The Place Everyone Will Tell You to Visit in Spain

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As soon as I started telling people I was going to Spain for the first time, I began getting an outpouring of suggestions about where I should go and what I should see.

And, inevitably, about every third suggestion centered around the Alhambra.

The Alhambra, as seen from the Albaicin

This Moorish palace complex in the Andalusian city of Granada is the top tourist destination in the whole of Spain, with thousands of people pouring through its halls and gardens each and every day.

To some, that might sound like a nightmare. But I knew (or perhaps it was conditioned into my brain by all my insistent friends and readers) that I would regret not going to the Alhambra if I was already going to be in the area.

So I booked a day trip to Granada from Seville.

The Albaicin as seen from the Alhambra in Granada, Spain
Granada, Spain

From Seville, Granada is about a 3-hour drive. We left before the sun even came up in Seville, but luckily that meant we were in Granada and doing a walking tour of the Albaicin (historical Moorish neighborhood) before lunchtime.

A colorful home in the Albaicin

A door in Granada's Albaicin neighborhood

Unfortunately, though, I was also visiting southern Spain during some of the WORST weather. This part of the world (and especially this part of Spain) is known for its almost-perpetually sunny skies. Well, not when I was there. I got one day of sun in Seville, and a day of pouring rain in Granada.

But, it's a testament to how awesome the Alhambra is that I still ended up having a great time.

Court of the Myrtles in the Alhambra
Court of the Myrtles in the Alhambra

Details in the Alhambra

Ceiling in the Palace of the Lions in the Alhambra
Ceiling in the Palace of the Lions in the Alhambra

A little Alhambra history

Before I get into telling you about my visit to the Alhambra, a little history is in order first.

The Alhambra as we know it today was built over the course of a few centuries on the site of a former fortress, beginning in the late 800s. But it didn't really become “famous” until the Moorish emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar (Mohammed I) made it his royal residence in the 1300s. Over the next 200-300 years, his successors would build the parts of the Alhambra that still stand today, adding on to the Alcazaba fortress that already existed.

This early Moorish influence is clearly seen in the Alhambra in its decorated archways, tiled walls, and intricate carvings. And it's very name comes from this period. The Arabic word “alhamra” means “the red one” or “red castle,” referring to the reddish color of the stones used to construct parts of the palaces.

Looking out over the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra

The Alhambra remained under Moorish control until the late 15th century. In 1492 (yes, the same year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue), Moorish Granada was conquered by the Catholics. Some parts of the palaces were used by the new rulers, but others were demolished and rebuilt (like the Palace of Charles V, which was added by the Holy Roman Emperor in 1527).

Eventually, though, the palaces were used less and less and fell into disrepair for hundreds of years. Squatters moved in. A lot of the original artwork was lost. Parts were destroyed in the 1800s during battles with the French and a strong earthquake.

It's possible that the entire complex could have been forgotten about altogether if it hadn't been “rediscovered” by European scholars in the 1820s. Since then, its been reclaimed and is still undergoing restoration.

Details inside the Alhambra

Visiting the Alhambra

After a walking tour of the Albaicin and some time for lunch, we headed over to the Alhambra for our timed entry and guided tour.

Our first stop was the Generalife Gardens, which sit on a hill slightly above the main Alhambra palace complex. The gardens were first built in the 1200s, but have been rebuilt so many times over the centuries (and by different rulers) that nobody knows what the original gardens looked like.

Despite this, there's no arguing that they're beautiful today.

Patio of the Cypresses at Generalife Gardens

Generalife Gardens in Granada, Spain

I visited in late April and everything was in bloom. Even though I was there on a rainy day, it didn't take anything away from the colorful gardens.

The Alhambra and Generalife Gardens

Alhambra gardens

From the gardens, we walked down to the main part of the Alhambra, known as the Nasrid Palaces. These are the oldest palaces still standing, most dating back to the early Moorish rulers.

My mouth was agape through the first half of the tour at least, and I only heard about a third of what our very knowledgable guide was saying. The architecture and design inside these palaces is INSANE. It's no wonder why everything here is UNESCO-recognized.

Tile work inside the Alhambra

Hall of the Mocarabes
Hall of the Mocarabes

Details inside the Alhambra

Mocárabe or honeycomb patterns in the Alhambra

We worked our way through the rooms and hallways and courtyards of each palace. We took refuge from the rain in old bath houses with star-shaped cutouts in the roof to let light in. We briefly popped in to the Palace of Charles V, which sticks out from the beautiful Moorish buildings surrounding it like a sore thumb.

Charles V Palace at the Alhambra
Charles V Palace at the Alhambra

My favorite palace had to be the Palace of the Lions (Palacio de los Leones), which is where the royal family would have lived. The courtyard has a fountain at its center surrounded by (you guessed it) lions — 12 of them made of marble.

Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra

Palacio de los Leones

The rooms off of the courtyard are all intricately detailed. And this palace connects to the Hall of the Abencerrajes — my favorite part of the whole Alhambra thanks to the incredible ceiling. There's a fountain in the middle of the floor, and it's not uncommon to see people stepping into it because they're too busy looking up at the captivating honeycomb ceiling.

Hall of the Abencerrajes in the Alhambra
Hall of the Abencerrajes in the Alhambra

Hall of the Abencerrajes in the Alhambra

I also was awed by the Hall of the Ambassadors, both for its detail and its history. This was the grand reception room of the palace, and, in Moorish times, the throne of the sultan would have sat across from the entrance. In its Christian days, it was here that Christopher Columbus received support from Ferdinand and Isabella to set sail on his famous journey. Talk about historical significance!

Hall of the Ambassadors inside the Alhambra

Details inside the Alhambra

Is it worth going to the Alhambra?

After reading the above, you're now probably thinking, “Wait, why would you even ask this question?

But I must address the downsides of visiting Spain's top tourist attraction.

First of all, this isn't a place where you can just show up and buy a ticket. There is high demand for visits to the palaces, and they put caps on how many people can visit each day. The Alhambra site actually recommends you book up to ONE MONTH in advance to ensure you get the ticket you want.

Hall of the Mocarabes in the Alhambra

You can buy individual tickets (with no guide), or book a guided tour of the Alhambra and Generalife Gardens. (At 55 Euro per person, the guided tour isn't cheap, but I highly recommend visiting with a guide!) Your ticket will be timed, and if you miss your entry time to the palaces, they won't let you in.

And, as you can probably guess, the Alhambra can get CROWDED. At times you have to get creative if you want to take photos without people in them.

BUT, with all of that said, the Alhambra definitely IS worth visiting.

Amazing detail in the Alhambra

How to visit the Alhambra

Since I wasn't staying in Granada, I booked a tour from Seville with Viator. The tour included transport, skip-the-line entry to the Alhambra and Generalife Gardens with a guide, and an optional hour-long walking tour of the Albaicin (the old Moorish part of Granada).

The tour runs just under $150 per person and it's a LONG day of touring, but I thought it was really good value. Even though it was raining, I had a great day in Granada.

Patio of the Cypresses at Generalife Gardens

Alhambra details

It's much easier if you're staying in Granada for a day or two (which I highly recommend since it's a beautiful city!). Here are some other tours to check out:

 

So what do you think? Would YOU brave the crowds to visit the Alhambra?

 

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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56 Comments on “The Place Everyone Will Tell You to Visit in Spain

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  1. In September, it will be my first travel in Europe and Spain is the lucky one! Good thing that I found this page so I can have a little know how when I go there. I have on my list also Alajero.

      The Alhambra is definitely worth seeing!

    We LOVED Alhambra and so did the kids. We always travel with them and enjoy teaching them about the world. We were there in the chill of early spring and seeing your photos means I missed the glory of everything being in bloom! I saw the orange trees in the courtyards of the Alhambra and wondered how amazing it must be to breath in the scent when they are in bloom. Your photos have me daydreaming about going back at the perfect time for seeing the flowers and colors!

      I was there in the spring, too, and it was quite rainy! But the gardens were very pretty – I would definitely go back again!

    Great post and Beautiful pictures! I’ve only been to Madrid so far but these places look truly amazing! I’ve always wanted to go to Malaga! Great post! I will definitely pin it on my travel board!

      There are lots of places I still need to visit in Spain (including Madrid!), but Granada is definitely special.

    Hi Amanda, congrats and thanks for the post. Me and my wife will be around Granada in december and we are not interested at all in History, arts and architecture, and we are also on a budget, so we don’t plan to visit Alhambra inside. But, as we think the building’s scenery is beautiful, we would like to see it just as in the first picture of this post (excludind the biggest one, the “cover”). Did you take the picture from outside (without paying entrance fee), or during your visit? Thank you!

      The photo that you mention was taken from the hill across from the Alhambra, and is free to visit. The exact spot is San Nicolas square in the Albaicin (the old Moorish quarter of Granada). It’s a nice area to walk around and do some shopping or eating!

        Thank you very much for answering and solving my doubt 😀 Certainly we will visit San Nicolas. Have a nice day!

    Great pics! I lived in Spain for a year and loved my trip to the Alhambra.

      It’s a beautiful place – but so much of Spain is! I really need to explore more of it.

    Hi Amanda! Great post and pics. Did you find you had enough time on the Viator tour? My husband and I are going in September and just tossing up whether we day trip from Seville or actually travel on to Granada to stay for 1 night. Thanks in advance!

      Hey Melissa! If you want to see more of Granada, I would suggest actually staying a night there, as you don’t really have any free time there on the Viator tour. However, if you’re mostly just concerned with seeing the Alhambra, this was a good option – we were inside with a guide for about 3 hours!

    I lived in Granada back in 2013 and I have to say, I had no problems securing tickets a week, or even a few days before the planned days going when friends came to visit me. I would just pop in the Alhambra store on the main street and buy tickets on the kiosks they had inside as I never actually booked anything far in advance. Twice we were running late and arrived 15-30 minutes after our timed slots and we didn’t have problems getting in. I don’t know if it helps that we spoke Spanish, but there are other areas within Alhambra perfect for picnic spots that one doesn’t need a ticket for. It’s definitely worth it, even better than the similar one in Seville.

      Good to know! I’m not sure how much more popular it’s become in the last couple of years, though. There were definitely tons of people the day I was there!

    just spent all of January in Spain, Its my 12th visit. I cannot wait to go back. Perhaps May?

      I spent about 3 weeks in Spain last year, and it was actually my first time there! I will definitely be going back. 🙂

    Hi Amanda! I’m loving all your posts about Spain – a friend and I are planning a trip in October. It’s funny…I never really had a desire to go there and much like you had heard a lot of negativity about Barcelona. My friend said it is number one on her bucket list so I agreed to go as part of joint trip to Portugal. I’m hoping to be pleasantly surprised! Thanks for all the great info!

      I hope you’re pleasantly surprised, too, Melinda! I ended up LOVING Spain so much – I’ll definitely go back to see more!

    When I studied at University of Granada in the 80’s we could visit the Alhambra with just a student ID anytime it was open and even picnic in the gardens so I balk at the new difficulties getting in. I visited 7 years ago. We missed our time slot because we got confused by dates (I booked 4 months ahead). Totally lost that money which was individual tickets, I think around $30 each. But I was determined to take my mom and daughter so we got in line early in the morning the next day and I did secure new tickets. Pain in the butt and left me feeling a bit resentful but because the place means so much to me, I probably would have crawled over hot coals to get in. $150 sounds like a rip off though. Public bus from Seville show be no more than $20, right? Entry to the Alhambra not sure but maybe $50 or less? And tour guides vary but unless they gave you a very expensive lunch, I am very surprised by a $150 tour cost for the Alhambra.

      I’m sure the amount of people at the Alhambra is much different than you remember it during your University days!

      As for this specific tour, I guess it depends on your travel style. For someone who doesn’t feel comfortable navigating public bus schedules and handling everything on their own, I actually think this tour is a great value. Also, this is just a day trip, which is ideal for people short on time. If I’d had more time, I definitely would have spent a few days in Granada and just booked at tour at the Alhambra on my own. Sometimes I’m happy to pay a little extra for convenience, though. 🙂

    With these amazing photos and must-see places in Spain, I surely won’t have a second thought of visiting this country in my next travels. I would start saving more today to experience this firsthand.

      You should definitely go! Spain is pretty incredible – and pretty affordable, too!

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