Last spring, my husband and I spent two weeks traveling through France and Portugal. Justin had to return to San Diego for work, but we were so close to southern Spain, I decided to stay another week by myself. I have always wanted to visit the Alhambra and the Generalife, the complex of palaces used by the Kings of Granada as summer residences. The site’s Moorish architecture, sumptuous gardens and hilltop location backed by the Sierra Nevada mountains appeared to me in photos like a sort of Shangri-La. I rented a car and drove to Seville and then on to Granada. I knew from a story I wrote for Travel & Leisure about the world’s most visited castles and palaces that the Alhambra is popular, about 2.3 million people visit each year, but I didn’t fully realize how in demand tickets were until I tried to book one myself.
Only so many visits are permitted each day in an effort to protect the site. I waited until just a few days prior while I was in Seville and my heart sank when I went on the website and saw that it recommended booking weeks in advance. As I clicked through to Ticketmaster I thought to myself, “I’ve driven all this way and I’m not going to even be able to set foot in the UNESCO World Heritage site? I’m going to cry.” Luckily, when I plugged in my date a few spots popped up. I quickly picked my time slot. You can visit the Alhambra in either the morning or afternoon and you must select an exact time to visit the Nasrid Palaces. While everything worked out, it made me wish I would have done a little more research before hand. I also found information on Granada fairly limited when looking for hotels and restaurants so I’ve put together this list of things you need to know before visiting.
Book in advance
Like I mentioned, only so many people are allowed to enter the Alhambra each day and tickets do sell out so don’t wait until the last minute like I did. You may only visit from 8:30-2pm or 2pm-6pm and you must also select a time to visit the Nasrid Palaces. This is very important. You will only be allowed to enter the palaces of the Nasrid Kings during the 30 minute window printed on your ticket. Make sure you leave plenty of time to find the entrance to the palaces (it’s next to the imposing Renaissance palace of Charles V) and get in line. If you’re late you will not be admitted and this would be a shame. The fragile palaces with their inner courtyard sanctuaries and honeycombed ceilings are the highlight of the visit. Book tickets here.
Be prepared to walk
Because of the UNESCO status, it is not possible to drive to the Alhambra from the city center, infact, you can’t really drive in Granada’s historic city center at all. If you’re staying in this area and you’ve rented a car you will want to leave it in one of the parking garages just outside the restricted area. The best way to get to the Alhambra is to walk (you could also take a taxi or public transportation). It’s a steep climb, but it is a beautiful walk. From the Plaza Nueva turn onto Cuesta de Gomérez. You will walk passed the Gate of the Pomegranates and up a tree lined avenue. It’s about a half mile walk to the site entrance.
It is possible to stay in the Alhambra
If you want to keep your commute to a minimum, there are two good hotel options within the Alhambra Palace complex . The Parador de Granada (rooms from 245 euros) is located in a former monastery. The four star hotel has tasteful guest rooms and a good restaurant serving Andalusian specialties like gazpacho and cod and orange salad. The restaurant’s terrace offers wonderful views of the Generalife gardens. Even if you’re not staying at the Parador you will want to stop by to visit the chapel. It’s open to the public and is where Ferdinand and Isabella were first buried. Their remains now lie in the Capella Real or royal chapel in Granada. If you have a reservation at the Parador you will be allowed vehicle access to the historic site. The Hotel America (from 90 euros for a double) is much more affordable and while accommodations are modest, the family owned property has plenty of charm. Guest rooms have wood beamed ceilings and the 19th century building’s leafy courtyard restaurant is a great place for a mid day break.
Get the best vantage point
If you want to take the most famous shot of the Alhambra you have another hike in store. Wind your way up the opposite hillside to Mirador de San Nicolas. Here you will vie for space with college kids playing guitar and jewelry sellers but the view of the hilltop palaces backed by the snowcapped mountains is breathtaking.
If you go
Gar-Anat describes itself as a literary hotel. Each guest room is named for and inspired by a different novel or piece of music. While it’s located in a historic palace and hospital the decor is actually quite contemporary.
Placata de Los Peregrinos 1
+34 958 22 55 28
This boutique hotel in a 16th century mansion has a lovely courtyard and guest rooms have wood furnishings and coffered ceilings.
+34 958 210 700
Travelproper tip: Due to its North African ties, you might be tempted to eat Moroccan food while in Granada, but don’t. For the most part, the Moroccan restaurants in the Albayzín quarter are mediocre and over priced.
This Italian market has a few small tables so you can eat spaghetti with pesto or ravioli with buffalo mozzarella there or take it to go.
Calle Colcha, 6
+35 858 125 324
This cute cafe with views of the Alhambra serves Illy coffee and simple fare like moussaka and open faced sandwiches with tomato and ham.
Placeta Cruz Verde, 6
+35 958 224 857
The crowds who stream in and out of this gelato shop have it right. This is the best gelato to be found in Granada. Behind the long counter, silver canisters contain creamy, traditional flavors like stracciatella (vanilla gelato with chocolate chips). Michelle Obama famously visited a few years ago.
Calle Gran Via de Colón, 4
+34 958 22 4034
Taberna de Jam serves many of the best hams from Spain. Jambón ibérico de bellota can be ordered thinly sliced along with fine cheeses. Hot dishes from the kitchen like grilled salmon and sliders are also tasty.
Plaza de Los Campos, 1
+34 958 22 57 70
This bustling tapas restaurant specializes in seafood like Galician style octopus and anchovies in vinegar. You can eat inside at a marble bar or outside on high top tables.
Plaza Pescadería, 12
+34 958 262 200