4 Best Sights in Barrio de las Letras, Madrid

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

Fodor's choice

The far-reaching collection of the Thyssen's almost 1,000 paintings traces the history of Western art with examples from every important movement, from 13th-century Italian Gothic through 20th-century American pop art. The works were gathered from the 1920s to the 1980s by Swiss industrialist Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his father; the museum, inaugurated in 1992, occupies the light-filled galleries of the late-18th-century Palacio de Villahermosa. Critics have described the museum's paintings as the minor works of major artists and the major works of minor artists, and the collection traces the development of Western humanism as no other in the world.

One highlight is Hans Holbein's Portrait of Henry VIII. American artists are also well represented; look for the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Impressionists and Post–Impressionists including Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne. Track down Pissarro's Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon, Effect of Rain for a jolt of mortality, or Renoir's Woman with a Parasol in a Garden for a sense of bucolic beauty lost.

Within 20th-century art, the collection is strong on dynamic German Expressionism and works by Georgia O'Keeffe, Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Francis Bacon, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein. The temporary exhibits can be fascinating and in summer are sometimes open until 11 pm. In summer, the rooftop terrace (closed Mondays; accessible via a separate entrance on Calle de Zorrilla) is an appealing place to kick back with a coffee or cocktail. You can buy tickets to the museum in advance online.

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Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron (who designed London's Tate Modern) converted an early-20th-century power station into a stunning arts complex that arguably turns Madrid's "Golden Triangle" of art museums into a quadrilateral. Belonging to one of the country's wealthiest foundations (La Caixa bank), the structure seems to float above the sloped public plaza, with a tall vertical garden designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc on its northern side contrasting with a geometric rust-color roof. Inside, the soaring exhibition halls display ancient as well as contemporary art including pieces from La Caixa's proprietary collection. 

Casa Museo Lope de Vega

A contemporary and adversary of Cervantes, Lope de Vega (1562–1635) wrote some 1,800 plays and enjoyed great success during his lifetime. His former home is now a museum with an intimate look into a bygone era: everything from the whale-oil lamps and candles to the well in the tiny garden and the pans used to warm the bedsheets brings you closer to the great dramatist. Thirty-five-minute guided tours in English are by reservation only (either by phone or email) and run through the playwright's professional and personal life—including his lurid love life—while touching on 17th-century traditions.

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Plaza de Santa Ana

Barrio de las Letras

This plaza was the heart of the theater district in the 17th century—the Golden Age of Spanish literature—and is now one of Madrid's most happening nightlife centers. A statue of 17th-century playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca faces the Teatro Español, where other literary legends such as Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and Ramón María del Valle-Inclán released some of their world-renowned plays. Opposite the theater, beside the ME by Meliá hotel, is the diminutive Plaza del Ángel, with one of Madrid's best jazz clubs, Café Central. Cervecería Alemana, a favorite haunt of Hemingway, is on the southeast corner and makes phenomenally tender fried calamari.

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