How to visit the Alhambra like a pro

During the fall of 2016, my husband and I, along with my parents, spent 14 nights in Spain. We stayed in Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada, Toledo, and Madrid, and while I loved all the cities, Granada was probably my favorite. Granada was ruled by the Moors (Spanish Muslims) until 1492, when it was conquered by the “Catholic Monarchs” Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. The city’s most famous sight is the giant, magnificent castle fortress, the Alhambra. Because of its size and popularity (over 8,000 visitors a day!), to make the most out of your visit to the Alhambra, you really need a game plan. I’ve rounded up the best tips to save you time and headaches when visiting this glorious sight.

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The Alhambra, as viewed from the San Nicolás viewpoint.

 

Make a reservation in advance.

The Alhambra is actually composed of four sights: the Palacios Nazaríes – the intricate, awe-inspiring Moorish palace and a must-see, Charles V’s Palace – a Christian Renaissance palace that also houses the Alhambra Museum, the Generalife Gardens – beautiful, ornate gardens with a small summer palace, and the Alcazaba – an old fort with a tower and views over the city. As I mentioned above, this is one of the most visited sights in all of Spain, and, for daytime visits, it’s absolutely crucial you make a reservation as far in advance (up to three months) as possible, as same-day tickets are virtually never available.

If you’re visiting during tourist season (mid-March through mid-October) and don’t mind staying up late, you can also visit the Alhambra at night, without worrying about making a reservation in advance. The Palacios Nazaríes and Generalife Gardens are open most evenings from 22:00 – 23:00 and are well illuminated. You won’t be able to tour the Alcazaba fort or Charles V’s Palace, but crowds will be much thinner, and you’ll still be able to see the most important part of the complex, the Palacios Nazaríes.

When you make a reservation, you must choose an entry time for the complex: either morning (8:30 – 14:00) or afternoon (14:00 – 20:00), and you’ll also select a 30-minute time slot for entry to the Palacios Nazaríes. The entry time for the complex allows you to enter the Alhambra during that time and see any of the sites except the Palacios Nazaríes, which you can only enter during your specific thirty-minute window. When you reserve your ticket online, make sure you do so on a credit card you plan to bring to Europe, as you’ll retrieve your tickets in Granada using that card.

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Palacios Nazaríes, the Alhambra

Retrieve your tickets before heading up to the Alhambra.

While walking around Granada, you’ll likely notice yellow ServiCaiza terminals (that look like ATMs) scattered around the city. This is where you can retrieve your Alhambra reservation and print a physical ticket. There’s a handy one on Calle Reyes Católicos, just down from the Plaza Isabel La Católica and around the corner from the cathedral. You’ll definitely want to pick up your tickets here or elsewhere before you head up to the Alhambra. Having your tickets in hand will mean you can use avoid the main entrance at the top of the complex and use the much less crowded Justice Gate entrance, which is closer to the Palacios Nazaríes, Charles V’s Palace, and the Alcazaba.

Save the Generalife Gardens for last.

Because the Palacios Nazaríes, Charles V’s Palace, and the Alcazaba fort are all within close proximity to the Justice Gate entrance, it makes sense to tour those sites before hiking up to the Generalife Gardens. When we visited, we entered the complex right at 14:00, then visited the Alcazaba before getting in line for the Palacios Nazaríes at 14:40 (our entry time slot was from 14:30 – 15:00). After the Palacios Nazaríes, we toured Charles V’s Palace and the Alhambra Museum before resting in the shade and breaking out some snacks and wine we had brought with us. After we felt revived, we walked up to the Generalife gardens, toured those, and exited through the main entrance, where we found a taxi to take us back down to the main square (for about €8).

 

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Generalife Gardens, The Alhambra

Don’t miss your Palacios Nazaríes entry time.

Be aware that the Alhambra complex is immense. The Palacios Nazaríes is a solid 20-minute walk from the main entrance and the Generalife Gardens, and the ticket-checkers at the Palacios Nazaríes are no-nonsense and extremely strict. The group behind us missed their window by 5 minutes and was turned away. Give yourself plenty of time to enter the complex and get to the entrance of the Palacios Nazaríes.

Bring snacks.

By now, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that the Alhambra is big, and there is a lot to see. You will be doing a ton of walking, and it’s Spain, so most likely you will be hot. Inside the complex, you don’t have that many food options, and the food that is sold is generally overpriced and mediocre at best. Picnicking in public areas is allowed, so take advantage of it! Bring some jamón, cheese, bread, fruit, and wine (check out the Mercado San Agustín in Old Town Granada for supplies) and plenty of water and snag yourself a shady bench to revive yourself between sights. Touring the Alhambra is a marathon, not a sprint, so make sure you pack provisions!

Watch the sun set over the Alhambra at the Plaza de San Nicolás.

While not technically related to a visit to the Alhambra itself, the best way to end a day spent touring the Alhambra is to head to the San Nicolás viewpoint and watch the sunset. You can relax and watch as the walls of the Alhambra change from tan, to red, to orange, to purple. It’s simply magical. To get there, from Plaza Nueva, hop aboard minibus #C1 and get off at the San Nicolás stop. The plaza is crowded with couples canoodling, children kicking soccer balls, gypsies hawking souvenirs, and performers hoping for tips. It’s a lively scene, but I prefer to take the steps down to the El Huerto de Juan Ranas Bar, where you can enjoy a glass of wine and tapas on the patio away from the commotion of the square above. With a view like that, you’d expect the prices to break the bank, but there didn’t seem to be any markup. Spain is a pretty special place.

 

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My dad and I on the patio of the El Huerto de Juan Ranas Bar, just below the San Nicolás Plaza.

Armed with these tips, you’ll be set to make the most of your visit to Granada’s Alhambra! Do you have any questions about visiting the Alhambra that I didn’t answer? Ask away in the comments!

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