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Madrid's best museums

The Prado, the Reina Sofía, the Thyssen... these are the heavyweights among the best museums and art galleries in Madrid

Museo Reina Sofía

If you're an art fan, you've come to the right place. Madrid is practically bursting at the seams with museums and galleries where you can get your fix. From Spain's most important collection of paintings in the Prado to the top spot for contemporary art par excellence that is the Reina Sofia, the Spanish capital is home to many of the greatest pieces of art by the most important artists in history. So that you don't miss anything, we've picked out the best of the best of Madrid's museums for you to visit during your time in the city.

Museo del Prado

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Housed in a gigantic neo-classical building begun by Juan de Villanueva for King Carlos III in 1785, the Prado is Madrid's best-known attraction. Carlos originally wanted to establish a museum of natural sciences, reflecting one of his chief interests, but by the time it opened in 1819, this plan had changed: the Prado was a public art museum – one of the world's first – displaying the royal art collection. Spain's 'non-king', José Bonaparte, had first proposed the idea and it was taken up by the restored King Fernando VII (grandson of Carlos III), who took on board the demands of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes and those of his second wife, María Isabel de Braganza, considered the museum's true founder. In recent years the Prado has undergone a highly ambitious expansion programme, including the remodelling of the Casón del Buen Retiro, an annex opposite El Retiro park. Behind the main museum, on the site of the San Jerónimo cloisters, the new and highly controversial cube-shaped edifice designed by Rafael Moneo, which hosts temporary exhibitions, was also unveiled. As for the collection itself, the core is still the royal holdings, so it reflects royal tastes and political alliances from the 15th to the 17th centuries: court painters Diego de Velázquez and Francisco de Goya are well represented. (read more)

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Retiro

Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía

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This is a must for art fans and an essential part of Madrid's Art Triangle, together with the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums. Occupying an immense, slab-sided building, the Reina Sofía boasts an impressive façade with glass and steel lift-shafts, designed by British architect Ian Ritchie. Nowadays, the museum is just as impressive from the back, with three buildings, principally built of glass and steel, arranged around a courtyard and all covered by a triangular, zinc-and-aluminium roof, the work of French architect Jean Nouvel. This ambitious extension project adds almost 30,000 sq m to the already vast art space in the patio to the south-west of the main edifice. It includes temporary exhibition spaces. The Reina Sofía's great jewel is unquestionably 'Guernica', Picasso's impassioned denunciation of war and fascism, a painting that commemorates the destruction in 1937 of the Basque town of Guernica by German bombers that flew in support of the Francoist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Certain art historians, sometimes encouraged by Picasso himself, have seen it more in formal terms, as a reflection on the history of Western painting using elements from the work of the Old Masters. (read more)

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Lavapiés

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

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When the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum opened in 1992, Madrid added the second point to its 'Golden Triangle'. The private collection of the late Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza is widely considered the most important in the world. Consisting of 775 paintings, it came to Madrid on loan, but in 1993 a purchase agreement was signed with the Spanish state. The Baron's decision to sell was doubtlessly influenced both by his wife, Carmen 'Tita' Cervera, a former Miss Spain, and by the offer to house the collection in the then-empty Palacio de Villahermosa, an early 19th-century edifice that was superbly reconverted by architect Rafael Moneo at fantastic cost. Thanks to this revamp, involving terracotta-pink walls, marble floors and skylights, visitors can view the works with near-perfect illumination. In 2004, the museum unveiled its new wing, in which some 200 paintings and sculptures from Carmen Cervera's own collection are on display. The collection was started by the Baron's father in the 1920s but was dispersed among his heirs after he died in 1947. The Baron bought back the paintings from his relatives and then extended the collection, buying up first Old Masters and then more contemporary works during the 1960s. (read more)

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Centro

Museo de América

This museum comprises the finest collection of pre-Columbian American art and artefacts in Europe, a combination of articles brought back at the time of the Conquest and during the centuries of Spanish rule over Central and South America, plus later acquisitions generally donated by Latin American governments. The collection includes near-matchless treasures: there is the Madrid Codex, one of only four surviving Mayan illustrated glyph manuscripts in the world; the Tudela Codex and illustrated manuscripts from central Mexico, which depict the Spanish Conquest; superb carvings from the Mayan city of Palenque, sent back to Charles III by the first-ever modern survey expedition to a pre-Hispanic American ruin in 1787; and the Gold of the Quimbayas, a series of exquisite gold figures from the Quimbaya culture of Colombia, which were presented to Spain by the Colombian government. All the main pre-Columbian cultures are represented – further highlights include Aztec obsidian masks from Mexico, Inca stone sculptures and funeral offerings from Peru, and finely-modelled, comical and sometimes highly-sexual figurines from the Chibcha culture of Colombia. (read more)

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Moncloa

Museo del Romanticismo

If the works of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Goethe, Lord Byron or Rosalia de Castro touch your heart, you'll definitely want to visit this museum that shows how people lived in the Romantic era in Spain, during the 19th century. The Romanticism Museum contains a charming collection of over 1,600 pieces including furniture, paintings, china, pianos, and more, that's on display to the public after major refurbishing kept it closed for eight years until its reopening in 2009. Be sure to grab a cup of coffee at the Café del Jardín (Garden Café), one of the best kept secrets in the capital.

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Alonso Martínez

Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales

The Natural Science Museum occupies two spaces in a huge building overlooking a sloping garden on the Castellana. Much of the north wing is given over to temporary exhibitions: generally a couple of small-scale ones are held annually and a larger, more ambitious one, lasting about a year, is organised every 18 months. They tend to be hands-on, interactive and fun for kids. Permanently in this wing is 'Mediterranean Nature and Civilisation', a large exhibition of Mediterranean flora and fauna, illustrating the region's biodiversity. The Jardín de Piedras (an outdoor rock garden) exhibits rocks and fossilized logs, most of them from the Community of Madrid. A replica of a Diplodocus is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the museum, along with the skeleton of a Pleistocene era Megatherium americanum from Luján, Argentina, and a stunning whale skeleton more than 20 metres long that will wow visitors of all ages.

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Castellana

Museo Arqueológico Nacional

This is one of Madrid's oldest museums (dating from 1867) which, after a six-year renovation project costing some €65 million, reopened on April 1, 2014, with the aim of being 'the best archaeological museum in Europe and, therefore, in the world'. It traces the evolution of human cultures, from prehistoric times up to the 15th century, and the collection of artefacts includes finds from the Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Egyptian, Punic, Roman, Paleochristian, Visigothic and Muslim cultures. Remarkably, the great majority of pieces came from excavations carried out within Spain, illustrating the extraordinary continuity and diversity of human settlement in the Iberian peninsula. (read more)

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Recoletos

Museo Sorolla

Often considered a neo-Impressionist, Valencia-born Joaquín Sorolla was really an exponent of 'luminism', the celebration of light. He was renowned for his iridescent, sun-drenched paintings, including portraits and family scenes at the beach and in gardens. Sorolla's leisured themes and greeting-card-esque (and indeed they are often used as such) aesthetic are easy to dismiss, but most find his luminous world at least a little seductive. This delightful little museum, housed in the mansion built for the artist in 1910 to spend his latter years, has been recently restored and boasts 250 works. The works are exhibited on the main floor, in his former studio areas. The salon, dining room and breakfast room are furnished in their original state with the artist's eclectic decorative influence in evidence. The garden, Moorish-inspired but with an Italianate pergola, is a delightful, peaceful oasis of calm, seemingly miles away from the roaring traffic outside.

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Castellana

Museo Lázaro Galdiano

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This unjustifiably little-known museum holds the extraordinarily eclectic collection of 15,000 paintings and objets d'art, covering 24 centuries, that was accumulated over 70 years by the financier and bibliophile José Lázaro Galdiano (1862-1947). Its holdings include paintings by Goya and Bosch, an important collection of work from the Dutch and English schools, and some wonderful Renaissance ornamental metalwork. The four-storey mansion and its gardens are a sight in themselves.

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Barrio de Salamanca

Museo Nacional de Artes Decorativas

The Decorative Arts Museum houses more than 15,000 objets d'art, furniture and tapestries from all over Spain, plus many from China. One of the most prized rooms is the fifth-floor tiled kitchen, painstakingly transferred from an 18th-century Valencian palace, whose 1,604 painted tiles depict a domestic scene, with a huddle of servants making hot chocolate. Also of great interest is the second floor, where the Spanish baroque pieces are concentrated, among them ceramics from Talavera and Teruel, textiles, gold and silver work, and jewellery cases from the 'Tesoro del Delfín' ('Treasure of the Grand Dauphin'), the rest of which is in the Prado. Elsewhere are 19th-century dolls' houses, antique fans, an ornate 16th-century four-poster bedstead and a Sèvres jug given to Queen Isabel II by Napoleon III.

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Centro
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