One of the world's top museums, the Prado is to Madrid what the Louvre is to Paris, or the Uffizi to Florence: a majestic city landmark and premiere art institution that merits the attention of every traveler who visits the city.
When the Prado was commissioned by King Carlos III, in 1785, it was meant to be a natural-science museum. The king wanted the museum, the adjoining botanical gardens, and the elegant Paseo del Prado to serve as a center of scientific enlightenment. By the time the building was completed in 1819, its purpose had changed to exhibiting the art gathered by Spanish royalty since the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. A long-awaited face-lift, completed in 2007, added a massive new wing and a new building around the remains of the Cloister of the San Jerónimo el Real, designed by Rafael Moneo, resurrecting long-hidden works by Zurbarán and Antonio de Pereda and more than doubling the number of paintings on display from the permanent collection.
jewels are its works by the nation's three great masters: Goya, Velázquez, and El Greco. The museum also holds masterpieces by Flemish, Dutch, German, French, and Italian artists, collected when their lands were part of the Spanish Empire. The museum benefited greatly from the anticlerical laws of 1836, which forced monasteries, convents, and churches to forfeit many of their artworks for public display.
Enter the Prado via the Goya entrance, with steps opposite the Ritz hotel, or by the less crowded Murillo door opposite the Jardín Botánico. The layout varies (grab a floor plan), but the first halls on the left coming from the Goya entrance (Rooms 7A–11 on the second floor, or planta primera), are usually devoted to 17th-century Flemish painters, including Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), and Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641).
Room 12 introduces you to the meticulous brushwork of Velázquez (1599–1660) in his numerous portraits of kings and queens. Look for the magnificent Las Hilanderas (The Spinners), evidence of the artist's talent for painting light. The Prado's most famous canvas, Velázquez's Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), combines a self-portrait of the artist at work with a mirror reflection of the king and queen in a revolutionary interplay of space and perspectives. Picasso was obsessed with this work and painted several copies of it in his own abstract style, now on display in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona.
The south ends of the second and top floors (planta primera and planta segunda) are reserved for Goya (1746–1828), whose works span a staggering range of tone, from the bucolic to the horrific. Among his early masterpieces are portraits of the family of King Carlos IV, for whom he was court painter—one glance at their unflattering and imbecilic expressions, especially in the painting The Family of Carlos IV, reveals the loathing Goya developed for these self-indulgent, reactionary rulers. His famous side-by-side canvases, The Clothed Maja and The Nude Maja, may represent the young Duchess of Alba, whom Goya adored and frequently painted. No one knows whether she ever returned his affection. The adjacent rooms house a series of idyllic scenes of Spaniards at play, painted as designs for tapestries.
Goya's paintings took on political purpose starting in 1808, when the population of Madrid rose up against occupying French troops. The 2nd of May portrays the insurrection at the Puerta del Sol, and its even more terrifying companion piece, The 3rd of May, depicts the nighttime executions of patriots who had rebelled the day before. The garish light effects in this work typify the romantic style, which favors drama over detail, and make it one of the most powerful indictments of violence ever committed to canvas. Goya's "black paintings" are dark, disturbing works, completed late in his life, that reflect his inner turmoil after losing his hearing and his deep embitterment over the bloody War of Independence. These are copies of the monstrous hallucinatory paintings Goya made with marvelously free brushstrokes on the walls of his house by southern Madrid's Manzanares River, popularly known as La Quinta del Sordo (the Deaf One's Villa). Having grown gravely ill in his old age, Goya was deaf, lonely, bitter, and despairing; his terrifying Saturn Devouring One of His Sons (which Goya displayed in his dining room!) communicates the ravages of age and time.
Near the Goya entrance, the Prado's ground floor (planta baja) is filled with 15th- and 16th-century Flemish paintings, including the bizarre proto-surrealist masterpiece Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450–1516). Next come Rooms 60A, 61A, and 62A, filled with the passionately spiritual works of El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541–1614), the Greek-born artist who lived and worked in Toledo. El Greco is known for his mystical, elongated forms and faces—a style that was shocking to a public accustomed to strictly representational images. Two of his greatest paintings, The Resurrection and The Adoration of the Shepherds, are on view here. Before you leave, stop in the 14th- to 16th-century Italian rooms to see Titian's Portrait of Emperor Charles V and Raphael's exquisite Portrait of a Cardinal.
Buy tickets in advance online; you can also reserve an audio guide online and pick it up in the main foyer in the Jerónimos building. If you don't buy tickets online, another time-saving option is the two vending machines outside the Goya entrance.