The ultimate guide to Madrid’s top museums

The Spanish capital is awash in great art and recently welcomed Europe’s most anticipated new museum into its fold…

Martin Symington
04 March 2024

Spain’s capital makes a dazzling pilgrimage for culture lovers. Three world-class museums, venerated as a ‘golden triangle’ of art, allow visitors to revel in as full a breadth and depth of European painting and sculpture as you’ll find on the continent. In addition to this, onto the scene has burst the most important new museum in Europe in some time, adding to what was already a bounty for art fans.

The gigantic Prado Museum, with its vast collection of works by Spanish masters, is indisputably numero uno in the city’s celebrated triangle of cultural institutions. Its counterpart in modern and contemporary art, the Reina Sofia, lies just a stone’s throw away, and the final big name in this triumvirate is the smaller and more eclectic Thyssen-Bornemisza, where every piece on display is a treasure that has been chosen by the museum’s founding couple.

In truth, the word ‘triangle’ is a bit of a misnomer because the trio actually sit in a line along the beautiful Paseo del Prado boulevard, shaded by centuries-old trees. Located between the imperious Plaza del Emperador Carlos V and Plaza Cibele, the Paseo del Arte (Art Walk), as this stretch is known, even bagged UNESCO World Heritage status in 2021 together with the stately El Retiro Park.

Crowds inside the Prado Museum (Alamy)

However, all eyes are now on Madrid’s newcomer. The Gallery of the Royal Collections lies over in the Royal Palace complex and was originally greenlit in 1998. That it was only inaugurated in June 2023 offers a hint as to how anticipated its arrival has been. In a surprising juxtaposition of ancient and ultra-modern, the hundreds of windows on this sleek, white concrete building overlook the palace and the Casa de Campo gardens that lie across from the royal residence. Surely the city now has a ‘golden rectangle’.

Madrid also has 50 or so other museums, ranging from large and small to mainstream and quirky. These will lead you happily off the main cultural beat, but you will want to start with the big four. A Paseo del Arte pass allows queue-free access to the ‘golden triangle’ of museums; tickets are valid for a year. The lunch and siesta lull between 3pm and 5pm is usually the quietest time to visit.

A guide to Madrid’s top museums

The Prado Museum

Housed in a vast Neoclassical building, which opened in 1819 as the Royal Museum of Paintings and Sculptures, this is one of Europe’s most exalted museums. Its purpose was to house the royal collection and to announce to the rest of the continent that Spanish art was among the best.

So, where to begin in a colossus that includes one of the world’s largest collections of paintings? The answer is to think of the Prado more as a museum of artists than of art: whole multi-room galleries are devoted to Diego Velázquez, the Spanish 17th-century master; to Francisco de Goya and his 18th- and 19th-century counterparts; and to the towering figure of the Spanish Renaissance, El Greco

Away from Spanish art, there are collections by Caravaggio and Titian, as well as Peter Paul Rubens and the Flemish masters. Beyond painting, large sections are devoted to sculpture and the decorative arts.

More information: Open daily.

Reina Sofia Museum

When a Gestapo officer in occupied Paris confronted Pablo Picasso with a photo of his Guernica, asking: “Did you do that?”, the artist is said to have replied, “No, you did.” This searing anti-war painting is the jewel in the crown of Spain’s national museum of contemporary and 20th-century art. With the 50th anniversary of Picasso’s death this year, throngs of visitors made a beeline for this masterpiece, with many encouraged by the Reina Sofia’s controversial decision to lift the ban on photographing it.

After that, there are thousands more works to explore. The collections are strongly weighted towards Spain, though there are some foreign gems as well. Unmissables include the experimentally Cubist Cards and Dice by Georges Braque, as well as Salvador Dalí’s perplexingly surreal Face of the Great Masturbator.

If you need a breather between artworks, the museum’s 18th-century buildings are set around a cool courtyard of trees and a central fountain.

More information: Closed Tuesdays.

Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum

Aristocrat and industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his Spanish wife Carmen amassed 800 or so works over the 20th century, forming a mostly European collection. The art-crazy couple’s legacy lies in a 19th-century palace on the Paseo del Prado, and it is the smallest of the ‘golden triangle’ by a long way.

The artworks are arranged chronologically, from the 14th through to the mid-20th centuries, making for a thorough course in European art history. The journey takes you from the Renaissance and Baroque periods, through the Impressionist era (Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh) and into the wacky world of Pop Art.

More information: Temporary exhibitions close on Mondays.

Gallery of the Royal Collections

Take a trip through the history of the Spanish monarchy, from the Middle Ages through the Habsburg dynasty to the House of Bourbon and beyond. Along the way, view the artworks, artefacts and other treasures they accumulated – many of them never before seen on public display – in a fresh window on Spain’s kings and queens and how society changed over the centuries.
There are some absolute gems. Don’t miss the vainglorious Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s gold and silver suits of armour. Above all, save as much time as you can spare for the bewitching red-, blue- and gold-painted wooden sculpture of the lithely and feminine-looking Archangel Michael Vanquishing the Devil. It is the 1692 work of Luisa Roldán – known as ‘La Roldana’ – who was the court sculptor to Habsburg King Charles II and the only woman to have held that post.

More information: Open daily.

The Neoclassical building of Madrid’s National Archeological Museum shares a roof with the city’s National Library (Alamy)

National Archaeological Museum

Delve into the history of humanity at this Neoclassical museum near the northern end of El Retiro park. Among the outstanding exhibits are Celtic and Egyptian pieces, pre-historic displays from the Iberian Peninsula and an Andalucían collection that includes an incredible Mudéjar ceiling.

More information:

Museum of the Americas

Spain overran much of the Americas, conquering the Aztec, Inca and Maya empires. This museum provides insight into these pre-conquest cultures and civilisations, without shying away from the more difficult aspects of this era of colonisation. Collections include masks, carvings, gold and paintings made from multi-coloured feathers.

More information:

Museum of Romanticism

A window on the cultural, political and everyday life of Madrid’s aristocracy during the Romantic Period of the 1800s. Set in the former palace of the Marquis of Matallana (built in 1776), it includes a beautifully landscaped Magnolia Garden with an enchanting café.

More information:

Sorolla Museum

In the centenary year of artist Joaquín Sorolla’s death, the museum in his former home offers a series of exhibitions charting the life and work of this curiously underrated painter. His portraits and landscapes are exquisite, but it is his socially themed works that have the power to move and even shock.

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