The Ultimate Guide to Granada's Alhambra
Here's my guide to visiting the Alhambra, including key tips for visiting the complex.
The Alhambra is the world's last and greatest Moorish fortress, a masterpiece of ornate stone, plaster, and wood. The Alhambra is one of the most visited sites in Spain, and even in the world. And it's Granada's best and most astonishing must see site, reflecting the opulence of the Moorish imagination.
The Alhambra sits on a stunning piece of real estate – a high, mountainous location on Sabika Hill with sweeping views over Granada and the surrounding countryside. In the Moorish tradition, it's decorated with water: "standing still, cascading, masking secret conversations, and drip-dropping playfully."
Alhambra became a UNESCO site in 1984. It's a deeply affecting place. The Alhambra is so beautiful and enchanting, it's difficult to process. Or to unglue your camera from your face.
In this guide, I take a look at the history of the Alhambra, the beautiful highlights of the complex, and give you important tips for visiting the Alhambra. You can't just show up at the Alhambra and ricochet around the site. You need a plan and prepaid entry tickets.
History of the Alhambra
The Alhambra began as a small fortress in 889 A.D. on the remains of ancient Roman ruins. The Arabic word “Alhambra” means "red one” or “red castle,” referring to the red clay used to construct parts of the complex.
In 1232, the first Nasrid sultan, Mohammad I, established a royal residence when he came to power. Successive rulers made frequent additions and renovations during the 13th and 14th centuries. This was the Alhambra's most glorious period.
In the matter of religion, as befitted a cultured society, the Islamic sultans generally made some effort to tolerate Jews and Christians, setting an example of convivencia, or coexistence.
By the 13th century, the Reconquista was in full swing and Christian military forces began reclaiming parts of southern Spain. In 1492, Granada fell, the last Islamic bastion to succumb.
Sultan Boabdil was immediately expelled. Legend holds that he was rebuked by his mother for weeping as he left the Alhambra: “You do well, my son, to cry like a woman for what you couldn’t defend like a man.”
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella reclaimed the Alhambra and transformed it into a royal palace. However, they didn't return the favor of allowing other religions to coexist (even at a price). Virtually the entire population of Jews were ousted in 1492.
Muslims were either forced to convert or expelled from the country. The Muslims that converted moved to the Albayzín neighborhood, now a hip bohemian barrio, across the river from the Alhambra.
Christian rulers destroyed huge portions of the original complex, filled in pools, and boarded up arcades. Rooms were torn apart and a series of alterations gutted parts of the structure.
For fans of English history, this is where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's famous daughter, Katherine of Aragon, grew up. She would become the first and long suffering wife of King Henry VIII, who founded a new religion so that he could divorce Katherine and marry Ann Boleyn.
Later, in 1808, Napoleon arrived. His troops invaded Granada and seized the Alhambra, blowing up parts of the Alcazaba. Napoleon apparently intended to blow up the palace as well. But a wounded soldier stymied his plans by diffusing the bomb.
The Alhambra's Unlikely Savior: Washington Irving
Over the centuries, the Alhambra fell into ruin and disrepair. It was abandoned in the 18th century. Squatters, beggars, and thieves took up residence.
In 1829, Washington Irving moved into the Alhambra along with the squatters. Irving is an American writer and essayist known for his book The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. While there, he wrote Tales of the Alhambra, a collection of Arabian Nights type stories published in 1832.
"Such is the Alhambra—a Moslem pile in the midst of a Christian land, an Oriental palace amidst the Gothic edifices of the West, an elegant memento of a brave, intelligent, and graceful people who conquered, ruled and passed away."
"On heavenly nights I would sit for hours at my window inhaling the sweetness of the gardens, and musing on the checkered fortunes of those who history was dimly shadowed out in the elegant memorials around."
The Alhambra Tour: What To See at the Alhambra
The Alhambra spans nearly 26 acres, with more than a mile of walls, 30 towers and many smaller structures.
After you enter at the main ticket office, you stroll down the Calle Real de la Alhambra, past the ruins of the Medina. The Medina originally had public baths, shops, and a mosque. It was destroyed by Napoleon's troops in 1812. Now, you can only see the foundations.
Parador de Granada San Francisco
You'll then pass the Parador de Granada San Francisco, which is a national monument open to the public. The Parador was once a Moorish palace, but was converted into a Franciscan monastery.
Kind Ferdinand and Queen Isabella chose to be buried here. They were interred in the parador until 1521, when they were moved to the Royal Chapel in the center of Granada.
Four Key Sites To See Inside the Alhambra
There are four must see sites inside the Alhambra: (1) the Nasrid Palace; (2) Charle's V Palace, (3) the Alcazaba, and (4) the Generalife Gardens.
You can see the sites in any order. But if you want to walk a direct route, start with the Alcazaba and Charles V's Palace before proceeding to the Nasrid Palace. Just make sure to organize your tour around your fixed entry time for the palace.
1. The Alcazaba
What is an Alcazaba, you might be wondering? Alcazaba is an Arabic word that means castle or fort. The Alcazaba's primary function was defense and shelter from external attacks. It was also a miniature city within a city, lodging the sultans' guards.
The fortress is one of the oldest parts inside the Alhambra. It possibly pre-dated the arrival of the Muslims. The first historical reference dates from the 9th century. The current fortress was built by Mohammed I in the 13th century.
The entrance to the Alcazaba is Arms Square. In the middle of the square are the remains of Arab residences. Near the Broken Tower, there's a large dungeon. Arms Square was devoted to military parades during peacetime and to defensive strategy in wartime. For this reason, it's an open space with few buildings.
The Alcazaba’s defining features are its ramparts and three towers: the Broken Tower (Torre Quebrada), the Keep (Torre del Homenaje), and the Watch Tower (Torre de la Vela).
You can venture up and around all the towers.
The Watch Tower is the main tower of the Alcazaba. Its name derives from the bell hung in its tallest tower. It is rung on great occasions of state.
From the tower, you have incomparable views over the Albayzín and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is the chief glory of the Alcazaba.
Arms Tower is located on the northern ramparts. It has a long rectangular projection, which also makes for great viewing. For centuries, it was the main entry to the Alcazaba.
2. Charles V Palace
In 1526, as conquering kings are prone to do, Charles V built his own palace in the Alhambra. He respected the beautiful Nasrid Palace and left it intact. Instead, Charles built a Renaissance Palace for official functions and used the existing Nasrid Palace as his residence.
The Renaissance palace is lovely, but rather stands out like a sore thumb amidst all the elegant Moorish architecture.
Nevertheless, this is Spain's most impressive Renaissance building. It has a circle within a square design and a two tiered colonnade. Try standing in the center; it is an impressive sight.
The Palace was meant to have a dome, but Charles' son abandoned the project to build his own massive palace outside Madrid.
The Alhambra Museum is on the south side of the ground floor of the Charles V Palace. The museum houses a collection of tiles, pottery, and lion fountains. The Fine Arts Museum is on the top floor of the palace with Grenadian sculptures and paintings from the 15th to 20th centuries.
3. Nasrid Palace
The Nasrid Palace is undoubtedly the crown jewel of the Alhambra. It's well-preserved and well-restored. And it offers the finest example of the refined, intricate, and elegant architectural style of the Moorish civilization.
The photogenic palace is a harmonious masterpiece of light, space, and water built out of brick, wood and stucco. Every inch of the rooms are decorated, top to bottom, with ceramic tiles, elaborate plaster work, calligraphy, filigreed windows, and stucco stalactite ceilings. Originally, the palace was painted in bright colors -- red, blue, green, and gold -- which faded over time.
There are three basic sections: royal offices, ceremonial rooms, and private quarters. You begin by walking through the Mexuar, the administrative rooms. Then you walk into the large rectangular Courtyard of the Myrtles, which is a showstopper.
Courtyard of the Myrtles
The Courtyard of the Myrtles was also called the Patio of the Pond or the Patio of the Reservoir, for obvious reasons. Here, a shimmering 150 foot pool reflects intricate plaster tracery of the gallery arches.
It's a standard Moorish design. The Moors loved their courtyards and patios with the accompanying garden and water under the sky. At each end are colonnades with exquisitely carved arches.
Grand Hall of the Ambassadors
Head left through an antechamber and you arrive in the Grand Hall of the Ambassadors. It is the largest room in the Alhambra, 37 feet square and 75 feet tall.
This was the ornate throne room for the Moorish sultans. Its main aim was to impress. Here, the sultans, seated on their thrones, received visitors, vassals, and foreign emissaries. "Ill fated is the man who lost all this!" said Charles V.
The ceiling is extremely elaborate and suggests the complexity of the universe. It was constructed using 8,000 small cedar wood pieces to make a delicate mosaic, which conjures the image of a star-scattered night sky.
The ornamental detail in the room is stunning. Consistent with Muslim traditions, there is no figurative artwork. Rather, the designs consist of religious messages, plant life, floral patterns, and calligraphy.
In 1492, two historic events occurred in this room.
First, Boabdil officially surrendered to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
Second, Christopher Columbus made his first pitch to the conquering Reconquistas, asking them to finance his sea voyage to the Orient. Most courtiers were skeptical and thought Columbus had underestimated the size of the world. But Queen Isabella was not, and authorized his madcap voyage of discovery.
Palace of the Lions
The Palace of the Lions was built by Mohammed V and was the residence of the royal family. A beautiful arched gallery supported by 124 columns surrounds its 14th century rectangular Courtyard of the Lions.
This is probably the most iconic part of the Nasrid Palace. The best photo shots are from the Mocarabes Gallery.
Mohammed V built the alabaster fountain in the 1360. It has a complex hydraulic system consisting of a marble basin on the backs of twelve carved stone lions situated at the intersection of two water channels that form a cross.
The four water channels symbolize the four rivers of paradise. The lions, all with different faces, are a symbol of power and courage. They were cleaned and restored in 2010.
The courtyard connects to the Hall of the Abencerrajes — perhaps my favorite part of the whole Alhambra because of its incredible ceiling.
Hall of the Abencerrajes
The Hall of Abencerrajes was the sultans' living room, and it's a stunner. It has perhaps the most exquisite ceiling in the Nasrid Palace, based on an eight sided Mulim star in blue, brown, red, and gold colors.
The name of the room comes from a gruesome legend. Sultan Moulay Hacén, the father of Boabdil, took a new wife and wanted to disinherit his prior children.
To ensure they didn't rise to seize power, the sultan killed 30 family members. It's said that he stacked their heads up in the pool under the ceiling. The reddish color in the hall's fountain is purportedly stained by the bloodshed.
Hall of the Kings
This room is undergoing renovation, and you'll only be able to see parts of it. In a palace otherwise devoid of figures, this room offers a rare glance at life in the palace. There are paintings depicting courtly life, including the sultans, hunting scenes, and shootings scenes.
The Hall of the Kings is divided into three square spaces with the porticos in the center. These spaces are perpendicularly segmented by large double stalactite arches.
Hall of the Two Sisters
This room is nicknamed for the massive slabs of white marble on the floor. You enter via a well preserved wood den with a semicircular festooned arch. It's a typical royal bedroom with a lovely view of the Courtyard of the Lions and the Gardens of the Partal.
The hall has yet another spectacular ceiling, carved in the 16th century. The dome is lit by lateral windows. It evokes an exquisite flower.
The Royal Baths are known as El Bano de Comares. It is the only fully intact medieval bath in the Western World. It was used by the Catholic kings as their private bathing area in the 15th century.
This area is often closed to visitors because of its fragile and delicate state. But you can see parts of the baths from a gallery corridor. The ceiling has star shaped openings, which were used to regulate the temperature and steam.
There's also beautiful Alicatado tile work in cobalt blue, green, gold, and white colors. The Alicatado style is a mosaic formed of polygonal glazed tiles in geometric patterns.
Peinador de la Reina
The Peinador de la Reina is the queen's dressing room. This space is a complete contrast to other places in the Nasrid Palace.
It was built in 1537 for the Empress Isabel (Charles V's wife) after the conquest of Granada. The room is set high in what was formerly the Tower of Abu I Hayyay. One corridor is open to the landscape, with spectacular views over the Albayzin neighborhood.
The walls are painted with Italian style frescos by Julio Aquiles and Alexander Mayner. There are military scenes depicting an expedition of Charles V. And there are other decorative motifs -- flowers, animals, and angels.
Unfortunately, this area is closed to public visitors. You can only see it on a private tour.
The Partal Palace was built in the early 14th century. It is also known as the Portico Palace because of the portico formed by a five arched arcade at one end of a large pool. Above the arches are Arabic signs of delicacy and complexity.
It is one of the oldest palace structures in the Alhambra complex. Only a fragment of the original palace still stands.
Leaving the palace, climb a few stairs and follow signs directing you to the Generalife Gardens.
4. Generalife Gardens
The Nasrid sultans didn't limit themselves to building within Alhambra's ramparts. Just beyond the walls lie the Generalife Gardens, one of the best preserved Nasrid estates.
The gardens are also known as the Architect's Gardens, which may be a translation of the term Generalife. I think they're best left for last, so you can relax and reflect after all the architectural magnificence.
Generalife was the lush leisure villa of the last dynasty of Moorish sultans. They spent their summers here to escape the intense heat. Generalife is considered one of Europe's most beautiful formal gardens.
The gardens are thought to date from the 13th century. At that time, they contained orchards and vegetable gardens. The current gardens, however, date to 1931, when they were restored as part of the ongoing renovation of the Alhambra.
The Generalife comprises a lower garden, the palace residence, and upper gardens. A simple one way path guides you through the gardens.
Terraced gardens, cloisters, pools, and fountains combine to enchanting effect. Even in winter, the gardens are quite beautiful, complete with cypress trees, pomegranate trees, hedgerow mazes, fountains, flowers, and elaborate irrigation systems.
Make sure to seek out the Escalera del Auga, or Water Stairway. Its bannisters double as little water canals or luges.
At the top of the Water Stairway, you will reach the highest point of the Generalife Gardens and enter its bright white palace, the Court of la Acequia.