The Alhambra: 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
The Alhambra complex in Granada

This Arabic 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 Arabic neighborhood) before lunchtime.

A colorful home in the Albaicin
Exploring Granada on foot
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
Alhambra details
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 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 Arabic influence is clearly seen in the Alhambra in its decorated archways, tiled walls, and intricate carvings. And its 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
Looking out over the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra

The Alhambra remained under Arabic control until the late 15th century. In 1492 (yes, the same year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue), Arabic 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
Tiles and carvings at 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
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
Generalife Gardens on a rainy day
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 Arabic 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
The details are truly mind-blowing
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.

And we briefly popped in to the Palace of Charles V, which sticks out from the beautiful Arabic 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
Patio de los Leones
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 accidentally 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 Arabic 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 visiting the Alhambra worth it?

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 about $50 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
SO worth it

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 Arabic 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.

Book the tour I took from Seville here, or book a guided tour in Granada.

Patio of the Cypresses at Generalife Gardens
Alhambra details

It's much easier to visit the Alhambra 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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60 Comments on “The Alhambra: The Place Everyone Will Tell You to Visit in Spain

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  1. Granada has a special place in my heart… I spent a week there on a Spanish language and horse riding holiday, and it was so great I’m pretty sure that’s what sparked (or rekindled) my love of solo travel! Funnily enough though, I was really underwhelmed by the Alhambra the first time I went. I liked it a lot more the second time around, but I think I still like the Alcazar in Seville better. You’ve captured the details of the building beautifully though!

      The Alcazar is awesome, too. And, because it’s much less crowded, I can understand liking it better than the Alhambra! I personally can’t choose a favorite – they’re both so amazing!

        Hi Amanda,
        Thanks for the great post and as always your blog is so helpful!
        I will be in Spain in late April (exactly the same time as you) and I’m trying to decide if I should do the Viator day trip to the Alhambra, a two nights stay in Granada or just skip it and see the Alcazar in Seville. Did you find a huge difference between the Alcazar and the Alhambra to warrant the extra time and cost?
        Thank you!

          That is a great question! I’m such a big architecture nerd that I loved seeing both buildings. While the Alcazar is similar (and way less crowded), I really loved the Alhambra and seeing a bit of Granada, too! If you can swing staying in Granada, I would do it because it’s very different from Seville. If not, then the day trip is the next best option in my opinion, and I would probably do both!

    Beautiful Photos. Alhambra is definitely one of my favorite palaces in Europe. Completely different than the rest.

      It’s certainly a special spot!

    I love the photographs and the intricate detail of historic buildings. I haven’t yet been to Seville but I’ve heard amazing things about the Moor background. I’m thinking that Granada probably warrants more than a day trip by your lovely description. What do you think?

      Yes, I would definitely say Granada deserves more than just a day!

    I’ve traveled a lot in Europe and Asia and the Alhambra is still one of the prettiest and most memorable places I’ve ever seen. I took a tour and the insights were fascinating – it definitely enhanced the experience!

      Putting together this post, I was reminded just how incredible it is inside. Definitely a place I would pay to visit again! (And that’s saying something!)

    I traveled to a few major cities when in Spain and Grenada was my favorite. The Alhambra was great, but I liked the traditional tapas and atmosphere. Maybe I was just sick of being charge so much in Barcelona and Madrid for so little. We found great nooks for drinking and exploring the city. I recommend it even if you can’t get tickets. But most people plan their trips money’s in advance anyways, so it is a good tip to book ahead of time.

      Many people name Granada as their favorite city in Spain (usually for the reasons you mentioned!), so it’s definitely somewhere I’d love to spend more time one of these days!

    Of course! Couldn’t miss it. I think these super busy, need to book a month in advance type places are where it’s really worth booking a tour – skip the line and get some added insights.

      I totally agree, Emma! The only place where I didn’t do this was the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I did book a timed ticket ahead of time online, but I opted to go without the audio tour – I much prefer a real-person guide! And my guide at the Alhambra was fantastic; she really knew her stuff!

    To this day, the Alhambra is still one of the most stunning places I ever visited. There is no such thing as going to Andalusia and not visiting the Alhambra!

      Agreed! It so incredible – I could have spent all day there and still missed more than half of the details.

      Have you been to the Alcazar in Seville? It’s also very impressive, though not as big as the Alhambra.

    Gorgeous photos!! Ugh, so revelation time. Tom and I actually spent 5 days in Granada for an international autism conference and didn’t manage to visit the Alhambra. Imagine telling people that not only have you been to Spain, but that you actually spent almost a week in Granada and never managed to see it! It’s always good to have a reason to go back to place, right??

      Ahhhh yeah I would totally be one of those incredulous people asking how you managed to not visit the Alhambra. 😉 But yes, great reason to go back!

    Granada is really special to me because of the month I spent there as a 17-year-old, and the Alhambra is nothing but stunning. Thanks for taking me back there!

      Happy to be able to take you back, Kirstie! 🙂

    We stayed in Granada for a couple of nights in Winter 2010 and visited the Alhambra quite early in the morning so we didn’t have crowds. Granada is my favourite city in Spain so I think it is definitely worth spending some time in as well as visiting the Alhambra

      Next time I’ll definitely allocate time just to Granada!

    Your photos are stunning! I much prefer photos that are architectural based. I had never heard of Alhambra before, but that is also because Spain was further down my list…although these photos are making me rethink my plans!

      You know, Spain was always somewhat down my list, too. And now after having spent a few weeks there, I have NO CLUE why I didn’t go sooner. Spain is amazing!

    Everyone keeps telling us the same thing! We’ve been to Spain several times, but have not made it to Seville, Grenada or the Alhambra. These photos are amazing and talking me into making it next trip.

      Seville in itself is amazing, and Granada would be worth a couple of days, too, Alhambra or not! Highly recommended for your next time in Spain!

    These photos are sensational. The Alhambra has been on my list ever since I *didn’t* get to go there on a school trip when I was 17. I guess nothing is more alluring than the thing you’re denied… But also because, like you, I’ve heard so many incredible things about it, and so many people have told me I should go. I loved looking at your photos of the building: the architecture looks beautiful, so detailed and busy – and yet the whole place seems so serene. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

      Thanks, Katie! These are definitely some of my favorite photos from Spain. I hope you eventually make it to the Alhambra!

    I am currently thinking about/planning a trip to Spain later this year, so all your Spain posts are so helpful and full of inspiration for me! The Alhambra is definitely high on my list of things to see, so I am glad that you think it’s worth it! The architecture just looks so absolutely incredible and I imagine it’s even more impressive in person!

      Yup, it’s definitely worth it! So so beautiful, and I imagine it would be even more impressive on a sunny day!

    Great tips! I always debate whether it is better to book with a tour or see the sights on your own, but I typically find the cost is worth the insight you gain. Otherwise I find myself wondering what the significance is and then leaving with a few pretty pictures that I have no idea what they are. I’ll definitely have to check out Alhambra on my next trip to Spain!

      There are certainly times and places where you’re fine without a guide. But yeah, especially when there’s a lot of history involved and no signs to explain anything to you, going with a guide is almost always worth it!

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