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The Alhambra is Granada’s – and Europe’s – love letter to Moorish culture. Set against a backdrop of brooding Sierra Nevada peaks, this fortified palace complex started life as a walled citadel before going on to become the opulent seat of Granada’s Nasrid emirs. Their showpiece palaces, the 14th-century Palacios Nazaríes, are among the finest Islamic buildings in Europe and, together with the gorgeous Generalife gardens, form the Alhambra's great headline act.
As one of Spain’s most high-profile attractions, the Alhambra can draw up to 6000 daily visitors. Tickets sell out quickly so to avoid disappointment it pays to book ahead, either online or by phone. Note that when you buy a ticket you’ll be given a time to enter the Palacios Nazaríes, admission to which is strictly controlled. For more information, see Alhambra Practicalities.
The origins of the Alhambra, whose name derives from the Arabic al-qala’a al-hamra (the Red Castle), are mired in mystery. The first references to construction in the area appear in the 9th century but it’s thought that buildings may already have been standing since Roman times. In its current form, it largely dates to the 13th and 14th centuries when Granada's Nasrid rulers transformed it into a fortified palace complex. Following the 1492 Reconquista (Christian reconquest), its mosque was replaced by a church and the Habsburg emperor Charles V had a wing of palaces demolished to make space for the huge Renaissance building that still today bears his name. Later, in the early 19th century, French Napoleonic forces destroyed part of the palace and attempted to blow up the entire site. Restoration work began in the mid-1800s and continues to this day.
Palacio de Carlos V
From the entrance pavilion, a signposted path leads into the core of the complex, passing a couple of notable religious buildings. The first is the Convento de San Francisco, now the Parador de Granada hotel, where the bodies of Isabel and Fernando were laid to rest while their tombs were being built in the Capilla Real. A short walk further on brings you to the Iglesia de Santa María de la Alhambra, a 16th-century church on the site of the Alhambra's original mosque.
Beyond the church, the Palacio de Carlos V clashes spectacularly with the style of its surroundings. The hulking palace, begun in 1527 by the Toledo architect Pedro Machuca, features a monumental facade and a two-tiered circular courtyard ringed by 32 columns. This circle inside a square is the only Spanish example of a Renaissance ground plan symbolising the unity of heaven and earth.
Inside the palace are two museums: the Museo de la Alhambra, which showcases an absorbing collection of Islamic artefacts, including the door from the Sala de Dos Hermanas; and the Museo de Bellas Artes, home to a collection of 15th- to 20th-century artworks.
Occupying the western tip of the Alhambra are the martial remnants of the Alcazaba, the site's original 13th-century citadel. The Torre de la Vela (Watchtower) is famous as the tower where the cross and banners of the Reconquista were raised in January 1492. A winding staircase leads to the top where you can enjoy sweeping views over Granada's rooftops.
The Alhambra's stunning centrepiece, the palace complex known as the Palacios Nazaríes, was originally divided into three sections: the Mexuar, a chamber for administrative and public business; the Palacio de Comares, the emir's official and private residence; and the Palacio de los Leones, a private area for the royal family and harem.
Entrance is through the Mexuar, a 14th-century hall where the council of ministers would sit and the emir would adjudicate citizens' appeals. Two centuries later, it was converted into a chapel, with a prayer room at the far end. Look up here and elsewhere to appreciate the geometrically carved wood ceilings.
From the Mexuar, you pass into the Patio del Cuarto Dorado, a courtyard where the emirs gave audiences, with the Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room) on the left. Opposite the Cuarto Dorado is the entrance to the Palacio de Comares through a beautiful facade of glazed tiles, stucco and carved wood. A dogleg corridor (a common strategy in Islamic architecture to keep interior rooms private) leads through to the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles). This elegant patio, named after the myrtle hedges around its rectangular pool, is the central space of the palace that was built in the mid-14th century as Emir Yusuf I’s official residence.
The southern end of the patio is overshadowed by the walls of the Palacio de Carlos V. To the north, in the 45m-high Torre de Comares (Comares Tower), the Sala de la Barca (Hall of the Blessing) leads into the Salón de los Embajadores (Chamber of the Ambassadors), where the emirs would have conducted negotiations with Christian emissaries. The room's marvellous domed marquetry ceiling contains more than 8000 cedar pieces in an intricate star pattern representing the seven heavens of Islam.
The Patio de los Arrayanes leads into the Palacio de los Leones (Palace of the Lions), built in the second half of the 14th century under Muhammad V. The palace rooms branch off the Patio de los Leones (Lion Courtyard), centred on an 11th-century fountain channelling water through the mouths of 12 marble lions. The courtyard layout, using the proportions of the golden ratio, demonstrates the complexity of Islamic geometric design – the 124 slender columns that support the ornamented pavilions are placed in such a way that they are symmetrical on numerous axes.
Of the four halls around the patio, the southern Sala de los Abencerrajes is the most impressive. Boasting a mesmerising octagonal stalactite ceiling, this is the legendary site of the murders of the noble Abencerraj family, whose leader, the story goes, dared to dally with Zoraya, Abu al-Hasan's favourite concubine. The rusty stains in the fountain are said to be the victims’ indelible blood.
At the eastern end of the patio is the Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings) with a leather-lined ceiling painted by 14th-century Christian artists. The hall's name comes from the painting on the central alcove, thought to depict 10 Nasrid emirs.
On the patio’s northern side is the richly decorated Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of Two Sisters), probably named after the slabs of white marble flanking its fountain. It features a dizzying muqarnas (honeycomb-vaulted) dome with a central star and 5000 tiny cells, reminiscent of the constellations. This may have been the room of the emir's favourite paramour. The carved wood screens in the upper level enabled women (and perhaps others involved in palace intrigue) to peer down from hallways above without being seen. At its far end, the tile-trimmed Mirador de Daraxa (Daraxa lookout) was a lovely place for palace denizens to look onto the garden below.
From the Sala de Dos Hermanas, a passageway leads through the Estancias del Emperador (Emperor's Chambers), built for Carlos I in the 1520s, and later used by the American author Washington Irving. From here descend to the Patio de la Reya (Patio of the Grille) and the Patio de la Lindaraja, where, in the southwest corner you can peer into the bathhouse lit by star-shaped skylights.
You eventually emerge into the Jardines del Partal, an area of terraced gardens laid out at the beginning of the 20th century. Here a reflecting pool stands in front of the Palacio del Partal, a small porticoed building with its own tower (the Torre de las Damas) dating to the early 14th century. Leave the Partal gardens by a gate facing the Palacio de Carlos V, or continue along a path to the Generalife.
The Generalife, the sultans' gorgeous summer estate, dates to the 14th century. A soothing ensemble of pathways, patios, pools, fountains, trees and, in season, flowers of every imaginable hue, it takes its name from the Arabic jinan al-‘arif, meaning 'the overseer’s gardens'.
A string of elegant rectangular plots, the Jardines Nuevos, leads up to the whitewashed Palacio del Generalife, the emirs’ summer palace. The courtyards here are particularly graceful – in the second one, the Patio del Ciprés de la Sultana, the trunk of a 700-year-old cypress tree suggests the delicate shade that would once have graced the area. Beyond the courtyard, a staircase known as the Escalera del Agua is a delightful work of landscape engineering with water channels running down the shaded steps.