How to Visit the Alhambra
The Alhambra, the dramatic fortress and palace high on a hill above Granada, is in high demand year-round. I knew this, and yet when planning my trip to Granada, I looked into purchasing tickets only about a month in advance, thinking that would be enough time. It was not. I was surprised to find that all of the daytime tickets to the Nasrid Palaces were already sold out. There was the option of visiting in the evening, which can be a beautiful time to view the site, but the downside would be several areas (Alcazaba, etc) are closed at that time. As I line out in my guide, there’s several other options in case the tickets are sold out.
I went for the option of buying a Granada Card, which at 40 Euros was more expensive than just the 14 euros the Alhambra is, but once the various other sites and options for bus tickets are factored in, seemed like a very economical deal. You have to chose a time to visit the Nasrid Palaces. Experience has taught me that in-demand sites are best visited at the very beginning or end of the day, to avoid hordes of bus tours. Given that Granada is pretty hot by late June (when I visited), I opted for the 9:30am reservation.
When buying your Alhambra tickets, there are various options that offer entrance to different areas of the Alhambra. Here’s a quick breakdown of what each area entails:
Nasrid Palaces - The Palaces are the highlight of the Alhambra, the only timed ticket, and the one that (for good reason) sells out first. The Palaces cover all of the elaborately carved rooms of the complex where the royal family lived and ruled for hundreds of years. You’re able view the intricately designed walls, tiles, pools, and more. There are ticket options to see it both in the daytime and evening. Either is worth it, though keep in mind the evening ticket won’t allow you to see all the areas of the Alhambra unless you purchase the Alhambra Experiences. Try to book early or late. There will be crowds all day, but they’ll be more bearable when less in demand.
The Gardens - Exiting the Nasrid Palaces, you’ll find yourself in an complex series of gardens where it’s easy to get lost amongst the fountains, trees, and stairways to view the gardens from above or below. This can be viewed in the daytime or evening depending on your ticket.
The Alcazaba - The fortress where the soldiers lived. Most of the living quarters have worn away. You can walk along the thick walls, climb the high towers, and see the outlines of where the hundreds of soldiers used to live. This is only viewable in the daytime.
Generalife - Far from the Alcazaba, but close to the main ticket office and the parking area, this is the summer palace of the sultans, filled with long water fountains and gardens. These can be seen in the daytime or evening depending on the ticket you buy.
Here’s a fun fact: You don’t have to pay to see some parts of the Alhambra. If you’re feeling super cheap, and don’t mind not getting to see the interior of many of the buildings, you can go through the Justice Gate without anyone asking for your ticket. From there you can see the Carlos V Palace, the chapel, and see the views over the city. You’re missing out on the awe-struck factor of seeing the more impressive buildings in detail, but I felt it was worth mentioning.
So, here’s what I did: 8:45AM, I got my tired, achy body out of my hotel and followed Google’s directions to get up to the entrance. There are buses and trams that go there as well, but I was both unsure of where the stops were, and also certain that the walk would be fairly easy. I followed the path uphill, through picturesque medieval streets, and into the park. From here, there is no signage. Nor were there any other people at 8:55AM. Take the path to the left going straight uphill. You won’t see any signage for awhile, and the hill gets fairly little steep. This is where going early (or late) helps with the heat. The park itself is lush and provides plenty of shade.
Eventually I started seeing the walls of the Alhambra to my left. I got to the base and was still confused by the lack of signage. Specifically the lack of a sign saying ‘Enter Here.’ The main entrance is further on from where I came up, and I can only assume there are maps there. I followed a group of people up through the Justice Gate and into the Alhambra. Here is where I discovered no one checks for tickets on the outskirts of the complex!
I hadn’t remembered to download a podcast audio guide beforehand, which is possible to do for cheap. As the rooms and buildings really do need some context to understand, I paid the 6 euros to rent the on-site audio guide. A few minutes before 9:30, I lined up with everyone else at the entrance to the Palaces and went in.
The audio guide is very heavy on the architecture and a little light on the historical significance, and I utilized it only part of the time. The rest of the time I followed a time-honored tradition of ‘casually’ listening in to the tour guides leading groups around, until they start giving you looks of ‘hey you aren’t one of my charges.’
A fun trivia fact for those who know US historical literature. There is a suite in the Nasrid Palaces dedicated to Washington Irving. Very little is explained about this in the audio guide, so I had to look it up. The writer, famous for The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, was traveling through Granada and asked the then-governor if he could see the Alhambra. Celebrities then and now get special permissions, and Irving was able to stay there for a short time. He wrote a book about his experiences, and they returned the favor by naming the suite he stayed in after him!
After winding through the Palaces, I found myself in the sumptuous surrounding gardens, where I was delighted to discover I had left the various tours behind and could wander on my own. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I find myself alone in a historic place, I like to imagine being there at its heyday, swanning around as if I was a historical princess surveying my domain. And occasionally being seen by another person entering the room, whose skeptical looks I translate into their last act as a peasant.
After seeing the other buildings, the clock hit noon and the grounds were noticeably more full. I was about to leave, but did find one other interesting bit of trivia:
Did you know there is a colony of feral cats that live at the Alhambra? And that are employees specifically in charge of feeding, caring for, and neutering these cats? I saw several signs asking people not to pet the cats. Alhambra cats! I feel they need their own Instagram feed….
On my way back down, there were now dozens of people walking up that hill. Again, go early or late to avoid these people. On the plus side, no signage was needed at that point. I headed back to my hotel, exhausted and ready to take up Granada on its many baths and spas.