With more than 2½ million visitors a year, the Alhambra is Spain's most popular attraction. The palace is an endless, intricate conglomeration of patios, arches, and cupolas made from wood, plaster, and tile; lavishly colored and adorned with marquetry and ceramics in geometric patterns and topped by delicate, frothy profusions of lacelike stucco and mocárabes (ornamental stalactites).
Construction of the Alhambra was begun in 1238 by Mohammed ibn al-Ahmar, the first king of the Nasrids. The great citadel once comprised a complex of houses, schools, baths, barracks, and gardens surrounded by defense towers and seemingly impregnable walls. Today, only the Alcazaba and the Palacios Nazaríes, built chiefly by Yusuf I (1334–54) and his son Mohammed V (1354–91), remain.
Across from the main entrance is the original fortress, the Alcazaba. Its ruins are dominated by the Torre de la Vela (Watchtower); from its summit you can see, to the north, the Albayzín; to the
northeast, the Sacromonte; and to the west, the cathedral. The tower's great bell was once used, by both the Moors and the Christians, to announce the opening and closing of the irrigation system on Granada's great plain.
A wisteria-covered walkway leads to the heart of the Alhambra, the Palacios Nazaríes, sometimes also called the Casa Real (Royal Palace). Here, delicate apartments, lazy fountains, and tranquil pools contrast vividly with the hulking fortifications outside, and the interior walls are decorated with elaborately carved inscriptions from the Koran. The Palacios Nazaríes are divided into three sections. The first is the mexuar, where business, government, and palace administration were headquartered. These chambers include the Oratorio (Oratory) and the Cuarto Dorado (Golden Room); gaze down over the Albayzín and Sacromonte from their windows. The second section is the serrallo, a series of state rooms where the sultans held court and entertained their ambassadors. In the heart of the serrallo is the Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles), with a long goldfish pool. At its northern end, in the Salón de Embajadores (Hall of the Ambassadors)—which has a magnificent cedar door—King Boabdil signed the terms of surrender and Queen Isabella received Christopher Columbus.
The third and final section of the Palacios Nazaríes is the harem, which in its time was entered only by the sultan, his wives and the rest of his family, and their most trusted servants, most of them eunuchs. To reach it, pass through the Sala de los Mocárabes (Hall of the Ornamental Stalactites); note the splendid, though damaged, ceiling, and the elaborate stalactite-style stonework in the arches above. The Patio de los Leones (Court of the Lions) is the heart of the harem. From the fountain in the center, 12 lions, thought to represent the months or signs of the zodiac, look out at you. Four streams flow symbolically to the four corners of the cosmos and more literally to the surrounding state apartments. The lions and fountain were restored in 2012, and the Court paved with white marble as it would originally have been.
The Sala de los Abencerrajes (Hall of the Moors), on the south side of the palace, may be the Alhambra's most beautiful gallery, with its fabulous, ornate ceiling and a star-shaped cupola reflected in the pool below. Here Boabdil's father is alleged to have massacred 16 members of the Abencerrajes family—whose chief was the lover of his favorite daughter, Zoraya—and piled their bloodstained heads in this font. The Sala de los Reyes (Hall of the Kings) lies on the patio's east side, decorated with ceiling frescoes thought to be the work of a visiting Christian Spaniard and painted during the last days of the Moors' tenure. To the north, the Sala de las Dos Hermanas (Hall of the Two Sisters) was Zoraya's abode. Its stuccoed ceiling is done in an intricate honeycomb pattern. Note the symmetrically placed patterned pomegranates on the walls.
The Baños Reales (Royal Baths), the Alhambra's semi-subterranean bathhouse, is where the sultans' favorites luxuriated in brightly tiled pools beneath star-shape pinpoints of light from the ceiling above. The baths are rarely open to visitors, for conservation reasons, but you can glimpse their finery from the entrance.
The Renaissance Palacio de Carlos V (Palace of Carlos V), with a perfectly square exterior but a circular interior courtyard, is where the sultans' private apartments once stood. Designed by Pedro Machuca—a pupil of Michelangelo—and begun in 1526, the palace once was the site of bullfights and mock tournaments. Today its acoustics are perfect for the summer symphony concerts held during Granada's International Festival of Music and Dance.
Part of the building houses the Museo de la Alhambra (Museum of the Alhambra), devoted to Islamic art. Upstairs is the more modest Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts Museum). You can visit the Palace of Carlos V and the museums independently of the Alhambra.
Over on the Cerro del Sol (Hill of the Sun) is the Generalife, ancient summer palace of the Nasrid kings. Its name comes from the Arabic gennat alarif (garden of the architect), and its terraces and promenades grant incomparable views of the city that stretch to the distant lowlands. During the summer's Festival Internacional de Música y Danza de Granada, stately cypresses serve as the backdrop for evening ballets in the Generalife amphitheater. Between the Alhambra and Generalife is the 16th-century convent of San Francisco, one of Spain's most luxurious paradores.
Don't forget to visit the "Area of the Month"—each month one of the parts usually closed to visitors is open.
Allow a good half day for your visit, a whole day if you have time. Note that if you book morning tickets for the Nasrid Palaces, you must enter all parts of the Alhambra before 2 pm. If you book afternoon tickets, you'll not be able to access any part of the Alhambra (other than the museums) before 2 pm.