Overlooking the verdant foothills of Granada, Spain are the remnants of one of the most majestic Muslim palace cities in Europe. A stunning example of Islamic architecture and philosophy, the Alhambra has seen dynasties and empires rise and crumble since its construction over a thousand years ago. Today, millions of visitors travel to Andalusia each year for a glimpse of The Alhambra and the Albaicín, the old Moorish quarter. What they find is a sprawling paradise in the mountains worthy of the Sultans of Granada. Make the most of your trip to this UNESCO World Heritage Site with a few pro tips.
Like most ancient tourist attractions, only a certain number of visitors per day are allowed access into the Alhambra. That means that during the busy summer season, it's a good idea to reserve your tickets online weeks to months in advance. Tickets are rarely available at the entrance, and you may have to book with an expensive tour if you're hoping to get in last-minute. If you're in town for a couple of days, head for the Corral de Carbon, a 14th-century monument in the city. Automated machines here sell a few reserved passes for the coming week and will print them on the spot. As a last resort, arrive at the Alhambra's entrance at 6 a.m. for one of few tickets available to first-come-first-serve patrons. There are usually two separate lines for payment methods; the cash line is notoriously long, so make sure you bring plastic.
While it isn't ideal, it's still possible to have a great experience at the Alhambra without reservations. General admission tickets are only necessary if you wish to access the elaborately decorated Nasrid palaces, the Alhambra's main attractions. When these tickets sell out, you can still purchase access to other parts of the Alhambra, like the Alcazaba, or see the Nasrid palaces and gardens at night. The Alcazaba, the fortress and oldest section of the Alhambra, is an impressive structure dating back to the ninth century. Walking the ramparts and climbing the Vela Tower affords the best views of the city below. The Generalife Gardens were a summertime respite for the Sultans and the Spanish Royalty that came afterward. Surrounded by reflection pools, wildflowers, and lush fruit trees, you'll appreciate the serenity of this tranquil space.
If you've purchased your tickets to the Alhambra ahead of time, you're already ahead of the game. Take your preparations one step further by arriving at the city gates early. Your ticket to entering the famous Nasrid palaces is timed, and guards aren't known for their leniency when it comes to late arrivals. Allow yourself the freedom to walk from the entrance, and to wait in line at the palaces. If your allotted entrance time is in the afternoon, early arrival allows you to enjoy the Generalife Gardens and the Alcazaba with fewer crowds and better lighting.
The Alhambra is only a mile away from Plaza Nueva in the city center. Take advantage of pleasant weather and walk the tree-lined avenue past historic sites. The uphill trail is paved with small cobblestones, so make sure you wear appropriate footwear and take plenty of water. If you're in a rush to get to the entrance, you can take a bus from the city center. There's also parking available near the ticket office, but not all roads are driveable. Another walking path leads back to Plaza Nueva from the Alhambra via Cuesta del Rey Chico. Named for the last Nasrid king of Granada, this route navigates toward an avenue of quaint shops, bars, eateries, and scenic landmarks. Perfect for romantic walks, you may wish to save this trip for the sunset hour.
Decades after the Nasrids left Granada, Charles V ordered the construction of a permanent residence at his beloved Alhambra. This grand addition to the Alcazaba is the most exceptional example of renaissance architecture in Spain. Perhaps its most striking feature is the circular courtyard inside the square-shaped building. Its design isn't typical of the renaissance era, making it a unique, avant-garde element to relish on a sunny day. To make the most of this photogenic outdoor space, play with the light and shadows caused by the path of the sun. Enjoy the dimly-lit patio at the start of the day, then return to photograph the sun-kissed crowds during high noon. If you have time, set up a tripod and shoot a time-lapse video as you relax.
The Alhambra complex was a favorite of Carlos V because it was the perfect summer getaway. Its architects did more than create an advanced irrigation system for the palace and medina. They also designed a unique, climate-controlled courtyard. A reflection pool near the palaces circulates cool breezes in the summertime and warmed air in the winter. The Nasrids revered water as a source of life; in addition to numerous fountains and water features, the open courtyards and alcoves provide excellent acoustics for the sprinkling rain. Reflections of the tower and surrounding gardens reflect beautifully in puddles of rainwater. Inside the palaces, focus on the play of light and shadows against the walls and floor, and on detailed carvings and mosaics. Regardless of seasons, you'll find countless Instagrammable opportunities at the Alhambra.
A day at the Alhambra can be quite the undertaking. From steep inclines to lining up early outside the Nasrid palaces to braving the crowds at the Generalife Gardens, you'll need all the energy you can muster to survive the journey. On the morning of your day trip to Alhambra, it's best to start with a substantial breakfast—and don't forget to bring a bottle of water. Feel free to pack a lunch or some snacks to hold you over until dinnertime. If you fancy a meal within the fortress walls, try stopping at one of the hotel restaurants within the Alhambra. These places can get a little pricey, so you might prefer to bring some cash and find a quick bite to eat from a vendor.
History and legends were born at the palace and fortress complex of Alhambra. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella sent Christopher Columbus off to the Americas from the Hall of the Ambassadors, and Napoleon Bonaparte seized the Alhambra during his siege of Spain. Inside the Nasrid palaces, intricate carvings and stunning design elements are a testament to the expertise of the Muslim craftsmen and engineers. The gardens are exquisite, with colorful flowers and fruit trees filling in the spaces between manicured hedges and a large reflecting pool. The old fortress is a fascinating labyrinth of stone and earth with unbeatable views of Granada. To truly appreciate the Alhambra and its storied past, you'll need all day. Give yourself enough time to see everything and appreciate the historical significance of the site.
Unlike other Muslim sites in the country, the Alhambra's design is faithful to Islamic architecture while resisting Spanish influence. The basis of its construction is reminiscent of the spacious tents erected by nomadic tribes in the desert. Decorative elements allude to perfection in nature, a tenet of Islamic faith, and verses from the Koran. In the Hall of Ambassadors, calligraphy relating advice and warnings to incoming diplomats adorn the walls. The Palacio de Generalife is one of the last authentic examples of ancient Moorish gardens in the world. Unlike the walkable European green spaces, Islamic gardens are a place for quiet contemplation and peace. Find a comfortable spot to meditate, and lose yourself in the sounds and scents of nature. Embrace the liberating philosophy of impermanence, and appreciate that the almighty Alhambra still exists for your pleasure.
Once you've spent all day touring the massive Alhambra and taking in the panoramic views, you'll most likely want to see the adjacent Albaicín. This district was once the old Moorish quarter, a thriving neighborhood of Muslim scholars, engineers, and craftsmen. Their influence is evident in the maze of narrow streets, and Arabic inscriptions carved into the walls of old churches. The Albaicín is a walkable treat for the senses. You'll need another day in Granada to explore this historic quarter, also considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Relax to the sounds of fountains in the picturesque squares, where you'll find a bite to eat or some souvenirs to take back home. Savor a fragrant cup of coffee at a café and enjoy the view of the Alhambra at the top of the hill.