool breeze on a hot day. Or maybe bring lanterns and enjoy the stars and the tinkling sound of the fountains in the summer evenings. Bliss.
The garden has pavilions on each of the short ends, with the entrance on the one end and bedrooms at the other. This is a much more intimate area than the main palace and feels more like a real home. You enter via the Court of the Dismount where the horses were kept, through a small door, security chamber and guardhouse, and vestibule, and then opening out into the gardens and the view along the full length of the Patio.
From the outside, it feels like a country house, but the inside of course echos the splendour of the main palace with the ornate plaster work and decoration. Truly a summer palace fit for a king.
The Cypress Courtyard featured a U-shaped pool with fountains and jets, and low formal hedging. The arcaded structures behind date to 1584. This area was originally where the baths could be found, and you can still see in the corner of the courtyard, where the water flows into the irrigation canal that fed the baths.
One of the staircases that leads up and away from this courtyard, the Water Stairway, is especially beautiful because of its originality. It is supposed to be the oldest staircase in these gardens (it already existed in the Muslim period). The staircase is divided in three flights, each with a fountain and handrails that are channels with running bubbling cool water. The staircase is surrounded by laurels that join their crowns and form a vault. The sun shines through this laurel vault and the light contributes to the extremely beautiful scene. (Sadly we don’t have a photo.)
Outside the area of the summer palace there are now modern formal gardens joining the Nasrid Palace with the Generalife Palace. Decorated with rose gardens, formal hedging, fountains, rills, pools and water basins, these formal gardens are a pleasant place to sit and cool off if the heat of the day and the enormous scale of the sightseeing leave you weary.
As you leave the Generalife Palace and Gardens via the water staircase and the highest point of the gardens, you’ll pass through the romantic observation point, built in the neo-gothic style in 1836. Carry on through the Promenade of the Oleander, then the Promenade of the Cypress Trees and you’ll emerge from the past into the present as you walk slowly back to the exit. It’s been an epic day!
How long does it take to see it all?
We’d read that you should allow 3 hours to visit the entire Alhambra complex. I suppose it depends on how into it you are, but we loved it all SO much that we were there all day. If you take the audio guide and like to spend your time listening to it all, visiting all the museums and exhibits, taking your time around the palace and gardens, we suggest more likely 6 hours is a more realistic time.