The Alhambra is one of the most popular destinations in Spain. It’s one of those things that you have to book at least weeks – sometimes months – ahead of time. I was unaware of this fact until I arrived in Spain, but luckily I overheard some other tourists chatting the first day I got to Spain:
“Oh, you’re going to Granada? Did you book the Alhambra already?”
“Oh yeah, of course, I got them, like 3 weeks ago.”
Roger that. I made a mental note, and jumped online for Alhambra tickets as soon as I got back to the hostel.
The official ticketmaster site was already booked out for the following three weeks, and the only option I found within a two week time frame was a Spanish tour on a separate site with a 30 euro mark up.
Well…I could brush up on my middle school Spanish, and at least it was a ticket inside, right? But thankfully I found an English tour at the end.
What makes the Alhambra so popular? Well…
Granada is the last Muslim city on the Iberian Peninsula, and home to the last and longest reigning Muslim dynasty on the Iberian peninsula: the Nasrid Dynasty. The Nasrid Dynasty began in 1238, and the Nasrids lived in Granada for almost 260 years with a constant Christian threat in the North.
Finally, the last sultan surrendered the city to the Spanish monarchy in 1492, with the conditions that his people would be respected and not be killed, and the Alhambra would not be destroyed. The Spanish monarchy did not quite honor the first request (can anyone say “Inquisition”?). But thankfully they followed the second, leaving us the magnificent Alhambra to visit.
Fun fact: “Granada” in Spanish means “pomegranate.” After the sultan’s surrender, the Spanish monarchy added a pomegranate to the bottom of their crest.
The Alhambra is the Nasrid legacy. “Alhambra” means the “red one,” because it was originally built with the red clay from the hill.
The Alhambra is not a single building, but a self-contained city that once held a population of around 5000 people. It consists of three parts: (1) the Alcazaba, or army fortress, (2) the Medina, where commoners lived, and last but not least, (3) the Nasrid Palaces. They were built in that respective order. It’s hard to say how long the Alhambra took to build, because it has seen many transformations – the Christians modified it when they took it over, and there have been restorations all the way into the 20th century.
In addition to the walled Alhambra, there is also the Generalife (pronounced “he-ne-ral-lee-feh,” not “General life,” like an insurance company). This was the royal family’s private garden, connected to the Alhambra and also enclosed for safety. Much of the Generalife gardens are still original, but most of the other gardens around the Alhambra are new.
Over the years, the Alhambra belonged to the monarchy, private owners, and finally, in 1868, the state. A guide said that it was abandoned for centuries between private owners and the state. As recently as 50 years ago, anybody could go up to the Alhambra and walk around it freely. Gypsies squatted and partied there, and one neglected BBQ burned down a part of it. In 1980, UNESCO finally came and declared it a world heritage site. Since then, it’s been cleaned up and restored significantly. It’s also a lot harder to get into the Alhambra now!
Since I booked a tour, the tour company gave me specific instructions on where to meet and when. It’s best to take these instructions very seriously, because the Alhambra is the one thing that is strictly on time in Southern Spain. The Nasrid Palaces are the problem, as space is so limited. The other areas do not have a specific entry time, and many parts of the Alhambra (two museums, a public hammad, and a church) are free. Just to make extra sure, I got there almost an hour ahead of the tour time.
Some people had the same idea that I had: book the Spanish tour, and hope that you might be able to switch to the English group instead. However, the tour group was quite strict too, as they have a set number of tickets for each group. In the end, the non-Spanish-speaking members of the Spanish tour simply got an English audioguide – hey, they got an entrance ticket, which is what’s important!
Notes: April and May are some of the busiest months at the Alhambra, because they fall within the narrow window when weather in Granada is pleasant. Our guide mentioned that in Granada, “there are 9 months of winter and 3 months of hell” – the rest is April and May!
Be careful when booking tours – read the fine print. I met someone in my hostel who booked an Alhambra & Generalize tour for more than 70 Euros on Viator. When she actually got to the Alhambra, she discovered that the tour didn’t cover the Nasrid Palaces, the centerpiece of the Alhambra.
However, there was also someone else at my hostel who didn’t book a ticket to the Alhambra beforehand at all, but managed to get one from the hostel. She got it for almost the original price and for the following day, no problem. So if you didn’t book a ticket yet, there are always ways. (I’m happy for her. But goddammit!)
Make sure you save your ticket while you’re inside the Alhambra and Generalife, because you need to scan the ticket multiple times to get into different buildings. I think our tickets were used at least 5 times.
Puerta de Judicia
We entered the Alhambra through the Puerta de judicia, the Door of Justice. It’s an original Nasrid gate from the 13th century.
The gate has both Islamic and Catholic symbols. For the Islamic symbols, in particular, the hand represents the 5 pillars of Islam, and the key symbolizes wealth (as in, the key of the city). There is a legend that “the day that the hand holds the key, the Alhambra will disappear” – a.k.a. when the Alhambra is destroyed, the gate will collapse.
The palaces were the private quarters of the sultan and his family. Over 260 years, there were 24 sultans – that’s an average of a little more than 10 years per sultan. Clearly life wasn’t easy, especially with the constant Christian threat in the North. But home life wasn’t easy, either – sultans could marry up to 4 wives, and they had many concubines that also lived in the palaces with them.
We were instructed to wear our backpacks in front inside the palace, since the materials of the palace are easily damaged. The patterns are all done on plaster, which is pliable enough for carving intricate epigraphs and geometric designs. In addition to plaster, the Nasrids also used ceramic for wall tiles and cedar wood for the ceilings (also good for carving and gives off a perfume that keeps termites away).
This is the first chamber that you see when you enter the palaces. Very fitting, as it is the public reception hall.
The hall is decorated with ceramic near the bottom and detailed carvings at the top of the columns. In the patterns, the motto of “only Allah is the victor” is repeated multiple times.
Toward the back is a Mirhab, a private mosque. Unfortunately visitors are not allowed to enter, but you can tell how beautiful and detailed it is even from afar.
Palace of Comares
The Palace of the Comares is the largest part of the Nasrid Palace, and includes both where the sultan received guests and where the royal family lived.
An iconic scene from the Alhambra, the Court of the Myrtles. It is a Roman-style courtyard, and so named due to the myrtle bushes that line the pond on either side.
Water is an important part of the palaces, for many reasons. In the desert, he who is rich has water, not gold – so to demonstrate wealth, the Nasrids brought water to all parts of their living quarters with sophisticated pumps and fountains. Water was also used in religious ceremonies, and was thought to purify the air and the soul.
The Hall of the Boat, where visitors waited for the king. It’s long been thought that the name came from the ceiling, which is shaped like a boat (“barca”). But the true origin of the name is from the Arab word “baraca,” of “blessings.”
The Hall of Ambassadors, the most majestic hall in the palace. This is where the sultan received guests. The hall is lined with little alcoves on all sides, where guests would sit as they talked to the sultan, who would be in the center most alcove. In this way, nobody could see the sultan while talking to him, for safety purposes.
The ceiling of the hall is made of 8000 pieces old wood, all fitted together like a puzzle.
Unfortunately, most of the floor has been worn down over the years and replaced, but there is still an original patch roped off in the center.
Palace of the Lions
The Palace of the Lions was a hidden paradise for the royal family, which they usually used solely for fun and gatherings. As with the rest of the Palace, it was enclosed and protected from all sides.
The palace’s namesake is a fountain in the center supported by lion statues. The lions are a symbol of power, as well as the Nasrids’ African origins. But there’s something a little odd-looking about them, as the statues were probably produced by an artist who either (1) never saw a lion in his life or (2) never carved a statue of a human or animal before because Islam prohibits the use of icons. I don’t know that I would call the statues lions if I wasn’t told that that’s what they were, but sure, I trust you!
Surrounding the statue in the center are rows of white marble columns, reminiscent of palm trees.
One of the rooms of the palace has a plaque commemorating Washington Irving, who stayed in the Alhambra in 1829 to write the “Tales of the Alhambra.” Lots of legends arose from his pen, but most are romanticizations and most likely not true.
In this palace, as well, there are rooms specifically built for Charles V when he had his honeymoon in Granada and stayed in the Alhambra. The main room has a fireplace, which is a Christian contraption – the Nasrids had a much more sophisticated heating system: underwater heating.
Alcazaba – The Army Fortress
The Alcazaba is the army fortress, necessarily located at the highest point of the Alhambra and with the best view. A lot of the Alcazaba is restored, because in 1810 Napoleon’s troops stayed here briefly and bombed it when they left.
The Nasrid army numbered more than 10,000 soldiers total, but only a portion of the army lived in the fortress. These were the special soldiers that protected the sultan and where therefore allowed to live within the walls.
The soldiers lived within barracks, usually a simple room with shared latrine and hammad (public bath). In addition to those, there were also holes dug in the floor for dungeons and grain storage.
The living conditions weren’t great, but the view is unparalleled. The beautiful white-walled Albacin is laid out on the opposite hill before you:
The Medina was the area of the Alhambra reserved for commoners. About 4000 people lived in the Medina, commoners who served the king and court. They had a better standard of living than those outside the wall and also enjoyed some special privileges, like not having to pay taxes.
Not much is left of the Medina. Now, its mostly a passageway lined with impressive hedges:
The Generalife gardens were the sultan’s private quarters for enjoyment, located outside the Alhambra walls so that he could (physically) escape state and family drama. This was also the coolest place in Granada because of the summer breeze.
Much of the gardens have been newly restored, including a concert hall area in front that is used for concerts at night.
Generalife Royal Palace
Within the Generalife gardens is a protected royal palace. It used to be completely enclosed for safety except for the balcony (which has low windows because the Nasrids sat on the floor). Now, however, many more arches have been built into the wall to show the view of the Alhambra.
The royal palace has a Persian-style courtyard in front:
And a smaller courtyard in the back, built for a sultan’s favorite wife. Legend goes that the wife had another lover, and they would meet under the cypress tree. The sultan found out, and killed all the male members of the lover’s family. However, this is an example of a false legend because cypress trees didn’t come to Andalusia until the 19th century.
Having been through the Alhambra and Generalife gardens, I can see why it’s such a popular destination and sold out weeks in advance. I’m glad that I was able to enter, but I wish that I could have had more time – I could have picked just about any room in the Nasrid palaces and stared at the ceiling in awe for a full day.
It’s a testament to the technological and aesthetic advancement of the Nasrid Dyanasty that they could have built something so amazing, and that it still stands to this day.