Alhambra Walking Tour (Self Guided), Granada

One of the first places a tourist wants to visit in Granada is Alhambra, the region’s most iconic sight. By far not a typically Spanish attraction, this enormous fortress encompasses palaces, gardens, courtyards, and is the greatest surviving relic of Andalusia’s 800 years of Moorish rule. The sprawling complex sits forbiddingly atop the Darro valley, against a dramatic backdrop of the striking peaks of Sierra Nevada, and is visited daily by more than 6,000 people.

Originally a small fortress, it was built in 889 AD on the remains of ancient Roman fortifications, and was later extensively rebuilt, in the mid-1200s, by the then Moorish Emir of Granada, Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar. The name Alhambra derives from the Arabic al-Ḥamrāʼ, which means "the red one" and refers to the red clay of which it is made.

After the Christian Reconquista in 1492, the site became the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella, with minor renovations done to bring about Renaissance style. Today, the Alhambra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, exhibiting Spain's most significant and well-known Islamic architecture, together with 16th-century and later Christian building and garden interventions.

Gate of Justice is the original entrance to the complex, built in 1348. Often described as the highlight of the Alhambra, the Nasrid palaces comprise many objects, including the Mexuar Palace – renowned for its internal decorations, the Comares Palace – the former official residence of the Sultan, and more.

Among other notable sights here are The Palace of Charles V – an illustrative example of the later part of Renaissance architecture, the Alcazaba Fortress – raised as a symbol of the Spanish conquest in 1492, and the beautiful Generalife Gardens – offering a stunning view of the old Arabic neighborhood of Albaicín, to mention but a few.

For a more detailed acquaintance with the gorgeous Alhambra, take this self-guided walking tour and enjoy yourself!
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Alhambra Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Alhambra Walking Tour
Guide Location: Spain » Granada (See other walking tours in Granada)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 14
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.0 Km or 1.2 Miles
Author: anna
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Puerta De La Justicia (Gate of Justice)
  • Alcazaba Fortress
  • Torre de la Vela (Watch Tower)
  • Palace of Charles V
  • Mexuar Palace
  • Comares Palace
  • Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles)
  • Court of the Lions and the Fabulous Fountain
  • Palacio del Partal (Partal Palace)
  • St Mary Church of Alahambra
  • Angel Barrios Museum
  • Monastery of San Francisco
  • Torre del Agua (Water Tower)
  • Generalife Gardens
1
Puerta De La Justicia (Gate of Justice)

1) Puerta De La Justicia (Gate of Justice)

The walled enclosure of the Alhambra has four doors or gates. They are each impressive but the awesome one is the Gate of Justice. The gate was the Gate of Law in the Arab era of Granada. It was called Bib-Xarea and it was built by Yusuf I in 1348. However the official name then was Bib-Xaria, Door of the Esplanade, for the area in front.

Today this esplanade is filled with gardens and walks. Back in the day it was a military camp. Next to the gate is an artillery bastion. A cut stone wall descends from the wall. Before the wall a renaissance stone pillar is dedicated to Charles V. In the center of the esplanade is a pillar honoring Washington Irving on the centenary of his passing.

The interior of the Gate has three vaults. There is a cross-vault, a cupola, and three additional cross-vaults common in Nasrid architecture. The inner Gate is still decorated with the rhomboid tile patterns in the arch spandrels. Outside the gate is an altarpiece to mark the site of the first Catholic mass said after the reconquest.
2
Alcazaba Fortress

2) Alcazaba Fortress

Muslims and mulwalladins (converts to Islam) never really got along well. Not even in the ninth century. Sawwar ben Hamdun found it necessary to build a fort. The current Alcazaba was built by Mohammed I. He threw up a rampart around Hamdun's works, improved defenses and erected three towers.

The towers were the Broken Tower (Torre Quebrada), the Keep (Torre del Homenaje), and the Watch Tower (Torre de la Vela). The Watch Tower is the favorite among visitors for its stunning views of the city and the surrounding mountains. Mohammed liked it because he could see his enemies when they were yet far away.

The Catholic Monarchs installed a huge bell in the Watch Tower called La Vela (the Sentinel). La Vela would always be rung on significant state occasions. It also rings to observe the Day of Conquest (Dia de la Toma), each January 2nd.

Below the tower flows the River Darro. The right bank is lined with ancient bridges, priories and palaces. In view are the Chancilleria, the Plaza Nueva, and the Paseo de los Tristes. There are four other towers: The Arms Tower (Torre de las Armas), the Justice Tower (Torre de la Justicia), and the two Vermillion Towers (Torres Bermejas).

The Mexican Poet, Francisco A. de Acaza, left these words on the wall in the garden of the Ramparts of Alcazaba: "...there is nothing in this life like the grief of being blind in Granada."
3
Torre de la Vela (Watch Tower)

3) Torre de la Vela (Watch Tower)

The Torre de la Vela is the watchtower found within the Alhambra palace complex. First built by the Emirs of Granada as part of the original palace design, it is now primarily used to commemorate the day that they were overthrown. On January 2nd, the anniversary of the Conquest of Granada in 1492, single women of the town race to be the first to ring the bell. Superstition dictates that the first woman to reach the bell will be married by the end of the year. The tower and its bell are not used throughout the rest of the year, although this was not always the case.

An effective watchtower for the Moors, the Torre de la Vela overlooks the Vela valley – hence its name. It also commands a superb view over the city and the surrounding mountains. The tower stands 27 meters tall, and has a solid square based of 16 by 16 meters. The interior of the tower has been modified since Moorish times, and comprised four floors supported by arches. The bell was used for centuries to chime over the Vela valley, informing local farmers of the best time to water their crops. It was moved into the western façade of the tower in 1840. Forty years later, the tower was struck by lightning, and had to be reconstructed.
4
Palace of Charles V

4) Palace of Charles V (must see)

Inside the Nasrid fortification of the Alhambra, well fed cats peer dispassionately at The visitors who come from all over the world. The visitors take pictures of the cats. Then they pass through the lush flower gardens to the Palace of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The palace, begun in 1527, was not completed until the 20th century.

Charles was not only an emperor, he was a king. He was ruler of Spain and most of Southern Europe. He had palaces galore, but he needed a summer place. Ferdinand and Isabella had taken rooms at the Alhambra. He needed something new.

He chose Pedro Machuca as architect. Pedro had studied with Michelangelo. He would create something unique, something Italian. The palace is stylistically Mannerist. At that time Mannerism was all the rage in Italy. The exterior is a mix of rusticated stone on the first floor and ashlar smoothness above. The building was avant-garde, unique in Spain.

The palace is a square with a circular patio within. The roof has a circular opening above the patio. The patio is enclosed in two levels. A Doric colonnade encircles the lower level. The upper level is wrapped in a stylized Ionic colonnade. The visitors entering the patio are surprised, having passed from the square to the circle.

Charles never lived in the palace. As the visitors leave they pass through the gardens again. The cats watch them go.
5
Mexuar Palace

5) Mexuar Palace

A seasoned traveler might agree that the ugliest room we see in the Alhambra is the first one we enter. The Mexuar is the public reception hall of the Alhambra complex. People who had a bone to pick with the Sultan would climb up the hill from Albaicin, enter the Mexuar through the Gate of Arms, sit down and wait. How is that any different from today?

The outside walls of the Mexuar Hall have been changed so many times that their original appearance is impossible to imagine. The changes are the result of the improvements and repairs of the Catholic Monarchs and especially the great powder magazine explosion of 1590.

The eastern section, next to the tower of Mohammed I, is the Mexuar. There are four columns in the center of the hall. The corbels of the columns are crowned with the graceful staligmite-like ornamentation of Moorish mocarabes. A plaster frieze has an inscription in Arabic that reads, "Everything that you own comes from God."

The Mexuar served much the same purpose for the Christian kings as it had for the Sultan. At the rear of the hall is a room used by the king for council meetings and for granting audiences. If the king was absent, the Cadi (judge) would meet with petitioners in the hall nextdoor.

In spite of being homely, the Mexuar has a hidden jewel. The Mirhab, a small mosque. Visitors are not allowed to enter the Mirhab. But if the door is just a little bit ajar, one can see the Albaicin framed by slender colonnades.
6
Comares Palace

6) Comares Palace

The Comares Palace is thought to be the most important structure in the Alhambra. It was the residence for the king and it has rooms surrounding the Court of the Myrtles. The rooms are galleries with porticoes at each end.

Yusuf wanted his palace to amaze and awe his visitors. He did not live to see the result. His son Mohammed V was responsible for finishing the facade. It is on a stage of three steps, covered with stucco carvings once brilliantly painted. On the facade are two identical doors with lintels, decorated tiles and plaster work.

We have the classic choice: Door Number One or Door Number two? But this is not the "Lady or the Tiger." The door on the left opens to a hall decorated with mocarabes. The ceiling is interlaced wood panels. The hall leads to a dark passage to the Court of the Myrtles. The door on the right provides access to family rooms.

At the north end of the palace is the Hall of the Boat (Sala de la Barca) and the Hall of the Ambassadors (Sala de los Embajadores) inside the Comares Tower (Torre de Comares). The Hall of the Ambassadors gets the prize for being the most impressive room.

The hall is dark but for natural light coming through large windows. There are three windows on each wall. The central window shines on the throne. High up in the room are smaller windows illuminating a wooden ceiling depicting the seven heavens a soul must traverse to meet Allah.
7
Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles)

7) Patio de los Arrayanes (Court of the Myrtles)

East of the Gilded Room (Cuarto Dorado) and west of the Patio of the lions and the baths is the Court of the Myrtles. It wasn't always about Myrtles (Arrayanes). The court has a central pond and it was once called Patio of the Pond or the Reservoir (Patio del Estanque o de la Alberca). With myrtle shrubs in place, we have Court of the Myrtles.

Because of the pool the patio is divided in two sides. The pool is fed by two fountains at either end. Around the pool are galleries and porticoes. The porticoes rest on columns with capitals and arches decorated with fretwork rhombi and inscriptions praising God. Chambers on the north side are in the Comares Palace, the residence of the King.

The Court is 140 feet long by 74 feet wide. In the center of the court is the pool. From this court one can see the Comares Tower above the roof, perfectly reflected in the pool. The Sultan could admire his tower above, but its reflection in the ripples of the pool would remind him of the transitory nature of earthly glory.
8
Court of the Lions and the Fabulous Fountain

8) Court of the Lions and the Fabulous Fountain

All the changes to the Alhambra wrought by Muhammed V indicate the origin of a novel style called Nasrid, which mixed elements of Moorish and Christian influences. Muhammed V borrowed ideas from his friend, Pedro I of Castile. These influences are demonstrated in the structure of the Court of the Lions.

The courtyard is strongly influenced by Pedro I's Patio de las Doncellas in Seville. Despite this, the theme of the court is based on early Islamic gardening. The court is divided into four sections, representing the quarters of the world. Each quarter is irrigated by one of the four rivers of Paradise.

The courtyard is imagined to be paradise itself. White marble columns form a grove in an oasis. Water, columns and gardens create paradise. On the basin of the lion fountain is a quote by the Muslim poet, Ibn Zamrak: "The fountain of the Sultan, which smothers with his graces all his subjects and lands, as the water wets the gardens."

The Lion Fountain of the courtyard is a bowl shaped basin supported by twelve lions facing outward, squirting water from their mouths. The sparkling water falls from the lions into four streams that run through channels to the sides.

The pillars of the colonnades are gathered at each end of the patio around small fountains. The arches support filigreed muqarna (honeycombed) arches that hover over the fountains like palm trees in a desert oasis.
9
Palacio del Partal (Partal Palace)

9) Palacio del Partal (Partal Palace)

The Partal Palace was built by Nasrid Sultan Mohammed III. He ruled only from 1302 to 1309. That would indicate a short building period or a fast builder. The palace today is but partially preserved. Only the tower and the north portico remain standing. The Palace was meant to enclose a rectngular courtyard, not the open garden it faces today.

The typical layout of palaces of the day were based on a courtyard with a reflecting pool. There were porticoes at each end and a mirador (overlook) tower at the edge of the palace walls with a view of the city below.

All that remains today is the Tower of the Ladies (Torre de las Damas), to the left of the portico and mirador. The original ceiling of the tower was taken by the last private owner and is now an exhibit at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany.

A large reflecting pool remains in front of the portico. The original Nasrid garden elements are gone but the current gardens are extensive. They are by Gomez-Moreno in the 1920s. Further landscaping was carried out in 1930.

To the right of the tower is a small private mosque that was originally part of the palace wall. It has a room for prayer and a double-arched window. The room for prayer and window are ornately decorated with stucco in the Nasrid tradition.
10
St Mary Church of Alahambra

10) St Mary Church of Alahambra

The Church of St. Mary was started by architect Pedro Machuca, who had studied under Michelangelo in Italy. Pedro introduced Italian styles in his Palace of Charles V. The Palace was never quite finished but St. Mary's was a success and promptly put to use.

The church is built over the site of the Great Mosque. It has a Latin cross floor plan with side chapels. It is known for its baroque altarpiece and old testament style columns.

Art in the church are the images of the Crucified Christ and St. Ursula and St. Susan. More impressive is the Virgin of Anguish, done by Ruiz del Peral created between 1750 and 1760.

Every Easter the Virgin appears in a procession, carried on a throne depicting the arches of the Court of the Lions embossed in silver.

The church was finished between 1581 and 1618 by architect Ambrosio de Vico. He followed the stylings, in a simplified way, of Juan de Orea, who had preceded him.
11
Angel Barrios Museum

11) Angel Barrios Museum

Located in the Alhambra Museum, The Angel Barrios Museum is a small museum dedicated to the life and accomplishments of Angel Barrios (1882-1964), composer, musician and artist.

The positioning of his guitar against the wall reminds the visitor the artist would rehearse and practice before the medieval walls of the bath (banuelo). Then there is his photograph in the piano room leaning against the garden wall.

He would use expressions like, "the right to the landscape" and "patio of the polinario." He lived among friends and desires and the connections of music. The paintings of traditional scenes are confronted by the old Islamic wall. Objects of the Barrios family set up on tables before a window that opens again on the old wall.

There is a picture of his sister, Elena rehearsing in the garden. A series of images from the yard marks the line between the Barrio family home and the Alamedilla garden.

The Museum of the Alhambra is on the south side of the Palace of Charles V (Carlos V). It has seven halls situated in chronological order.
12
Monastery of San Francisco

12) Monastery of San Francisco

Currently the Monastery of San Francisco is a parador, a special hotel but only the remains of the monastery are considered here.

Before the Reconquista, the monastery was the site of a palace with its own prayer room. Isabella, Queen of Castile had her eye on it. She promised she would build a shrine as soon as they took over the Alhambra. She kept her promise.

When the Catholic monarchs died they were buried in the monastery chapel. It was a temporary arrangement. They were destined to rest in Isabella's Capilla Real (Royal Chapel) which was under construction. Twenty years later, they moved in.

In the 18th century the old building was remodeled in a classical style, all except for the chapel where the monarchs had been buried. That part of the monastery was left intact. Today a marble plaque marks the place where Isabella and Ferdinand were temporarily interred. It sits in front of the altar of the church.

The monastery was seized by the state in 1835. It was used as a tenement, and a stable. It became a ruin. Ultimately it was saved from demolition in the 20th century.

The roof of the church has collapsed and the nave is now a strange looking courtyard. The remains of the original garden consist solely of the water channel. The channel crosses the floor, feeding a small rectangular pond. It is a weak imitation of the patio de la acequia of the Generalife.
13
Torre del Agua (Water Tower)

13) Torre del Agua (Water Tower)

We can thank Corporal Jose Garcia for saving the Alhambra in 1812. Napoleon's marshals were taking a beating from The Duke of Wellington and the French had to abandon Granada. The retreating army tried to blow up the entire fortress. Jose cut the fuses between the towers. A shout out to Jose, he saved the Alhambra.

The Tower of Cabo was destroyed. The Water Tower lost all but a few walls. The tower remained a wreck until 1870 when the Alhambra was declared a national monument.

The Water Tower is actually a defensive work erected in the southeast corner of the Alhambra complex. It was in position to protest the al Saquilla al-Sultan, the Royal canal that provided water for the entire Alhambra. The water came from the River Darro. The water arrived at the tower via a network of pools, cisterns and wells.

The original tower had three floors. Because it was primarily a military facility, it had no ornamentation. Next to the tower there is an acqueduct. The aqueduct connects to the Alhambra and the Generalife by way of a bridge.

Jose, muchas gracias!
14
Generalife Gardens

14) Generalife Gardens (must see)

The name "Generalife" may be taken to mean "garden of paradise". It seems it was the dream of every Islamic gardener to create paradise in a garden. This theme can be seen in the gardens of the Alhambra, especially in the Generalife.

A promenade leads to the "Patio de la Acequia", the heart of the palace grounds. There is a gallery of arches on the western side. A portico on the north side is called the Mirador. The Mirador has five arches in front and three behind. Beyond the portico is the Patio de las Cipreses with a pool in the center.

A series of small pools are lined with oleander and myrtle shrubs. Go up a stone stairway to the Upper Gardens. The Upper Gardens were formerly olive groves. Today the former olive groves have an esplanade, and a stairway with cascading waterfalls. At the end there is a stage where the annual International Festival of Music and Dance is held.

The Spanish elite who moved into the palace installed long rows of fountains that would crash together in the air and splash into the central pool. The Spanish concept was a sharp departure from the Moorish style. The Moor loved a perfect garden, completely enclosed.

There are several legends about the Alhambra and the Generalife. One of the most intriguing concerns a Sultana and her lover, a knight of the opposition Abencerraje family. They rendezvoused beneath the branches of a great cypress, which is still alive today. They were found and the Sultan ordered all the men of that family to be killed.

The great Cypress, which is now called Cipres de la Sultana is waiting for them to return. War, romance, beautiful gardens, mosques and churches, what a mix!

Why you should visit
This one of the few places in the world where the West and East commingle so well. They meet in architecture, history, culture, passion and civilization in the Alhambra.

Tips
Go early as possible to have time and space. Go later and enjoy the sunsets. If considering staying at a parador, make a reservation well ahead.

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