Besides the beaches, mediaeval Alhambra – the ancient fortress of Islamic kings – is the most visited place in Andalusia. And this poses some kind of a problem. Millions of people visit each year but entry to the Alhambra is strictly controlled and only 6.600 people are allowed inside each day. This short guide to the Alhambra and Granada will help you to make the most of your visit.
Because there are some things that you have to keep track of before visiting this Unesco World Heritage site it can get confusing at times. This is not a place to walk up to the ticket office, buy a ticket and stroll around where-ever you’re inclined to go. Tickets can sell out far in advance and have a time when you can enter. So you will have to plan ahead.
A short history lesson
The history of the Alhambra goes back to 1238 when the last Muslim dynasty in Spain, the Nasrids, built a military fort on top of a hill towering over the city of Granada. Subsequent Nasrid kings rebuilt the fort into a royal residence. Until they were expelled by the Spanish in 1492 these kings ruled their Islamic empire on the Iberian peninsula from the Alhambra.
Now the Alhambra is considered to represent the greatest master pieces of Moorish architecture and decorative art in the world. The complex consists of four distinct areas that are open to public visits.
Three are ticketed: the Alcazaba (the fort, with great views over Granada), the Nasrid Palaces (the most beautiful part of the Alhambra) and the Generalife (the smaller summer palace and gardens). The Partal (which has many gardens) can be visited without a ticket.
Tips for buying a ticket
1 Tickets are sold online through the Ticketmaster website and are available up to ninety days in advance. The actual tickets have to be picked upon arrival in Granada.
2 Pay attention when selecting a ticket. There are several options. Most people will want the General ticket which includes all the main sights including the Nasrid Palaces that you really don’t want to miss. There are also tickets for night visits.
3 You can select the day you want to visit and you will have to pick a time slot for the Nasrid Palaces. Only 300 people are allowed inside the Nasrid Palaces every 30 minutes. First entry is at 8.30 AM. If you miss your time slot you don’t gain entrance. They’re strict about that.
4 Therefore it’s best to choose one of the earlier time slots, because that way you can visit the Nasrid Palaces first and then don’t have to worry about making it on time for your time slot. For obvious reasons these early time slots are the most popular.
5 After you have secured a ticket there are three options: picking it up at the main entrance on the day you visit (not recommended), go to a La Caixa Bank ATM in Granada (put the credit card you used to buy the ticket into the ATM and the machine will dispense the ticket) or go to the Alhambra shop in the center of the city at the Corral del Carbon, not far from the cathedral.
6 By picking the ticket up in advance you don’t have to go to the main entrance but can also enter through the Puerta de la Justicia (Gate of Justice), which puts you close to the entrance of the Nasrid Palaces. Hold on tight to your ticket once you’re inside the Alhambra. Ours got scanned four times!
Planning your visit
Like I said before the Nasrid Palaces are the highlight of a visit to the Alhambra. It’s absolutely stunning. If you’re a bit early it’s possible to have a look first inside the Palacio de Carlos V which houses the Alhambra museum and where you can hire an audio guide. The perfectly round colonnaded courtyard is worth a picture.
You’ll notice that people tend to wait in line for a long time before they can enter the Nasrid Palaces. We think it’s best to be one of the last of a time slot to get in. As most people go in at the same time it will be crowded inside with several guides telling their story. It’s hard to take decent pics then.
We tried timing to be in between groups as much as possible. As individual travelers we had the luxury (and patience) to wait once in a while until we had an area (almost) to ourselves so we could take a clear shot.
After finishing with the Nasrid Palaces it’s best to double back to the Alcazar, one the oldest parts of the Alhambra. The remnants of the military fort are not that spectacular, especially after visiting the Nasrid Palaces, but from the tower terraces the views over Granada are great (if the weather co-operates a little that is).
After making a beeline for the Partal gardens you walk to the Generalife gardens and summer palace. The Generalife was constructed to be the recreation area of the kings of Granada. The narrow water basins with fountains, babbling brooks and flower beds are a prime example of Islamic garden architecture. The gardens were nice, but not great, maybe a result of the drizzly and cold weather we experienced during our visist.
The Generalife palace was again more than worth a look though, a kind of Nasrid Palaces light. Because the Generalife is slightly elevated with respect to the rest of the Alhambra it afforded some great views of the Nasrid Palaces and Alcazar as well.
After spending about 4,5 hours inside the Alhambra (we probably would stayed longer if the weather had been more pleasant) we exited through the main entrance, turned right and made for Cuesta de los Chinos, a cobblestone pathway that passes underneath the Alhambra, descending to the Rio Darro and the city.
This is the shortest route to walk to the Sacromonte neighborhood, an area filled with pleasant walkways winding their way between the houses and cave-homes that were once the homes of gypsies but are now inhabited by neo-hippies. Thera are also some great views of the Alhambra to be had from here.
From Sacromonte we headed over to the labyrinth of the Albaicín (or Albayzin). This warren of narrow alleyways, streets, small plazas and steps is listed as Unesco World Heritage, just like the Alhambra. Walking around Albaicin almost takes you back to ancient Moorish times.
From San Nicolas Square you are supposed to have the best view of the silhouette of the Alhambra.
This may be true, but we found some of the views from Sacromonte almost as good.
On our way down the first night from San Nicolas we passed a picturesque square that afforded a pretty decent view of the Alhambra too.
Rest of Granada
Because we had such autumn-like conditions – heavy grey skies, rain and 8-10o Celsius – we didn’t feel like much more in-depth exploring of Granada. We had a quick look at the cathedral (didn’t go in), and the neighborhood surrounding it.
Besides we only had 1,5 day in the city and most of that time was taken up by visiting the Alhambra, getting lost in Albaicin and looking for street art in the Realejo neighborhood.
If you’re interested in street art you might want to take a look at our post about street art in Granada.
Stay – Using some reward points collected through a hotel booking site we were able to book two nights at a decent midscale hotel, getting one night free. Hotel Macia Plaza was very centrally located at Plaza Nueva, which sits at the foot of Alabaicin, with lots of (middle eastern) restaurants around (think Kebab King, Shoarma King and Kebab + Shoarma King), a short walk to the cathedral and only ten minutes walk to the Gate of Justice entrance to the Alhambra.
Because of the dreary weather (we had great weather the rest of our trip) we were happy to have booked a somewhat nicer hotel than we usually book. Staff were friendly and helpful, the two queen size beds were very comfy, bathroom had a tub, wifi worked great and the included breakfast was pretty good. It was no problem to prepare a breakfast on the go the day we left.
Transport – You can basically walk anywhere in Granada. Buying city bus tickets to/from the train/bus station required some help from locals. You can get them at ticket machines at the bus stop, but then have to validate them before entering the bus. Granada is well connected by bus and train to other parts of Andalusia. We traveled by train/bus from Ronda and by bus to Cordóba.
More posts about Spain: