Touring the Alhambra and Generalife in Granada, Spain

March 3, 2020

The Alhambra and tapas are the two main reasons you visit Granada. However, this small town packs a punch of great things to see and so much to do outside. The sunsets are amazing and great views about anywhere your feet will take you.

The Alhambra has a very long history and isn’t hard to miss sitting high above the town. It was started as a small fortress in 889 AD on the remains of a Roman fort. From mid 900’s, it was largely ignored and fell into disrepair until the Nasrid emir, Mohammed I, renovated and rebuilt the fortress, walls and current palace. Over the years, other Nasrid rulers added to the fortress and in 1492, the Catholics took rule.

Believe it or not, but Christopher Columbus received his royal endorsement from Isabel the Catholic in this palace in 1492. A pretty important year for we Americans. Washington Irving also stayed here and wrote Tales of the Alhambra.

The Alhambra Visit – Paid Entrance

If you want to visit the Alhambra you can directly purchase tickets and an audio guide from the Alhambra online. They have a limited number of tickets each day and they sell out quickly. It is recommended that you purchase these tickets at least 3-4 months in advance. Cost of a ticket to see the Alcazaba, Nasrid Palaces, Generalife and the Palace of Charles V will be €14 per person. You MUST bring your passports as they will verify that the name on the ticket matches the passport. Ours were checked at two different places. So keep track of your tickets and passports.

Since we didn’t buy our tickets in advance, we had to go the more expensive route. We purchased a 3 hour guided tour online through TripAdvisor for €49.00 per person. The tour company was Nhue and our guide was Eduardo. We had a small group of 15 and Edu was a fantastic guide. His English was great and he provided an excellent guided tour.

The Alcazaba

The Alcazaba is the oldest part of the Alhambra and was built by Nasrid emir Mohammed I in 1250 on the remains of a Roman fortress. It was used as his residences until the palaces were finished. At that time, it became a military fortress and residence of the palace grounds. As you tour through the massive protective walls, you can see the remains of the barracks, storehouse and prison and the three watch towers.

The foundations of the military barracks for the fortress.

Palacios Nazaries

The Palacious Nazaries or the Nasrid Palaces were a small group of structures that were ornately built and decorated for the muslim Nasrid kingdom. There are three main palaces: The Mexuar, The Comares Palace, and the Palace of the Lions. Due to the dangers outside of the palaces, most of the Nasrid family stayed within these walls.

Each of these palaces are designed with intricate tile work, hand carved plaster walls that are beyond amazing, and inlaid wooden doors and domed ceilings. Many of the ceilings are designed in a honeycomb pattern known as muqarnas. This is a form of Islamic Architecture in which they vault the ceiling and create an intricate structure that symbolizes the representation of the universal creation of God. A ceiling can have thousands of cells to make up the final 3-D masterpiece.

Intricate plaster work in the Mexuar Justice Room. This is considered to be the most primitive room in the Palace complex.
The Hall of the Ambassadors is the largest room in the Alhambra. This was a grand reception room and the ceiling is a 75′ high ornate wooden dome. The walls are covered in varied stucco designs. There are nine windows on each side with intricate white, gold and blue inlays in shapes of stars, circles and crowns.
From the Hall of the Ambassadors in the Comares Palace, the Sultan could gaze out into the “mirador”. The water flowing in was offset and sloped perfectly so that it did not disturb the mirror effect of the water.
The Hall of the Abencerrajes is a perfectly square room, with no windows to the outside and it has a very special ceiling. This room was the sultan’s bedroom. The honeycomb pattern is made up of intricate tiny cells to create a stalactite effect. This ceiling would have over 5,000 blue, brown, red and gold cells to makeup this pattern.
Spanish made tiles of multiple designs are prevalent in every room of the palaces. These tiles, along with the intricate plaster work, make each room a piece of art.
Intricately created wooden mosaic doors that contain no nails in the construction process. The recently repaired area (lower left) needed nails. I assume the craftsmanship and technique from the 1200’s has been lost.
The Court of the Lions is surrounded by 124 white marble columns with arches of stucco arabesques and filigree work. The Court of the Lions is where the Nasrid Harem was located.
The Fountain of the 12 Lions is the jewel in this courtyard. The alabaster basin is supported by 12 white marble lions. The lions represent strength, power and sovereignty. When originally installed, each hour one lion would produce water from its mouth. All mouths were flowing during our visit.

The Generalife Gardens

Before we get into the basics, let’s learn how to say a Generalife. We aren’t buying a life insurance policy we are visiting gardens that are hundreds of years old. It is correctly pronounced: Hen a rah lee fay. Remember – we are in Spain and the language is a bit different. Ok, let’s get on with the tour.

This was the garden house of the sultans of Granada. The name means “Garden of the Architect” giving praise to the creator of the Universe. All of their food, fruits, veggies and flowers were grown in these public and private gardens. From the garden terraces, you will get some beautiful photographic views of The Alhambra complex as well as views looking down into the town of Granada.

The gardens are divided into multiple sections and there is a new new section of gardens that was added when the complex was being opened to the public. They needed a transition that was easily walkable from the main complex to the Generalife so an extension was made with the addition of an outdoor theater.

When visiting the Alhambra, be sure that you visit the gardens as they are spectacular and provide you with some additional views that you won’t get from anywhere else in Granada.

Gravity-created fountains are the structured focal point with brilliant colors surrounding the Palace at Generalife.
Fruit orchards below and formal gardens above.
Looking over the cypress hedges onto Alhambra.

The Free Alhambra Visit

I had done quite a bit of reading and knew that there were areas of the Alhambra that were free to visit, but this seems to be a well kept secret. Eduardo, our guide, provided me with the information we needed to visit the free areas the following day.

To see the free areas, you will need to enter through the Puerta de los Carros gate. Once you finish seeing the free Alhambra, then walk over and visit the Carmen de los Chapiteles and the Fundación Rodrigues Acosta. This will make a great day of sightseeing up on the top of the hill.

Below you will find the following locations on the map that can be visited for free and are worth spending a ½ day to do on your own.

You can visit A, B, C, D and G for free.

A – Palace of Carlos V, Museo of the Alhambra and Museo de Bellas Artes

The Palace of Carlos V is such an unfinished Palace and one worth visiting. The architecture is completely different from any other structure on the grounds. The inside will really surprise you. On the lower level they have the most interesting museum we visited in Spain. The Museo of the Alhambra is full of some really cool artifacts and examples of how various architectural artifacts were made. The Museo of Bella Artes is on the top floor and it has some pretty impressive art works on display. The museums indicate that there is €1.50 entry fee but we were not charged for entry. Even if you are, it’s worth the coins to visit.

The outside of a never completed palace.
The square palace that is circular inside. There are several free museums hidden on the different levels. Each are fascinating and worth a visit. Two of the museums offer hidden views looking out into the Alcazaba.
In the age of horses, they would need to be tethered. These are huge tether points but displayed symbolically as they are too big and too high on the wall. This is a palace, so exude power!

B – Santa Maria de la Alhambra

The Santa María Church was built in the 17th century on the site of Alhambra’s Great Mosque by Isabel the Catholic. This chapel is noted for its Baroque altarpiece, Crucified Christ chapel and a really interesting painting, Christ of Kennedy by Benito Coussent. It’s a beautiful Church that deserves some time to stroll around as it is a masterpiece inside.

The baroque altar of the Santa María de la Alhambra.

C – Baño de la Mezquita

The Baths located on the grounds are fashioned after the Roman Baths. They are small and have a dressing room, cold room, warm room and a steam room. These are not ornate but very simple houses.

D- Area of Arqueológica

Take a peek over the side to see what archeological finds are to be see.

G – Convento de San Francisco

The gardens of the Convento de San Francisco will welcome you with perfectly laid out gardens with fountains, flowers and trees nestled in front of this convent converted hotel. This convent was created for the Assisi monks by order of Isabel the Catholic when they conquered the Nasrid rule. Isabel had promised that she would build the first Order of Assisi in the City on the remains of the Mosque.

In 1504, Queen Isabel was buried in the Chapel on the grounds and her husband joined her in death in 1516. This was a temporary ossuary for them as their grandson was in the process of building the Royal Chapel in Granada next to the Church of Granada. Today, there is a stone that marks the burial location. While this Church is now a upscale boutique and Chapel, you can view the courtyard and burial marker inside at no charge. Staying at the hotel will cost you about 3 bills per night.

A palace turned monastery turned hotel and restaurant.
Isabel and Fernando’s initial tomb lies within the monastery.
Working fountains along the exterior walls of the gardens of the Convento de San Francisco.

Hotels at the Alhambra

There are two hotels where you can stay on the grounds of the Alhambra. We did not stay at the Hotel America but we checked it out. This 17 room boutique hotel is a three minute walk to the main entrance and is on the Alhambra grounds. The rates start around €115 per night. If you wanted the closest access possible, this would be your place. However, you would have quite a steep walk into town for some amazing tapas. The Parador de Granada is the only other hotel that is located on the grounds of the Alhambra. This luxury hotel was originally a palace during the Nasrid rule. When the Catholics took rule over Granada, Isabel had this turned into a Monastery to honor St. Francis. Today, you can book a room here for around €300 per night. Staying at either of these locations gives you access to the grounds of the Alhambra 24 hours a day. This means some great photo shoots after the tourists have left for the day.


Directions: We enjoyed walking up to the Alhambra through the Puerta de las Granadas gate and strolling along the walking trail of the Paseo de Los Coches. Another day we strolled around the back side of the Alhambra along the steeper Cuesta del Rey Chico trail that leads you under the Torre del Agua bridge and leads you into the local restaurants at the entrance. There are also buses taking you to the gate and taxis will gladly take you.

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