If there was ever a place to rival the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Alhambra Gardens must be it. It is a pity that none of the new seven wonders focuses on living things. The Alhambra gardens and Generalife are even more special for this – for its beauty has to be actively cared for. Which it has been, for almost seven centuries.
Years ago, when visiting Montserrat, we got talking to our tour guide about the most beautiful place in all of Spain. We thought he would agree with us that the Sagrada Familia should be in the top spot. After all, it is an icon of 20th Century architecture. Furthermore, our guide was Catalan, and the Sagrada Familia, so often used to represent Spain (along with Flamenco, Paella and bull-rings) can be claimed wholly by Catalonia. Surprisingly, he told us that Alhambra was his first choice.
Getting to La Alhambra and Generalife
We chose to go to Alhambra on foot, walking from our hotel located downtown in Granada. However, it is easy to get there by car (there’s parking), or with the public bus. That said, we still think walking is the best option. From the old town to the entrance of the Alhambra gardens will take about ten to twenty minutes, depending on the route. For most of the way, we found ourselves climbing up a gentle, shaded, slope, under the shadow of the high walls of Alhambra.
TIP: THE BEST WALKING ROUTE TO LA ALHAMBRA
Go upstream along the Darro River, following the Carrera del Darro. Then, cross the 11th century bridge Puente del Aljibillo on your right. Walk up the Cuesta del Rey Chico all the way, along the massive external walls of the Alhambra. The route is beautiful, shaded, and largely devoid of people – the perfect backdoor.
Visiting the Alhambra
When we got to the entrance of the Alhambra, we were delighted we booked our tickets in advance. Although we were there at opening time, there was already a huge crowd, waiting to get in.
I felt a little bit disappointed at this moment. After all, part of the Alhambra’s charm is to experience it in some tranquillity. Nevertheless, we were glad we could even get in – there were many people outside being turned away at the gates. “Tickets for the day are sold out”, they were told.
There are several different packages you can buy on the Alhambra website, which can make things a bit confusing. At the simplest level, there are two types of tickets. There is a general ticket that gets you everywhere, including the Nasrid Palaces, and an Alhambra Gardens only ticket, which does not include entry to the Nasrid Palaces.
The number of tourists allowed inside the Nasrid Palaces are limited, and every visitor has to pick a time slot they’d like to visit. Once the slots run out, there are no more “General Visit” tickets, only “Gardens” tickets. We found this out to much sadness when we tried to book our visit – and mind you, we booked our tickets almost two months in advance.
The Alhambra Gardens
One we entered, my worries that the Alhambra gardens would be very crowded dissipated immediately. Although there were many other visitors, most did not linger for very long. I realised if I stuck around long enough in one area, I would sooner or later get the place to myself.
The Royal Street – Calle Real de la Alhambra
The Calle Real is the main artery into the Alhambra gardens. After walking for a few minutes, we arrived at a charming tree-lined street which curved around the garden. For me, this was the true entrance into the magical world of Alhambra. The trees, like so many others in the gardens, were perfectly sculpted. Somehow, through years and years of attention, the gardeners have turned them from trees into living works of art.
In Alhambra, the trees are not just trees. They are walls, roofs and fences. There were even gazebos made up entirely of trees. I found one in the garden outside the Parador de San Francisco and rested under its shade for a while. Here, I managed to thoroughly soak in the incredible atmosphere that thrived between its living walls.
The Parador de San Francisco
Across the street, collonaded by trees is the Parador de San Francisco. Throughout our travels in Andalucia, we came across many of these spectacular hotels, in every town and city we visited. They are probably one of the best places to spend a night in. These hotels are located in their city’s historical heart, like this one in the very centre of Alhambra.
We saw an entrance into the Parador, and decided to pop in, although it seemed pretty deserted at first. However, after walking down some stairs, we found ourselves in a lovely restaurant with a phenomenal terrace. It was still too early for lunch, but we decided to stop for a coffee here.
Restaurant in Alhambra
We can highly recommend the Restaurante Parador de Granada. Sitting on its terrace, the low, verdant green shrubs of the Jardines del Paraiso stretched out in front of us.
Looking a little farther into the horizon, we could see the pure white walls of Generalife, rising up against impossibly tall trees, way out in the distance. To top it off, lunch prices were also very reasonable, given the location.
The Nasrid Palaces
The jewel of Alhambra is the Nasrid Palaces. Their famous interiors – the carved marbled hallways and serene courtyards, could have been the inspiration for Disney’s Aladdin. While researching places to visit in Andalucia, this was first on the list. To our great dismay, we were unable to book tickets to see the Nasrid Palaces, as they were already all booked out. Mind you, we tried to book the tickets almost two months in advance. Considering the limited number of people allowed in per visitor group, and the limited number of visiting slots per day, we might have to book up to a year in advance the next time.
The Court of Machuca
We nevertheless managed to catch a glimpse of an area which is part of the Nasrid Palaces tour. While walking around the Alcazaba, we saw the Court of Machuca, which is in front of the Nasrid Palaces. Today, the court is all dried out, but in the past, it was blessed with flowing fountains that watered the central pool.
The Court of Machuca is noteworthy because it is a Nymphaea, which is a Roman concept. The nymphaea is a type of reservoir that is also used for rituals and other events, like marriages. What I find fascinating is how perfectly well this pagan concept of a Nymphaea melds with spiritual ideas in Islamic architecture. Especially concerning the purifying use of water in architectural symbolism.
Hall of the Abencerrajes (three trees)
While walking outside the Nasrid Palaces, I saw an intriguing eight-pointed roof with arched windows covered by intricately decorated lattices. In front of the building were three orange trees, their leaves bright, verdant green.
This moment is a Plein Air Painter’s scene – the contrast of colours and the composition was perfect. This scene formed the ideal colour palette for the South of Spain. Bright blue skies, raw earth tones and that lush, natural green of its countryside and the orange trees that fill its cities.
The Towers of Alhambra
There are many towers from different eras located throughout the Alhambra gardens, all decorated with fabulous designs inside. Most of these towers also have romantic stories attached to them.
The Tower of the Captive
The Tower of the Captive (Torre de la Cautiva), for example, features a famous Spanish princess who was sold as a slave to a sultan. The princess, Isabel de Solis, instead became the sultan’s beloved consort, which led to him abandoning his wife. The wife came back for revenge, capturing the princess and locking her in this tower.
The Infants’ Tower
One of the most decadently decorated towers in the Alhambra Gardens is the Infants’ Tower (Torre de las Infantas). This tower has an incredible central room topped with a dome decorated inside with elaborate woodwork. The marble carvings throughout the room resemble stalactites that form in a cave. When we looked closely, it felt as if the carved marble was slowly dripping towards the floor. This tower is the subject of one of Washington Irvine’s short stories in his The Tales of Alhambra, where three Muslim princesses fall in love with three Christian soldiers.
The Gate of Justice
While walking around, exploring the towers all over Alhambra, I noticed an imposing doorway which leads into a dark corridor. The archway itself was two stories high, and the massive, riveted door inside was more than half that.
There was something special about this gate, almost sacred. Perhaps this impression was due to the altar that greeted visitors as they entered the arch. Or, maybe, it was how the light cast itself into the gate’s dark interior. I thought the ambience was befitting the main entryway into the Alhambra gardens.
Palacio de Carlos V
One of the most impressive structures we visited in Alhambra is the Palace of Carlos V, the Holy Roman emperor in the 15th Century. From the outside, it looked just like any other Renaissance building.
However, we found ourselves amazed by its impressive interior. Inside, it was circular, with its centre decorated by an elegant, swooping symbol. The sunlight shone at an angle over the roof, casting warm light in the form of an ellipse unto the ground. I found myself fascinated by the intriguing play of light here. Perhaps this lighting effect was intentional on the architect’s part.
The Architectural Style of the Palacio
The architecture of this palace stands out in Alhambra because it’s quite different from the Islamic buildings that make up most of the complex.
Although the Moorish dwellings are elegant and elaborate, their focus is on the interior space. Catholic buildings, however – or Muslim buildings that were later converted to Catholic tastes, tend to be impressive on the outside but are simpler within. The Palace of Carlos V reflected this trend.
The Circular Courtyard
Inside, we found ourselves captivated by its circular courtyard. There was something arresting about its pervasive presence. Because of its design, you could see if from every room in the palace. To get anywhere in the building, you had to walk through the corridors that encircled the courtyard. The only place where it stayed away from view were the stairs that lead from the first to the second floor.
These stairs seem to twist around the dark curvature of the palace, offering unexpected views of the palace. I really enjoyed them. From the shadows of the stairs, I could fully appreciate the rhythmic patterns of the Doric columns and the simplicity of the wooden ceiling that encircled the palace.
A short distance after the Palace of Carlos V, is the Alcazaba. This fortress is the oldest part of Alhambra, has been around since the 9th Century. We were very impressed by its high walls and towers, which were carefully restored and well maintained.
The Alcazaba was great fun to wander around. Its walls led us up and down and every which way, often leading to surprising views within the fortress and breath-taking views when looking out onto the land.
The Arms Square
The central part of the Alcazaba is the Arms Square. I was puzzled when I came upon it. It looked like a maze from a retro computer game, with entrances, exits and many dead ends. These were once the foundations of homes for the people who had worked in the fortress, serving the military and royal personnel who lived here.
In these structures, there were also hints into the engineering and irrigation of the fortress. I read later that there was also a large rainwater cistern which fed the bath – although I could not for the life of me guess which structure was the cistern.
Views of Granada
We got the best views of Granada and the surrounding land from the towers of the Alcazaba. Here, we were really high up, standing far above everything else. There was nothing to block our view. Vegetation grew all around the slopes of the fortress. Some vantage points looked out to greenery only, feeding my imagination that we were in a castle above an enchanted forest.
We spent quite some time here, wandering around the ramparts of the fortress. It was good fun to imagine how the lives of those who lived here must have been like. What types of activity might have taken place in times of peace, and the battles fought during times of war.
The Watchtower of Alcazaba
We eventually came up to the Watchtower of Alcazaba, at the farthest end of Alhambra. From here, we had a full view of the bustling city below. This tower is different from the others because it has a bell. This bell used to rouse the farmers who tilled the valley below for the nighttime watering of the crops. Beside the bell are four flags. These include the flag of the region, the flag of Spain and one with golden stars in a circle over a sea of blue – the flag of the European Union. This collection is a reminder of how far the region had come – from constant wars that beat at the doors of this fortress to the current period of peace and unity.
The Palace of Yusuf III
This “palace” is one of the most attractive of the Alhambra gardens. I was a little confused as to why this beautiful garden, with its fountains and ponds, was called a palace. Apparently, it was one – however, it was mostly demolished when the owner grew out of favour with the king. Today, what were once walls within the palace, are now parts of the garden.
Because of its architectural history, this lovely Alhambra garden is a little different. It is located on several different levels, and you have to climb up and down, passing through doorways to get to all its different areas.
One particularly picturesque view is of a small canal of water flowing from a fountain hidden under an overgrown bush. The scene was absolutely picture perfect. Here, we had a few precious moments alone to enjoy the fresh, sweet-smelling air and the tinkling of water down the steps.
Walking ahead, we came to a U-shaped pond, divided by a path. This view is undoubtedly one of the loveliest in the Alhambra gardens. In the foreground, lilypads decorate the pond, whose waters are so still they reflect the shapes of the clouds in the sky. Looking ahead, you’ll see the Palacio del Partal.
The Palacio del Partal and Its Garden
The Palacio del Partal is surrounded by a long rectangular pond and a perfectly manicured garden. There are many tall cypress trees here, which hide of portions of the palace. Depending on the angle you are looking from, these trees gave this little Alhambra garden an air of secrecy.
Among the things I adored in the Partal Palace are the delicate arches over its portico, with their intricate carvings and elegant marble columns. We walked through them reverently, entering the Torre de las Damas (the Ladies tower).
Tower of the Ladies
Upon entering the tower, we noticed everyone else in there gaping at the ceiling, so we, likewise, looked up. The decorations were beautiful, symmetric designs carved of wood. Along with the elaborate stone carvings on the walls and windows, they are some of the oldest art in all of Alhambra.
The view here was indeed a sight for royals. As I looked beyond the elegantly decorated windows, I saw the entire valley stretched out before me, lush and green, covered with cute little buildings. Here, by the window, a cool breeze blew, as it must have throughout the centuries. Perhaps it is called the ladies tower because its where the women of the royal household came to spend hot afternoons.
The Chapel of the Partal
A small building stands off to one side of the Palacio. This building was particularly interesting because it stood at an angle, its walls aligned to that of the fortress instead of the pond it faced. It had amazing views out onto the surrounding landscape. Historians believe the sultan chose this location for his place of worship because it allowed him to meditate on nature and the blessings of creation.
I feel that Generalife is the concentrated essence of the Alhambra gardens. Having saved the best for last, we wandered into the lower gardens of Generalife around mid-afternoon. This gave us the last few hours of our day to explore the area leisurely.
The Lower Gardens
The Lower Gardens (Los Jardins Bajos) is an incredible place. It felt like I had stepped into an enchanted garden the moment I set foot beyond the gate. Adding to the illusion of magic were the many emerald, living walls that divided up the garden into sections. These walls were perfectly rectangular, just like real walls – only they were made of plants. There were quite some “rooms”. So many that, despite the number of tourists visiting Generalife, we often found ourselves alone, ensconced by the living walls around us.
There is incredible tranquillity to all the Alhambra gardens. I could feel its power everywhere – it was a gentle calming force that kept all visitors in a contemplative mood.
Patio de Acequia
The centrepiece of Generalife is the Patio de Acequia. Funnily, it has a much less charming name when translated literally. In English it is the “Patio of the Irrigation Ditch”. Its translated name aside, the patio is a real beauty. It almost made up for us not being able to enter the Nasrid Palace.
In the centre of the patio is a long canal (the Acequia Real), lined with fountains spouting water on either side. The sound is all-pervasive, but gentle, a soothing background noise that gives this place a unique character.
As there is limited space in the patio, entry is limited, and people are let in one group at a time. After an introduction in the portico on the side of the lower gardens, we were allowed to stroll along the canal to the other end. Here, we were able to fully appreciate the plants that grew beside the canal. Today, these are low orange trees, roses and myrtle bushes. However, this is not always so. The species of plants here do change depending on the fashion of the era.
An Enchanting Visit
Our visit to the Alhambra gardens and Generalife was truly enchanting. It revealed a few things to me – the power of plants to calm the soul and the capacity of human creativity to shape the natural world.
As we exited through the Gate of Justice, we found ourselves reflecting on the incredible living wonder we had just visited. Alhambra is a truly spectacular place, and we cannot wait to be back for a second visit.
FAQs for Alhambra and the Alhambra Gardens
The Alhambra Gardens are not free to enter. A ticket to enter the Alhambra Gardens, Generalife and the Alcazaba is €7. Children under 12 get free entry.
The most comprehensive ticket is the “General Day Visit” ticket. It gives you access to everything Alhambra has to offer. It includes the Alhambra Gardens, the Alcazaba, Generalife and most importantly, the Nasrid Palaces. General Day Visit tickets sell out very fast. If these tickets are sold out, opt for the “Gardens Day Visit” which include everything above except the Nasrid Palaces. Tickets are €14.
You can visit Alhambra at night. There is the “Nasrid Palaces Night Visit” ticket, which allows you to visit the Nasrid Palaces at night, and costs €8, and another ticket, the “Gardens Night Visit” ticket, which gives entry to Generalife at night, which costs €5.