Spain is home to over 1,500 museums in Spain, many of them world-renowned with collections envied the world over. We’ve picked our top ten.
In the Golden Age of Empire (1580–1680), Spanish monarchs used Madrid’s wealth not only to finance wars and civil projects but also to underscore their own grandeur by collecting and commissioning great works of art. That national patrimony makes Spain a museum lover’s paradise—all the more so for the masterworks of modern painting and sculpture that have been added since, and for the museum buildings themselves, many of which are architecturally stunning. Enjoy 100-year-old palaces filled with the works of ancient masters, the continent’s largest aquarium, and stand in the shadow of the decidedly modern Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim in Bilbao. Spain has a spread of iconic institutions with something for everybody.
Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC), Barcelona
Catalonia’s national art museum isn’t just a literal palace, it’s also a shrine to history, culture, and the spirit of a region and people. MNAC has the finest collection of Romanesque frescoes and devotional sculpture in the world, most rescued from abandoned chapels in the Pyrenees. Taking the fragile frescoes off crumbling walls, building supports for them in the same intricate shapes as the spaces they came from (vaults, arches, windows), and rehanging them was an astonishing feat of restoration. As you walk through and gaze in wonder at the extraordinary range of art, including styles such as Romanesque, Gothic, and Modernist, be sure to take a moment to consider what the collection represents on a more macro level. Catalonia (spelled Catalunya in the Catalan language) was brutally repressed by Francisco Franco’s fascist regime, and its strong––nay, defiant––culture was considered a threat. Fascists aren’t generally known for their love of art or creative expression and the fact that this collection survived, and that Catalan Modernism is so daringly, subversively original, highlights the tenacity of the region, and the creative ethos of a people who refused to let go of their culture.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao
Set on the river’s edge, Frank Gehry’s swirling and captivating Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, built of titanium, glass, and limestone, is a work of art in its own right and is widely considered the first great building of the 21st century. Even its detractors now hail it for the transformative impact it has had on what was once a grimy industrial city. Inside, the galleries showcase international and Spanish art by modern and contemporary painters and sculptors. One particular draw is the time-limited exhibitions, so if you’re planning a visit, check the website to see what will be on display during your trip.
The Thyssen isn’t just one of the most incredible museums in Spain, it’s also one of the greatest art collections in the entire world. When the Swiss industrialist billionaire Baron Hans-Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza decided to sell his private art collection at auction (it had outgrown his palatial villa on Lake Lugano in Switzerland) it set off a frenzied multi-national bidding war that ultimately saw Spain as the winner. In exchange for $350 million and the donation of the neoclassical mansion which still houses the collection, Spain gained a staggering collection of works, including those from 15th and 16th century artists like Rembrandt and Caravaggio, Impressionists such as Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh, and even 20th-century artists like Lichtenstein, Hockney, and Hopper. As an added bonus the mansion (named the Palacio de Villahermosa), with its salmon-hued walls, polished marble floors, and incredible natural lighting, is a draw in and of itself. Insider tip: admission to the permanent collection is free on Mondays from noon to 4pm.
Museo del Prado
The Prado is considered by many to be the crown jewel of all the art museums in Spain. Designed in 1785 by architect Juan de Villanueva on the order of King Charles III, it was opened to the public 200 years ago by King Ferdinand VII for the purposes of both highlighting the royal family’s extensive wealth, and as a way of storing their artistic holdings. While the “Royal Collection” still remains an essential part of the museum, the catalog now includes 20 thousand pieces of art from the 12th through the 20th century, about 1300 of which are on display at any given time. This means that you can start your morning with Titian, Rafael, Botticelli, and Caravaggio, spend some time mid-day with one of the greatest Hieronymous Bosch collections in the world, see Goya and Velázquez in the afternoon, and still have only scratched the surface. Insider tip: Admission is free Monday to Saturday from 6 pm to 8 pm and Sundays and some holidays from 5 pm to 7 pm.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Located in a renovated 18th-century hospital, the Reina Sofia is specifically dedicated to modern and contemporary art, making it a vital stop for those interested in works that reflect Spain’s complex political and social development over the past century. A particular highlight is Picasso’s masterwork “Guernica”, the artist’s reaction to the Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. The massive, 22 thousand-plus collection includes art from many of Spain’s most recognizable 20th-century artists, including Salvador Dali and Joan Miró, as well as artistic films and videos. Special events include music, dance, and live performance, and there’s even a gorgeous research library that’s open to the public.
INSIDER TIPadmission is free if you meet certain specific requirements.
It’s hard to understand the true breadth of Pablo Picasso’s work without visiting an institution like the Museu Picasso. Located in Barcelona, this gorgeous, sprawling museum spills across five contiguous medieval palaces originally built between the 13th and 15th centuries. While Picasso’s early, formative years leading up to his “Blue Period” are particularly well represented, the permanent collection has over four thousand pieces of artwork and wandering through this incredible complex reveals how diverse Picasso’s artistic approach could be. You’ll see paintings, drawings, statues, engravings, and even ceramic plates and pitchers, many of which are iconic.
INSIDER TIPAdmission is free Thursday afternoons from 6:00 pm to 9:30 pm, the first Sunday of each month from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm, and all day on February 12th, May 18th, and September 24th.
The Dali Theatre-Museum in Figures sits like a manifestation of the artist’s psyche, and visiting it is tantamount to walking around inside of Salvador Dali’s very mind. Surrealist by design (Dali himself was responsible for the building), the studs which appear on the exterior of the building like cloves inserted into a Christmas ham are actually replicas of loaves of bread, and enormous eggs ring the top of the building, which is crowned by a geodesic dome. Things don’t get any less weird inside either. Doorways appear as enormous mouths, there’s an entire room which, from a specific angle, looks like Mae West, and Dali’s actual crypt lies below the stage of the building’s theatre. Visiting is an almost hallucinatory experience, and an easy day trip from Barcelona, making it one of Spain’s most essential art experiences.
Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias (The City of Arts and Sciences)
The massive, futuristic complex which makes up Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences is essentially several different museums and art spaces rolled into one cutting edge facility. This includes a science museum, the largest aquarium in Europe (the Oceanogràfic), an opera house and cultural center (the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofía), and a 36 thousand square foot event space (the Agora). Even the IMAX theater and garden/parking lot (respectively, the Hemisfèric and the Umbracle) are gorgeous, futuristic feats of design and architecture. The array of activities the City offers is broad, but it’s also worth a visit just for the white, curving science fiction-esque architecture alone.
Museo Arqueológico Nacional (National Archeological Museum)
Think of Madrid’s National Archeological Museum as a modern showcase of ancient treasures. Housed in a neoclassical building built in the late 1800s, the museum includes a wide array of artifacts and antiquities from both Spain and the wider Mediterranean, including pottery, stone tablets, building fragments, ancient coins, and an array of other human-made objects. It’s an incredible look into the cultural history of the Mediterranean and the kind of collection which inspires fantasies of diving for sunken wrecks and delving deep into the forest to track down ancient burial sites (not that we condone Tomb Raider-style grave robbery––we definitely don’t .) Insider tip: admission is a steal at only three euros and is free on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.
Museo Nacional de Escultura
Valladolid’s National Museum of Sculpture highlights the role that art has played in daily Spanish life across the ages. While the museum’s collection is mainly comprised of religious and non-religious statuary, there are also paintings, pieces of furniture, and architectural examples from a variety of different centuries. What makes this all so remarkable is that this isn’t just art that’s been collected by kings and socked away in a dusty vault: it’s a collection of gorgeous, evocative pieces that were meant to be seen, and to inspire. The statuary and sculpture are also remarkably (if not eerily) lifelike, with original pieces made from polychrome wood which date anywhere from the 13th through the 18th century, and reproductions made from plaster casts which were produced in the 19th and 20th centuries. The four ornate palaces and churches which house the collection are also themselves gorgeous.
INSIDER TIPAdmission is free on Saturdays from 4:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Sundays from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm, and on April 18th, May 18th, October 12th, and December 6th.