The Moors swept into Spain from North Africa, controlling portions of the Iberian Peninsula for nearly eight centuries from 711 to 1492. Though many of the Islamic elements were wiped out by Spain’s Catholic leaders, the remaining marvels still standing today, from Granada’s Alhambra fortress to the Real Alcazar in Seville to Córdoba’s Mezquita Cathedral, give great insight into the advancements of Moorish society.
Actually disparate groups of Africans, Berbers and Arabs, these Islamic rulers created a sophisticated, religiously tolerant society while the rest of Europe struggled through the Middle Ages. Constantly under siege from the increasingly unified Spanish and subject to internal conflicts, the kingdom splintered into separate fiefdoms, steadily shrinking until it was mostly centered around Granada.
This last Moorish kingdom fell to the Spanish army under the flag of Los Reyes Católicos, King Ferdinand II of Aragon and his wife Queen Isabella I of Castille, in 1492, just months before they sanctioned Columbus’ first voyage to the New World. The discovery of “Las Indias” as the islands were then known led to Seville gaining a monopoly on trade in the region, revitalizing the city after the fallow period following the defeat of the Moors. Today this period of Spanish colonization is documented at the Archivo General de Indias in Seville.
After the defeat of the Moors, some of the most prized holdings such as the Real Alcazar palaces underwent extensive alterations and additions, while mosques were destroyed, most infamously the predecessor to Seville’s Cathedral, or converted to churches like Mezquita. The remaining Muslims were evicted or converted to Christianity under threat of death.
The Moorish term for their lands, Al Andalus, yielded the modern province of Andalusia, where the most important sights remain today.
Granada & Alhambra
Granada lies in the shadow of Mulhacén, Spain’s highest peak, named for one of the last Moorish kings, Muley Hacén, rumored to be buried on the mountain. At first, this bustling city yields little about its Moorish past. In the center, narrow, congested streets yield to pedestrian shopping areas until you reach the Plaza Santa Ana. Above looms legendary Alhambra, perched atop the hill, a sprawling symbol of the once powerful kingdom. To reach it, climb up Cuesto de Gomérez past the gamut of tourist shops and follow the imposing walls to the entrance.
Across the way, the ancient hilltop district of Albayzin (Albaicin) features numerous winding streets, tea shops and the restored bath house El Banuelo (open Tues – Sat 10am – 2pm, free admission). Plan on exploring Albayzin on foot, getting lost in the maze of streets as you climb to the Mirador de San Nicolas outside the church of the same name. Here you will be rewarded with spectacular views of Alhambra on the opposite hilltop. Afterwards, drop into a North African restaurant or tea house for a taste of the flavors of the Moorish past.
The sprawling complex of fortifications, palaces and gardens known as Alhambra sits atop a hill overlooking the city and the mountains beyond. The main sights here are the extensive gardens, the Generalife, Alcazaba and the Nasrid Palaces. Expect to spend three to four hours exploring Alhambra.
After entering the main gate, you will head through the Upper Alhambra towards the main attraction, the Nasrid Palaces. This interconnected series of three palaces contains beautiful archways and tile work typical of Muslim art, which do not depict human forms. The tour winds through the official areas, known as the Mexuar, then the royal residence in the Comares Palace and the private Palace of the Lions, which also housed the Harem. The tour includes several rooms added after the defeat of the Moors collectively called the Charles V Palace.
Opposite stands the Alcazaba is the oldest section of the fortifications. Here you can climb up and down the ancient walls for spectacular views of the city below. The center is known as Arms Square, offering insight into the living quarters of the former residents. Peer down into the Garden of the Ramparts, which runs below along the wall.
After the tour, step into the Garden of the Partal before retracing your steps back through the gardens and into the Generalife. The highlight here is the gorgeous fountain-filled Patio of the Irrigation Ditch.
Buying Alhambra Tickets
The key to dealing with the crowds and getting your desired timeslot for a visit is to buy Alhambra tickets in advance and make sure you arrive early enough to navigate the complex to the Nasrid Palaces, which has timed entry slots.
Alhambra can draw large crowds and you should purchase tickets in advance if visiting in high season such as holiday weeks or during the summer. This can be done up to a year in advance through Ticketmaster for an additional fee (see below). Online tickets can be picked up at kiosks located near the ticket office or at La Caixa bank outlets at the ServiCaixa machines. You can also buy tickets at the Tienda de la Alhambra shop at 40 Calle Reyes Católicos. Tickets at the monument, if available, can be purchased only with cash.
Your ticket will be for either a morning, afternoon or evening slot (spring – summer only) and include timed admission to the Nasrid Palaces, which is strictly controlled with entry only every 30 minutes. You can enter the grounds with your ticket any time during your slot, but plan on arriving at the queue outside the Palace 15 minutes before your scheduled entry time. This is a good 10 – 15 minute walk from the entry gate and if you miss your slot, you will not be admitted to the palace. If you plan on just visiting the gardens, you can purchase a “Garden Ticket.”
Hours: Open Daily; October 15 – March 14 from 8:30am to 6pm (ticket office 8am – 5pm); March 15 – October 14 from 8:30am to 8pm (ticket office 8am – 8pm)
Admission: Alhambra prices: Adult daytime visit €13, Evening or Night visit to Nasrid Palaces €8, Evening or Night time Garden visit €5, Daytime Garden visit €7; Seniors €9, Kids 12 – 15 €8, Kids under 12 Free; Ticketmaster prices: Adults €14.30, Kids 12 – 15 €9.30, Seniors €10.30, Kids under 12 Free
– Granada is at a much higher elevation than the nearby beaches of Costa del Sol, roughly an hour’s drive away, and can be much cooler outside of summer, especially at night
– Wear comfortable shoes as the pathways and cobblestones can be very uneven
– Avoid the mediocre, overpriced café at the Hotel América
More info on Alhambra on the official website.
Mezquita, Córdoba’s Cathedral, is a converted Mosque also known as the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Once the most important mosque in the Western World, the conversion took place after the Spanish took the city in 1236. The present day cathedral was inserted into the middle of the complex, though the dimensions as they existed in 987 were preserved. The Minaret remains as well, converted into the cathedral’s bell tower. The remaining touches from Moorish times give a glimpse of the mosque’s former glory, from the colorful striped archways to the orange tree-filled patio where Muslims took their ablutions.
About five miles outside Córdoba on the side of a mountain lies the ruined city of Medina Azahara (website). Built in the 10th Century by Caliph Abd ar-Rahman III, this legendary city had many modern advances including a sophisticated water delivery system. Unfortunately, the golden age lasted only a few years and Median Azahara was destroyed in 1010. Nine hundred years later, the city was discovered and gained protection from the Spanish government. Today visitors can wander the site, of which only about 10% has been excavated, and visit the partially restored palace, including the Salon Rico, also known as the Hall of ‘Abd al-Rahman III, a reception hall with exquisite stucco detailing on its archways.
Visiting Medina Azahara
If you don’t have a car, you can take a bus service from the city to the site at 9:30 or 10:15 (Sun, Tues – Friday) or 9:30, 10:15 and 3pm (Saturdays). No bus on Mondays.
Hours: May 1 – September 15: Tues – Sat 10am – 8:30pm, Sun 10am – 2pm, Closed Mondays; Sept 16 – April 30: Tues – Sat 10am – 6:30pm, Closed Sun & Mon
Admission: Free for EU citizens, €1.50 all others
Seville occupies the banks of the Guadalquivir River, a short distance inland from the Atlantic Ocean. This Medieval city unfolds in narrow winding streets in and around the historic sights of the Real Alcazar and Seville Cathedral.
Stroll through the ancient Jewish district today known as Santa Cruz to soak in the city’s history. It was here that the Spanish king
Ferdinand III of Castile forced the city’s Jews to move after the defeat of the Moors. However, with the Alhambra decree of 1492, the Jewish population was expelled from the city and the area eventually evolved into today’s tourist-filled destination.
The Seville Cathedral was built on the remnants of the former mosque and still retains the typical courtyard for ablutions. This cathedral is the third largest in the Christian world, though the largest by volume due to its soaring ceilings. Highlights include the beautiful, incredibly elaborate altar featuring over 1,000 carved Biblical features and the final resting place of Christopher Columbus. Next to the cathedral, La Giralda, the former minaret of the mosque which was topped by a bell tower after the Christians expelled the Moors, soars three hundred feet in the air. A climb to the top rewards visitors with views of the Medieval quarter.
The impressive complex of Real Alcazar was the first European royal residence, with a history dating back to fortifications begun in the 10th Century. The walled compound actually holds a series of buildings from different periods with diverse architectural styles. You will pass through several courtyards, arriving at the Palacio Mujédar, once home to the Moorish Caliph. Inside, the walls are covered in tiles typical of Islamic architcture. The highlight is the Patio de las Doncellas, a two-story rectangular open-air courtyard with long narrow pool and beautiful detailing on its arches. Next door stands the Gothic palace, added by Alfonso X in the 13th Century. On the second floor, don’t miss the Salon Tapices with its tapestry-covered walls and the Hall of the Admirals. From the windows, you have an excellent vantage point of the sprawling gardens with towering palm trees swaying in the distance. The palaces and grounds are enormous so plan on spending two to three hours or more inside.
Visiting Real Alcazar
Hours: April – September 9:30am – 7pm daily; October – March 9:30am – 5pm daily
Admission: Adults €8.50, Seniors & Students 17 – 25 €2; 16 and Under Free
For more info visit the official website.