Spain’s Sublime Alhambra


The Alhambra, a place of fable and romance, is a world wonder that lives up to expectations. Set on a hill overlooking Granada, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in southwestern Spain, the sprawling complex is unique.

The sultans who ruled in the 13th and 14th centuries lived amidst fountains, courtyards, rose-edged pathways and gardens, all surrounded by slender columns, intricately carved arches, and mosaics of marble and alabaster. The architecture is a stunning example of the best of Moorish and later Spanish art. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The complex includes a 9th- century fortress, the Alcazaba; the Nasrid Palace, the home of Muslim rulers from 1238 to 1486; the Renaissance palace of Emperor Carlos V; and the gorgeous Generalife gardens. The Alhambra Museum and the Fine Art Museum are in the Carlos V palace.

You definitely want to buy admission tickets in advance for this extremely popular site. If you’re going to spend a few days in Granada, you can save time and money with a Bono Turistico card. This provides entrance to all the monuments without waiting in long lines, plus a tour bus ride and other transportation. Or you can sign up for a guided tour (usually 2-1/2 hours), which I recommend doing.  We use Viator, a company  that provides excellent tours.

For fantastic views of the Alhambra, go to the Albaicin area, on a slope above the right bank of the Darro River. Climb the hill (or ride Bus #32) to Mirador San Nicolas, and you’ll come to a plaza where dozens of people come to enjoy the scene – both the spectacular panorama and the endless entertainment of musicians, performers and vendors. It’s especially lovely at sunset, with lights on the Alhambra and the mountains behind it often capped with snow.

Another area with good views is the Sacromonte district, where the Roma people (Gypsies) have lived since the 15th century. This is the place to find fiery flamenco dancing and guitar music. Your hotel can make reservations for a performance, or you can walk the lanes to the Gypsy caves.

There are dozens of hotels and B&Bs in Granada. If you want to stay in or near the romantic Alhambra, you have several choices. The elegant Alhambra Palace Hotel, updated in 2000, has 115 bedrooms and 11 suites at medium-range prices. The most famous hotel is the Parador de Granada, converted from a 15th-century convent, on the Alhambra grounds. (A parador is a hotel in a renovated castle, monastery, convent, or classic home.) It has only 34 rooms and 2 suites and is the most popular parador in Spain, so early reservations are a must. Rooms on the oldest side, furnished with antiques, have the most charm. There are gardens, fountains, and a good restaurant offering local specialties such as gazpacho, garlic chicken, and omelets.

We are fans of Hotel America, a pretty place very close to an entrance gate to the monument. It’s not far from the center of Granada, the cathedral and the Royal Chapel. The hotel was a summer residence in the 19th century and has a homey feel. There’s a vine-laden courtyard, prices are reasonable, and the 17 rooms, while small, are comfortable.

There are several good tapas bars and restaurants in Granada, in addition to the Parador. Our favorite is El Huerto de Juan Ranas, a former villa in the Albaicin district. We like the hillside terrace, looking toward the flood-lit Alhambra glowing in the night while enjoying a delicious meal that combines Spanish and Moorish cuisines. It’s fairly expensive, but it doesn’t get more romantic than this, in a place that is the soul of romance.

Written by Marilyn McFarlane for

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