The Best Way to See Alhambra: Guided Tour or Independent Visit?

view of the Alhambra in Granada with mountains visible in the background
by Anisa // 0 Comments

The Alhambra is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Spain and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It’s a place we have wanted to go to for a long time so we planned a trip to visit Granada so we could see it.

When I saw all the ticket and tour options for the Alhambra, I was a bit overwhelmed.  I wasn’t sure if we should buy tickets (including an audio tour) or pay for a guided tour.  What would be the best way to see the Alhambra?

In this post, I will tell you more about the options for visiting the Alhambra along with the pros and cons so that you can decide what is right for you.  Additionally, I will share tips for visiting the Alhambra so you can make the most of your time there.

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selfie of Russell and Anisa in the palace of the lions at the Alhambra
We were so excited to finally check the Alhambra off our bucket lists.

About the Alhambra

The Alhambra is a palace and fortress complex on the Sabika hill in Granada.  It was a residence for the Nasrid dynasty, the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, and then became the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs.

the alcazaba (i.e. military fortress) of the Alhambra
The Alcazaba was the first part of the Alhambra to be built.

The construction began in the 13th century by Muhammad I and later modified many times by subsequent rulers.   The most significant transformation took place during the reigns of Yusuf I and Muhammad V in the 14th century.

The palace that Charles V commissioned in 1526 was left uncompleted in the early 17th century.  The Alhambra palaces fell into disrepair and were occupied by squatters.  Napoleon’s troops also destroyed parts of the complex.

exterior of charles v palace
The style of the Charles V Palace is quite different from the rest of the Alhambra.

One of the people that was living in the Alhambra was the American writer, Washington Irving.  He wrote the book Tales of the Alhambra which created international interest in the site.

Today, the Alhambra is a popular tourist destination and UNESCO World Heritage site.  It is known for its architecture, intricate tile work, and beautiful gardens, and is considered one of the most famous examples of Moorish architecture in the world. 

generalife gardens at the alhambra
You don’t realize how much there is to see at the Alhambra until you visit yourself.

When you visit, the three main areas to see are the Alcazaba (the oldest section, a military fort), the Nasrid Palaces, and Generalife.  While those sections are all ticketed there are other places inside the Alhambra that are free. 

Should You Take a Guided Tour of Alhambra?

It could be a good idea to take a guided tour if you want to learn more about the history, architecture, and significance of the site.  A guide can provide expert commentary and insights that will enhance your visit and give you a deeper understanding.  Still, it ultimately depends on personal preference, as some visitors might prefer to explore the Alhambra independently.

Check out Alhambra tour options here.

one of the courtyard areas of the Nasrid Palaces with a pool
We learned so much about the Alhambra on our tour.

Pros of Taking a Guided Tour

As mentioned, there are definitely positives about taking a guided tour.  Let’s take a look at the reasons that you might want to opt for a guided tour of the Alhambra.

Your Guide is a Real Person

In general, I think it is much more interesting to listen to a real person talk than to listen to a recording.  They have more energy and can tailor their speech to the audience.  For example, they can go into more detail if the audience shows interest in a particular topic.

Our guide, Carmen, was incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about the Alhambra.  I think if asked she probably could recite all the rulers that lived in the Alhambra along with the specific modifications that they did.  She seemed to know everything about the site.

some of the islamic architecture in the alhambra
The details inside the Nasrid Palaces are one of the reasons the Alhambra is special.

Throughout our tour, she pointed out interesting details in the architecture and explained the reasoning behind some of the design.   When we were walking to the next area, she would fill the gaps with entertaining tales.  We learned a bunch about the history of the Alhambra (and the surrounding area).

door that the last nasrid ruler left the alhambra
Carmen, our tour guide, told us the story about how the last Nasrid ruler left through this door.

Even with lots of other people and tour groups around we never had any issues hearing our guide.  We had radios with headphones and she had a microphone so we didn’t even have to be next to her to be able to take in her commentary.

I did download the app that is the audio guide for the Alhambra (you can get it here for free).  It didn’t take long for me to realize that we got a lot more information from our tour guide than what is included in the audio guide.

close up of lions around a fountain
We heard the fascinating story about how the Palace of Lions got its name during our tour.

You Can Ask Questions

When you have a live tour guide, you can ask questions.  Since I didn’t know much about Alhambra before I visited, I thought it was important that I be able to ask questions to make sure I was understanding what I was told.

In addition to asking clarifying questions, you can also ask questions about specific topics that interest you.  For example, I wanted to know more about Catherine of Aragon (King Henry VIII’s first wife) at the Alhambra.  While a niche subject like that might not have been included in the regular tour, our tour guide, Carmen, was able to tell me more about Catherine and the impact her time at the Alhambra had on her.

looking through the archway into the garden with a pool
The gardens at the Alhambra are pretty and inspiring.

You Don’t Have to Worry About Missing Your Nasrid Palaces Entry Time

The Nasrid Palaces will be the highlight of your visit to the Alhambra.  Since the area is so popular, everyone has a timed-entry spot to see it.

If you are visiting the Alhambra on your own, it is your responsibility to get yourself to the entrance of the Nasrid Palaces at the designated time.  For me, I felt like worrying about making my entry time for the Nasrid Palaces would distract me from enjoying other parts of the Alhambra.

arabic style windows and decor inside the nasrid palaces
It is easy to see why the Nasrid Palaces are so popular.

It is something you have to take seriously because if you miss your turn, you might not be able to see some of the most beautiful parts of the complex.  To make things worse, you would not be able to get a refund either. When you go with a tour, your guide takes on that burden and you can just enjoy your visit.

one of the courtyards in the nasrid palace with people in it
Even with the timed-entry restrictions, there were a lot of people inside the Nasrid Palaces.

You Won’t Get Lost

Alhambra is big.  It’s hard to realize just how big it is before you see it for yourself.

Before our visit, we went to several viewpoints in Grenada to get a glimpse of the Alhambra.  I thought it looked massive but at that point, I didn’t realize that I wasn’t even including Generalife (the summer palace) in what I thought was the complex.  It is a short walk from the rest of the Alhambra.

gardens at the alhambra
There are many different gardens and palaces at the Alhambra.

Since there are maps and signs (mostly only in Spanish), you can find your own way, but it is easier if you go with a guide that knows the grounds.  All you have to do is stay with your group.  

Cons of Taking a Guided Tour

On the other side of the coin, there are negatives about taking a guided tour of the Alhambra.  You need to consider these points before making a decision.

You Can’t Go at Your Own Pace

When you go with a group tour, you lose some flexibility as your guide will determine how fast you go through the attraction.  You have to keep up with the group.

I was worried this could be an issue for us because we like to take our time and get as many photographs as possible.  It turned out that we were still able to get plenty of photos.  In many cases, when our guide saw that people were taking photos, she would pause and allow time.

decorative ceiling inside the nasrid palaces
We were able to get plenty of photos during our guided tour.

The bigger problem with getting the best photos was all the other tourists.  In some cases, it wasn’t possible to get photos without anyone else in them.  This probably would have been a problem if we visited independently too.

Overall, I thought the tour was paced well.  We kept moving but I didn’t feel rushed.  Also, with the headphones, we didn’t have to stand right in front of our tour guide, so we could look around a bit if the situation warranted.

view of the alcazaba and the city of granada
We had sufficient time to enjoy the views!

You Might Not Get a Good Tour Guide

Not all tour guides are created equal.  Unfortunately during my travels, I have had a few tour guides that didn’t meet my expectations.

I think in most cases the issue wasn’t that the tour guide didn’t know their stuff.  It was more that they weren’t able to communicate effectively.  Sometimes it might have been a language barrier.

While I can’t guarantee your tour guide will be as wonderful as Carmen, judging from the reviews that I read there are a lot of excellent tour guides at the Alhambra.

looking up to stained glass and lots of islamic design
One of the things our tour guide pointed out was the last bit of stained glass remaining in the Alhambra.

It’s More Expensive

Yes, you are going to have to pay a bit more to have a knowledgeable guide show you around the Alhambra, but I think the benefits justify it.  

For us, it made sense to pay for a live tour guide so that we could get the most out of our visit to the Alhambra.  We also felt like we would be able to enjoy it more because we wouldn’t have to stress about getting lost or missing our timed entry slot.

nasrid palace courtyard with pool and reflection
You will get more value out of your visit if you take a guided tour.

Is a Guided Tour of Alhambra Worth It?

Yes, we thought so.  I felt like we saw and learned more than we would have just using an audio tour.   Thanks to our tour guide Carmen’s energy it wasn’t boring.  It was also nice that we didn’t have to worry about finding our way around or missing important parts. 

See the different guided tours of Alhambra available here.

looking down on a courtyard garden with a fountain
With all there is to see at the Alhambra, a guided tour is the way to go.

Tips for Visiting Alhambra

The Alhambra is a popular site with a lot to see.  I have a few tips that I wanted to share that will help ensure that you enjoy your visit.

Book in Advance

As you may have guessed, like many other popular tourist attractions, there is limited capacity and if you don’t book your tickets (or tour) in advance you may not be able to visit.  For the Alhambra, this probably means booking more than a month in advance during the busy months.

buildings and trees inside the alhambra
Like other popular tourist attractions, you need to book in advance.

Direct tickets tend to sell out the fastest.  If no more direct tickets are available, you may be able to find some through third-party sellers like Get Your Guide (see options here).  You may also still be able to purchase guided tours (see options here).  

If you don’t want to limit your options, I would recommend booking your Alhambra visit as early as possible.  Get Your Guide tours and tickets have a reasonable cancellation policy where you can get a full refund if you cancel up to three days in advance – see their options for Alhambra here.  

Note that if you book your tickets directly there is no option to refund or change once you purchase.

If you want to book the same tour we took, you can do that here.

elaborate ceiling in nasrid palaces
Don’t forget to look up when you visit the Nasrid Palaces in the Alhambra.

Make Sure Your Guided Tour or Tickets Give You Access to Everything You Want to See

When it comes to buying Alhambra tickets or tours, you will be surprised with all the options.  While it can be nice to have choices, when I was looking to buy my tickets it was intimidating.

At the time of writing there were 8 different ticket options available directly for the Alhambra with one more coming soon.  You can see the options here.

Some of the titles of the types of tickets weren’t very clear.  For example, the “Alhambra General” option is labeled as a complete visit, but the “Dobla de Oro General” ticket costs more.  After a bit of research the Dobla de Oro General ticket includes the Andalusian monuments which are outside of the Alhambra complex.

buildings and trees inside the Alhambra
You want to make sure that you book a ticket or tour that includes all the main parts of the Alhambra.

You also have the option to visit the Alhambra at night. Evening tickets for the Nasrid Palaces are separate from the tickets for Generalife and the Gardens.  It is not possible to see the Alcazaba at night.  Most experts recommend that you see the Alhambra for the first time during the day and then if you want to go back for a second time, go at night.

If you think the Alhambra ticket options are too much, then don’t look at all the tour options.   After trying to decipher the differences between the different tours, I just focused on making sure the tour included the Nasrid Palaces, Alcazaba, and Generalife.  I also read the reviews carefully.

We chose to take this tour.  If you haven’t already gathered from the rest of the post, we were happy with our choice.

Take the Bus

While the Alhambra is walking distance from the Granada city center, we recommend that you take the bus.  To walk there you would have to climb up a steep hill which is a good workout for your legs.

Just remember that during your visit to the Alhambra you will be on your feet for at least three hours.  You will be walking up and down hills and stairs.  You don’t want your legs to be tired before you even start.

It’s easy to take the bus and cheap too.  Just head to Plaza Isabel la Católica to get on the C32  or C30 bus, which runs about every 8 – 12 minutes.  It’s a short ride to the “Alhambra – Generalife 2” stop and only costs €1.40 per person which you can pay in cash to the bus driver.

path to walk to and from the Alhambra in Granada
They did an excellent job with the walking path between the Alhambra and the Granada city center – although it is steep.

If you still have energy left, you can walk back (or take the bus).  Since it’s downhill, it’s not difficult.  We took the bus to the Alhambra and then walked back to where we were staying at the Granada Five Senses Hotel.

Wear Comfortable Shoes

You will be on your feet most of the time you spend visiting the Alhambra.  This is not the time to wear brand new shoes or any footwear that might be uncomfortable.

Also keep in mind there are steps and some areas where the floor may be a little uneven.  You’ll want to wear shoes that are comfortable and easy to walk in.   

view looking from generalife to the rest of the alhambra
You will be on your feet most of the time you are exploring the Alhambra.

Pay Attention to the Time

All tickets for the Nasrid Palaces have a timed-entry slot.  You need to keep this in mind so that you make sure you don’t miss it as most people consider it to be the best part of the Alhambra.

the courtyard of the palace of the lions with a fountain surrounded by sculptures that sort of look like lions
The Nasrid Palaces are the most popular section of the Alhambra so they only allow time-entry tickets.

If you decide to go with a guided tour, your tour guide will make sure you don’t miss the time slot.  This does mean that you need to be on time for the start of your tour or they may need to leave without you.

Don’t Forget Your Passport

While I usually leave my passport in the hotel safe when I am sightseeing, I had to bring it with me to the Alhambra.  There are three different checkpoints where we had to show our passports along with our tickets.  This applies whether you visit on your own or as part of a guided tour.

garden area in the Alhambra
You don’t want to be turned away at the checkpoints, so bring your passport.

Be Prepared for the Weather

Since you have to book your ticket in advance, you may not be able to avoid bad weather days.  Check the weather forecast as the date approaches and dress appropriately.  If rain is in the forecast, bring an umbrella or hood.

alcazaba with people holding umbrellas in the distance
Your visit to Alhambra will go ahead even when the weather is not its best.

A good amount of the time you spend at the Alhambra will be outdoors.  You don’t want the weather to ruin your visit.

The January day we went to Alhambra it rained, and our tour took place as normal.  We were thankful we had hoods and waterproof jackets, so we were able to stay mostly dry.

We enjoyed our visit to Alhambra in spite of the weather.  At the beginning the rain was heavy and the visibility was limited, but it did clear up before we left and we did get to enjoy the views.

view of granada with blue skies from the Alhambra
It rained part of the time we were exploring the Alhambra, but eventually the sun came out!

Check Out the Non-Ticketed Areas in the Alhambra if You Can

You need a ticket to see the Nasrid Palaces, Generalife, and the Alcazaba, but there is more to the Alhambra than just those areas.  The Alhambra Museum, Charles V Palace, Torre de las Cabezas, Puerta de la Justicia and more can be explored for free.

inside the Charles V Palace looking up at blue sky with clouds
It’s definitely worth going inside the Palace of Charles V.

Some tours may take you to see some of these places, but probably not all.  If you have time and energy after your tour it’s worthwhile to go back in and see more.

We went back to the Alhambra so we could go inside the Charles V Palace.  It’s built in the classical renaissance style with a dramatic circular courtyard.  The contrast between this palace and the rest of the Alhambra is quite something.

looking through a arch into the courtyard of Charles v palace with all its columns
The architectural style of the Charles V Palace is not what you would expect to see at the Alhambra.

The Charles V Palace is home to the Alhambra Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.  Note there is an entry fee of €1.50 for the Museum of Fine Arts and photos are not allowed inside.

RELATED: The Best Museums in Spain

Alhambra Visit FAQs

How Long Does it Take to Visit the Alhambra?

You can easily spend a full day and not see everything in the Alhambra.  Our tour lasted around three hours (with a 15 minute break), then we went back after lunch to see the Charles V Palace.  

closeup of islamic art inside the Alhambra
You want to allow time to appreciate the details at the Alhambra.

Can You Do a Day Trip to Visit the Alhambra?

Yes, there are tours that will take you from other cities like Malaga and Seville so that you can see the Alhambra.  Check out the options here.

If possible, I would recommend spending more than a day in Granada.  Read about ideas for things to do in Granada besides the Alhambra here.


Are there hotels in the Alhambra?

Yes.  If you want you could stay inside the walls of the Alhambra.  While it might not be as convenient as a hotel in the Granada city center, I think I would like to do it for one night for the novelty of it.

We passed two hotels during our tour.  The first one was Hotel America, which is budget-friendly and has very good reviews (see them here).  They have a restaurant and an outdoor terrace.  Find out more about it here.

exterior of Hotel America inside the Alhambra
Wouldn’t it be fun to stay at a hotel inside the Alhambra like the Hotel America?!

Just a short distance from Hotel America, we saw the more luxurious Parador de Granada (read reviews here) which is housed inside a 15th-century convent.  Its restaurant has a terrace with views of the gardens.  Find out more about it here.

exterior of parador hotel
The Parador de Granada is a 4-star hotel inside the Alhambra.

Where can you eat near the Alhambra?

We had lunch at the Restaurante Jardines Alberto which is right across the street from the exit where our tour ended.  I especially enjoyed their croquetas and their portions were generous.  They have terraces so you can dine outside when the weather is pleasant.

Alternatively, the hotels inside the Alhambra have restaurants (as mentioned above).

Can you take photos inside the Alhambra?

Yes.  While it can’t be difficult to get photos with all the people, photography is allowed inside most areas of the Alhambra.  The only place I noticed that didn’t allow photography was the Museum of Fine Arts.

pink rose with blurred background
Even though we visited the Alhambra in January we were still able to see a rose in the Generalife gardens.

Are bags allowed inside the Alhambra?

Yes, small bags are allowed.  They may be searched at the various checkpoints.  If you have a backpack, you will need to wear it on your front during the time you are in the Nasrid Palaces.

Can you visit Alhambra without a guide?

Yes.  If you like you can buy tickets and do an independent visit to the Alhambra.  Just keep in mind you will need to make sure that you don’t miss your timed entry to the Nasrid Palaces.  While there is a free audio guide for the Alhambra, it is not as comprehensive as the guided tours.

courtyard in palaces of the lions at the alhambra
I was impressed by everything we saw at the Alhambra, but the Palace of the Lions was probably my favorite.

What is the Best Way To See The Alhambra?

I think the best way to see the Alhambra is by guided tour.  It may be a bit more expensive, but having a live tour guide will be worth it.

We don’t take that many guided tours, but I am glad we did for the Alhambra.

If you want to book the tour we took, you can find it here.


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view of part of the alcazaba of the alhambra with city of granada in the background and text overlay "the best way to visit the Alhambra"

Expert Tips for Your Visit to the Alhambra

  • If you want to get the most out of the experience, it is worth it to pay for a guided tour.  See the options here.
  • Go to see the Charles V Palace even if it is not part of your tour.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and don’t forget your passport.

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Last Updated on March 12, 2023

About the Author

Anisa is an experienced international traveler with extra pages in her passport and stamps from 41 different countries across 5 continents (and counting). She was born and raised in Texas. After a 13 year stint in NYC, she moved to England to live with her husband.