When we decided to go to Spain at the last minute the Alhambra in Granada was at the top of our must-see list.
But we had a problem.
It turns out that the Alhambra is so popular that you need to book your Alhambra tickets online at Ticketmaster Spain about 3 months in advance. No surprise then, that when I went to buy tickets the next two weeks were fully booked.
So, what is the independent traveller to do? What if you’re travelling last minute, like us, or backpacking and you’re not planning more than a couple of weeks in advance?
It turns out there’s another way to get official Alhambra tickets, so if your dates are taken on Ticketmaster you may still be able to go.
You can get last minute Alhambra tickets with the Granada Card
The Granada Card is the answer. It has its own allocation of Alhambra tickets which don’t sell out as quickly as Ticketmaster.
Along with the Alhambra, you get free entry to lots of other attractions in Granada and either 5 or 9 bus rides.
On Ticketmaster’s website you can buy either a morning, afternoon or evening slot for the Alhambra. But the Granada Card entitles you to a full day at the Alhambra (evening entry not included).
The downside to the Granada Card is that it’s much more expensive than official tickets to the Alhambra (€15.40 per adult) so if you’re not going to visit all the sites included in the card, it might not work out to be economical.
So is it worth it? That depends on how badly you want to see the Alhambra!
How to buy Alhambra tickets with the Granada Card
Buy your Granada Card online here.
You have two options – a standard 3 day Granada Card, or the plus version which is valid for 5 days.
The Granada Card costs €40 (plus) or €37 (standard) for adults and €10.50 for children aged 3-11. Children under 3 years old go free.
When you buy your Granada Card, you will have to choose a date for the Alhambra visit and a time for your visit to the Nasrid Palace section of the Alhambra.
You’ll be able to enter the Alhambra at any time before your ticketed time to the Nasrid Palace, and stay afterwards. But you won’t be allowed in the Nasrid Palace at any other time, so don’t miss your slot. We saw people turned away as they’d mis-read their ticket.
Time slots for the Nasrid Palace fill up quickly, even on the Granada Card site; you may not be able to secure tickets less than 2 weeks in advance. When I booked our tickets there was only one time slot available at 7.30pm on the last possible day that we could be in Spain. We were lucky!
Once you’ve bought your card, print it out and take it with you. You should be able to use your own printed version of the Granada Card. If you have any doubts or you don’t have access to a printer, then visit the Tourist Information Office in Plaza del Carmen.
What to see at the Alhambra
Possibly the most amazing complex of buildings we’re been to, the Alhambra is Spain’s top tourist attraction. Its rich history and amazing architecture saw it gain UNESCO World Heritage status in 1984.
The Alhambra means “red fortress,” probably because its bricks take on a red hue at sunset and in torchlight. Perched high on a hilltop, it overlooks the rest of the city of Granada.
The Alhambra was begun as a fortress in the 9th century. In the 13th and 14th centuries the complex was extended by the kings of the Nasrid dynasty, and the Alhambra became a royal residence. The Catholic monarch Charles V began his own palace in the middle of the Alhambra in the 16th century, although it wasn’t finished until 1957.
You will need several hours to visit the Alhambra as there’s so much to see.
If you’ve got half day tickets, plan on spending all the time allocated. You need to show your tickets to enter the Generalife, Alcazabar, and Nasrid Palaces; you must visit them before the time on your ticket runs out. Morning visits are valid until 14.00; afternoon visits until 18.00 in winter and 20.00 in the summer.
We had full day tickets with our Granada Cards and spent nearly all day there to give the kids frequent breaks.
TIP: If you bought Granada cards you will need to get a free Alhambra pass for children under 3 at the main ticket office by the entrance.
The Generalife and Gardens
Once you’ve entered the Alhambra, I’d advise visiting the Generalife first (depending on your ticket time for the Nasrid Palace).
Built in 1319, the Generalife was a summer retreat for the kings and is quite plainly decorated compared to the Nasrid Palace. It’s separate from the main part of the Alhambra but it shouldn’t be missed.
Walk through the lower part of the gardens to reach the entrance to the building, but make sure you take your time as the gardens are very beautiful. Late spring is a perfect time to see roses and other flowers in bloom, and the mornings are cool enough to walk through the gardens slowly, without getting roasted by the afternoon sun. You can also get a lovely view of the Nasrid Palace from the Generalife.
Kids will enjoy exploring the gardens; ours found more fountains to splash in and had lots of fun exploring the little courtyards between the conifer hedges.
The main attraction of the Generalife is the water gardens with their delicate arc fountains, which draw your eyes up to the pillared arches of the palace itself. The building was smaller than I expected but the views of the Nasrid Palace and Granada were stunning.
After you’ve explored the Generalife and its gardens, don’t forget to walk down the water stairway, an ancient staircase lined with water channels and fountains, and shaded by laurel trees.
Alhambra Alta and Partal Gardens
You enter the main part of the Alhambra complex through a large gate in the fortified walls. This leads you to the Alhambra Alta; some ruins and more pretty gardens. It’s a good spot for a rest.
Past the Alhambra Alta you’ll find the Partal Gardens. These are tiered gardens, a little like the ones found at the Generalife. There are some gorgeous buildings to look at as well as the gardens themselves. Our kids were fascinated by the frogs on lily pads and trying to count the goldfish.
Most people would visit the Partal Gardens after exiting the Nasrid Palace but we looked in beforehand. There’s also a large church you can visit but we skipped this one.
TIP: On your way towards the Palace of Charles V make sure to look into the old Arab Baths on Calle Real which could be easily missed.
Palace of Charles V
The Palace of Charles V has a very different look to many of the other buildings. An important example of Renaissance architecture, it’s spectacular but it doesn’t sit easily in its Arabic surroundings.
On the top level inside you’ll find an art museum; air conditioned, it’s a good place to get some respite from the afternoon heat. On the lower floors is an archaeological museum which is definitely worth a look.
Outside the Palace you’ll no doubt see a large queue snaking around the rose garden; this is the queue for the Nasrid Palace.
TIP: You can’t take a buggy into the Nasrid Palace so pick up a free baby carrier from the locker room by the Palace of Charles V.
This imposing part of the Alhambra is much more utilitarian and functional than the delicate Generalife and the intricate Nasrid Palace. It’s the oldest part and formed the original fort, although it’s been restored over the centuries.
There are several towers and viewing platforms, taking in different views of the Alhambra and Granada. I’d recommend visiting them all!
You can get the best views of Granada from the Torre de la Vela, most spectacularly over the Albaicin, the former Moorish district. In the opposite direction you can see the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the distance.
On the way out you’ll pass through another garden, again filled with roses and fountains and overlooking the mountains.
If you can, save the stunning Nasrid Palace for last. The gorgeous architecture here could easily overshadow the other parts of the Alhambra.
You have half an hour to enter the palace from the time on your ticket. I’ve said it before; don’t miss your slot or you will NOT be allowed in!
TIP: If you have 8.30am slots for the Nasrid Palace you should probably enter the Alhambra at the Puerta de la Justicia. This secondary entrance is halfway up the hill from Granada, and 5 minutes from the Nasrid Palace. Otherwise it’s a 20 minute fast walk from the main entrance to the Nasrid Palace.
An hour sounds a long time to walk through the maze of rooms and courtyards, but there’s so much to take in. There are courtyards filled with ponds, incredible domed rooms, intricate doorways and sumptuous carvings everywhere.
Highlights include the Patio de los Leones and the stalactite ceilings of the surrounding halls.
The kids were enchanted by the Nasrid Palace, despite it being at the end of a long day. We barely heard any moans at all!
Where to eat and stay at the Alhambra
As we spent all day at the Alhambra we had our lunch and dinner here.
There are not many places to eat inside the Alhambra. You’ll find lots of little shops selling souvenirs, snacks and ice cream but no cafes to get a sandwich or anything more substantial.
TIP: Don’t keep buying water; there are lots of water fountains in the Alhambra for you to fill your bottles.
However, there are couple of hotels on site and both of these have restaurants. We got a sandwich and a beer in the Hotel America for lunch. We sat in an open but shaded interior patio, frequented by lots of brave little sparrows who tried to make off with as many of our lunch scraps as they could.
Dinner was in the restaurant at the Parador Granada. This 4 star hotel is Spain’s most luxurious parador and has a large patio outside overlooking some of the gardens and the Generalife. The food here was really good. Bee had a sleep and we took our time to rest our aching legs before we looked around the Nasrid Palace.
We stayed just outside of the Alhambra at Hotel Alixares which had a large family room.
If you’re staying in Granada itself, the Alhambra is a 20 minute walk up the hillside through a shady forest. Otherwise you can get bus C3 from Plaza Nueva. Use your Granada Card; otherwise it’s €1.20.
If all else fails…
…and the Granada Card is also sold out, you could attempt to book a last minute tour or try your luck on the day. There are a few tickets sold from yellow ticket machines by the main entrance – you will need to be very early to get tickets.
You can still look around the main street in the Alhambra, the Calle Real; Charles V palace and its museums, and the Arab baths without a ticket.
Even if you don’t get to see the Alhambra, there are lots of other things in Granada to keep you busy.
Granada is still worth a visit!