Granada is home to what is, apparently, Spain’s most visited national monument: The Alhambra. Its life started as a small fortress in the 9th century until being rebuilt and expanded by the Moorish kings, starting in the 11th century. It was further expanded during the “Reconquista” – the time immediately preceding the Moorish period, when the Catholic monarchs regained control of Granada. Charles V built a palace, which contains the Alhambra Museum, in the 16th century. This is the kind of site that is almost impossible to describe, a multitude of structures sitting imposingly on a hill, and even the majestic name does nothing but stoke the imagination. Washington Irving, the author of the more famous The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, lived in the Alhambra for a period of time while writing Tales of the Alhambra, a book that was in ample supply in both official gift shops and souvenir shops throughout Granada.
I’m going to give ample warning: I took hundreds of photos here and will be sharing many of them. The Alhambra is indescribably beautiful. I am also writing this while listening to the Tea Party, a Canadian rock band from the 90s who actually have an LP called Alhambra. I need to get in the right frame of mind…
The Alhambra requires planning and preparation. I tried to buy tickets the week ahead of time – there are only 6,600 visitors allowed in the Alhambra on a daily basis – but several of the days were sold out, and the ones that professed availability returned a multitude of errors. Should one succeed in purchasing tickets through the online website – run by the Spanish Ticketmaster – the tickets themselves need to be picked up at the official ATM-like machines, at the main entrance, or from the ticket office itself. If one waits until arriving in Granada, tickets can be bought through many hotels or through La Caixa bank machines.
I bought my ticket through the hostel I was staying at, the Oasis Granada, as they offered a ticket service for a rather paltry surcharge of only €2. This is well worth it. Tickets are available for specific sessions – either the morning, which runs from 8:30am – 2pm, or the afternoon which runs from 2pm until about 8:00pm. Within that session, you are assigned a 30 minute window in which to enter the Nasrid Palaces. You cannot miss this time – the people who work at the Alhambra have no patience and no sympathy for visitors who miss their window. If you have a 1pm visit, and you show up at 1:35pm… well, you can either pay another ticket or you can suck it up because you will not be permitted entrance into the Nasrid Palace.
I had been assigned a 1:30pm entry time but I arrived early – very early – not wanting to take my chances. I was there by 8:35am and still waited close to half an hour until I was handed my tickets. The gates to the complex only open at 8:30am and, less than half an hour later, all of the audio guides were sold out. This is fairly disappointing as the Alhambra app gives nowhere near enough information. Also, not to sound petty, but this is considered to be the most visited tourist site in Spain – so I really don’t think there was an unexpected level of demand. They really should have known that there would be demand for audio guides. I kept an eye out as I walked around the complex and noted that there were actually very few in use, so I suspect that I wasn’t the only person who was denied. Alhambra – are you listening to me? You’ve leaving money on the table!
Early is definitely better for the Alhambra. A girl got in line behind me – I’m not sure why – and she had an 8:30am entry time for the Nasrid Palace. I let her go ahead of me, but there is absolutely no way that she made it on time. The walk from the main entrance to the Palace entrance is about ten minutes, longer if there are lots of tour groups in your way, and she didn’t get to the box office until close to 8:50am. I also let an American family, who had several young kids, ahead of me because they had an early Nasrid Palace entrance time as well. If your ticket is irregular for any reason – student status, youth status, bought through strange channels, you have to line up to get your ticket verified. I don’t know if anyone will read this before going to the Alhambra, but following the guidelines on your reservation (to pick up your tickets an hour ahead of time) is imperative. I’ve been stressing this to people I meet during my travels as many ask about the details of visiting the Alhambra. Beyond suggesting the bus, for those who would rather spend €1.20 than 20 minutes walking straight uphill, I also tell them to clear their day and plan everything around the entrance time.
There is a video screen above the ticket booth which shows the number of tickets remaining. As I stood in line, shortly after opening, I watched as the number of tickets available for morning entries steadily dropped from about 140 to 110 or so. There were two lines, one for those who had ticket reservations and one for those who were hoping to buy tickets. There was a sign which stated reservations had priority, but this did not prove to be the case as the security guard would let one person (or group) from the reserved line go and then one from the non-reserved line. It made things much slower for those of us with reservations.
Okay, I think I’ve harped on that enough. Get there early and be prepared! I also had no issues bringing in food and water from outside of the grounds – there are a few places where they ask you not to eat (namely within the sites), but that is relatively rare. There are tons of water fountains, a favourite feature of mine, which dispense deliciously cold water. Perfect for a hot day in the Andalusian sun!
The Alhambra is massive. Once I picked up my tickets I headed straight to the Generalife – and away from the crowds. This is a white villa, separated from the main Alhambra grounds and the Nasrid Palace by an extensive network of gardens, and it was once the summer palace. It also has an extensive network of gardens… and they are beautiful. Roses, hedges, water features… I was there early enough in the day not be interrupted in my wanderings by anyone except the official Alhambra gardeners. There was one ticket checkpoint and a warning that you could only visit the Generalife once. I’m assuming that the site becomes much more popular during the day because there was nothing in my visit to indicate that limited access was required.
From the Generalife you have to walk a solid 15 minutes, through gardens, to get to the rest of the complex. If you were to visit the Generalife directly before the Nasrid Palaces this is something you would want to keep in mind. There are signposts which direct visitors to different spots throughout the complex and all warn the visitor to be aware of their Nasrid Palace entry time. You do not want to lost your official entrance ticket – mine was scanned no less than five times.
Moving from the official entrance (or Generalife) towards the Nasrid Palace and Alcazaba you actually leave the official grounds for awhile. There is a small street, with souvenir shops and snackbars, that offer a bit of refreshment as you pass through the site. From this point they only check your ticket at the entrance to the Nasrid Palace, the gardens behind the Nasrid Palace and the Alcazaba.
The Alzcazaba was a fortress and is actually the oldest part of the Alhambra. Based on information in the museum, and subsequent research, it appears as though this is the part of the Alhambra that was built during the 9th century. Restoration on this part of the complex occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries and visitors can now climb the main tower in order to enjoy a sweeping view of Granada.
The Alzcazaba really reinforced my opinion that there were a lot of birds at the Alhambra. I had this impression, formed through online images and music videos then reinforced through postcards in Granada, that the Alhambra was full of birds. Watching the hordes fly around the towers really confirmed this – it was actually quite strange to see – and I wondered what attracted them to the site. It’s not as though there were lots of restaurants or discarded food bits as the Alhambra itself is a very clean site, no doubt due to the dozens of employees I saw eagerly and actively taking care of the site. One man, definitely getting up there in years, expressed me to (in Spanish) how magnificent the Alhambra, and Andalusia as a whole, was. I couldn’t help but agree.
The birds further lent to the mystical air of the Alhambra. Far removed from the sounds of cars, blaring music and tourists, there are quiet little corners of the Alhambra where you hear little more than the birds and the wind.
The Alhambra is actually quite intelligent about a few things, namely the addition of “touch stations” throughout the complex. These look like information placards but have reconstructed pieces of the Alhambra glued to them, so visitors can – hopefully – get the need to touch things out of their system at these officially approved points. Unfortunately, people seem to be (on a whole) fairly stupid so I saw more than one person either lean against the walls, stroke the carvings or sit in window sills. This seems to have been a problem throughout history as people seem determined to ruin things for subsequent generations, but I really would like to see tourists get a clue and stop being so stupid. I like to think that we’ve evolved enough but each visit to a tourist site seems to dissuade that notion.
Within the Charles V palace you can visit the Alhambra museum, which is free to enter, and the fine arts museum which charges a nominal fee. The palace itself surrounds a circular courtyard but it was full of chairs and staging, making for less than attractive photos. There are no photographs whatsoever allowed within the Alhambra museum, which surprised me a bit as there were no restrictions in place elsewhere in the complex.
The Alhambra museum contains a number of artefacts from excavations within the site and tile work that was removed from its original site for preservation purposes. The artefacts were fascinating – the palaces o the Alhambra are nothing more than empty rooms and require the visitor to imagine how things may have been. The museum, meanwhile, has some original and well preserved furnishings. There are also examples of glasswork, dishes, jewellery and even board games. Living in the Alhambra, apparently, was not that dull.
I lined up to enter the Nasrid Palaces at around 1:20pm, already noticing the line that extended from the entrance around the gardens. Some people in that line were actually early, awaiting their turn for the 2pm time slot – which made no sense to me. There is no need to line up half an hour ahead of time as the number of people admitted to the palaces during each time slot is quite limited. I had just been killing time for close to 45 minutes and was eager to move onto the last part of my visit.
Despite lining up 10 minutes early, I was near the end of the time slot and quickly realized that if I hung back a bit that most visitors would pass on by. This allowed me a bit of peace and quiet and the ability to visit the site with a minimal amount of annoyance. Anthony Bourdain on Parts Unknown seemed to have a much more peaceful visit than I did – likely the result of a CNN budget.
Rewatching Parts Unknown, after visiting the Alhambra, was quite interesting as Bourdain and his friend discuss the patterns, the tilework and even the window “framing” within the site. I was fascinated by the scenery and the stunning views that I could spy through the windows of the Alhambra. It’s hard to imagine how much the city has changed and it’s fortunate that the windows of the Alhambra – at least where the visitors roam – look out onto the historical Albacin neighbourhood.
The Nasrid Palaces are truly the jewel of the Alhambra and there is a reason that officials have carefully limited the entries. These buildings are some of the best preserved within the entire complex, with intricately detailed carvings, stunning tilework and peaceful courtyards. The theme of water is prevalent throughout the Alhambra with both major and minor fountains. There is a huge focus on aquaducts and even the path back to Granada has a channel running alongside it, full of extra, unneeded water from the palace complex. Once again, this is the kind of thing where I would like more information… was water hard to find? Was it a spiritual element? Or did they just like fountains? The informational plaques and the Alhambra app were woefully deficient in explaining the significance of water with respect to the site.
There is a forest surrounding the Alhambra, providing shade for the tourists who choose to make the walk up and adding to the greenery described by visitors throughout the ages. The Moorish poets, contemporaries of the Alhambra’s previous inhabitants, allegedly described the complex as a “pearl set in emeralds”… these emeralds, of course, referred to the trees and forests surrounding the site. The name Alhambra translates to mean the red and directly refers to the colour of the buildings and the clay used to build them.
Walking down from the Alhambra is worthwhile as you pass by a few large gates, some fountains and a statue of Washington Irving. There is a commemorative plaque above the door to the rooms where he lived while writing Tales of the Alhambra, but unfortunately the rooms were closed to visitors. I suspect it would be impossible to simply move into the Alhambra to write a book now, but there is a hotel on the grounds which apparently used to be a convent. It’s not quite the same, but it would save visitors the effort of climbing up the hill to visit the Alhambra in the morning… although I’m not sure if the climb would be any better in the evening, after a few rounds of cervezas and tapas!
The Alhambra was everything I expected – and more. The limited number of visitors and the sprawling grounds make it a joy to visit. I won’t deny that you have to put in a bit of legwork – and I wouldn’t show up to the site without tickets unless I was there well before opening – but the site itself was well worth the effort. I just wish that they had more audioguides!