If you’re an art fan, and you want to explore the best museums in Madrid, you’ve come to the right place. Madrid is practically overflowing with museums and galleries where you can get your much-needed art fix, sometimes even for free. From Spain’s most important collection of paintings in the Prado to the veritable palace of contemporary art that is the Reina Sofía, the Spanish capital is home to many of the greatest works of art by some of history’s most important artists. So you don’t miss anything, we’ve chosen a baker’s dozen of the best museums for you to visit during your time in Madrid.
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Best museums in Madrid
What is it? This behemoth in every sense is the best-known and most venerated museum in Madrid (and all of Spain). Its massive collection is housed in a gigantic neoclassical building; when it opened in 1819, the Prado became one of the world’s first public art museums.
Why go? For masterpieces by French and Italian artists, Flemish masters, and of course the Spanish, including the impressive Velázquez rooms – with pride of place going to ‘Las Meninas’ – and the Goya rooms. It’s impossible to see everything in one visit, so plan yours well, unless you’re up for spending a few days doing nothing else, which is always an option.
What is it? With 20,000 works in its permanent collection, the Reina Sofía is a must for art fans and an essential part of Madrid’s Art Triangle, together with the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza museums. Spanish artists feature heavily in the collection, and Picasso, Miró, Julio González and Dalí have their own rooms. More recently, works by major foreign artists have been included.
Why go? The jewel in the crown here is ‘Guernica’, Picasso’s impassioned denunciation of war and fascism. The museum also has a packed events schedule, and a top-notch café-restaurant in NuBel, if you’ve worked up an appetite after all that browsing.
What is it? The late Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s private collection of 775 paintings. It’s housed in an early-19th-century palace that was superbly reconverted by architect Rafael Moneo from 1989 to 1992.
Why go? You’ll get a pretty thorough lesson in Western art history if you follow the collection in chronological order. The temporary exhibitions have also been a big hit.
What is it? One of the best collections of pre-Columbian American art and artefacts in Europe.
Why go? For the awe-inspiring treasures, among them one of only four surviving Mayan illustrated glyph manuscripts in the world, superb carvings from the Mayan city of Palenque, and the Gold of the Quimbayas. All major pre-Columbian cultures are represented.
What is it? Your go-to museum for eyeballing how people lived in the 19th-century Romantic era in Spain.
Why go? Because you can’t get enough of period films and want to see for yourself the furniture, paintings, china, pianos, and more from the time. The museum’s quaint Café del Jardín (Garden Café), one of the best-kept secrets in Madrid, only enhances the old-world atmosphere.
What is it? Packed with more than 10 million specimens, this museum spans everything from tissue and DNA to plants to the evolution of humans, and yes, dinosaurs.
Why go? To stare slack-jawed at the likes of the 20-metre-long whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling and the Diplodocus replica. Plus, temporary exhibitions are hands-on, interactive and fun for kids, and it’s a top research centre in several fields.
What is it? This is where you can find out where we all came from, as the collection traces human cultures from prehistoric times up to the 15th century.
Why go? To remember what the word ‘awesome’ really means, in terms of human intuition, creativity and inventions. Among the artefacts on display are finds from the Iberian, Celtic, Greek, Egyptian, Punic, Roman, Paleochristian, Visigothic and Muslim cultures. Kids really get into seeing the mammoth tusks, which happen to be still attached to the skull.
What is it? A museum dedicated to Valencia-born Joaquín Sorolla, who was all about the celebration of ‘luminism’, also known as the celebration of light.
Why go? To enjoy luminous works of art in what was originally Sorolla’s home and workspace. Bonus: the gardens are not to be missed and add to the sense of calm and cosiness.
What is it? An eclectic collection of 15,000 paintings and objects that span centuries, and that was built up over 70 years by financier and bibliophile José Lázaro Galdiano.
Why go? To behold what Lázaro Galdiano managed to accumulate, including paintings by Goya and Bosch, works from the Dutch and English schools, and some incredible Renaissance ornamental metalwork. The mansion that houses the collection and the surrounding gardens are beautiful in themselves.
What is it? The Decorative Arts Museum houses more than 15,000 objects, furniture and tapestries from all over Spain, plus many from China.
Why go? Because you love admiring lovely objets d’art, feasting your eyes on all things gold and silver, salivating over jewellery that was part of actual treasure, marvelling at 19th-century doll’s houses, and you are dying to see what a Sèvres jug that Napoleon III gave to Queen Isabel II looks like.
What is it? The fascinating private collection of artworks and artefacts belonging to Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa, the 17th Marqués de Cerralbo, still laid out the way the Marqués arranged it himself.
Why go? Private collections are always intriguing, and this one even includes a masterpiece in the form of El Greco’s ‘The Ecstasy of St Francis of Assisi’, as well as pieces by Zurbarán, Alonso Cano and other Spanish masters. Plus, you can see other things the Marqués was into, like European and Japanese armour, weapons, watches, pipes, clocks and more. The luxurious ballroom and garden are the stuff of dreams.
What is it? Madrid’s railway museum boasts an extensive collection of models, old trains, railway equipment and memorabilia.
Why go? Because you love trains nearly as much as Sheldon on ‘The Big Bang Theory’. Or because you have kids to entertain. Or because you’re interested in all aspects of travel and locomotion. Happily, you’re allowed to climb on the trains, and you can even get something to drink in an old restaurant car.
What is it? Set up in 1794, this museum is one of Madrid’s oldest and most important art institutions.
Why go? For the impressive 13 works by Goya, as well as important portraits by Velázquez and Rubens, and several paintings by Zurbarán. The academy is also home to one of the world’s most significant collections of engravings, including original plates by Goya.