Many of Granada’s finest monuments date back to its time under Moorish rule, which lasted from its foundation in the early 11th century until 1492. By far the most famous of these is the spectacular Alhambra, or “red palace”, which is one of the finest and best-preserved examples of historic Islamic architecture in the world. Set on a hill that dominates the modern city, its intricately ornate decoration, peaceful patios and delightful gardens are a must-see for any visitor to Granada.
In its heyday, the Alhambra served various functions: it was a garrisoned fortress, a fortified citadel and a magnificent royal palace. Work on the oldest part – the Alcazaba – began in 1238, during the reign of Sultan Muhammad I, the founder of the Nasrid dynasty. Within it, the mighty Torre de la Vela was the residence of the first sultans of Granada.
Around the turn of the 14th century, the Generalife was built on a hill opposite the Alhambra. It was an almunia – a farm, but also a retreat where Granada’s rulers could get away from everything and relax. With several beautiful patios, and lovely views, the Generalife is well worth visiting in its own right.
Nevertheless, the highlight of any visit to the Alhambra is the stunning Nasrid palaces. Constructed during the 14th century, they are considered the pinnacle of Moorish architecture in Andalusia. As well as providing an elegant home for the rulers of Granada, the palaces were where the sultans received foreign ambassadors and handed down justice.
The Nasrid Palaces include three separate palaces: the Mexuar, Palacio de los Comares and Palacio de los Leones. The latter is where you will find the famous Patio de los Leones, where 12 lovingly restored lion statues hold up the central fountain.
Planning your visit
Most people spend 3-4 hours visiting the Alhambra, but you can easily spend the whole day exploring the complex and surrounding area. You need a ticket to enter three separate areas:
Nasrid Palaces and Partal Gardens: This is the highlight of the visit, so make sure you save enough time and energy to enjoy it properly. Your ticket includes a specific time for entering the Nasrid Palaces; you have half an hour from that time, so if your ticket says 14:00, for example, you can enter the palaces from 14:00-14:29. If you are late, the staff cannot let you in, so it is really important to keep an eye on the time!
Typical length of visit: around 1 hour.
Alcazaba: The entrance to the Alcazaba is opposite the entrance to the Nasrid palaces. The fortress can be brutally hot in summer, so if you’re here in July or August, the best time to visit is in the morning.
Typical length of visit: 30-45 minutes.
Generalife Palace and Gardens: The entrance to the Generalife is next to the main ticket office, at the top of the Alhambra. If you haven’t yet visited the Nasrid Palaces and Alcazaba, you can exit the gardens by crossing a small bridge towards the Parador hotel. This saves a lot of walking compared with leaving by the main entrance.
Typical length of visit: 45-60 minutes.
In addition to the ticketed areas, some parts of the Alhambra can be visited free of charge, including the Palace of Charles V. It houses the Alhambra Museum, Museum of Fine Arts and various temporary exhibitions. You can access the free areas through the Puerta de la Justicia (“Justice Gate”) or Puerta de los Carros (“Cart Gate”), which is also how you reach the entrances to the Nasrid Palaces and Alcazaba.
Buying your ticket
The process of getting a ticket for the Alhambra can be a bit confusing. The official ticket website offers various ticket options, including:
Alhambra General: provides access to the Nasrid Palaces and Partal Gardens, Generalife Palace and Gardens and Alcazaba.
Gardens, Generalife and Alcazaba: provides access to the Generalife Palace and Gardens, Alcazaba and Partal Gardens (which you enter through a back door), but not the Nasrid Palaces.
Dobla de Oro General: same as the Alhambra General ticket, but also includes access to several sights in the city, including the Arab baths.
If you buy the Alhambra General or Dobla de Oro General ticket, you will need to choose an entrance time for the Nasrid Palaces (see above).
Tickets are non-refundable and non-transferable. You may be asked to show ID to prove that you are the person named on the ticket, so bring your passport or national ID card. Children aged 3-11 can visit the Alhambra free of charge, but you must book them a ticket at the same time as buying the adult tickets. For children aged 0-2, you will need to pick up a free ticket at the main ticket office.
Tip: if the Alhambra General tickets have sold out, see if you can get one of the other ticket types available on the Alhambra website. Another alternative is the Granada Card, which is a combined ticket that includes the Alhambra as well as other museums and sights in Granada. There are 24, 48 and 72 hour versions available.
You can get an audioguide for the Alhambra for 6 €. They also offer a downloadable smartphone version for 3 €, but this has had decidedly mixed reviews. Many people prefer a guided tour with a real person, which may be more comprehensive and offers the chance to ask questions. Another reason for getting a guide is that sometimes tickets run out completely. In those cases, hiring a guide may be the only way to see the Alhambra.