We’ve been designing custom itineraries of Spain for many years, and for the 28 years we lived in Spain, every time we had visitors (family and friends) we would take them to see the Alhambra, one of the most magical sights to experience in this part of the world. Over the years, we’ve garnered a lot of know-how and here is our best advice for visiting Spain’s most famous UNESCO listed treasure.
1 What is the Alhambra and where is it located?
The Alhambra is a monumental complex of palaces built in Mudéjar style around courtyards of flowering trees, pools and fountains that is often hailed as the most exciting, sensual and romantic of all European monuments. Set on a wooded hill at the foot of the Sierra Nevada above the city of Granada, in Andalusia in Southern Spain, the Alhambra Palace was built in the 14th century by the then sultans of Granada, rulers of the last Muslim kingdom in Al-Andalus. It reveals the brilliance and spirit of the Moorish culture in Andalusia at a time when the rest of Europe was only just beginning to emerge from the Dark Ages. Dimensions and symmetry are what influenced the buildings of Alhambra, a true technique of the time by the Arabs. Stunningly carved and detailed column arcades, fountains, all with aesthetic and functional complexity.
Within the Alhambra, you fill find theAlcazaba, a fortress, the oldest part of the Alhambra. It is thought that before it was built and before the Muslims arrived to Granada and plainly served a military function, one of the many entrances to the Alhambra. There were already several constructions in the same area, where they later developed more buildings and monuments that construct the large Alhambra fortress of today.
2 Why is visiting the Alhambra in Granada worthwhile?
Nothing prepares you for the overwhelming beauty and the scale of the Alhambra which the New York Times says “represents the essence of Andalusia, a historic landmark encrusted with romantic associations”. This UNESCO-listed monument is one of the most popular in Spain and attracted a whopping 2.6 million visitors in 2016. And because the annual attendance is capped at 2.7 million, you really need to plan your trip carefully as daily limits mean that people who turn up on the day without a ticket are often turned away. In the past has been named as “a pearl set in emeralds” by Moorish poets.
3 How do I pre-book tickets for the Alhambra in Granada?
Tickets can be booked online in advance but it’s not as simple as it sounds. It is not possible to book in advance, say a full year or more, as tickets are released in three month blocks. Another avenue for tickets to the Alhambra is the Granada Card Tourist Pass which also books up quickly and releases its tickets in three month blocks – but because it has a separate allocation of Alhambra tickets than the actual Alhambra online reservations, it’s worth a try and makes perfect financial sense if you want to access public transport while in Granada (and a number of other museums in the city). Remember when buying the pass, you must select the date and time for the Alhambra visit.
Because we book tickets for our clients all the time, we know all the systems inside out and we have multiple contacts to reach out to for securing tickets. But this is a privilege afforded to few – because the Alhambra limits to 10 the number of tickets that a private individual can acquire in a month – to avoid ticket touting. So, if you are travelling with a few families or a group, you really do need to plan the trip carefully or get onto a professional such as ourselves to do it for you.
4 What else do I need to know when pre-booking my tickets?
Remember that you always need to specify the time you want to enter the Nasrid Palaces when booking a ticket. And you cannot miss this slot. You have a window of 30 mins to enter the Palaces from the time you book, otherwise you won’t get in and will have to queue to buy another ticket, if available on the day.
5 Is it possible to get same-day tickets for the Alhambra?
We consistently hear of people that turn up on the day and don’t get tickets. Same day tickets sell out quickly and by the time the ticket office opens at 8am, there are long queues formed with people looking for same-day tickets. If you don’t secure a ‘general’ ticket that gives you access to the Nasrid Palaces/Palacios Nazaríes (Nasrid Dynasty Kings), you have the option of visiting just the Generalife and Gardens. Or you might be offered a night ticket to either the Nasrid Palaces or the Generalife and Gardens.
6 How long does it take to see the Alhambra in Granada?
The average visit time is 3 hours but if you have more than a passing interest in art, architecture, botany, landscape gardening, urban planning or history, you might find yourself spending 4 or more hours.
7 When is the best time for visiting the Alhambra in Granada?
If at all possible, you want to avoid visiting the Alhambra in Granada during the months of July and August when the days are at their hottest. Our favorite time of year there is in April or May followed by September and October. If you do go in the Winter months, you get to enjoy the views of the Alhambra with snow on the Sierra Nevada which is really special. If you go during July or August, try to get one of the earliest slots and arrive as the Alhambra opens – although you will need an extra layer as the altitude of the site means the air is cool and fresh early in the first part of the day. When it does warm up, make use of the vending machines and the decent café (right at the entrance) to stay hydrated.
8 What should I wear when visiting the Alhambra?
Good comfortable footwear is vital if you want to get around as the site is large and there’s a lot of walking involved – over uneven terrain in some sections – which makes it a little challenging for visitors with reduced mobility. If you are visiting during the Summer months, wear layers and bring a hat to keep your head cool. If you are travelling in winter, you’ll also need to bring layers as you will warm up when you start walking around.
9 Should I join a scheduled tour or book a private guide when visiting the Alhambra?
In the Alhambra you can choose to explore the space on your own, join a scheduled tour or join a pre-booked private guide. In our experience, the Alhambra is one of the worst places in Spain to join a scheduled group tour. Groups are very large – often up to 30 people, multilingual, and because your guide will be using a headset, you will be walking around with earphones the whole time. We’ve found that the reception for these headsets isn’t always sharp, the tour feels somewhat rushed, and, questions are not encouraged.
If you want to avoid this type of tour, you need to pre-book a private guide. Over the years, we’ve worked with lot of local guides and know how to match guiding skills with each group we schedule. One of our recent clients emailed about her Alhambra experience and we weren’t surprised that she was full of praise for her private guide:
“The guide’s knowledge ensured we got maximum benefit from the visit. There was nothing he didn’t know about the Alhambra and his interesting insights into its history, culture, heraldry, etymology, even botany (who knew the religious significance of the 600 seeds in a pomegranate, the fruit which gave Granada its name?) made the visit all the more memorable. On a practical level, having a guide was great as the site is large and complex and we would have struggled to navigate it ourselves and would have wasted precious time looking at maps and signs. Entrance to the Nasrid Palaces is timed and our guide ensured we got there in good time. Without him, we would have struggled to know how long it would take us to walk there and how much we could have fitted in beforehand. Thanks to him, we were able to just soak up the Alhambra’s splendor and history.”
If your budget doesn’t allow for a private tour, we recommend hiring a personal audio guide and going it alone – rather than joining the scheduled tours. That way, you’ll get some of the historical context but can explore the quieter sections of the monument which are so special!
10 Can I park my car at the Alhambra?
Yes, there are two large carparks. Although if you are staying in downtown Granada, we recommend leaving your vehicle at your hotel and pre-booking a taxi to get you right up to the ticket office. You’ll also find scheduled bus services from the center of Granada although for just a few euro more, it’s worth getting ahead of the queues.
11 Is visiting the Alhambra in Granada with young children recommended?
Yes – but you might need to plan your visit that little bit more – perhaps encourage them by bringing a small sketchpad and crayons, or a camera to keep them interested – and lots of drinks and snacks as they will be walking quite a bit. When booking tickets, remember that kids under 12 are enter free of charge but you must include them in the reservation. The Alhambra provides free baby carriers (Baby Bjorn or similar) if you’d rather explore without having to negotiate a pram. If you think the crowds might be an added complication, or 3 hours is too long for your family, perhaps you should consider limiting yourself to just the Generalife and Gardens. Again, we highly recommend a pre-booked private guide for families because their knowledge makes any visit so much more entertaining, relevant and personal to each and every member of the family.
12 What is the Generalife?
The Alhambra complex consists of not just the Nasrid Palaces but also the Summer Palaces and Gardens, known as the Generalife. The Palacio de Generalife was the summer palace and country estate of the Nasrid Emirs (Kings), built close to the Alhambra. It is located on the slopes of the Hill of the Sun (Cerro del Sol), with spectacular views over the city of Granada and the valleys of the rivers Genil and Darro.
Built for the Nasrid Emirs of the Emirate of Granada in Al Andalus in the 14th century, these gardens are one of the oldest surviving Moorish gardens and a great example of a water garden. The Irrigation Courtyard (49m x 13m) is the most important part of the Generalife and really stops you in your tracks. But there are so many elements to enjoy in this garden – the wonderful and varied mosaic pathways made from pebbles, the light and the sound of the fountains, the Four Rivers of Paradise representing water, milk, honey and wine. And the lovely dense cypress hedges. The orange trees give great scent and color. The Patio de la Sultana is another important courtyard – its water is connected to the Royal Canal that serves the water for the Generalife and the Alhambra. And don’t miss the parterres in the upper gardens. Go early because you won’t want to leave.
13 Where can I find the best views of the Alhambra?
We often recommend a visit to the San Nicolas viewing point either the day before or the day after visiting the Alhambra itself. You get a wonderful panorama of the complex with a convenient ledge to sit upon if you want to take some family or group poses. In fact, the views are so good from here, we included it in a post on where to propose in Spain where we suggest booking into the Parador (on the site of the Alhambra) and after a guided tour of the city, you can pop the question from here at the San Nicolas viewing point. Head back to the Parador to celebrate with a well-earned champagne evening meal with the wonderful views of the Generalife from the terrace. But you don’t need to be getting down on a knee to enjoy the moment. All of private groups love capturing their time at the Alhambra with a photo here.
14 Which hotels are best for visiting the Alhambra?
As you can tell, we are big fans of the Parador in Granada which is located inside the Alhambra complex. The Parador is a former monastery built on the site of a Nasrid palace. You can trace back its past in the Nazari room but you will probably spend most of your time on the terrace which is especially pretty at night when you can enjoy drinks and meals to the sound of a Spanish guitar with the illuminated Alhambra in the distance. Ask for a room with a view so you can see the UNESCO-gem just before you go to sleep and when you open your eyes again in the morning. Try to book ahead to reserve a table on the terrace as they are always highly sought after! Not only are the views spectacular but it’s such a lovely cool place to sit and have a drink and unwind after a busy morning. Don’t be surprised if you’ve left it too late and can’t get accommodation at the Parador as it’s often fully booked months in advance, although we have been lucky to squeeze in a reservation when the website says ‘no availability’ because we do interact with them practically on a daily basis.
If you do find the Parador in Granada is completely booked up, it’s well worth checking out the Alhambra Palace Hotel. Built by the Duke of San Pedro de Galatino, it was opened in 1910 by King Alfonso XIII and is poised to become a five-star hotel. The guest-list reads as a who’s who with royalty, politicians, Hollywood stars and Spain’s own literati having enjoyed the hotel’s hospitality. We like it because it has a wonderful terrace for drinks which is perfect for relaxing after a long day sightseeing – and because the interiors are Alhambra-esque, you feel like you are still on the UNESCO-listed site.
15 What else is there to see and do in Granada?
You’ll find it tricky to shortlist what to do because this university city is so vibrant and diverse. Our top ten tips (in addition to a visit to the Alhambra) are to:
- Relax over a refreshing wine or beer and complimentary tapas (yes, free!) in the city’s great bars and restaurants. We can recommend tapas bars and tapas tours for you.
- Visit the Albaicin neighborhood (also UNESCO-listed) which is the largest still-inhabited Moorish quarter in Spain and the original site of an ancient Roman settlement.
- Eat at one of the stunning ‘carmens’ or villas where you are also rewarded with some pretty special views of the Alhambra.
- Explore underground Granada – and learn about the city from a completely different vantage point – we can book you on a private tour – which is perfect for second time visitors to Granada.
- Visit the city’s cathedral where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Catholic monarchs are laid to rest. Work began on the cathedral in the early 1500’s but it wasn’t completed until 1702!
- Take a tour of the Realejo neighborhood also known as the Juderia or Jewish Quarter during the Muslim period of rule and visit the Sephardi Museum of Granada and the Palace of the Forgotten.
- Dine on a pleasant Moroccan meal in the narrow cobblestoned Albaicin neighborhood of the city which not only enjoys great views of the Alhambra; its layout harks back to the city’s Medieval Moorish past.
- If you fancy the great outdoors, head for the Sierra Nevada national park, stretching south from Granada to the gorgeous valleys of the Alpujarras. Its highest peak, Mulhacén, is 3,482m-high but you’ll find 14 other peaks above 3,000 meters. With so much expanse and empty of civilization, it makes the perfect contrast to a few days’ sightseeing of the Alhambra and the Albaicin neighborhood in Granada.
- There are a couple of gift shops on site but, after your visit to the Alhambra, stroll down the tree-lined hill into Granada, where you’ll find some lovely shops with a better range of gifts at more reasonable prices.
- Relax after all that walking about at the Hamman Al Andalus baths. If you haven’t tried them in Seville or Madrid, don’t leave Granada without enjoying the hot and cold plunge pools followed by a massage and a mint tea in your fluffy bathrobe. The perfect antidote to all the walking!
Day Trips from Granada
- The mountainous Alpujarras with some of the most beautiful villages and best jamón in Spain, the cave houses of Guadix, the Sierra Nevada, Antequera and the natural hot springs in Santa Fé.
- Scenes from HBO’s hit TV series Game of Thrones are filmed in Osuna.
- Ancient Dolmens, bizarre rocks formations, and a lovely town puts Antequera high on the must-see list.
- With more than half the population of Gaudix living in caves, the town is a curiosity worthy of a visit.
- Jaen is the olive-growing capital of Spain and a vibrant university town.
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