Fortress. Castle. Royal Palace. Religious Icon. The Alhambra was and is all of these things. Rising from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Granada, Spain, the Alhambra is one of the world’s most renowned structures. And when I was able to explore this UNESCO site on my recent trip to Spain, I understood exactly why this place was so important.

The Alhambra tells a story. The royal complex is a reflection of the different empires that ruled the Andalusian region dating back to the 9th century. These old Roman fortifications sat largely ignored for almost three centuries until Moorish ruler Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Nasrid dynasty rebuilt most of the current palace walls. In the early 14th century Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada made the Alhambra his royal palace. After roughly 700 years, the Christian Reconquista ended Muslim rule in the Iberian peninsula, and the Alhambra became the royal court for Ferdinand and Isabella. Being under control of the Holy Roman Empire, the palace complex was tailored and renovated to match the tastes of Renaissance architecture. And today, as you stroll through the gardens, navigate the palaces, and stand atop the fortified walls, you can see this story unfold piece-by-piece.

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Sitting up on the hills overlooking Granada, the Alhambra is a massive, sprawling masterpiece.

We arrived early in the morning to try and beat the larger crowds that would swarm the complex by mid-afternoon. My buddy Phil and I started by strolling through the Generalife, or “Garden of the Architect” in Arabic. This out-lying section of the Alhambra was a maze of well-manicured gardens, flowing fountains, and regal courtyards dating back to the early 14th century.

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Inside the Palacio de Generalife.
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Aptly named the Water Staircase, its railings were streams of flowing water.

After strolling through the gardens like royalty, we headed back into the main section of the Alhambra. We navigated through more gardens and smaller buildings in the upper part of the complex. Our next stop would be the Palacio de Carlos V. Unlike the architecture of the other buildings in the Alhambra, this renaissance palace was constructed to befit the Holy Roman Emperor in a style called Mannerism.

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The facade of the palace near the entrance.
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The patio inside in the middle of the palace.
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On the second level of the inner patio.

The Palacio de Carlos V was an incredible building. It was quite the departure from the Generalife. Our expedition continued as we made our way into the main castle-like structure of the Alhambra called the Alcazaba. This is was the oldest part of Alhambra, consisting of ramparts and large watchtowers that overlooked the city of Granada. Here I truly felt transported back in time, or perhaps, to a scene in Game of Thrones.

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We could easily be in King’s Landing.
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Inside the castle.
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Looking down from the tallest watchtower.
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A stunning view of Granada and the Sierra Nevada from the watchtowers.

Because the Alhambra is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Spain, the Nasrid palaces and Partal section of the complex require a reservation to help preserve the ancient site from being overrun. We booked our time to view this section at the end, roughly 3 hours after we started. The Nasrid palaces and Partal housed the most intricate architecture we saw at the Alhambra. Home to the Moorish rulers, this section featured plenty of marble, detailed ceiling work, colorful doors, and pristine gardens.

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Archways and reflecting pools.
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Inside the Court of Lions. It was virtually entirely covered in marble.
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Another look inside the marble-clad Court of Lions.
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The intricate honeycomb like ceilings.
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Colorful doorways full of detailed tile-work.
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The ending capture of the portico and pool outside of the Partal.

Exploring the Alhambra was like taking a step back in time, albeit many different times at once. The changing architectures, pristine courtyards and gardens, and the ancient fortified walls combined to make an attraction I have not seen duplicated on my travels. The closest place was actually in Seville, called the Alcazar, which combined Moorish architecture and stunning palace gardens as well. Sites like these made southern Spain so unique compared to the remainder of the country, as the Muslim influence became heavier the further south we traveled. It was a fascinating, eye-opening, yet natural cultural progression as we made our way into Morocco.

To read more about the Alhambra and click through an interactive map, check out www.alhambradegranada.org

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