If you’re only going to visit one attraction in Spain, it has to be the Moorish Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain’s most important monument and an architectural gem.
Perched on a hill above the Andalusian city of Granada, the gigantic Alhambra Palace is considered one of the 10 wonders of the world.
The impressive Moorish palace, made up of gardens, palaces and fortifications, is Spain’s most important monument and main tourist attraction. In 1984, the Alhambra in Granada became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and every year two million people visit to admire one of the world’s finest examples of Moorish architecture, gardens and architecture.
The Alhambra is named after the reddish walls and towers surrounding the citadel, and its name comes from the Arabic word al-qal’a al-hamra, meaning “red castle or fort”. The Alhambra in Granada is often referred to as the “Red Castle”.
The monumental palace spreads over 26 hectares with over 1 kilometre of walls and 30 towers.
Explore the magnificent palace and be enchanted by the exquisite Arabic architecture. Set aside at least half a day for your visit to the Alhambra in Granada and buy tickets well in advance. Read how to get tickets to the Alhambra at the bottom of the article.
Palace of the Sultans in Granada
Alhambra’s beautiful complex was built from the 800s, when there was first a small fortress, and was then expanded by several sultans. The now famous palaces were built by the Nasrid dynasty (1232-1492) in the 14th century.
Here, successive sultans lived in the most beautiful palaces with stunning views of Granada below and the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. The last Sultan of the Nasrid dynasty, Boabil, left the Alhambra in 1492 when the Christian Spaniards expelled the last Moors from the land.
When visiting the Alhambra in Granada, you will pass through four main areas, the Nasrid Palaces, the Generalife, the Carlos V Palace, the Alcazaba and several gardens.
Step into an oriental fairytale of symmetrical courtyards with fountains and sculptures, and further under archways and ceilings decorated with ornaments and Arabic inscriptions. Pass by walls with tile mosaics in the most beautiful colours and fine tile and marble floors.
Welcome to the Nasrid Palaces, made up of three palaces and the most enchanting in Alhambra.
The Nasrid palaces are divided into an official part for administration and state affairs, the “Comares Palace”, which was the official palace of the king, and the private “Palace of the Lions”, where the harem was located.
The Palace of the Lions stands out from the others by also being decorated with Christian influence, as you can see in some of the inscriptions, artwork and ornamentation.
The Lion’s Court is the main courtyard of the Nasrid Palaces and the most photographed site of the Alhambra in Granada. The farm is named after the central lion fountain, which is surrounded by 12 lions. Note that the lions are not very detailed compared to the other decorations in the palaces. This is due to the Muslim religion, which prefers to avoid creating images of living creatures.
The Myrtle Garden is also one of the magical courtyards of the Nasrid palaces.
It is a beautiful example of the beauty of simplicity in Arab architecture. Even with the palaces’ many detailed and complex ornamentations, the complex as a whole is created in simple, clean lines.
The long basin reflects the palace, highlighting both the symmetry and detail of the arches.
The myrtle garden takes its name from the myrtle bushes that surround the pool and create a beautiful contrast with the white marble of the courtyard.
Generalife is beautifully situated on a gentle hill with stunning views over Granada city, the valleys and the rivers. The palace was the sultans’ sanctuary, where they could withdraw from the public.
The Generalife was built in the 13th century and later rebuilt by sultans and Christians when they took over the site. Therefore, it is difficult to know what it looked like in its original form. The Generalife, however, differs from the Nasrid palaces in being much more simply decorated. There are no great ornaments or decorations, which underlines the fact that it was a place of peace and tranquillity.
The lush courtyard is central, and inside there are several arched windows offering picturesque views.
Generalife is surrounded by a wealth of orchards and lush gardens, which you can spend plenty of time walking around. From here there are beautiful views of the rest of the complex and the city.
Walk along the promenade with cypress trees and a water staircase, surrounded by laurel bushes. In the gardens there is also a newer amphitheatre where performances take place in the summer.
Photo: Christian Grønne
The gardens around the Generalife show that the Moorish garden architecture is as enchanting as the buildings. There’s a lovely mix of high and low gardens, either symmetrical and simple with plenty of straight paths and fountains, or elegant mazes surrounded by tall, dense shrubs and trees.
Carlos Vs Palace
Carlos V Palace is not part of the original Alhambra and was only built between 1527 and 1957. The palace was commissioned by the emperor, who needed a place where he could stay with his family.
The palace was so many years under construction due to lack of money and construction problems along the way.
The most impressive part of the Renaissance building is the circular courtyard with 32 Doric columns, 30 metres in diameter.
Today, the Carlos V Palace houses the Alhambra Museum and the Museo de Bellas Artes.
The Alcazaba dates from the 800s and is the oldest part of the Alhambra. The fortress was intended to protect against outside attack and was a symbol of power.
The Alcazaba was also the site of the Alhambra in Granada, where treasures were stored and the last bastion where the Christians met resistance during the conquest.
In addition, the Alcazaba, with its huge walls, provided protection for the Sultan, allowing him to live safely in his own luxurious miniature city.
The Alcazaba was enlarged after the Christians took over the fortress, and for a time it served as a prison.
How to get tickets to the Alhambra Granada
You can buy tickets and skip the queue here (promotional link). Book well in advance, at least three months before your visit.
Please note that on many websites you can read that there are a number of tickets for sale at the Alhambra ticket office daily. That scheme no longer exists, so don’t be misled. You must have bought your ticket online before you arrive.
When I visited the Alhambra in March 2019, my travelling companion and I had not bought tickets in time. I got a tip that we could buy tickets in bulk at the ticket office, and we weren’t the only ones standing in the rain looking for tickets.
Luckily we found some tickets online for a guided tour of the Alhambra a few days later. It worked really well and the guide was great. Guided tours last a limited number of hours, but you can stay as long as you like and walk around on your own. However, not in the Nasrid Palaces, where access is restricted.
Alhambra, C. Real de la Alhambra, s/n