The Alhambra is Granada’s – and Europe’s – love letter to Moorish culture, a place where fountains trickle, leaves rustle, and ancient spirits seem to mysteriously linger. Part palace, part fort, part World Heritage site, part lesson in medieval architecture, the Alhambra has long enchanted a never-ending line of expectant visitors. As a historic monument, it is unlikely it will ever be surpassed – at least not in the lifetime of anyone reading this.
For most tourists, the Alhambra is an essential pilgrimage and, as a result, predictably crowded. At the height of summer, some 6000 visitors tramp through daily, making it difficult to pause to inspect a pretty detail, much less mentally transport yourself to the 14th century. Schedule a visit in quieter months, if possible; if not, then book in advance for the very earliest or latest time slots.
The Alhambra takes its name from the Arabic al-qala’a al-hamra (the Red Castle). The first palace on the site was built by Samuel Ha-Nagid, the Jewish grand vizier of one of Granada’s 11th-century Zirid sultans. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Nasrid emirs turned the area into a fortress-palace complex, adjoined by a village of which only ruins remain. After the Reconquista (Christian reconquest), the Alhambra’s mosque was replaced with a church, and the Convento de San Francisco (now the Parador de Granada) was built. Carlos I (also known as the Habsburg emperor Charles V), grandson of the Catholic Monarchs, had a wing of the palaces destroyed to make space for his huge Renaissance work, the Palacio de Carlos V. During the Napoleonic occupation, the Alhambra was used as a barracks and nearly blown up. What you see today has been heavily but respectfully restored.
The central palace complex is the pinnacle of the Alhambra’s design.
Entrance is through the 14th-century Mexuar, perhaps an antechamber for those awaiting audiences with the emir. Two centuries later, it was converted to 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. It appears to be a forecourt to the main palace, with the symmetrical doorways to the right, framed with glazed tiles and stucco, setting a cunning trap: the right-hand door leads only out, but the left passes through a dogleg hall (a common strategy in Islamic domestic architecture to keep interior rooms private) into the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles), the centre of a palace built in the mid 14th century as Emir Yusuf I’s private residence.
Rooms (likely used for lounging and sleeping) look onto the rectangular pool edged in myrtles, and traces of cobalt blue paint cling to the muqarnas (honeycomb vaulting) in the side niches on the north end. Originally, all the walls were lavishly coloured; with paint on the stucco-trimmed walls in the adjacent Sala de la Barca, the effect would have resembled flocked wallpaper. Yusuf I’s visitors would have passed through this annex room to meet him in the Salón de los Embajadores (Chamber of the Ambassadors), where the marvellous domed marquetry ceiling uses more than 8000 cedar pieces to create its intricate star pattern representing the seven heavens.
Adjacent is the restored Patio de los Leones (Courtyard of the Lions), built in the second half of the 14th century under Muhammad V, at the political and artistic peak of Granada’s emirate. But the centrepiece, a fountain that channelled water through the mouths of 12 marble lions, dates from the 11th century. The courtyard layout, using the proportions of the golden ratio, demonstrates the complexity of Islamic geometric design – the varied columns are placed in such a way that they are symmetrical on numerous axes. The stucco work, too, hits its apex here, with almost lacelike detail.
Walking counterclockwise around the patio, you first pass the Sala de los Abencerrajes. The Abencerraje family supported the young Boabdil in a palace power struggle between him and his own father, the reigning sultan. Legend has it that the sultan had the traitors killed in this room, and the rusty stains in the fountain are the victims’ indelible blood. But the multicoloured tiles on the walls and the great octagonal ceiling are far more eye-catching. In the Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings) at the east end of the patio, the painted leather ceilings depict 10 Nasrid emirs.
On the patio’s north side, doors once covered the entrance to the Sala de Dos Hermanas (Hall of Two Sisters) – look for the holes on either side of the frame where they would have been anchored. The walls are adorned with local flora – pine cones and acorns – and the band of calligraphy at eye level, just above the tiles, is a poem praising Muhammad V for his victory in Algeciras in 1369, a rare triumph this late in the Islamic game. The dizzying ceiling is a fantastic muqarnas dome with some 5000 tiny cells. 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 the far end, the tile-trimmed Mirador de Lindaraja (Lindaraja lookout) was a lovely place for palace denizens to look onto the garden below. Traces of paint still cling to the window frames, and a few panels of coloured glass set in the wood ceiling cast a warm glow.
From the Sala de Dos Hermanas, a passageway leads past the domed roofs of the baths on the level below and into rooms built for Carlos I in the 1520s, and later used by Washington Irving. From here you descend to the pretty Patio de la Lindaraja. In the southwest corner is the bathhouse – you can’t enter, but you can peer in at the rooms lit by star-shaped skylights.
You emerge into an area of terraced gardens created in the early 20th century. The reflecting pool in front of the small Palacio del Partal, the oldest surviving palace in the Alhambra, with the Albayzín glimering in the background, is from the time of Mohammed III (r 1302–09). You can leave the gardens by a gate facing the Palacio de Carlos V or continue along a path to the Generalife.
Alcazaba, Christian Buildings & Museums
The west end of the Alhambra grounds are the remnants of the Alcazaba, chiefly its ramparts and several towers. The Torre de la Vela (Watchtower), with a narrow staircase leading to the top terrace, is where the cross and banners of the Reconquista were raised in January 1492.
By the Palacios Nazaríes, the hulking Palacio de Carlos V clashes spectacularly with its surroundings. In a different setting its merits might be more readily appreciated – it is the only example in Spain of the Renaissance-era circle-in-a-square ground plan. Begun in 1527 by Pedro Machuca, a Toledo architect who studied under Michelangelo, it was financed, perversely, from taxes on Granada’s morisco (converted Muslim) population but never finished because funds dried up after the morisco rebellion.
Inside, the Museo de la Alhambra has a collection of Alhambra artefacts, including the door from the Sala de Dos Hermanas, while the Museo de Bellas Artes displays paintings and sculptures from Granada’s Christian history.
Further along, the 16th-century Iglesia de Santa María de la Alhambra sits on the site of the palace mosque, and at the crest of the hill the Convento de San Francisco, now the Parador de Granada hotel, is where Isabel and Fernando were laid to rest while their tombs in the Capilla Real were being built.
From the Arabic jinan al-‘arif (the overseer’s gardens), the Generalife is a soothing arrangement of pathways, patios, pools, fountains, tall trees and, in season, flowers of every imaginable hue. To reach the complex you must pass through the Alhambra walls on the east side, then head back northwest. You approach through topiary gardens on the south end, which were once grazing land for the royal herds. At the north end is the emirs’ summer palace, a whitewashed structure on the hillside facing the Alhambra. The courtyards here are particularly graceful; in the second courtyard, the trunk of a 700-year-old cypress tree suggests what delicate shade once graced the patio. Climb the steps outside the courtyard to the Escalera del Agua, a delightful bit of garden engineering, where water flows along a shaded staircase.