Barcelona might get all the glory, but Madrid is where it’s at for art buffs looking for a serious culture fix in Spain. Paintings on display in the city range from the truly iconic (like Picasso’s Guernica) to the truly unsettling (Goya’s Black Paintings) with all major art periods well represented in between.
Museum-hopping is one of the best things to do in Madrid – and with a little planning you can see a lot. Museums here are not free – although many offer free entry at certain times of the week – and ticket prices combined with extra fees for special exhibitions can definitely add up. To help you decide which art museums in Madrid are most suited to your interests we’ve put together this round up of what you can see where. Just remember to buy your tickets ahead of time (or get in line early for the free days) to beat the crowds – these museums are always busy.
Which art museums in Madrid should you visit?
To see Picasso’s crowning glory in person: the Reina Sofia Museum
The bombing of civilians in the town of Guernica by Franco during the Spanish Civil War shocked the international community. Accounts are disputed, but the Basque government reported 1,654 civilian deaths.
In representing the scale of horror of the destruction in his almost eight-metre canvas, Picasso helped to bring worldwide attention to the war in Spain and created one of the greatest anti-war statements ever made. Seeing Guernica in person for the first time is a powerful experience, and one that shouldn’t be missed if you’re in Madrid. The Reina Sofia has free entry Monday-Saturday night from 7pm-9pm; if you want to see the work for free, get there early and be prepared to queue to get in.
Gallery goers taking in Picasso's Guernica © Angela Hu/Wikimedia Commons
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For the best of Spanish art: The Prado
Madrid’s Prado art museum has indisputably one of the finest collections of paintings on display anywhere in the world. It has exquisite works by European artists including Rubens, Titian, and Hieronymous Bosch, like Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, but if you’re looking for a crash course in Spanish art, the Prado beats all comers.
Start with Las Meninas by Velázquez (1656), arguably the most famous painting in the museum, Madrid’s Mona Lisa. The master painter from Seville changed the story of art with his realistic style. As the leading artist in the Spanish court of Phillip IV his depictions of historical events and portraits of Spanish royals and key European figures are a window on the world during the Spanish Golden Age.
The enigmatic Las Meninas – or 'the Ladies in Waiting' in English – has been fascinating visitors since it was painted, depicting the young princess (Infanta) Margaret Theresa with her ladies in waiting, two dwarves, and even Velázquez himself, gazing out of the canvas at the viewer. Reflected in a mirror are the king and queen – or are they are a reflection of the painting Velázquez is working on in the picture? You’ll have to decide for yourself.
A detail from Las Meninas by Velászquez © Google Earth/Wikimedia Commons
OK now you’re warmed up, you can move onto Goya. The Prado has over 1,000 works by the artist in its collection, but don’t worry you're not expected to see them all! His bucolic scenes of pastoral life and everyday people are all well and good, but it’s his disturbing Black Paintings (1820s) – Pinturas Negras – that are really worth seeing.
These 14 works were painted directly on the wallpaper of Goya’s own home outside Madrid and are notable for their muted colours and sombre, sometimes disturbing scenes, which stand in stark contrast to his other works. Paintings range from the unnerving Two Old Mean Eating Soup to the horrifying Saturn Devouring his Son. What Goya meant by these paintings, no-one knows – they were not discovered until after his death.
Francisco Goya's Two Old Men Eating Soup © Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
For a taste of something modern: Espacio Joan Miró
If all that doom and gloom has you feeling down, head up the street from the Prado to the Espacio Joan Miró for a dose of the Catalan artist’s signature bright colours. This is one of the newest art museums in Madrid – opened in 2016. Miró’s style may look familiar even if you have not seen it before – his iconic ‘Espana’ logo created 35 years ago is still used by the tourist board today.
Joan Miró's mosaic mural for Madrid's Palacio de Congresos © Jenny Cahill-Jones
The collection has the famous Painting (For David Fernández Miró (1965) and over 60 of his other paintings along with a handful of works by his long-time friend and collaborator Alexander Calder. Looking at Miro’s works you can clearly see the influence he had on 20th-century American painters like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko (and Calder of course).
For Renaissance Masterpieces: The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum
With art museums in both Madrid and Málaga, the Thyssen family’s art collection is one of the most important in Spain. Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum has a huge selection of works, spanning 700 years from early 13th century pieces all the way to Van Gogh and Lichtenstein. Where it really shines though, is in its Renaissance collection, with masterpieces by Caravaggio, El Greco, Albrecht Dürer and more. Make sure you see Caravaggio’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1598-99), striking for its natural pose, and of course, Caravaggio’s commanding use of light and shade is on full display.
A detail of Caravaggio's Saint Catherine of Alexandria © Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons
Vittore Carpaccio’s Young Knight in a Landscape (1505) holds several clues to the identity of this unknown young soldier as well as allusions to good and evil in the landscape of the title. As in many Renaissance paintings, like those of Holbein, it hints to events and intrigues that we can only guess at from our present day position. Talking of Hans Holbein (the Younger), you can also see one of his magnificent Tudor portraits of the museum, an imposing image of a middle-aged Henry VIII. El Greco’s The Annunciation (1576) – one of several versions of the event that he created – clearly shows a Venetian influence in its Titian-style use of colour.
Top Image: Madrid's Prado Museum © Catarina Belova/Shutterstock