Most of our travel posts in Spain (Almeria, Tarifa, Seville) talk about how difficult it is to get from Martos to the next place. There are almost no direct buses from Martos to anywhere else. So we have to go to Jaen (minimum 45 minutes) then another minimum of 1-2 hours to our destination.
Amazingly, Granada is the closest possible major destination to us. It’s only about an hour from Jaen so the time flies by (1:45 vs the 5 hours to Almeria or 3 hours to Cordoba). We finally made it during the Andalucia Day Puente.
But one does not simply take a quick trip to Granada if you want to see the Alhambra. The Alhambra is a military base/city/fortress/castle/palace/garden. It’s the top 2nd or 3rd thing to do in all of Spain (depending on who you ask). It’s also huge. So it is divided into 3 parts – the Alcazaba castle, the Nasrid Palace, and the Generalife Gardens. The problem is they only let about 6,600 people into the Nasrid Palaces each day. If you want to see the other parts, that’s fine but it’s not what makes the Alhambra famous. The Nasrid Palace is the thing to see. So you have to book ahead.
Almost 3 months ahead, in fact. In a country where they can’t be arsed to hire a replacement teacher for a month it’s impressive to see people acting so proactively. 3 months ago we planned on going to Granada and had a hotel booked, but then the Nasrid Palaces suddenly booked up before we could get tickets. So we cancelled the trip and figured we would go to Cazorla National Park instead. But because of the chance of snow right now we figured we couldn’t hike. So we went back to the idea of going to Granada. And what do you know, tickets were suddenly available (!?!? what?!) 3 days before.
Yes it’s the off season but that’s unreal. The tickets for February had been booked solid for months and suddenly a few days before we were able to get the time slot we wanted. A tour group must have cancelled or something because we had checked multiple times back in January and December.
You have to book a specific time. While 6,600 (ish) people are allowed in it has to be staggered throughout the day. So we booked the earliest slot because everyone says its the quietest time. Having fought crowds in Seville’s Alcazar we couldn’t imagine how busy the #2 or 3 thing in Spain would be.
Everyone online said we had to arrive an hour early for our slot. This was untrue (for the off season). They (the online people) also said if you were even a couple minutes late for your time slot they wouldn’t let you in. This was completely not true as plenty of Spanish families were arriving 45 minutes late and were still allowed to enter.
The walk up to the Alhambra is straight up a mountain. Fortunately we had pre-printed tickets and could go in the first entryway (the Justice Gate). If you don’t have these tickets you have to walk up the rest of the mountain to the official entrance.
This gate is also the closest gate to the Nasrid Palace so it’s a win-win. The only not-win is that since you’re going in a random gate there are no maps or anything to pick up. Fortunately there are some signs spread around. We ended up taking a picture one of these maps with a phone to reference -much greener than paper, anyway.
We waited for 45 minutes. The people online said get there early but it was too early for the off season probably. 10 minutes would’ve been fine. At least we had a lovely view:
It started raining on us but we finally made it in. A Chinese tour group showed up en-mass and en-force to just speed through the Nasrid Palace for pictures. It’s Lunar New Year right now and so we heard/saw loads of Koreans and Chinese folks all over the place. This made things a lot more busy than normal but it was normal for us after living in Korea for three years. We just let them speed ahead. After that we were able to take our time. The entrances are based on time but once you’re in you can take as long as you want. So we did. Checking out detail in walls and wood carvings – everything.
We saw all the good parts. The Court of the Lions, the Sultans Room, the oldest palace.
We spent about an hour wandering all over the Nasrid part. After we exited we went to the Alcazaba part. We were surprised to see so many cats!
People online say the Alcazaba is boring and not worth it. We’ve been to the Alcazaba in Almeria and a partial Alcazaba in Tarifa. I think they’re all interesting. It’s like Mesa Verde versus Chaco Canyon or the Buckcheon Hanok Village versus the Jeonju Hanok Village. Things can be the same in principle but not look the same at all.
This Alcazaba was smaller than Almeria but still pretty. It is the oldest part and was for defense – not for looking pretty. The bits in the middle are former barracks/housing.
The view from the towers are fantastic. The stairwells are single-file (not that anyone does it single-file) so you fight your way up and down (just as was intended).
After spending around another hour in the Alcazaba part we were ready for lunch. You can eat at the insanely expensive hotel on-site (yes there is a hotel in the middle of everything) or you can get some beers and snacks from a little stand area near the cats. We actually packed a lunch. Nowhere does it specifically say not to bring food – you can’t eat inside the ticketed areas but around the cats and benches it’s fair game for food. We ignored beggar-cats as we munched on sandwiches and homemade brownies we had brought from Martos.
The final big-ticket item to see is the Generalife gardens. We fought the most tourists here and honestly don’t understand the appeal.
Sure it’s pretty with the flowers. We were lucky there were flowers in the dead of winter. But after seeing purposeful things like military defense or amazing architecture looking at a snapdragon or daffodil that was planted a few weeks ago it was like whatever. Especially how busy it was. Asians taking a million selfies, an American family shouting loudly about the bathrooms, it was just ugh. Not a relaxing, contemplation garden.
Protip, if you can hold it there are lots more bathrooms in the garden area than in the main area. Just walk the half mile across the Alhambra and boom. Empty bathrooms (probably because of all the fountains. Had to pee twice).
Bottom line- the Alhambra was fantastic in late February. Probably the right amount of busy-ness and the flowers were blooming. We were lucky to get tickets. If you are not so lucky to get tickets:
- Ask your hotel
- Join a tour group
- Buy a Granada Card
- Join the queue at 6:30 am to see if there are day-of tickets.