Granada is an enchanting place to kick of a tour of Andalusia. With its beautiful winding streets and whitewashed homes built along the slopes of of the Sierra Nevada foothills, it boasts a vibrant contemporary culture to match its historical grandeur. The legacy of the Muslim emirs who ruled the Iberian Peninsula centuries ago is alive today in Granada’s public baths and teahouses, and the Alhambra stands as the greatest example of Moorish architecture in all Europe. Literally translating as “the red castle” in Arabic, the Alhambra’s pale red walls rise dramatically from thickly wooded hills above the city.
Both our Granada to Cordoba Cycling Tour and Andalusia Alpujarra Hiking Tour start in Granada, and we highly recommend putting the Alhambra at the top of your list of must-dos. You don’t need to be a history buff to appreciate the elegance of the castle’s mesmerizing carved ceilings and intricate mosaics, but the history is as rich as the aesthetics suggest. The oldest section of the palace complex is the Alcazaba, constructed in the late 9th century atop the ruins of earlier Roman buildings. Entrance to the Alcazaba is included in the general admission fee, and the Torre de la Vela watchtower can be climbed. It rewards the viewer with a grandiose view of the Sierra Nevadas and the rooftops of Granada.
The most sophisticated architectural achievements were added to the Alhambra in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the ruling Nasrid dynasty renovated and expanded upon the existing site. The Palacios Nazaríes offers the finest examples of this era. Here you’ll find wooden ceilings carved into hypnotic geometric patterns and grand courtyards fit for an emir. Don’t miss the Patio de Los Leones, with its rich marble galleries and regal carved fountain.
The Islamic imprint is what gives the Alhambra its distinctive character, but the shifting balance of power gives it further historical weight. In 1492 the Christian Reconquista brought about the fall of the Nasrid dynasty, and the Alhambra became the home of the royal court of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. Visit the Salón de los Embajadores, where the newly installed rulers gave royal assent for Columbus’ fateful mission to the New World, and take a moment to ponder how different the world might look had that meeting gone differently. It’s also well worth checking out the Palacio de Carlos V as a study in contrasts. Structurally distinct from the rest of the site, this is a show-stopping example Renaissance architecture. It’s home to the Museo de la Alhambra and Museo de Bellas Artes. The former contains many artifacts from the Nasrid era, and the latter houses Grenadine painting and sculpture from the fifteenth century onward.
Just east of the palacios, the Generalife was reserved as the pleasure grounds for the ruling class, and rewards the visitor with peaceful gardens and fountains. Note that here, due to a combination of historical neglect and changing tastes, the restoration is not as faithful to the original design as other sections of the Alhambra. Despite the caveat, we can count ourselves lucky so much of the site is as well-preserved as it is – in the 19th century Napoleon’s troops occupied the Alhambra, and upon retreat attempted to blow up several towers.
With such a rich and varied history, it’s no surprise the Alhambra was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. That also makes it one of the most popular attractions in Spain, so advance tickets are highly recommended. You can purchase yours up to three months in advance here. Your ticket will come with a scheduled timeslot, so it’s important to arrive on promptly. If you prefer a night visit evening tours are available and make for a very evocative atmosphere. As always, we can help customize a trip to your unique tastes – feel free to contact us at 1-800-960-2221 with questions about the Alhambra, Andalusia, and beyond.