If there’s one place to visit in Granada, Spain, it's Alhambra, the world’s first Muslim palace and an architectural trove with a foothold in history.
Alhambra comes from the Arabic al-qala’a al-hamra, which means the Red Castle. It dates back to the 9th century or as early as the Roman times. It’s Granada’s most popular tourist attraction and one that highlights its Moorish history.
Originally built as a fortress, it’s also a palace and a small medina. Its highlights include the Nasrid Palaces, the Alcazaba, Generalife, the imposing towers, and the Palace of Charles V.
1. Alhambra Palace is a massive complex
Visiting the Alhambra Palace can be confusing, even after you’ve secured your visitor tickets. There are multiple sites within the Nasrid Palace Alhambra because it was once a fortress, made up of several separate buildings with different access points and garden areas. You can choose to walk through on your own, but first-time visitors are encouraged to choose a guided tour option to get the most out of the walkthrough. Most tours take 2 1/2 to 3 hours, but a visitor can easily spend up to 5 hours and more if trying to see all the areas within the attraction.
2. You need tickets to visit the Alhambra Palace but they’re hard to secure
The Alhambra Palace Granada is the most highly visited attraction in Spain, and although millions of people visit the site each year, gaining access to the site can be confusing. You must plan ahead because there are limits on the number of people allowed in each day. If you don’t buy tickets for admission in advance, they are likely to be sold out. You can purchase tickets up to 90 days in advance, and it’s recommended that you do so, but they may already be sold out for certain popular touring dates.
3. Tourists with tickets can be turned away.
Timing is everything when you want to get in to tour the Alhambra Palace. Visitors must arrive between 30 to 60 minutes in advance of the admission time printed on the ticket to compensate for the long lines of other tourists, just to get inside. There is a strict limit of only 300 people allowed inside at 30-minute intervals. The difficulty for ticket holding tourists is that you must arrive in time to gain admission within 30 minutes of the admission time that is stamped on your ticket or they will not let you in. It is worth noting that in Spain, time slots are strictly adhered to, so if you’re running late, you may miss the opportunity to gain admission to the site.
4. Alhambra was built by the Romans and taken by the Moors
The area in which Alhambra is located was first occupied by the Romans in prior to the 700s. The Roman military saw this locale as a strategic site, and they took over the area to maintain a show of force for their campaign of domination that would not last. They would be overpowered by the Moors, who arrived in Europe and invaded the region in the year 711. It was the Muslim emirs from the Nasrid dynasty who began construction of the lovely palaces we see today. It is believed that work began shortly after their victory that claimed the site where Alhambra is located as a Moorish territory. The influences of Moorish styles of architecture can be seen in the photo above.
5. Alhambra’s Palaces were built in the 13th century
The beautiful palaces that sit within the Alhambra’s Nasrid complexes were not built until the 13th century. They were constructed near the end of the Nasrid dynasty and additions to the fortified site that offered a safe haven for the Nasrid emirs until the end of the dynasty when the Moors were defeated by Spain. The original palaces have been modified through the centuries by restoration efforts necessary to preserve the integrity of the structures.
6. Ferdinand and Isabella improved upon the once Moorish palaces
The Alhambra complex was acquired and rebuilt by monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, to be their royal court after the Moors were defeated in 1492. Spain was rising to power and it was during this period in time that the Alhamara fortress along with its lovely palaces became the property of Spain, their third and current owners.
7. Another palace was added after Ferdinand and Isabella
The complex of palaces and military sites that makes up Alhambra was not completed until later generations. During the reign of Charles V, the Carlos V palace was constructed. There are a total of six main buildings within the Alhambra complex. These are, the Nasrid Palaces, The Medina, The Alcazabar, the Generalife Gardens and Palace, Thee Rauda or Royal Cemetery and the Carlos V Palace.
8. The Hall of the Ambassadors flooring was replaced during the restoration
The largest room within the Alhambra complex is the Hall of the Ambassadors, where the sultan hosted grand receptions. This was also the throne room and it is the most decadent area in Alhambra, with double arches, the Alamaras coat of arms crafted in 16th-century glazed tiles and a variety of inscriptions from the Koran. The flooring is now covered with clay floor tiles, but prior to this refurbishment, the floor was once made out of marble.
9. The Court of Myrtles features an ancient cooling system
When entering the Court of Myrtles, there is a pool of goldfish that stands out as one of the main focal points. This traditional Moorish design element is two-fold in purpose. It stood within the culture during that era as a symbol of power, but it was also an innovation that the Moors developed to provide cooling for the interior of the palace.
10. The English elm trees were not originally part of the landscaping
If you were to visit the palace and its grounds during the era when the Moors ruled the region, you would not see the dense groves of elm trees that now pervade the area. The Moors planted Myrtles, oranges, and roses, which are still a prominent feature of the landscaping today. The English elms, which stand out as one of the most predominant elements, were brought to the area by the Duke of Wellington in 1812.
11. The Alhambra is referred to frequently in popular literature
The Alhambra has inspired writers and artists for centuries. This is not only because of its beauty and grandeur but also because of its historical significance in the power struggles that ensued over the territory of Spain throughout the ages. Washington Irving’s “Tales of the Alhambra,” from 1832 was written while the author lived in the Alhambra. His book is a romantic novel about wizards, warriors, pilgrims, and princesses. Later, author Salman Rushdie wrote “The Moor’s Last Sigh,” the story about the last Moorish king, Boabdil, which featured Alhambra.
12. Gruesome atrocities took place in the palace
The Hall of the Abencerrages, also known as Sala De Los Abencerrajes is a place that carries with it legends from the times of intense political struggles. One of the legends tells about a group of Abencerrajes knights who were brought into this room and beheaded.
13. There are many restrictions when visiting the palace
Prior to visiting the Alhambra palace, visitors must read their tickets to become aware of the restrictions before arriving. While there are areas where taking photos and videos are allowed, visitors are not allowed to bring tripods, camera flashes, selfie sticks or large backpacks into the site. Strollers and buggies can be brought into the Alhambra grounds, but they are prohibited in the Nasrid Palace and Generalife areas, so baby carriers are recommended. When guests arrive with these items, they are directed to a location where they can be stored while they explore the attraction.
14. Generalife is evidence of the Moor’s engineering genius
The Generalife area of the Alhambra Palace complex is a collection of lush gardens featuring fountains that are fed by an irrigation system that was engineered by the early Moors. Generalife literally means “Architect’s Garden.” They sourced water from the Darrow River which is located 3.5 miles upstream and channeled the water to feel the breathtaking Patio de la Acequia, also known as the Water Garden Courtyard.
15. The Partal Palace Gardens houses are among the oldest in the complex
When visiting the Partal Palace and Gardens, one interesting fact that many people are not aware of is that it is one of the oldest structures there. This portion of Alhambra was not even discovered until late in the 19th century. It had been overtaken by vines and covered up with a crude layer of plasterwork by successors of the Nasrid dynasty. The area was found after the property had been handed to the State. After multiple restoration projects which began in 1931, the Palace and gardens have been restored to show the world an example of Moorish garden design from the Nasrid era. It offers an authentic look at the ruggedness of the exterior fortress and the decadence of the palace within.
16. The Palace served as a strategic viewpoint
The Moors established their claim on the territory in 711 and had completed the construction of the small fortress that would become the Alhambra Palace centuries later. The fortress was first built in the year 889 AD. Although the view is lovely, the reason for its placement in this exact location at the top of the eAl-Sabika hill, was to have a clear view of enemies as they approached the fortress. This vantage point offers a view that overlooks the city of Granada in its entirety.
17. Alhambra is an Arabic name
The origin of the name of the Palatial complex comes from the Arabic, al-qala’a al-hamra. The term is translated as “Red Palace,” and it is believed to have come from the name of the red clay building materials found in the region. The outer walls were built from the reddish color tapia, or rammed earth, but historians discovered that the building was originally painted in white.
18. American Author Washington Irving is honored at Alhambra
There is a large triumphal arch that was constructed in the 16th century that leads to the park area known as Purta de las Granadas. Just inside the gate, a statue of author Washington Irving stands. It was placed there in 2009, on the 150th anniversary of his death, to commemorate his efforts in renewing interest in the Moorish past of Spain.
19. The 14th century Generalife gardens merge history with the modern era
The Generalife garden area was originally built by the Moors early in the 14th century. This was the area used for the summer palace. Much of the landscaping and building structures were preserved as closely as possible to the original or authentic site with its architectural and engineering innovations kept intact for the sake of their historical significance. These elements are important for giving the world a glimpse of the ingenuity of the people responsible for their creation, and they show us how far we’ve come as a society since this time period. One modern addition that was made is a theater where international dance and music performances are held. This brings a modern element into the ancient site that has its own story to tell.
20. The Alhambra Palace complex has been badly damaged, then restored through 3 generations of Contreras’ architects
Many elements of the original complex are authentic, but through the ages, some parts have been willfully destroyed or left in ruins by acts of nature. When Charles V, ruled the country of Spain as Charles I from 1516 to 1556, he ordered some portions destroyed so he could build his own Pedro Machuca designed Italian style palace in 1526. The Peninsular War with the French resulted in some of the towers being blown up in 1812, and in 1821, there was an earthquake in the region that caused more damage.
King Ferdinand VII commissioned architect Jose Contreras to begin restoration of the site in 1828, and upon Contreras’ death in 1847, his son Rafael continued the project for almost 40 years. Mariano Contreras Granja took over the work when his father Rafael passed away in 1890, and continued the restoration work until his death in 1912. This made three generations of architects who passed down work on the restoration of the Alhambra Palace from father to son.