I could see my breath in the morning air, despite the cloudless sky promising another sunny day. The light had only just started to infiltrate down to the cobbled streets of the valley. We saw almost no one as we walked briskly alongside the river, before turning sharply to ascend one of the many hills of Granada. We left the cityscape behind and entered into parklands, the damp paths strewn with sodden red and orange leaves. I was careful not to slip, as per my usual clumsiness. We pushed ourselves to climb the final steps as quickly as possible, conscious of the time on the tickets in my jacket pocket. Only a tiny sign heralded our arrival, but for the next 3 hours we explored the spellbinding enchantment of what is arguably Spain’s biggest tourist attraction, the Alhambra.
What is the Alhambra?
“How unworthy is my scribbling of the place”
The Alhambra is perched on a hill overlooking Granada, like a guardian. The current palace and fortifications of the Alhambra were built in the 13th and 14th centuries, although it’s likely there were buildings in this strategic location long before that. Alhambra means “the red” in it’s full Arabic form, most likely because of the hue of the walls. The outside may look rather formidable and bare, but the intricately decorated quadrangle rooms and the inner courtyards of marble, with fountains of flowing water, paint another picture of paradise altogether.
Granada was the last stronghold of the Moors in Spain, and the Alhambra is decorated with Islamic poems carved into plaster, colourful tiles and astronomical style ceilings. After the Catholic Kings took over they turned the Alhambra into a royal residence fit for the renaissance. But then at some point, the palaces and gardens described by Moorish poets as “a pearl set in emeralds” were abandoned and fell into disrepair.
In the 19th century, Washington Irvine (of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame) travelled to Granada as part of his research for a book about the conquest of the city. He was granted access to the Alhambra, and proceeded to write countless descriptions, convinced he could not put in words the true beauty of it. Despite his misgivings, the book reintroduced the Alhambra to western society, and care began to be taken to preserve and repair it, leading to an acknowledgment as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the crown jewel of Granada, and some would say, of Spain.
Like Irvine, I’m convinced I can’t describe it either. Photographs may do better, but there is nothing like a visit to the Alhambra in person. All of my photos in this post are from a visit to the Alhambra in December.
The best way to buy Alhambra tickets
Ticket options for the Alhambra include access to the Nasrid Palaces, for which you get a specific time slot, and the other fortifications like the Alcazaba, and also the Generalife which is the extensive gardens. There are day and night visits, or just garden tickets as well. The most important thing is securing a time slot for the Nasrid Palaces, as this is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part.
There are almost endless websites to buy tickets to visit the Alhambra online. The main website often sells out of all types of Alhambra tickets months in advance, especially in summer. Of course, you can still buy Alhambra tickets there if you plan well in advance, but if you’re like me and find yourself dismayed at the sold-out signs, then don’t fret just yet.
Many tour companies buy up the Alhambra tickets in advance to use on guided tours or to sell them as part of a skip-the-line option. If the day you want is booked them check out the tours here to see if there is something available.
In person on the day
Another option is to wake up super early (like 6am in the summer months) and go and line up at the Alhambra to itself to buy tickets for that day. Skip the ticket booth lines and head for the bookshop area where the line is often shorter and they allow several people in at once to use the machines. This is how I bought my tickets the first time I visited the Alhambra.
From a La Caixa ATM
The best option to buy Alhambra tickets if you’ve left it late is to head for a La Caixa ATM machine that sells Alhambra tickets. I know of one on Gran Via de Colon, although there are others. This ATM told us all of the times we could choose for the palaces, plus how many spots were left. We went with the 8.30am time to start our visit to the Alhambra at the palaces, when we would have first entry and therefore be with fewer people.
When to visit the Alhambra
The Alhambra is busy all year round, but especially so in the summer. The best time to visit is in the shoulder or off-season, although this means the Generalife and other gardens may not be in their full splendour. Honestly, though, I didn’t enjoy the gardens as much when they were so crowded on my first visit in September!
The best time of day to visit the Alhambra is in the early morning, or later in the afternoon. The light was the best when we first arrived at 8.30am, and even by about 10 am it was much harsher and more difficult to take photos and enjoy the view without the glare.
When I first visited the Alhambra I said it was the most amazing place I’d ever seen in all my travels. Two years and many more places visited since, and I think it still is.
How long to spend in Granada
I would give yourself at least 3 days in Granada. This means you have a whole day to explore the Alhambra and the gardens, another day to see some of the other sites around the city, and a third day to continue to do the same, relax, or take a day trip to a nearby location like the Sierra Nevada or the Alpujarras.
As soon as you have your dates confirmed you should buy Alhambra tickets to avoid disappointment, unless it’s a last minute trip and you need to wait until you get there to go the ATM or in person route.
Where to stay in Granada
The Albayzin is the most iconic neighbourhood in Granada and a popular option for accommodation, if you can handle the hills! It’s directly opposite the Alhambra and has winding narrow streets, often carless, and a strong Moorish influence.
El Centro is on flatter ground and, as you’d expect from the name, in the middle of everything. You can go one way to the Albayzin and the Alhambra, another to the larger shopping streets, and there are plenty of restaurants, cafes, and bars to keep you entertained. It’s also on flatter ground!
El Realejo is the former Jewish quarter of Granada. It became somewhat of a student hangout and is now home to many great bars and tapas places. Stay here if you want more of an insight into what it’s like to live in Granada!
Have you visited the Alhambra in Granada? Do you want to go?
Want more of Granada? Read about Granada’s amazing street art and how to find it, or see why you need to add the nearby Las Alpujarras onto your Spain trip!
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