Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Alhambra is a historical showcase of Muslim and Christian palaces from the 13th through the 16th centuries. This UNESCO World Heritage Site lets you witness the height and fall of the Nasrid dynasty as it transitioned to the Catholic Monarchs followed by the lavish spending of Charles I of Spain (Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). Few destinations in Europe match this experience! This walking tour features many of the Alhambra highlights.

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1 Historical Introduction to Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Granada has had several names throughout history. The Romans called it Iliberis during the 1st century BC. The Ziri dynasty renamed it Elvira in 1013. When Muhammad Ibn Yusuf ibn Nasr arrived in 1238, he established the Nasrid dynasty and became the first ruler of the Emirate of Granada. Muhammad I of Granada then chose Sabikah Hill, in the center of the city, to build his opulent palace. The Alhambra (meaning Red Castle) evolved for over 250 years during the Muslim occupation until 1492. Then the Spanish Empire embellished the palaces in the 16th century. This UNESCO World Heritage Site comprises 26 acres. Alhambra is the pinnacle of Granada and one of the best attractions in Spain. Your walking tour begins at the early 16th century Puerta de las Granadas (Gate of the Pomegranates). Above the coat of arms of Charles I of Spain are three open pomegranates.

Puerta de las Granadas, Cuesta de Gomérez, 39, 18009 Granada, Spain
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2 Fountain of Carlos V at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Charles V had a huge architectural impact on Alhambra during his reign as king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. The first evidence you will encounter is the Fountain of Carlos V, also called Pilar de Carlos V. Below a relief of his heraldic shield are two pomegranates. They are flanked by three heads spouting water. These allegories represent Granada’s rivers Genil, Darro and Beiro. On the wall are four medallions portraying mythological events of Hercules, Daphne, Alexander the Great and the sisters Frixo and Hele. Charles V Fountain was finished in 1545.

Pilar de Carlos V, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 16, 18009 Granada, Spain
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3 Door of Justice at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Whether you have been walking up hill for a while, or just got dropped off by a tour bus, you will be excited when you reach Puerta de la Justica. Door of Justice has been the southern entrance to Alhambra since 1348 during the reign of Yusuf I. He was the Sultan of Granada from 1333 until 1354. The keystone of the first horseshoe arch has a marble relief of a hand. The fingers represent the Five Pillars of Islam (faith, prayer, giving, self-purification and pilgrimage). Near the other side of the tower is an inscription praising the Catholic Monarch for liberating Granada. This is the first of many times you will witness the contrasting impact the Nasrid and Spanish kingdoms had on Alhambra.

Puerta de la Justicia, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18, 18009 Granada, Spain
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4 Palace of Charles V at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The first magnificent edifice you will encounter at Alhambra is the Palace of Charles V. It measures 207 feet long and is constructed from Sierra Elvira stone. Here is a bit of history. Charles I became the first king of Spain in 1516 after the death of his grandfather, King Ferdinand II of Aragon. Three years later, he also became Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. By the end of his four-decade reign, he ruled over 1.5 million square miles. It was called “the empire on which the sun never sets.” In 1526, he hired architect Pedro Machuca to design a palace so grand as to rival those from Roman antiquity. The project was finally abandoned unfinished in 1637. No Spanish monarch ever stayed in Palacio de Carlos V. You will return here shortly. For now, turn right heading east along the Royal Road (Calle Real de la Alhambra).

Palacio de Carlos V, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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5 Church of Santa María at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Great Mosque stood on this site beginning in 1308. Almost immediately after the Catholic Monarchs conquered Granada in 1492, they declared Gran Mezquita be converted into a church. This makeshift step did not suit Philip II of Spain. In 1576, he commissioned master Renaissance architect Juan de Herrera to design a replacement. His plans were rejected. The Church of Santa María de la Alhambra was completed in 1607 using a Mudéjar style drawn by Ambrosio de Vicó. The brick façade is bland compared to its grandiose neighbor, the Palace of Charles V. Among the religious art inside is the Virgin of Anguish holding the crucified Christ. Pieta was completed in 1760 by Torcuato Ruiz del Peral. The sculpture is paraded through Alhambra every Holy Saturday.

Calle Real de la Alhambra, 22, 18009 Granada, Spain
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6 Ángel Barrios Museum at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Next to the Church of Santa María is Museo Ángel Barrios. This is the house where Spanish composer Ángel Barrios was born in 1882 and lived for most of his life until 1964. Exhibits dedicated to the musician include his instruments and sheet music plus artwork and furniture. Prior to a home and museum, this was a tavern and popular gathering place for intellectuals and artists. It was owned by Antonio Barrios. He is considered to be the last accomplished tour guide (cicerone) of the Alhambra during the 19th century.

Calle Real de la Alhambra, 26, 18009 Granada, Spain
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7 Monastery of San Francisco at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

In the mid-14th century, during the reign of Yusuf I, an elegant Nasrid palace was built at the east end of the Alhambra. In 1492, Queen Isabella I of Castile decided to repurpose it into the Monastery of San Francisco. She was buried in the chapel when she died in 1504. The remains of her husband, Ferdinand II of Aragon, were also interred here upon his death in 1516. Five years later, the bodies of the Catholic Monarchs were transferred to the Royal Chapel when it was finished. A marble slab inside the old Franciscan monastery marks where they were temporarily buried. The landmark is now the highly-rated Parador Hotel. The Paradores is a chain of state-run hotels located in historic settings throughout Spain.

Parador de San Francisco, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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8 Balcony at Monastery of San Francisco at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The former Monastery of San Francisco has undergone considerable renovations since the 15th century. Fortunately, some of the original Moorish palace has remained intact. Enter an arch at the base of the monastery bell tower and walk down the corridor. Below you is a crypt called a qubba. At the end is this elaborate balcony overlooking Jardines del Paraiso (Botanical Gardens). The honeycomb motif is a form of Islamic architecture named muqarnas or ahoopāy. The term for the repeated pattern etched above the arch is ataurique.

Parador de San Francisco, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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9 Museum in Palace of Charles V at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

You are back to the Palace of Charles V. This is the western façade. On the central pediment are angels representing peace. Above them are two medallions of Hercules on either side of Spain’s coat of arms. Inside is the Museum of Fine Arts of Granada. The art ranges from the 15th through the 20th centuries. Many of the religious paintings were seized during the Ecclesiastical Confiscations of Mendizábal. During Juan Álvarez Mendizábal short tenure as prime minister of Spain (1835 to 1837), he expelled monastic orders, seized their property then sold the spoils at auction to replenish the Spanish treasury. The Provincial Museum opened two years later to display some of the confiscated artwork. After several moves, Museo de Bellas Artes de Granada opened in the Palace of Charles V in 1958.

Palacio de Carlos V, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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10 Courtyard in Palace of Charles V at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

In the center of Palace of Charles V is a circular, open-air courtyard measuring 98.5 feet wide. The two levels are defined by an impressive colonnade. Inside both arcades are arched doors. The 32 columns on the lower level were made from pudinga stone and have Tuscan capitals. Behind them are circular reliefs of military scenes. On the second floor are Ionic columns crafted from Elvira stone. Construction of the courtyard ended in 1619.

Palacio de Carlos V, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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11 Wine Gate East Façade at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

As mentioned earlier, Alhambra is a blend of historic architecture from the Nasrid dynasty and the 16th century Spanish Empire. So far you have seen some of the highlights of the latter. The Wine Gate is your entrance into the ancient sections of Alhambra. The tower was built during the rule of Muhammed III in the first decade of the 14th century. Based on the color of its brickwork adorned by Islamic tilework, it is not surprising to learn this horseshoe arch was originally named Bib al-hamra. This means Red Gate. Notice the shield above the single marble column. This is the coat of arms for the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada. Next to it is the inscription, “Only God is the victor.” The dateline for decorating this eastern façade is after 1367.

Plaza Algibes Alhambra, 2T, 18009 Granada, Spain
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12 Wine Gate West Façade at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

After walking through Puerta del Vino, take a moment to look back. This sandstone façade praises the reign of Muhammed V. He was the ruler of the Emirate of Granada twice during the 14th century. The key is a tribute to his domain. There is also Arabic text which reads, “Glory to our Master the Sultan Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Gani Billah.” So why is this called the Wine Gate? Apparently, when people carried wine through this arch starting in the mid-16th century, it was exempt from taxes.

Plaza Algibes Alhambra, 2T, 18009 Granada, Spain
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13 Plaza de los Aljibes at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

You are now standing in Plaza de los Aljibes. In Arabic, an aljibe is a cistern or well. So, this is the Square of the Cisterns. It received the name after Spanish nobleman Íñigo López de Mendoza y Quiñones, the Count of Tendilla, commissioned a 112 foot long well system in 1494. It is now buried beneath the esplanade. From this elevated vantage point, you can drink in views of the city and Albaicín, the old Muslim neighborhood. Looming over the cypress trees in this square are crenelated towers. These are part of the massive defensive wall built to protect the Alhambra from invaders. Behind them is the triangular Alcazaba. This Moorish military complex was constructed in the mid-13th century by the Nasrid dynasty on the foundation of a Roman fortress and a late-9th century citadel. The Alcazaba is well worth visiting.

Plaza Algibes Alhambra, 1T, 18009 Granada, Spain
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14 Patio de Machuca at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Next to Plaza de los Aljibes and below the northern façade of the Palace of Charles V is the Courtyard of Machuca. Its namesake is Pedro Machuca. This first architect of the king’s palace lived and had his studio in the Mexuar Room seen on the right. This was the council chamber and courthouse when finished in 1365. About 300 years later, the space was transformed into a chapel. The tower behind it is Torre de Comares. On the right is where your tour group will enter the Nasrid Palaces.

Patio de Machuca, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 1T, 18009 Granada, Spain
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15 Tours at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Most of the outdoor landmarks you have enjoyed so far on Sabikah Hill are free. But the undisputed highlight is the Nasrid Palaces. For that, you will need a ticket. Book well in advance. Attendance is strictly regulated. You can try gaining admission the day of your visit, but chances are you will be disappointed. Tours last from three to four hours. They include entry into Alcazaba, Generalife and the palaces. You will not want to miss spectacular arabesque decorations like this in Patio del Cuarto Dorado. The Muslim architecture inside the Nasrid Palaces is considered to be among the finest examples from the late Middle Ages in the world.

Patio del Cuarto Dorado, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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16 Patio of the Gilded Room at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The Nasrid Palaces consist of three main complexes: the Mexuar Room (described earlier), Comares Palace (kings’ former residence) and Palace of the Lions (for the king’s harem). Each are separated by a common courtyard. Patio del Cuarto Dorado is between the Mexuar Room and Comares Palace. This is the southern wall of the Patio of the Gilded Room. The Façade of Comares is considered the most important one in the palaces. It was built for Muhammed V to celebrate his major victory over the Kingdom of Castile during the Siege of Algeciras in 1369. The door on the left led to his private chambers. The sultan would welcome guests around a marble fountain in the center of the courtyard.

Patio del Cuarto Dorado, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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17 Court of the Myrtles South Façade at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Between the Gilded Room and the Palace of the Lions is Patio de los Arrayanes. This elegant and tranquil space measures 120 by 77 feet. It was commissioned during the reign of sultan Yusuf I (1333-1354). The Court of the Myrtles is named after the surrounding sculpted myrtle bushes. Other people call this Patio del Estanque (Patio of the Pond) because of its 111.5 foot reflection pool. You may also hear it referred to as Patio de Comares. This southern façade has two, seven-arch arcades. Their wood panels are decorated with fretwork (intricate carvings) plus Koranic inscriptions. Across the center are lattice windows with a classic, Moorish arch design. The chambers that originally occupied the second floor were truncated during the construction of the adjacent Palace of Charles V.

Patio de los Arrayanes, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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18 Court of the Myrtles North Façade at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

The north end of the Court of the Myrtles has a similar design yet a single level. This is the entry into the courtyard from Comares Palace. In the background is Comares Tower, built in the first half of the 14th century. The 148 foot height of Torre de Comares qualifies it as the tallest on Sabikah Hill. In addition to serving as a watch tower, it once housed the sultans’ offices and winter quarters. Comares Tower is more noteworthy for two historic events (some claim legends) that occurred within its walls. One was the decision by the council and Muhammad XII (Boabdil) to capitulate to the Catholic Monarchs, thus ending the Nasrid dynasty. The second was in April of 1492 when Ferdinand and Isabel agreed to sponsor the first voyage of Christopher Columbus.

Patio de los Arrayanes, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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19 Court of the Lions at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Palace of Lions was finished shortly before the end of the reign of Muhammed V in 1391. It was designed as a residence for the sultan’s harem and royal family. The outdoor centerpiece is Patio de Los Leones. You will immediately notice the fountain with a dozen lions sculptured from Macael marble. Less obvious are the four channels carrying water to different halls of the palace. Encircling the rectangular Court of the Lions is an arcade defined by 124 marble columns. Above them are delicate filigree tracery plus calligraphy.

Patio de los Leones, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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20 Hall of the Two Sisters at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Hall of the Two Sisters is accessible from the Court of the Lions. It is the essence of opulence. This section of the Palace of the Lions was built in the 14th century as chambers to house the Nasrid ruler’s wife and family. Sala de las Dos Hermanas is the masterpiece of Moorish architecture. You enter the square room along an Almeria marble floor appointed with a fountain. Your eyes travel up the golden, iridescent walls with lacelike plasterwork and inscriptions as the hall becomes octagonal. It is crowned with a magnificent dome shaped like a star. The muqarnas vaults and ceiling resemble honeycombs or stalactites.

Sala de las Dos Hermanas, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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21 Nasrid Palaces Gardens at Alhambra in Granada, Spain

East of the Nasrid Palaces and extending to the foot of the old Monastery of San Francisco are the Gardens of the Alhambra. The landscaped jardines sprawl across three terraces and are bordered by a crenellated defense curtainwall with watchtowers. The labyrinth of cobblestone walkways is dotted with courtyards, reflection ponds and fountains. They are graced with sculpted hedges, trees in geometric shapes and flower beds. Also visible are foundation walls from the former Palace of Yusuf III, the Sultan of Granada from 1408 until 1417. You will also enjoy seeing the Darro river below you and the city on the other side of the lush valley.

Jardines del Paraiso, Calle Real de la Alhambra, 18009 Granada, Spain
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22 Generalife Near Alhambra in Granada, Spain

Construction of the summer palace of the Nasrid sultans began in the 13th century during the tenure of Muhammed II of Granada (1273-1302). This predates the Nasrid Palaces you just toured. Generalife is perched on a hill called Monte Mauror and is separated from the Alhambra by a ravine. This is Villa de los Martires meaning Martyrs’ Estate. The name recognizes the Christians enslaved to build the Alhambra while imprisoned in the complex. Encircling Palacio de Generalife are gardens featuring groomed cypress trees, grottos and fountains. In the center is Patio de la Acequia (Court of the Water Channel). The word Genralife translates into the Garden of the Architect. Admission to the Alhambra typically includes a visit to Generalife.

Generalife, 18009 Granada, Spain
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