In 2014, it is easy to forget that vast portions of what are today Spain and Portugal once belonged to the Moorish kingdom of Al-Andalus (where the sunny, Spanish region of “Andalusia” gets its name) for almost 800 years.
The Muslim conquest of Spain began in the 8th century when the Arabic caliph Al-Walid I sent forces from North Africa to invade Christian, Visigoth Spain. After centuries of Muslim rule under the Umayyad dynasty, Al-Andalus eventually fragmented into smaller kingdoms ruled by various emirs and sultans. The Nasrid kingdom of Granada, which ruled from the 13th to the 15th centuries, was the last Muslim stronghold in Spain, and no monument can give better insight to their world than the Alhambra in Granada.
During the era of Muslim rule in Spain, cities in Al-Andalus like Córdoba became cultural centers in Europe. While much of Northern Europe was stuck in the Dark Ages, medieval Al-Andalus nurtured an era of great learning. Many Greek and Latin ancient texts were actually preserved and translated by Muslim scholars, and their advances in philosophy, mathematics, medicine, science, and farming were frequently far ahead of Christian Europe’s.
For this reason, it is easy to understand why when the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, were handed the keys to the Alhambra from the last Nasrid sultan of Granada (Boabdil) in 1492 after a long-lasting siege – instead of destroying their enemy’s creations and beginning anew, they greatly respected the architectural and decorative styles they discovered inside the Alhambra palace-city. After all, it was a great prize to be won – and the ultimate one for the Spanish monarchs as it signaled the completion of their “re-Conquest” of Spain. They sought to preserve much of the original structures and to leave their own Christian, Renaissance mark on the newly-acquired royal city, which overlooked the city of Granada. The result was a magical, Hispano-Muslim fusion. It was very much a paradise on earth at the time – the essence of comfort, sophistication and beauty.
Visiting the remarkably well-preserved Alhambra is like opening a door to an exotic, lavish and fascinating world of medieval Muslim sultans and Renaissance kings and queens. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and deservedly so. Inside this cultural masterpiece visitors can marvel at the beautiful latticework shutters, lanterns, exquisitely-carved niches, and perfectly-proportioned patios and courtyards adorned with fountains and gardens. Today the Alhambra is one of the most-visited cultural attractions in Spain, and it remains a source of immense pride for the locals of Granada.
When visiting the Alhambra you are given either a morning or afternoon timeslot during which you have plenty of time to explore the complex. (Morning tickets 8:30 am – 2:00 pm; afternoon tickets: 2:00 pm – 6:00 pm * 8:00 pm in high season). The most popular attraction – for which you’ll be given a precise entrance time – is the Nasrid Palace area. Otherwise, you can wander at will. While the buildings are masterpieces of architecture and design, the grounds and surrounding views are just as gorgeous. Below are the primary areas to visit:
The Kasbah (Alcazaba)
In the 13th century, when the Nasrid sultan Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar decided to build his new city in Granada, Sabika Hill was selected as the ideal site because of its strategic, defensive potential.
Dilapidated towers and walls of an existing 11th-century red castle were reinforced or built anew, and a triangle-shaped, military citadel took shape to house the troops and to defend the sultan and his palace-city against potential attacks.
Inside this fascinating, largely-military section visitors can see remains of the former military district; the Adarves Gardens, which were converted from a defensive trench into gardens in the 17th century; and several impressive towers including the Torre del Homenaje (the highest tower in the complex), the Torre del Cubo, the Torre del Pólvora, and the magnificent, 13th-century Torre de la Vela.
The Nasrid Palaces
This is understandably what everybody traveling to Granada wants to see. Strongly contrasting the fortress feeling of the Alcazaba, the palace area of the Alhambra is best described as pure artistic and architectural genius. The various palaces you will visit that make up the Alhambra Palace were created over time by different sultans for their respective royal families.
There is no better way to get an understanding of the ancient world of the Muslim court than by leisurely exploring the beautifully-preserved palaces. The Palacio del Mexuar is the oldest of the palaces. Having been constructed during the reign of Ismail I (1314-1325), its grand hall was largely used for audiences with the sultan. The Palacio de Comares, which was constructed during the reign of Yusuf I (1333-1354), is particularly famous for the architectural beauty of its patio. The Palacio de los Leones, which was constructed during the reign of Muhammad V (1362-1391), is perhaps the best known of the Alhambra palaces. Its Patio de los Leones, which was so named because of the lion fountain found in the center of the courtyard, is nothing short of breathtaking.
Inside the Nasrid palace complex, visitors can also tour an area created for Charles V, the Christian Holy Roman Emperor and grandson of the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. When Charles V visited Granada 34 years after their conquest, like his Christian predecessors – he continued restoring the existing palaces (which had suffered as a result of the siege).
Charles V also created the first Christian Royal Palace by modifying some of the original Moorish palaces and adding additional rooms. One particularly famous guest of the Christian Palace’s Imperial Suite was American writer and diplomat, Washington Irving, who wrote Tales of the Alhambra, after living in Granada in 1829.
The Palacio de Carlos V
During Charles V’s visit to the Alhambra in 1526 with his Empress, Isabella of Portugal, they stayed in the aforementioned Imperial Apartments, which were constructed within the existing Nasrid palaces. However, the Alhambra and its legacy made a tremendous impression on him, and he decided to construct a new palace on the Alhambra grounds – an imperial palace fit for an Emperor that paid homage to his grandparents’ long-fought “re-conquest” of Christian Spain.
While construction began on the Renaissance-style, stone palace in the early 16th century, the roof was not completed until the 20th century. The palace’s massive, circular courtyard is surrounded by two stories featuring sixty-four symmetrical columns. It houses the Alhambra Museum as well as the Fine Arts Museum.
No visit to the Alhambra is complete without thoroughly exploring the nearby country estate of Granada’s lost long sultans. Separated from the Alhambra by a ravine, in medieval times the Generalife was independent and not considered part of the palace-city. Instead it was the nearest almunia or country estate belonging to the Nasrid sultans of Granada.
During the era of Muslim rule, the area surrounding the Generalife was largely used for farming and had numerous market gardens and orchards. It was irrigated by the same complex, innovative system that provided water to the Alhambra palaces and medina (city). The royal families would escape to the idyllic Generalife for a good dose of R&R.
Its inner palace resembles the other Nasrid palaces and contains a magnificent courtyard area that beautifully harmonizes the water, horticultural and architectural elements. Visiting its gardens is also a real treat that should not be missed.
What else is there to see and do in Granada besides visiting the Alhambra?
Granada is a popular, lively university town. Visitors can enjoy very good live music – particularly flamenco – as well as fun, local tapas bars. Strolling through its Old Muslim Quarter, the Albaicín (also spelled “Albayzín”) is fascinating. While one rather touristy street is rife with souvenir shops peddling Moroccan goods, once you wander off to the smaller streets, the charm of this historic district is intoxicating. As you walk higher and higher through its quiet back streets (save for a neighbor strumming his guitar) you’re likely to capture the timeless nature this neighborhood evokes. It is well worth the climb for the priceless panoramic view of the Alhambra found in front of the Church of San Nicolás.
Granada’s Renaissance Cathedral and Royal Chapel also merit a visit while on vacation in Granada. Inside the Royal Chapel you will find the tombs of Spain’s most famous king and queen: Ferdinand and Isabella.
And if you travel all the way to Andalusia to visit Granada and the Alhambra, consider adding the Spanish cities of Seville, Córdoba, Málaga or Cádiz to your itinerary. (The Sierra Nevada Mountains are also located just to the east of Granada and are a popular spot for both hikers and skiers).
Practical Info on Visiting Granada:
Nearest airport: Federico García Lorca Granada-Jaén Airport (flights from the United States will likely connect in Madrid, Barcelona or Lisbon).
Train connection: Granada is very easily visited by train. High-speed rail is available from both Madrid and Seville
We hope you have enjoyed reading about the Alhambra, one of Spain’s most popular tourist attractions. To check out our vacation packages to Spain, please kindly click here, or to customize an itinerary to Granada or Andalusia featuring the Alhambra, please click here to build your own package. Alternatively, please give our staff a call at (800) 227-3235 so that we can help you with the booking process over the telephone.