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The Alhambra

Granada, Andalucia, Spain

The Alhambra and Palace of Charles V

ABOVE: A twilight view of the Alhambra, with the Palace of Charles V behind the Moorish fortress. INSET BELOW: Another view, showing the snowcapped  Sierra Madre mountains.

The AlhambraSitting atop a hill overlooking the gorgeous southern Spanish city of Granada, the Alhambra is one of Europe's most stunning and unique landmarks. The ancient Moorish fortress, along with the immediately neighboring Generalife estate and Albayzín neighborhood, make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the world's greatest examples of Arab architecture outside of the Middle East.

The Alhambra, which gets its name from the red clay walls surrounding it, was built to house the Muslim ruler Mohammed ibn Nasr in the 13th Century during the time of the Moorish occupation of Spain. Instead of being wholly defensive, the fortress actually is more of a small town and collection of palaces. While perhaps impractical in the long run--Christian armies captured the Alhambra in the late 15th Century--the fortress and its gardens survive as a world-famous monument and tourist attraction, drawing thousands of appreciative visitors every day.

Inside the Alhambra:

Nasrid Palace pool

ABOVE: A reflecting pool inside the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra.

Walking uphill to the entrance to the Alhambra is tiring but well worth the trouble. Follow the Cuesta de Gomérez from the Plaza Nueva in Granada's city center, which will lead you onto a path  through a lush park with small streams running down either side of the walkway. The wooded path is simply a hint of what's to come at the top of the plateau.

Nasrid Palace

Architectural detailOnce inside the Alhambra, make sure to enter the Nasrid Palace during the half-hour time slot noted on your ticket. If you miss your assigned time, you'll be unable to see this crown jewel of the Alhambra.

Describing the palace in words is difficult. Moorish wall tilesThe views of Granada are unparalleled, and the decoration is ornate. An emphasis on natural beauty and symmetry is clearly on display, with elaborately patterned rooms leading into courtyards full of pools and greenery.

Palace of Charles V

Palace of Charles VYears after the Christian conquest of the Alhambra, work began on the Palace of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who also claimed the title of King of Spain.

While less elaborate as its Islamic neighbors within the Alhambra, Charles' building certainly qualifies as grandiose. Its circle-within-a-square design is unique among its structural contemporaries, and even if you aren't architecturally inclined, you'll get the feeling that Charles was not one to settle for a mail-order bungalow.

Other parts of the Alhambra:

Aerial viewBesides the palaces, the Alhambra has a number of ramparts and towers worth exploring. The Alcazaba is the old citadel, which houses the Torre de la Vela, worth climbing for its spectacular views of the surrounding city and the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains nearby. The Iglesia de Santa María is a bit mysterious in its understated design as well and is worth a brief visit. So long as you have a map on hand (they're free at the entrance), it's easy to see every inch of the Alhambra.

The Generalife

GeneralifeAfter exploring the many towers and palaces of the central part of the Alhambra, don't forget to visit the Generalife summer palace and gardens. Located across a small ravine, these scenic grounds are filled with orange trees looming over flower beds, symmetric fountains and pools, and trimmed hedges that line the path into the palace itself.

Though similar in many ways to its wintertime counterpart (the Nasrid Palace) the Generalife estate feels more laid back and emphasizes water and greenery even more. The views across the divide to the Alcabaza and palace areas of the fortress are impressive as well.

Practical advice:

Granada panorama

ABOVE: The city of Granada, as seen from the Alhambra.

Cat drinking from poolThe Alhambra is an extremely popular tourist destination. You may want to reserve tickets online before your visit, because only a limited number of people are admitted into the grounds each day. (See the Alhambra Web site for more information.)

The best deal is a '"General Visit - Day" pass, which will allow you to see everything in the Alhambra, including the Generalife and Nasrid Palace. When booking your ticket, you'll pick between a morning and afternoon visit. You'll also need to choose a time slot for your entry to the Nasrid Palace, as you may only go in during the thirty-minute period that you've reserved.

To claim your paper ticket upon arrival, use the automated machines near the entrance gates to the Alhambra, which staff will guide you to. You'll need to insert the credit card that you used to purchase the ticket into the machine, which will then print out a hard copy. (To forestall problems, write down your reservation number when buying the ticket online, since an e-mail confirmation may not arrive in your inbox.)

Moorish windowsOnce you enter the Alhambra, be sure to keep your ticket with you at all times, since there are staff stationed throughout the grounds who'll scan it at the entry points to each section of the Alhambra. Without a valid ticket, you may be turned away.

Finally, to fully enjoy the Alhambra, budget at least three hours of time to explore, if not more. I spent four and a half hours and could have stayed longer--and that's coming from someone who is dying for a nap after half an hour in a museum, no matter how interesting the exhibit. There's so much to do here, and being forced out the gates without having seen the Generalife or one of the spectacular palaces would be a travesty.

Reaching the Alhambra from Granada:

Road to Alhambra

ABOVE: Walking uphill to the Alhambra.

On foot: This is the most enjoyable way to get to the Alhambra, if you don't mind the steep grade. From the Plaza Nueva (the large square on Calle Reyes Católicos in the city center), simply walk uphill on Cuesta de Gomérez. Signs will lead you to the hilltop and the entrance. (If you find yourself walking downhill at any point, you're going the wrong way.)

By bus: The local transit network's C3 minibus can take you to the entrance from the city below. This is only really advisable if you have physical concerns about the steep walk up to the Alhambra. For more details, including a map and timetables, click here.

By taxi: Taxi journeys to the Alhambra are worth the expense only if you're afraid of being late for your Nasrid Palace entry time. If you do decide to take a cab, be sure the driver turns the meter on.

Getting to Granada:

By bus: Granada's bus station is modern and clean, and services run to cities all across Spain. The trip from Madrid is about five hours and is largely a pleasant drive. The Movelia website is an excellent resource for buying bus tickets in Spain.

By train: Trains to Granada are only marginally faster than their bus equivalents from Madrid and many other Spanish cities, and cost more as well. Consult the Renfe website for availability and current prices.

By plane: Granada's airport, Federico García Lorca Granada-Jaen (code: GRX) is small, primarily serving the domestic market. However, some low-cost airlines such as Ryanair are offering new flights to European destinations.

By car: Highways A-44 and A-92 bring you to Granada from other Spanish cities.

Granada Cathedral

ABOVE: The interior of Granada's cathedral and its twin organs.

Tourist information:

GranadaTur
Official tourist information from the City of Granada.

Alhambra de Granada
One of the better Alhambra information sites on the web.

Accommodations

Booking.com: Granada
Europe's largest secure reservations service handles bookings (with guaranteed lowest rates) for hotels, B&Bs, hostels, etc. in all price ranges.

Transportation

Movelia
This should be your starting point for buying bus tickets to Granada.

Renfe
Purchase tickets, check timetables, and see availability for trains to Granada and throughout Spain.

Granada Airport
Frederico Garcia Lorca Airport is 16 km or about 10 miles west of Granada. Bus timetables are tied to flight schedules.

Background reading

The Alhambra, by Washington Irving
A Web edition of the classic work from 1851 is available at no cost from the University of Adelaide Library. Enjoy it online, or download it for reading during your travels.

About the author:

Anders Imboden photoAnders Imboden has written other articles for Europeforvisitors.com, including a story about Madrid's Retiro Park, tips for a Dublin Weekend, and a report on attending a football match at Sunderland's Stadium of Light as a London Arsenal fan.

Top photo copyright © Christina Hanck.
3rd inset photo copyright © iStockPhoto/David Pedre.
Author photo copyright © Heather Magers Keefe.