When my family was reunited from New Zealand and London in Granada to celebrate my sister’s birthday, we knew there was one place we had to go – the city’s most famous icon, the Alhambra. Perched high on the hill with stunning views, the beautiful carved stones and gardens were utterly amazing to explore, and well worth allowing most of the day for.
The whole of the Alhambra – isn’t it huge?!
Granada is located towards the southern tip of Spain and so it is possible to spot Moorish influences in other parts of the city… or you can just go to the Alhambra, which is its crowning jewel! The first buildings on the site date back to 889, while much of the current magnificence was built at the end of the 14th century, towards the end of Moorish rule of Spain. Its Nasrid architects aimed to cover every surface with decoration, something I can confirm they have managed. Everywhere I turned detail caught the eye, from gorgeous tiles to stone carved with prayers and patterns. It was incredible to experience.
The Gate of Justice, the original entrance to the Alhambra
You can explore the Alhambra yourself, or join a guided tour. We booked a tour through the site and although I was initially sceptical (even more so when we had to wear earpieces and portable speakers to hear the guide) she told us a lot about the palaces and gardens that was fascinating, and I think we would have struggled to glean easily from a guidebook. It was a long tour of nearly 3 hours, but as you’ll see we covered a huge amount of ground. We were also free to wander the grounds afterwards, and to return later that night if we chose to see the sunset. If you do the same, make sure you book early as the Alhambra is, unsurprisingly, hugely popular!
We started in the Generalife, the summer palace of the Nasrid Moorish kings. The stunning gardens here were planted by the Moors with roses, although our guide also warned us that much of what we see today in the Alhambra has been restored as after the Moors departed, it was taken over by the Catholics and then damaged and restored in cycles over the intervening centuries. That didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the beautiful scents rising from the flowerbeds, or the views framed over the city and towards the centre of the Alhambra.
Despite the elaborate nature of the Generalife palaces, the Nasrid would only use them for the day in summer, retreating to the Alhambra fortifications at night. Seeing the luxurious nature of their day-time residences gave me a sense of how rich they must have been!
Gorgeous roses and a view towards the Albaicin area of Granada
I think I could have stayed in those gorgeous gardens, soaking in the sunshine and beautiful rose perfumes, all day – but there was so much more to see. The whole site is like a crescent, with the Generalife on one side with a ravine in the middle and the Alhambra on the other. We headed back towards the entrance in the middle and crossed the entrance into the Alhambra, where the Nasrid had had their bigger palaces and fortifications.
Photo credit: my Dad! 🙂
Inside, the difference was startling. This magnificent edifice above is the palace built by Charles V, which is square on the outside but, as you can see below, circular on the inside. In this part of the Alhambra it was all muscle and imposing structures, a far cry from the delicate lines of the Generalife. Some of the Moorish structures, including the original mosque, were destroyed by the Christians who took over and built their own palaces in their place.
As we progressed further along though, we found more of the Nasrid structures, and it was here that the level of detail ratcheted up to maximum. Lacy stone carvings, colourful tiles, wood panels… every surface was decorated in some way and in some rooms I had to stand in a corner and swivel my head in every direction to try to take it all in!
An original wooden balcony
Blue in the tiles symbolises royalty and the green Islam
Tempted to start a #doorsofAlhambra series!
The Court of the Myrtles, above which the king could relax on the patio and watch goldfish swim
This is the Court of the Lions, featuring a central fountain that was also an incredible water engineering feat – each hour water would pour from one of the lion’s mouths, which apparently stunned everyone who saw it. You can also get a sense of how many people were here – we were here at the end of May and the hallways were often quite crowded, sometimes with lines to get into rooms, although the buildings were so big that you could generally spread out more once inside. Still, if you’re craving a quieter experience I’d recommend going earlier or later in shoulder season!
The Hall of the Abencerrajes – a beautiful example of Nasrid “stalactite vaulting”
As we moved further round it was easy to see where the name Alhambra, which means “red brick” came from, although many were faded to a gorgeous honey colour now.
My outfit courtesy of British Airways, who managed to lose my bag for four days… GRH
Although I do love this dress now 😉
Spot the froggies!
After the Nasrid palaces our guide left us, but we still had more to see! My dad and I ventured on (after a stop for an ice-block – it was getting very hot!) to the Alcazba, the oldest part of the citadel. It was here, at the Torre de la Vela, that the Spanish flag was first raised in 1492 to show the Spanish had conquered Granada.
Dad in the Alcazba, with the main part of the Alhambra including Charles V’s palace behind him
Looking over Granada – shows how massive the Cathedral is!
These would once have been military barracks and storerooms
Looking towards the church of Ermita de San Miguel Alto
I loved my visit to the Alhambra – it’s packed with history and absolutely beautiful. I was glad we had done the guided tour (even with the earpieces!) as the glimpses the guide gave us into the culture and life in the palaces really added to the atmosphere. Plus we had the contrast of being able to explore on our own at the end.
My top tips for the Alhambra
- Book well ahead – and book a tour if you can: you definitely don’t want to miss out on tickets if you’re anywhere near Granada – the Alhambra was a highlight of my time in Spain this year. Click here for the Alhambra’s own site
- Take water – and snacks! It’s a big site and you’ll want to spend a good few hours here to really make the most of it. While there are some shops there, packing your own will save you a few euros. Sunblock is also an excellent idea in summer as parts of the Alcazba are very exposed
- Load up that memory card: as I hope I’ve shown you, the Alhambra is utterly stunning – it was hard to limit this post as I was snapping at every turn!
Have you visited the Alhambra? What did you think?
Stay tuned for more Spanish adventures as after this my family headed out on our Andalusian Road Trip!