I’m going to say something that may not reflect well on me … but after spending 3 weeks in Spain, I’m starting to get a bit blasé about things. Like palaces, or fancy cathedrals, or
cheap wine (nope, still super excited about the wine!) Now, before you throw a shoe at my head for sounding so ungrateful, understand that it’s just because this country is just SO darn beautiful that it’s easy to start taking things for granted. Another day, another gorgeous palace – ya know?
That is until the Alhambra.
I actually visited the Alhambra for the first time 12 years ago, on my first ever trip to Spain. I remember the Alhambra taking my breath away, but Europe was so new to me then that everything did (Cobblestones! Alleyways! Wine in the supermarket!) So it was hard for me to trust my own judgement.
But after this visit, as a slightly more experienced traveller, I can say without a doubt that the Alhambra is a special place in the world. I’m not much of a poet, so I’d describe it as a Moorish Palace, but that description is an injustice. The Lonely Planet does a much better job, describing the Alhambra as “Granada’s – and Europe’s – love letter to Moorish culture, a place where fountains trickle, leaves rustle, and ancient spirits seem to mysteriously linger.”
Exactly. The Alhambra isn’t just a palace – without a doubt it’s something more … magical. I hope I’ve been able to capture a tiny bit of that magic in these photos; and if you feel inspired to plan your own visit keep reading to the end because I’ve included some important tips!
JOIN ME EXPLORING THE ALHAMBRA
Close your eyes, pour a sweet glass of mint tea, and join me on my journey through the Alhambra.
8:00 am. Not exactly early morning, but in Spain … they keep a different schedule. The streets are almost deserted (and in fairness, the sun is barely up.) But I’m wide awake and – if you can’t tell from my photo – super excited! The Alhambra opens at 8:30 and we want to be one of the first ones in the gate so we can have at least a few minutes to ourselves before the crowds arrive.
The main entrance is at the top of a large hill; we choose to walk and enjoy the view but there is a bus if you want to save your legs (you will be doing a LOT of walking!)
We already have our tickets so we go straight in. (If you’re planning a visit please read to the bottom to get important information about tickets.)
After passing through some gardens, the first significant building we come across is the Palacio de Carlos V (Palace of Charles V.) This was built by the Christian after they captured Granada from the Moors. It’s a pretty imposing building (my guess is they were trying to make a statement!) Doesn’t it look lovely in the morning light?
Inside the Palacio de Carlos V is a large courtyard. Because we’re early we actually have the place to ourselves (yay for photos without strangers!) The space is impressive (but wait to you see what’s still to come ?!)
(Psst – there is a small, free museum in this building. We saw an interesting exhibit displaying ‘everyday’ pieces like tools, pottery, etc – worth a quick look around!)
Next up – the gem of the Alhambra, the Nasrid Palaces. All visitors are allocated a set time to see the Nasrid Palaces; ours is 9:30 and we can’t be late.
Our time comes and as we enter the Nasrid Palaces the mood changes. It’s hard to explain … but it’s like you can feel the weight of history weighing down on you. I feel small.
But there is a good reason for this. What we learn about the palaces is they were built to impress – and I can say without a doubt they succeeded. Every single inch from floor to ceiling is intricately decorated in gorgeous tiles or delicate plasterwork.
I can’t help sitting for a moment and taking it all in (and taking a sneaky photo!)
Next up – the Patio de Arrayanes (or Court of the Myrtles). The huge refection pool is breathtaking even when the skies are grey.
Photos don’t come close to capturing this space either: the Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions)
The delicate arches surround the whole courtyard and the floor is (what I assume to be) marble, giving the whole space a sort of … shimmer. I can only imagine how it would feel to have this space all to yourself (and to be a princess of course!)
There are several other rooms, newer extensions built by the Christian Kings, but to be honest they don’t hold a candle to the Moorish design, so we move on to the Alcazaba.
Located at the front of the Alhambra, it is one of the oldest parts. You enter from the rear and start by walking through the Plaza de Armas (Arms Square), where there are the foundations of many old Arab houses (as well as a bath and dungeon!) You can just imagine how busy this space would have been during its heyday; it would have taken a small city to support the Alhambra.
Then it’s up the watch tower – and we are rewarded with this view looking back towards the Alhambra.
And this view, looking forward across Granada.
The sun in shining and it’s warm (despite being December.) From up here the rest of the city seems a world away and it’s one of those magic travel moments, when you feel grounded, grateful and perfectly present.
But after a bit, the lure of coffee drags me down from the tower. (Being Spain, there is a proper coffee bar located right outside the gate to the Alcazaba – woo hoo!) After a quick café con leche we backtrack slightly, past the Palacio de Carlos V and into the gardens of the Partal Palace.
I’ll be honest – these gardens are one of my least favourite bits of the Alhambra (which says something, because they are still spectacular.) In fairness, they aren’t in full bloom because of the season – so we make our way along the great wall, past several towers, towards the Generalife Gardens.
The Generalife gardens are quite large, so they are really due more attention than I’m giving them – but I’ve visited the Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Chambers) before and I’m overly eager for another look. I remember the reflecting pool, with the beautiful fountains, against a backdrop of delicate arches – and I can’t wait to see them again! With good reason, don’t you think?
(On a sidenote – it’s pretty incredible that these fountains are here, along with all the water in the Alhambra. The engineers who built the palace actually had to reroute an entire river several kilometres to ensure a proper water supply. At the bottom of this post I’ve recommended a great documentary if you want to learn more.)
The Generalife Gardens are located above and behind the main Alhambra complex, so I can’t resist one last peak at enormous complex. It’s been a long day (our visit has taken over 3 hours) and I’m ready for lunch – but I hope you’ve enjoyed walking through my visit with me. Hopefully you’ll be adding the Alhambra to your bucket list now? If so, keep reading for tips on how to play your visit!
PLANNING YOUR VISIT – WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE ALHAMBRA
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Ok friends, if you’re thinking of visiting the Alhambra the number one thing you need to know is there are only a limited number of tickets available each day. This means tickets do sell out, especially during peak season.
What I recommend is buying the tickets online through Ticketmaster. This is what we did and it is very straightforward. A few things to note though:
You will be asked to choose either a morning session (8:30 – 2:00) or afternoon session (2:00 – 8:00 or 6:00 in the winter.) I recommend going in the morning and getting there as early as possible.
You will then have to choose a time to enter the Nasrid Palaces. I choose 9:30 but I would recommend either going earlier (and doing the palaces first thing, hoping to beat the tour groups) or I’d do it at 10:00 am (this would allow you to do the Alcazaba before the Nasrid Palaces, which makes more sense due to the layout.) Regardless of what you choose, you must show up at your designated time or you won’t be allowed in.
For some reason, Australian credit cards don’t appear to be working on the Ticketmaster site. (I had this experience myself and I also found a thread on TripAdvisor on the same topic.) Luckily we have a UK card, which we had no problems using.
You MUST bring the credit card you used to make the booking with you to collect the tickets (even if it has expired.) The ticket collection machines are behind the gift shop, at the main entrance.
Tickets are €14 but there is a small service fee with Ticketmaster. However, it is worth it for peace of mind (after all, you don’t want to go all the way to Granada and miss out on tickets!)
If you can’t buy your ticket online or if online tickets have sold out, I’ve been told you can:
- Ask your hotel if they can book you tickets. (It’s rumoured that hotels get a special allocation of tickets.)
- There is an Alhambra Shop in the city and they sell tickets there.
- You can buy tickets at La Caixa Bank ATMs (although our Airbnb host seemed to think this didn’t always work.)
You can queue up early and try and buy tickets direct (even if it shows as sold out on the website.)
If you’re really stuck for tickets, I’ve been told there are tourists passes sold around the city that include other attractions (and are therefore more expensive – I think around €35) but also include the Alhambra. I’m not 100% sure about this though. You could also try booking a private guided tour.
Other tips? Wear comfortable shoes, drinks lots of water and definitely watch this documentary before you go. We really got a lot more out of our visit because we learned about the history and engineering first.
Did you enjoy your journey through the Alhambra? Or have you already been (if so be sure to share your tips please?) Let me know in the comments! x
photo credits: all photos are mine