The most unique monumental complex of Spanish-Muslim art is a kind of medieval acropolis that overlooks the city of Granada. It is the monument that has hosted and inspired more stories and legends, and one of the most visited in Spain.
Plan your stay in La Alhambra and El Generalife
It is necessary to look for a good date to fully enjoy a visit to such a special place, in a tower of the alcazaba a verse of the poet Icaza has been inscribed: ” Give him alms, woman/ that there is nothing in life/ like the pain of being/ blind in Granada”; it is not surprising that it motivated the moving story of the sigh of the Moor.
We recommend that you ask for a work permit and come on a working day, preferably in the spring, so that the gardens look their best. To capture the magic of a building with so many stories and legends, we recommend reading about the curse of the Abencerrajes, the jealousy and escape of Boabdil, and the enchanted soldier made popular by the writer Washington Irving all over the world. The visit takes between three hours and five hours. There are usually more people in the early morning than in the afternoon.
When you enter, look first at the time printed on your ticket to enter the Nazari palaces, as you may miss your turn; these are flanked by the citadel and the palace of Charles V (where the interesting Museum of Fine Arts and a temporary exhibition hall are located); further away, near the main entrance is El Generalife (do not throw away the ticket as it is required in the different enclosures). The rest of the day can be spent in the nearby Albaicín quarter walking the streets and enjoying the wonderful views of La Alhambra. In order to organize your trip as best as possible we recommend our two specialized pages: Sleeping in El Albaicín quarter and Eating in Granada city.
History of La Alhambra and El Generalife
Sabika Hill and the construction of the Alhambra
The hill on which the Alhambra is located was already occupied by earlier constructions at least since the 9th century. In 1013 the Caliphate based in Córdoba lost control of Granada to the Zirids who ruled the new Taifa kingdom from the “Alcazaba Vieja” in the Albaicín quarter. Later, Samuel Ibn Nagrela orders the construction of his government palace on the Sabika hill.
In the 12th century the struggles for power, first led by the Almoravids and then by the Almohads, have one of their multiple scenarios in the Granada fortress, destroying the whole. For this reason, Al Ahmar, the first monarch of the new Nasrid dynasty, began work in 1238 on the construction of a palace in which the sultans, their guard and their officials would live. In the 14th century, this fortified city-palace had its peak period, during the mandates of Yusuf I and Muhammad V.
La Alhambra and Cuesta de los Chinos. | Hernandez Miguel Vico
From Arab to Christian hands
When the city surrendered to the Catholic Monarchs in 1492, the latter granted it the status of Royal House, entrusting the Count of Tendilla with its governorship and the military government of the kingdom from the Alhambra. In 1526 Charles I built a palace inside the Alhambra, but it can be said that during the 18th century the old Nasrid fortress was abandoned by the kings. It would be occupied by the French and used as barracks between 1810 and September 1812, when Marshal Soult ordered the bombing of the Alhambra. The leader of the invalid corps, José García, managed to extinguish the fuses of most of the explosives, except those of the Tower of El Cabo de la Carrera, the one of the Tower of El Agua and the Puerta de Siete Suelos.
In 1829 the American writer Washington Irving spent some time living in the Alhambra and adapting the local stories in his Tales of the Alhambra, which attracted the attention of other romantic travellers to the monument.
As the 19th century progressed, the voices that claimed the recovery of this marvellous enclave multiplied. Since 1868 the Alhambra became public domain and the State declared it a National Monument two years later. Throughout the 20th century different institutions and organizations took charge of the place.
The Architect’s Garden: Generalife
The Generalife (XII-XIV) or “Architect’s Garden” is a spectacular orchard and vegetable garden, with gardens and courtyards, where the sultans rested. It was a huge area where the cultivation of several products, the breeding of animals and even hunting activities were performed by the sultan and his court. Its name has also been associated with recreation and pleasure and its most likely meaning is “Jardín del Alarife (architect’s garden)”.
Since 1492 a warden was in charge of the Generalife on behalf of the Catholic Monarchs. Towards 1537 it was the Granada-Venegas family who administered the property until it was claimed by the State, which added it to its possessions in 1921. The estate was linked to the Alhambra by several paths, one of which connected the Almunia with the palace complex.
El Generalife. | Shutterstock
What to see in Alhambra and Generalife
Before starting the visit, it is important to understand that inside the walls are the military, administrative and residential buildings, its own medina and a street, Calle Real. There are four entrances. To the north, the Puerta del Arrabal and the Puerta de las Armas (13th century); to the south, the Puerta de la Justicia (14th century), in which Christian elements (Virgin and Child) appear alongside other Islamic ones (hand and key) and the Puerta de Siete Suelos –not open today–; finally, within the walls, the Puertas del Vino and the Rauda (14th century) appear as commemorative buildings. The military garrison of the citadel resided in the alcazaba, where the remains of the Barrio Castrense where the guard was housed are to be found.
El Albaicín and La Alhambra. | Shutterstock
The Alhambra comprises three enclosures which can be accessed from the Patio de los Aljibes. There, in 1922, the famous Concurso de Cante Jondo (Flamenco Singing Competition) was held, in which Manuel de Falla, Federico García Lorca and Ignacio Zuloaga claimed to belong to the culture with capital letters of those songs that had not been valued until then.
While it is the turn of the Nasrid Palaces, you can spend between fifteen and thirty minutes to tour the Alcazaba, a place where you have to show the ticket. The most skilled will have to climb to the top of the tower to enjoy the spectacular views over the Albaicin and the city; the photo in front of its belfry is a good proof of having climbed to such a unique place.
Palace of Charles V
On the right is the entrance to the Palace of Charles V, begun in 1527 under the direction of the architect Pedro Machuca. The works remained unfinished, continuing during the 16th and 17th centuries until the 20th century when the works were completed and a museum was opened. The result is an original classicist building with a square floor plan, a circular courtyard and a truncated angle to house the chapel, which is now a temporary exhibition hall.
Palace of Charles V. | Wikimedia
On the top floor of the palace is the Fine Arts Museum of Granada, with an outstanding collection of old paintings and Spanish artists from the 19th and 20th centuries of very good quality; it also houses the Alhambra exhibition hall, which presents archaeological and historical collections.
Next to the Nasrid Palaces and the Palace of Charles V, the Nasrid Mosque was replaced by the Church of Santa Maria (16th-17th centuries), according to the initial plan of Juan de Herrera and Juan de Orea. The Baroque altarpiece (17th century) and the image of the Virgen de las Angustias (18th century), closely linked to Granada’s Holy Week, stand out. Next to the temple, and taking advantage of what were once 14th century Arab baths, is the house that hosts the Ángel Barrios Museum-Legacy, a famous meeting place for travellers and creators such as Santiago Rusiñol, Darío de Regoyos and Ignacio Zuloaga.
Attached to the Palace of Charles V is the complex of the Nasrid Palaces. It is the most visited and smallest part of the Alhambra, so it has a limited capacity of visitors; it is convenient to look at the assigned entrance time and get in line about ten minutes before. Here are some comments on the main rooms of this complex of adjacent buildings. The meetings of the ministers were held in the Mexuar (14th century), which followed a centralized floor plan and was modified for use as a chapel in the time of Philip V.
Palacio de Comares
A small oratory can be seen nearby. The spectacular ensemble of the Cuarto Dorado and the Fachada de Comares (14th century) was the reception area where the sultan exceptionally received his subjects. The wonderful appearance of the wooden roof (which was re-decorated in the times of the Catholic Monarchs) stands out. In 1370 Sultan Muhammad V ordered the construction of the Comares façade, a bold front full of laceries, atauriques and spectacular eaves of carved noble woods, used as an open-air throne room; there the Sultan would impart justice.
The Patio de Comares has a beautiful atmosphere and is centred on a large pool that occupies a large part of the available surface area. It leads directly to the Baño de Comares, which was reformed in the 16th century and is the only royal medieval bath that has reached our days.
Inside the Comares Palace, the curious shape of the vault that covers the Sala de la Barca is surprising. This is an area with an eye-catching tiled base and a wooden frame that prepares the visitor to enter the Salón de los Embajadores, housed inside the high Comares Tower, the Sala del Trono and the most important place in the whole of the Alhambra, which has original ceramic flooring and stands out for its refined ornamentation. Nine small rooms open on its walls, full of inscriptions and texts that exalt the Sultan and legitimize him.
Palacio de los Leones
Already in modern times an entrance was opened to the Palacio de los Leones where the Sala de los Mocárabes is located, almost immediately next to the entrance door and characterized by its large openings to the highly decorated galleries of the courtyard. On its ceiling there was a spectacular plasterwork vault that collapsed due to the explosion of a powder keg in 1590, being replaced later. Around it is the Patio de los Leones (14th century), in the centre of which you can still see its famous medieval fountain, equipped with a complex hydraulic system.
Fountain of the lions in the Alhambra in Granada
One of the highlights of the Palacio de los Leones is the Sala de los Abencerrajes, where a deep-rooted local tradition says that dramatic episodes took place and which is overwhelmed by its complex muqarnas dome, a unique work of Islamic architecture. This square room has two alcoves or alhanias. In the same building is the Sala de los Reyes, divided into multiple spaces among which three rooms with remarkable paintings on leather in their vaults, the result of relations between Muhammad V and Peter I.
The most outstanding room in the complex is the Sala de Dos Hermanas, crowned by a superb muqarnas dome and with adjoining rooms, from which one can access the Sala de los Ajimeces, with openings to the landscape and in the centre of which is the delicious Daraxa Viewpoint, the only room in the palace complex that is covered by a wooden frame and coloured glass.
Charles V also ordered that his rooms be arranged around the existing palaces. In this way, an authentic suite was designed that had several rooms, including the bedrooms and an office. Very close by, and housed in the tower of Abu-I-Hayyay, is the room known as the Peinador de la Reina.
Other secondary courtyards are those of La Reja (17th century) and Lindaraja (16th century), which are much more like a Christian cloister and were built using columns from other earlier constructions. At the exit of the palaces, we enter the area of El Partal, where we find the remains of the Partal Palace (14th century), which was restored at the end of the 19th century after the additions to a house that had absorbed it were removed. The beautiful silhouette of the Las Damas Tower stands out in the complex.
El Partal Palace
Many more palaces, patios and masterpieces
In addition to the Palacios de Comares and Los Leones, the ruins of the Palace of Yusuf II, built in the early 15th century and resurfaced in the archaeological campaigns of the 20th century, can also be visited. It was the dwelling occupied by the governors of the Alhambra and was ruined from the 18th century onwards. In the vicinity starts the Paseo de las Torres, which can be seen among others of Los Picos (ss. XIII-XIV) and, especially, the Tower-Palace of La Cautiva (s. XIV) and Las Infantas (s. XV), scenarios of legends and traditions with beautiful views.
La Rauda or cemetery is accessible through a monumental entrance, with a striking dome located in an area very close to the Palacio de los Leones. The royal burials were there until Boabdil ordered them to be moved to the town of Mondújar.
The Convent dedicated to San Francisco (16th century), built from an earlier Nasrid palace, is today the headquarters of the Parador de Turismo. It is an excellent place to visit and have a drink in its bar or restaurant; it has a quality that is not offered by the excessively touristy hotels in the surrounding area.
From the city, you can reach the site through the Puerta de las Granadas (16th century) which leads directly to the Alhambra Woods, where you will find the Manuel de Falla Auditorium, named after the Cádiz composer who dedicated the first act of his work Noche en los Jardines de España to the Generalife. Next to the Puerta de la Justicia we find the extraordinary Pilar de Carlos V (16th century), an allegorical monument of the three rivers of the Granada plain: Darro, Beiro and Genil.
In 1931, an enclave known as Dar al-arusa was discovered in the garden area of the Generalife, in the so-called Cerro del Sol. These are the remains of a small palace with several rooms. In this area are the remains of the hydraulic engineering elements that supplied the palaces and the defensive and surveillance elements such as the so-called Silla del Moro. Later the fortification was used as a hermitage dedicated to Santa Elena.
Connected by a wall to the Alcazaba are the famous Torres Bermejas, three magnificent buildings whose origin can be traced back to the period of the Taifas kingdom (11th century).
Another curious enclave in the Alhambra’s surroundings is the extensive and ancient estate of the Carmen de los Catalanes. Next to the Manuel de Falla Auditorium is also the Carmen de los Mártires, a magnificent 19th century recreational estate with fountain gardens and even a lake.
When visiting the Generalife Palace, at whose feet there is a beautiful garden, one can perceive a less solemn atmosphere than that of the palaces of the neighbouring Alhambra. You enter the recreational estate through a spectacular Patio del Descabalgamiento, which indicates the existence of benches and terraces in this rugged terrain. A marble and tiled front gives access to the Patio de la Acequia, which was originally closed on all four sides. It is organised around a large canal with slender spouts; it leads to the different pavilions and rooms, among which the Sala Regia stands out.
Generalife gardens. | Shutterstock
We highlight the famous Ismail I Viewpoint (14th century), full of beautiful plasterwork, and the Patio del Ciprés de la Sultana (16th century), located very close to the royal room and now dominated by a pond full of fountains that follow the U shape.
Another well known element of the Generalife is the Water Staircase, the primitive channels of the Sultan’s Ditch. After the climb, it is worth stopping to enjoy the charming Romantic Viewpoint (19th century); of neo-Gothic architecture.
The Staircase of Los Leones leads to the Jardines Altos and connects the old orchards through the beautiful Paseos de las Adelfas (19th century) and Paseos de los Cipreses (20th century). It is also worth looking at the powerful structures that guaranteed the supply of irrigation water known as the Albercones. The area where the Alhambra and the Generalife meet, known as the Jardines Bajos, was set up as a public space (1931 and 1951) and is now the venue for the International Festival of Music and Dance of Granada.
Día de la Toma (2 January), Pilgrimage to the Sacromonte on the Day of San Cecilio (Sunday closest to 1 February), Holy Week (of International Tourist Interest), Day of the May Cross (13 May), Corpus Christi, Virgen de las Angustias (patron saint of the city, last Sunday in September)
Among the different types of ceramics, the one from Fajalauza stands out especially (blue and green on a white background), elaborated in origin in the establishments of Gig-Fagg-Allanz or collado de los Almendros and the Andalusian ceramics, of great geometric balance, stylization of lines and metallic reflections, cabinetmaking works, especially of artistic furniture and carving, workshops of luthiers, specialized in the realization of guitars and other stringed instruments.