Towering over the old town of Granada on the hilltop is this majestic 9th-century fortress complex which is an architectural marvel. Although there is evidence that the complex dates as far back as that and was built to protect the city of Granada from invaders, it seems that the current structure was established as a royal residence only during the rule of the Nasrid dynasty during the 13th and 14th centuries. The intricately carved walls and colourful Mosaics with Arabic inscriptions are awe-inspiring, making the Alhambra one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture. If you're planning on visiting the Alhambra in Granada, you have to prepare for it in advance, it is one of the most visited historical sites in Spain, meaning that tickets are likely to sell out way in advance.
Granada, the city, lies in the South of Spain and is culturally very different from the cities you might visit before you get here, such as Barcelona. Living in the Arab world (Dubai), I instantly felt at home with the Middle Eastern influences that are easily noticeable in this city. That, perhaps, is the most intriguing thing about Granada - an eclectic mix of its historical Muslim rule and the modern Spanish culture which followed the Catholic monarchs in the 15th century.
Although most of the ruins remain from the 14th-century Muslim rule, parts of the palace complex were destroyed and reconstructed by the Catholic emperors. The difference in the Islamic architecture and the Renaissance architecture is quite obvious and one can say without reasonable doubt that the finesse and magnificence of the Islamic architecture surpass that of the construction taken on by the Catholic emperors.
The famous palace complex was uninhabited and neglected during the 18th and 19th centuries when it became home to beggars, thieves and the homeless. It was only in the 19th century that it was converted into a national monument and begun to be maintained by the government as a souvenir of the rich history and tough time that it had seen and survived. Today, Alhambra in Granada is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that accommodates up to 6,000 visitors on a daily basis.
How to buy the tickets for Alhambra in Granada
On the official website of Alhambra
Although this is the best and the cheapest way to secure your tickets to visit the Alhambra, it is also the toughest because the tickets sell out very fast here. During summer, the tickets get sold out even 3 months in advance and that is exactly what happened with me, there were absolutely no tickets available for my dates of visit, even though I checked 45 days before my travel dates.
The best type of ticket to buy is Alhambra General for €14 which includes access to everything during the day. Alternatively, if you wish to visit the gardens or the Nasrid Palaces during the night (I would ideally not recommend this unless the day tickets for the Nasrid Palaces are sold out and it is the only option available), you could buy the Gardens, Generalife & Alcazaba Ticket for €7 and the night visit to Nasrid Palaces for €8.
Advantages: Cheap tickets, anytime access to all sites except Nasrid Palaces which have a fixed access time
Disadvantages: Sell out in advance, include only visit but not guided tour
Third-party websites/ guided tours
If you're unable to find the tickets of your choice on the official website, you can buy guided tours from third-party websites such as Headout or GetYourGuide which cost anywhere between €45 - €60 for a small group guided tour.
Once again, if you're unable to find the day access to the Nasrid Palaces, you may book the guided tour to the Generalife Palaces & Gardens + Alcazaba separately and the night visit to Nasrid Palaces separately.
Advantages: Fixed timing, a guided tour which provides a lot of information
Disadvantages: Higher price, no flexibility of exploring by yourself
If you're not willing to spend the extra money to buy a guided tour, want to have the flexibility to explore by yourself, and are unable to find tickets for your date of visit online, then you can buy the tickets on-site when you're in Granada. Although this might be a little bit of a risk, there are some tickets available at the last minute based on the turnout. However, you might have to wait in a queue to secure your tickets or reach really early to ensure that you're able to get one. This, without a doubt, should be the last resort.
Advantages: Cheap tickets, best for last-minute plans
Disadvantages: High risk of unavailability, huge queues and long waiting times
If you're planning to explore other monuments in Granada, you can get a city pass which gives discounts on public transportation and includes a visit to several other sites in the city. The Granada City Pass also includes a visit to Alhambra Palaces, with the same conditions of booking a fixed time for Nasrid Palaces. The pass only includes a visit though, not a guided tour.
Advantages: Access to several other tourist sights in Granada
Disadvantages: Not a guided tour, only access
What to see in Alhambra in Granada
The Alhambra is about 20-min away from the historical centre of the city by car, and there is a huge parking lot available right outside the complex. One may also choose to walk the steep uphill route which takes about 10 minutes from Plaza Nueva or you can take the bus from Isabel Catolica Square which takes slightly longer (about 35 min).
Keep aside about 3.5 hours from your visit and wear comfortable shoes as you will be walking quite a bit. There are four main areas to visit in the Alhambra Palace in Granada.
The Generalife Gardens and Summer Palaces
The Generalife Gardens and Summer Palaces are the best place to start as they're a bit further away from the rest of the sites in the complex. As you walk through the perfectly manicured rectangular gardens, with colourful flowers, towering trees, an amphitheatre that is sometimes used for concerts, charming covered walkways and small fountains, you're able to view the Alcazaba Fortress on the other side of the hill from the Sultan's summer home. A walk through the gardens can be quite relaxing before you visit the palace itself. The highlight, however, is the interior courtyard which is quite magnificently lined with a water canal, making for a great photo opportunity.
The Alcazaba Fortress
Used mostly for military purposes, not a lot remains of this fortress but the views from the watchtower are definitely worth a visit. With the Sierra Nevada in the backdrop (snow-covered, if you're lucky) and the city of Granada below, climbing the few steps to the top makes for some magnificent vistas.
Palacio de Carlos V (Palace of Charles V)
As you walk towards the Palace of Charles V, you're likely to cross a few other religious buildings such as the church that was built on the site of a mosque, when the Catholic emperors invaded and occupied the Alhambra. The Palace of Charles V itself was built in a quintessentially Renaissance style, with the two-tiered circular courtyard being one of its key highlights, almost reminding one of the Colosseum in Rome. The Palace houses two museums, Museo de la Alhambra and Museo de Bellas Artes. Apart from the museums, there isn't much to see in the palace itself.
Palacios Nazaríes (or Nasrid Palaces)
These are the most impressive part of the Alhambra in Granada and a visit to this palace complex is incomplete without exploring the stunning Nasrid Palaces. Due to the unavailability of a day time entrance ticket, I had to buy the night visit and the palaces were strikingly lit up at night, adding to the charm of the glorious interiors. To be honest, I was disappointed with my visit to the Alhambra until I stepped into the spectacular Nasrid Palaces and I can easily say, even if you skip everything else, this should be the highlight of your visit to Alhambra in Granada.
The Nasrid Palaces are divided into three key areas - the entrance through Mexuar, a 14th-century hall that acted as the chamber for public and administrative business, the Palacio de Comares, the emir's official and private residence; and the Palacio de Los Leones, a private area for the royal family and harem. As you walk through these awe-inspiring pieces of architecture, do not forget to look up at the finely-carved wooden ceilings, elegant patios and beautiful facades with complex Islamic geometric designs. You require at least an hour to admire the beauty of these interconnected areas.
What (else) to do in Granada in a day
Although visiting the Alhambra in Granada is probably the main reason why you'll head there in the first place, you're likely to still have the evening to explore the Andalusian city. Here are some things you can do while you're here:
- Visit the Royal Chapel of Granada
- Visit the Granada Cathedral
- Shop at the Arabesque Alcaiceria, a street market that will transport you into a Middle Eastern souk atmosphere
- Explore the narrow maze-like streets of the Albayzín neighbourhood
- Watch traditional flamenco in Sacromonte
- Watch the sunset over the Alhambra from San Nicolas Mirador
- Take a leisurely stroll on the Carrera del Darro
Recommended hotel to stay in Granada City Centre: Hotel Inglaterra