Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480-1505, oil on panel -- at Madrid's Prado
Art is a route to the sublime, as with nature, love, and other beautiful things. Here's my guide to the best museums in Spain, a European country filled with historic art and teeming with masterpieces of both Spanish and international art.
I used to think France was the ultimate place to find sublime art. But now I'm not sure. Spain is a veritable art lover's paradise, a treasure trove of gorgeous art from north to south.
There's the old masters -- Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego Velázquez, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, and Francisco de Goya. And the acclaimed modernists -- Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dalí. And everything in between. Spain delivers.
the Prado Museum in Madrid Spain
The 10 Best Museums and Must Se Sites in Spain
Here's my guide to the very best museums in Spain. Some of these Spanish museums are world class. Some are amazing single artist museums, which I just adore. Some are vastly underrated museums that dazzle the eyes and senses.
Let's go on a tour of museums in Madrid, Bilbao, Barcelona, and Seville.
1. The Prado, Madrid
The Prado opened in 1819 as the Royal Museum of Paintings. The vaunted museum celebrates its 200th birthday this year.
The museum was the brainchild of Ferdinand VII. He opened the museum with approximately 300 paintings from the Golden Age of Spanish painting in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, it's expanded to become one of the most sensuous and extensive depositories of Western art in the world.
The artistic anchors of the Prado are Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, and Peter Paul Rubens. But there are also masterpieces by Titian, Bosch, France Angelico, and El Greco. You can wander endlessly, in awe, through room after room full of beautiful paintings.
detail from Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, mid 1420s, which was just restored in time for the Prado's major 2019 exhibition "Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance."
José de Ribera, The Bearded Woman, 1651, Room 8 in the Prado
I've written previously about the highlights of the Prado and tips and tricks for visiting, so won't repeat myself here.
But be sure to see the Hieronymus Bosch' TheGarden of Earthly Delights triptych, the Black Paintings of Francisco Goya (The Dog is my favorite), Diego Velasquez's Las Meninas, the newly restored Fra Angelico Annunciation, and José de Ribera's intriguing The Bearded Woman.
The Prado's most famous painting -- Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656
Address: Museo Nacional del Prado Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23, 28014 Madrid
Hours: Mon to Sat 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, Sundays and public holidays: 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, closed Monday
Entry fee: 15 € permanent collection, free with the Madrid City Pass. You can buy a "two visit" pass for 22 €. The audio guide is 4 €.
Free hours: Mon to Sat 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm, Sun 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm
Metro: Banco de España or Atocha
Online tickets: Online tickets allow you to skip one line. Print them out and head to the Velázquez entrance to clear security.
the Reina Sofia Museum with Roy Lichtenstein's 1962 Brushstroke
2. The Reina Sofia, Madrid
Opened in 1992, the Reina Sofia is Madrid’s modern art museum. Its collection is comprised entirely of art work from 1900 to the present. There's a special focus on Spain's favorite sons, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali, and their respective schools of Cubism and Surrealism.
The star of the Reina Sofia is Guernica, Picasso’s grim depiction of the seemingly casual Nazi bombing of Guernica Spain in 1937. The painting puts a human face on the collateral damage. The dark chaotic subject matter is shown in gruesome detail, complete with a modern pieta, a hidden human skull, and daggers. The monochromatic color only heightens the emotional impact.
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937
Salvador Dali, Endless Enigma, 1938
The huge mural was commissed by the Spanish government to decorate its Pavilion at the 1937 Paris International Exposition. Picasso rarely took commissions. They cramped his style and produced artificial deadlines.
But Picasso was persuaded to accept this one by his mistress and Surrealistic photographer, Dora Maar. Guernica is showcased in a room with Picasso's preparatory drawings, so you get a real feel for his creation process.
The Reina Sofia is also a great place to get weird with Surrealist Salvador Dalì. Head to the Sabatini Building, 3rd Floor. Dalì’s quirky paintings reveal his obsessions, sexual fetishes, and terrors.
Other featured artists at the Reina Sofia include Joan Miró, Juan Gris, Rene Magritte, Paul Klee, and Eduardo Chillida.
Salvador Dali, Face of the Great Masturbator, 1929
Rene Magritte, Pink Bells, Tattered Skies, 1930
The Reina Sofia is located in a 16th century hospital. It can be a bit confusing. Its permanent collection is spread across four floors. You'll need a map for locating specific artists or masterpieces. (Guernica is in Room 6 on the 2nd floor.) Photos are only allowed in certain areas.
Address: c/ Santa Isabel, 52 28012 Madrid
Hours: Mon. & Wed-Sat 10:00 am to 9:00 pm, Sunday: 10:00 am to 2:30 pm,
Closed Tuesdays. Free on Saturday after 2:30 pm and all day Sunday.
Entry fee: 10 €, 8 € online. Free for students with ID, under 18s & over 65
Salvador Dali, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate a Second before Waking, 1944 -- at the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid
3. The Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Housed in the Villahermosa Palace, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum is named after art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza. In 1993, the Baron sold 775 artworks to Spain for $350 million, a fraction of the collection's value. His collection is one of the world's most impressive private art caches, possible second only to Queen Elizabeth of England.
Opened in 1994, the Thyssen (pronounced Tee-sun) museum offers something for everyone. Mixing contemporary and classic, the museum covers every major period in Western art, from 13th century Italian Renaissance to 20th century Pop Art. It also has an important collection of 19th century American paintings not found elsewhere in Europe.
This is where you'll find some fan favorites -- Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, German Expressionists, and Surrealists. You'll find artists like Dürer, Caravaggio, Rubens, Sargent, Monet, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Kirchner, Mondrian, Klee, and Hopper.
look at this little gem at the Thyssen, a famous portrait of England's most notorious king -- Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of King Henry VIII of England, 1537
The Baron was a busy man, married five times. His fifth and last wife was Carmen "Tita" Cervera, an interesting woman. On her third marriage herself, she was once Miss Spain.
In 1982, after marrying Heinrich, the Baroness began amassing her own modern art collection. In 2004, she loaned her treasure trove to the Spanish state. An expensive new annex was built to display it. Today, the Baroness is the 7th richest woman in Spain.
Edgar Degas, Swaying Dancer in Green, 1877-79
From October 15, 2019 to January 26, 2020, the Thyssen will have a special exhibition titled "Manet, Degas, the Impressionists and Photography. The impressionists were interesting in photography because photographs create an "impression," a new way of looking at the world. Photographers were, in turn, interested in the artistic movement and adapted their images to be more pictoral in effect.
Wassily Kandinsky, Delicate Tension, 1923
Address: Paseo del Prado, 8
Hours: Tues-Sun 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, Sat 10:00 am to 9:00 pm, closed Mondays
Entry Fees: 13 euros. The permanent collection is free on Mondays from 12:00 to 4:00 pm
Metro: Banco de España
Pro tip: The museum's only 100 yards from the Prado.
the iconic Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Spain, designed by Frank Gehry
4. The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
Who can argue with the emblematic Guggenheim Museum? Inaugurated in 1997, Frank Gehry's twisting shimmering museum is the star of Bilbao in the Basque region of northern Spain. The space age building, an ode to post-industrial optimism, itself is dramatic.
Both inside and out, the Guggenheim is an awe-inspiring blend of titanium, glass, and limestone. The scaly exterior evokes a silvery fish and the building's wings the wind-filled sails of a ship.
Outside the museum lie some of its most interesting pieces of art, including: Jeff Koon's 42 foot beflowered Puppy, Louise Bourgeois' 30 foot Maman spider, Anish Kapoor's Tall Tree and the Eye, and the newest piece Fujiko Nakaya The Fog Sculpture. My favorite was Maman, the symbol of maternal sacrifice, which I've written about previously.
On the inside, the architecture continues to amaze. There's a glass enclosed 50 meter atrium with a floral skylight. Light suffuses the place.
Louise Bourgeois, Maman, 1999
me in the atrium of Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum
The Guggenheim's modern art collection is on par with Europe's best modern art museums. You'll find works by Robert Motherwell, Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Chillada, and Anselm Kiefer.
My favorite piece was the massive undulating A Matter of Time by Richard Serra. This minimalist sculpture takes up an entire chunk of the museum. It's meant to encourage viewers to move around -- and sometimes on, in, and through -- the work, creating an unforgettable, dizzying feeling of space in motion.
Richard, Serra, A Matter of Time, 1994-2005
Marc Chagall, The Birthday, 1915
Among other things, the museum also owns one of my favorite Chagall paintings, The Birthday, and a luminous Rothko, Untitled, from 1952-53. Because the museum is part of the Guggenheim "family" of museums, the collection rotates among the museums.
Address: Abandoibarra Etorb., 2, 48009 Bilbao
Hours: July & Aug: Daily 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, Sept to June: Tues to Sun (closed Monday) 10:00 am to 8:00 pm. Same day reentry permitted.
Entry fee: 13 euros, an audioguide is included in your entry fee.
bronze sculpture at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Bilbao
5. The Museum of Fine Arts, Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao
Often overshadowed by the famous Guggenheim Museum, the Museo de Bellas Artes is nonetheless one of Spain's best museums. If you're an art lover, you should definitely head here. If you don't love modern art, skip the Guggenheim and come here.
Located in the Abando neighborhood, the museum boasts over 10,000 art works, arranged chronologically from the 12th century to the present. It has works by Spanish artists Picasso, Goya, El Greco, Zurbaran, and Chillada, as well as many international artists.
Ignacio Zuloaga, Portrait of the Countess Mathieu de Noailles, 1913 -- gorgeous portrait!
Paul Gauguin, Washerwomen in Arles, 1888
In 2018, the museum received a historic donation of a 1983 sculpture from Richard Serra, Bilbao. In July 2019, it chose an architectural team to oversee the enlargement of the museum, including restoring the museum's original entrance.
If you're a nature lover, you can stroll in the adjacent Dona Casilda Iturrizar Park after your visit.
Address: Museo Plaza, 2, 48009 Bilbao
Hours: Closed Tuesday, Open Wed-Mon 10:00 am to 8:00 pm
Entry fee: Adults: 9 €, free from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. You can purchase a combined ticket for the Guggenheim and Fine Arts Museum for 16 €
Pro tip: If you can handle doubling up on museums, this museum is near the Guggenheim.
the surrealistic The Dali Theater and Museum in Figueres Spain, outside Barcelona, encrusted with bread stones and topped with eggs
6. The Dalì Theater and Museum, Figueres
When one thinks of Salvador Dalì, his extravagant persona and iconic waxed mustache immediately leap to mind. Dalì was a self-proclaimed dandy, a showoffy megalomaniac who loved nothing more than creating a sensation. And embracing money and fame.
One of the best day trips from Barcelona is a visit to the Dalì Theater and Museum, or Teatro-Museo Dalí, in Dalì's birthplace of Figueres Spain. The pink museum is billed as the world's largest Surrealist object. It's a work of art itself.
With over 1500 pieces of art, the Dalì Theater and Museum has the largest collection of works by Salvador Dalí, with works spanning his entire career. It's nothing if not fun and weird, with its double images and optical illusions.
the gorgeous and stunning ceiling of the “Palace Of The Winds” Room in the Dali Museum, Dali's whimsical reimagining of the Sistine Chapel
The Mae West Room. Seen through a sculpture/wig of blond hair, the room becomes a face
Built between 1961-74, Dalì helped design the eccentric museum himself. He said "I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. It will be a totally theatrical museum. The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream."
Don't miss the Palace of Winds Room (a whimsical reimagining of the Sistine Chapel), the Mae West Room, Dalì's clever double image of Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea, the Treasure Room, and the Dalì' jewelry collection.
the beautiful cloister of Seville's Fine Art Museum
7. Museum of Fine Arts, Museo de Bellas Artes de Seville, Seville
The Museo de Bellas Artes, or Museum of Fine Arts, is a smashing museum in Seville Spain, quite lovely. It's known, after the Prado, as the "second art gallery in Spain." It's housed in a gorgeous salmon colored former convent with some beautiful tile work. I actually stumbled across it by accident.
I had intended to go, as I'm a museum rat of the highest order, but not just then. But I seized on the chance to gaze at art and pee (there are no public WCs in Seville). Outside, there's a large statue of the famous painter and Seville artist Bartoleme Murillo. Pick up the English language floor plans, which explain the theme of each room.
gorgeous gallery in the Seville Museum of Fine Arts
El Greco, Portrait of his son Jorge Manuel, 1605
Pietro Torrigiano, Saint Jerome penitent, 1525 -- the artist was a contemporary and rival of Michaelangelo
The museum has art from the middle ages to the 20th century. But it's mostly known for its collection of 17th century art from Spain's Golden Age, featuring Spain's top painters Zurbarán, Murillo, El Greco, and Velazquez. You'll see a lot of monks, balding saints, cherubs, and depictions of Christ.
The museum has a goodly collection by Murillo, whose works you can also see at Seville Cathedral. Murillo achieved fame and recognition from his religious portraits. But he also left behind some fascinating work of everyday people and street life. I was lucky enough to see a Murillo exhibition when I was there in February.
Address: Plaza Museo 9 41001 Seville (15 minute walk from the cathedral)
inner courtyard of the Picasso Museum in Barcelona
8. The Picasso Museum, Barcelona
There's no doubt that Picasso's art was revolutionary and unparalleled in terms of quality and quality. Most art historians consider him the greatest artist of the 20th century. He certainly had plenty of charisma and genius.
Picasso moved from Malaga to Barcelona as a teen. He lived there from 14-24 and considered it his true home. With help from his father, he enrolled at the School of Fine Arts. A young Pablo fell in with a bohemian crowd that mixed wine and women.
Picasso became an innovator, co-founder of Cubism, and chronic womanizer. He was a one man female wrecking ball who once said "love is the greatest refreshment" and then never left the concession stand.
Pablo Picasso, Las Meninas, 1957
Founded in 1963, the Picasso Museum in Barcelona was launched with a donation of 574 works by Picasso’s secretary, Jaime Sabartés. In 1970, Picasso left more pieces to the museum. Picasso’s widow, Jacqueline Roque, donated 41 ceramic pieces and the early Picasso piece Woman with A Bonnet.
Here, you can see one of the most extensive collections of Picasso's work, certainly the best collection in Spain.
Now, the museum has over 3,000 pieces, many from Picasso's formative years in Barcelona. And the setting of this museum is stunning. It's lodged in five contiguous medieval stone mansions in the funky El Born neighborhood of Barcelona.
Pablo Picasso, The Wait (Margot), 1901 -- one of my favorite early Picassos
Pablo Picasso, Woman with a Bonnet, 1901 -- donated by Picasso's last wife, Jacqueline Roque
Address: Calle Montcada 15-23 08003 Barcelona
Hours: Tues to Sun 9:00 am to 8:30 pm, Thurs 9:00 am to 9:30 pm. Free on Thursday afternoons from 6:00 pm to 9:30 pm and the first Sunday of each month, from 9:00 am to 8:30 pm
9. The Joan Miró Foundation, Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona
What a treat this Barcelona museum is. It's rare to see a large group of Miró paintings. In this fabulous single artist museum, you're surrounded. Miró founded the museum himself in 1975. Located on Montjuïc hill, the museum's housed in a light filled gleaming white building, designed by his friend, Josep LLuis Sert.
The museum is crammed with seminal Miró works, from his earliest sketches to his later years. There's 220 paintings, 180 sculptures, and over 8,000 drawings. Not everything is on display at once, of course.
Miró was born and raised in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, where he began studying art at 14. In his 20s, Miró was attracted to the Surrealism. When his work was initially mocked in Barcelona, he fled to Paris. He became life long friends with Picasso. He eventually came back to Barcelona. But then he lived in Mallorca for almost 30 years.
When I was there with my girls, they loved Miro's crazy outdoor sculptures
Joan Miro, Gold of Azure, 1968
Joan Miro, Moon, Sun and Stars, 1968
Miró's work defies outright categorization. He's most associated with the Surrealists, but he was a renegade. His work is characterized by constant experimentation and a decided love of the dream-like abstract. Like Dali, Miró balanced the spontaneity and automatism of Surrealism with meticulous planning and precision edges.
If you love Miro's biomorphic images, come. If you don't like modern art, there's plenty to do in Barcelona, like all the Gaudi buildings below.
Address: Parc de Montjuïc 08038 Barcelona
Hours: Nov to Mar 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, Apr to Oct 10:00 am to 8:00 pm, Closed Mondays
the beautiful forest-like nave of Sagrada Família in Barcelona
10. Gaudí UNESCO Sites in Barcelona
In Barcelona, Antoni Gaudí produced some of those most whimsical, hallucinatory buildings in existence. And, inside, the frescos and murals are a colorful swirl of nature.
Gaudí 's work was controversial. It contained Orientalist, Gothic, and Art Nouveau elements. It reflected Gaudí 's obsession with nature. Gaudí famously said: "There are no straight lines or sharp corners in nature. Therefore, buildings must have no straight lines or sharp corners."
the gorgeous facade of Casa Battlo, with mask-like balconies, a dragon-like skin of ceramics, and shin bones columns in the window
Seven of Gaudí's creations in Barcelona are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including: Park Güell, Palau Güell, Casa Milà, Casa Vicens, Gaudí’s work on the Nativity facade and crypt of La Sagrada Família, Casa Batlló and the Crypt (church) in Colonia Güell.
Barcelona's undisputed jewel is the Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s wildly creative opus. It inspires emotion. People tend to either love it or hate it. It's still unfinished. But, one day, there'll be 18 towers and three very different facades. By far the most dazzling part is the lofty interior. At the right time of day, it's a gorgeous kaleidoscope of color.
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Antoni Gaudi's masterpiece
Gaudí's La Pedrera, also known as Casa Mila, in Barcelona
the famous mosaic lizard in Gaudí's Park Güell
You also shouldn't miss Gaudí 's residences near the Passeig de Gràcia, the gorgeous dragon-like Casa Batlló and the petrified wave that's La Pedrera. Güell Palace, another Gaudí residence right off La Rambla, also delights. Gaudí's patron, Eusebi Güell, also commissioned him to create the over the top Park Güell with its gingerbread houses and famous mosaics.