Visiting the Alhambra: 12 Top Attractions, Tips & Tours
In its dreamy hilltop setting, the lush landscape of the Alhambra in Granada was like heaven on earth for the Moors, who arrived here from the deserts of North Africa. With the snowcapped Sierra Nevada Mountains as a backdrop, freshwater flowing from the Río Genil became a symbol of abundance. The Alhambra is an oasis of dancing fountains, overgrown vegetation, and fragrant flowers - idyllic surroundings for the lavish Moorish palaces. Known in Arabic as Medinat al-Hamra, the ''Red City,'' because of the color of the stone buildings, the Alhambra is a breathtakingly romantic sight. This citadel, with its complex of palaces, is the most important monument of Andalusia. The opulently decorated rooms and serene courtyards represent the finest achievements of Moorish art and architecture in the world.
The artistic highlights of the Alhambra are in the three Palacios Nazaries, built for Mohammed ben Al-Hamar in the 13th century, and home of the Nasrid Dynasty of Sultans until the 15th century. These splendid Nasrid Palaces epitomize the beauty of Islamic architecture and are the glory of the Alhambra, their exquisite interiors filled with lavish Islamic tiling and ornately decorative stucco work. Beautifully laid out in three sections, the Palacios Nazaries are made up of the Palacio Real (Royal Palace), Palacio de Comares (Palace of Ceremonial Rooms), and the Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions, which was the Sultan's private quarters). In each section, all the rooms open onto a central courtyard in typical Andalusian style.
The oldest part of the Nasrid Palaces, this section is also the most changed by later uses. The azulejo-clad audience chamber and courtroom was used for the public administration of justice and for large assemblies. After the Christian conquest, this space was used as a chapel, and you can see the balustraded balcony that was once the choir. On the left of the adjoining Patio del Mexuar is the Cuarto Dorado (Golden Chamber), which features one of the Alhambra's finest facades. This area is all that remains of the Palacio Real; the other rooms of this palace were destroyed by Yúsuf I or his son Muhammad V.
2 Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of Myrtles)
The Patio del Mexuar leads into the Patio de los Arrayanes, also called the Patio de los Mirtos because of the hedges of myrtle around the central pond. This spacious courtyard features graceful arcades at each end.
3 Torre de Comares (Comares Tower)
Between the walls of the Sala de la Barca and the adjoining hall is a narrow passage with two doors, and the left door leads to the higher chambers of the tower. The Torre de Comares is the tallest of the remaining towers of the Alhambra. It's named for the stained-glass windows of the balconies called "comarías," which illuminate the grand hall inside the tower. The tower offers splendid views of the landscape. It is said that Boabdil, the last Moorish ruler of Granada, negotiated his surrender to the Catholic Monarchs here after taking in a final glimpse of the beautiful scenery.
4 Sala de los Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors)
Inside the Torre de Comares, the Sala de los Embajadores is one of the most exquisite rooms in the Alhambra. It was a throne room and where the rulers of Granada received foreign envoys. A magnificent larch-wood dome and the multitude of tall windows give the space an ethereal quality. The most striking feature of the decor is its profusion of ornamentation, with more than 150 different patterns, including verses from the Koran, floral details, and geometric themes.
5 Sala de Barca (Hall of the Blessing)
This hall is also inside the Torre de Comares. The origin of its name is the Arabic word baraka, which means blessing but degenerated into the Spanish word barca, which means boat. The rectangular hall is 24 meters long by 4.35 meters wide but was originally smaller and later extended by Mohammed V. A semi-cylindrical vault was destroyed by a fire in 1890 and replaced by a copy completed in 1964. The walls feature plasterwork with the Nasrid coat of arms including the word "Blessing" and the dynasty's motto "Only God is Victor."
6 Patio de los Leones (Court of Lions)
From the southeast corner of the Court of Myrtles, a path leads through the Sala de los Mozárabes into the Patio de los Leones. This patio is the central feature of the Palacio de los Liones, the royal winter residence built by Mohammed V, with the adjoining Harem. In the center of this spacious court is the famous Lion Fountain that features twelve marble lions. Around the courtyard, the arcading, with its 124 columns, has an extraordinary sense of lightness and delicacy.
7 Sala de las dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters)
On the north side of the Court of Lions, the Sala de las Dos Hermanas, along with the adjoining apartments, provided lodging for the women of the palace. The ornate tile work and stucco decoration is among the finest in the Alhambra. A dazzling honeycomb dome represents a remarkable work of Arab stalactitic vaulting with thousands of intricate details. The hall is called the "two sisters" because of the two large identical slabs of marble in the floor.
8 Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings)
At the east end of the Court of Lions is the Sala de los Reyes or Sala de la Justicia (Hall of Justice). This hall is divided into seven sections with soaring stalactitic domes. In its alcove-like recesses are wonderfully preserved 15th-century ceiling paintings. Most noteworthy are the three rare paintings on leather depicting scenes of court life and portraits of rulers. One painting shows ten magnificently attired councillors, another is a hunting scene, and the third features the rescue of a maiden from the clutches of a wild man.
9 Sala de los Abencerrajes
On the south side of the Court of Lions is the Sala de los Abencerrajes, named after a powerful aristocratic family who celebrated their winter festival here. In the center of the room, beneath a mighty stalactitic dome, is a twelve-sided marble fountain.
10 Alcazaba: Ruins of the 13th-Century Moorish Castle
The Alcazaba is the original 13th-century Moorish fortress. This royal castle was built during the reign of Mohammed I. All that remains are the outer walls with their massive towers, but visitors will still enjoy exploring the ruins and walking around the ramparts. It's a fantastic way to take in the panoramic views of the gorgeous scenery. From the vantage point of the old walls, visitors can see the Plaza Nueva, the Albaicín, and the Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance. The best views are from the 26-meter-high Torre de la Vela (tower) at the west end of the terrace. The Puerta de la Alcazaba leads into the Jardín de los Adarves, a lovely shaded garden on the south side of the castle. The garden also offers sensational views of Granada.
11 Palacio de Carlos V (Palace of Charles V)
A striking architectural contrast to the Islamic style of the Alhambra, the Palacio de Carlos V was built after the Christian Reconquest. This monumental palace, a massive structure 63 meters square and 17 meters high, was created for the Emperor Charles V by Pedro Machuca. Begun in 1526 but never completed, the palace was designed on a grandiose scale to rival the Moorish palaces and paid for by a special tax imposed on Moors who had remained in Granada after its Reconquest. Even in its unfinished state, this palace is the finest example of High Renaissance architecture in Spain. The building has an extravagant facade and an impressive inner courtyard with a pillared two-story rotunda of Doric columns in the lower gallery and Ionic columns in the upper gallery.
On the ground floor (south side) of the palace is the Museum of the Alhambra, the best collection of Spanish-Moorish and Nasrid art in Spain. This museum displays antiquities, decorative objects, and artworks found in the Alhambra such as Islamic-style plasterwork, marble columns, and ceramics. Be sure to see the Vase of the Gazelles, considered an exemplary piece of Spanish-Moorish ceramic art.
12 Generalife Gardens
The Palacio del Generalife was the summer palace of the Moorish Kings, which was completed in 1319, during the reign of Ismail I. The Generalife Palace is most renowned for its lush gardens. The beautifully landscaped grounds extend up the hill, reminiscent of the gardens of an Italian Renaissance villa with terraces, grottoes, flowerbeds, and carefully trimmed hedges. The most characteristic feature of the gardens is the use of water in water lanes and decorative fountains. The abundance of water was the Moors' symbol of richness, and the fountains are extravagant showpieces.
From the outer gate at the east end of the Alhambra complex, a cypress-lined avenue leads to the Patio de los Cipreses (Patio of the Cypresses). Shaded by ancient cypress trees, this large courtyard features a pond surrounded by myrtle hedges and another small pond with a fountain. The most impressive area of Generalife Gardens is the Patio de la Acequia (Patio of the Irrigation Ditch), which is much more romantic than the English translation implies. The courtyard is enclosed by two pavilions and has a water channel dividing it lengthwise. The rest of the courtyard is planted with fragrant orange trees, cypresses, and roses.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to the Alhambra
- Tours of the Alhambra: Avoid the lines and learn about the Alhambra's fascinating history and architecture from a knowledgeable guide by taking a Skip the Line: Alhambra and Generalife Gardens Half-Day Tour. The 2.5-hour tour includes transport from your hotel via air-conditioned minivan.
- Tickets to the Alhambra: Pre-booked tickets to this attraction are required, as the number of daily visitors is limited. Book well ahead of time, ideally several months in advance. The time of entry represents the 30-minute window to enter the Palacios Nazaries. After visiting the Palacios Nazaries, tourists may visit the other Alhambra palaces and wander the Alhambra grounds at leisure. The grounds are open to the public and do not require a ticket. If possible, reserve a ticket with a morning entry time to maximize the amount of time at the Alhambra complex. If you don't have a ticket, arrive before 8am (or 9:30am March-October) when the office opens for the best chance of getting a ticket.
- Late-Night Visits: Experience the Alhambra in the evening under the romantic glow of moonlight. The palaces and fountains are illuminated, creating a truly dreamy ambience. Late-night visits are also a solution for those without a pre-booked ticket. Night visit hours are 10pm-11:30pm Tuesday-Saturday (March-October) and 8pm-9:30pm Friday-Saturday (October-March). The ticket office opens one hour prior.
- A Pleasant Walk to the Alhambra: From the Plaza Nueva, take the pleasant path shaded by ancient trees along the Cuesta de Gomérez. The 250-meter-long path continues to the Puerta de las Granadas, the 16th-century gateway and main entrance to the Alameda. From here, the Cuesta Empedrada climbs up the steep hillside above the gorge through the Alhambra Park. This walk ends up closest to the Alcazaba, a good place to begin discovering the Alhambra (unless you are in a hurry to get to the Palacio Nazaries for your visiting time).
- Spend the Night: Stay overnight within the Alhambra citadel to truly experience the serenity of this magical place. The Parador de Granada (near Generalife Gardens) is a four-star hotel housed in the 15th-century convent that was built on the site of a Nasrid palace. The Hotel America (near Palacio Nazaries) is a charming small hotel in a modernized 19th-century building with exceptional views of the Alhambra Palace and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
- Lunch Options: Enjoy lunch in Andalusian style at the Parador's upscale restaurant (reservations required). Or savor a traditional home-cooked meal at the Hotel America restaurant, which has delightful courtyard seating.