Guide To the Prado Museum In Madrid: Masterpieces & Tips

The Prado is special. It’s Spain’s premiere cultural jewel, boasting one of Europe’s finest and most sensuous classical painting collections.

Founded in 1819 by King Ferdinand, the Prado opened as the Royal Museum of Paintings. The vaunted museum celebrated its 200th birthday in 2019.

The artistic anchors of the Prado are Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez, and El Greco. But there are also masterpieces by Titian, Bosch, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, and Murillo.

You can wander endlessly, in awe, through room after room full of beautiful paintings.

the Prado Museum in Madrid Spain
the Velázquez entrance of the Prado

But the Prado is a massive place. Without a plan, you could just ricochet around unproductively, the masterpieces come so fast and furious.

In this Prado guide, I identify the must see masterpieces and give you essential tips for visiting.

Quick Tips

  • unless you like long lines, definitely book a skip the line ticket in advance
  • because the museum is so large, you may want to book a small group guided tour or a private tour
  • you can only enter the museum through the Jerónimos entrance
  • expect airport style security
  • 1st floor: European art from the 12th to the early 19th centuries
  • 2nd floor: 19th century Spanish paintings
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1480-1505, oil on panel,
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1480-1505

Guide To The Prado Museum: What To See

Here are the absolute must sees at the Prado.

1. Heironymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

In The Garden of Earthly Delights triptych, Bosch depicts an indecipherable freakish world full of temptations. It’s likely a creation and damnation image — populated with hybrid naked creatures, amorous acts, and hallucinatory horrors. It’s safe to say it wasn’t an altarpiece.

Not much is known about the mysterious Bosch. Art historians don’t know when he was born, whether he was educated, or who his patrons were.

None of Bosch’s contemporaneous writings have survived, so it’s difficult to interpret his paintings.

Art historians have been searching for and analyzing symbols in his mysterious work for centuries. For instance, there are many strawberries in the central panel, which may be a seductive “love fruit.”

Despite its seemingly shocking content, the painting was popular at the time. There is evidence that the painting was displayed in prominent locations and that tapestries and copies were made of Bosch’s seminal work.

A lesser known fact is that, if you close the shutters of the triptych, you have an entirely different painting. It depicts the world, encased in a globe with a tiny god figure in the top left corner.

Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656
Diego Velazquez, Las Meninas, 1656

2. Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas

Las Meninas is another enigmatic painting, one of the most important masterpieces of European art. Las Meninas is essentially the Prado’s Mona Lisa. Las Meninas means “maids of honor” in Spanish.

Velazquez was the court painter of Philip IV, a supporter of the arts known as the “Poet King.” During his career, he turned out dozens of portraits of the royal family. This one almost looks like a polaroid and is Velázquez’s culminating work.

Art historians still dispute its meaning. The painting has a unique perspective and is a show off-y piece..

It’s populated by an odd cast of characters — a nun, a dwarf, the artist himself, a princess. Velazquez is painting the king and queen, but they’re only seen in the background, reflected in a mirror.

The painting is so unusual and intimate that it may have sprung from the artist’s imagination. Las Meninas is simultaneously a self-portrait, a royal portrait, or perhaps a picture of a time when the princess spontaneously came to Velazquez’s studio.

Some art critics describe the painting as an optical illusion where viewers are pulled into the painting. Velázquez was indeed a master of light and shadow. He deliberately used it to convey a sense of mystery.

Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814
Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808, 1814

3. Francisco Goya, The Third of May 1808

In 1807, Napoleon invaded Spain and installed his brother on the throne. On May 2, 1808, hundreds of Spaniards rebelled. On May 3, these Spanish freedom fighters were rounded up and massacred by the French. Blood ran through the streets of Madrid.

The slaughter of his countrymen and the horrors of war left a profound impression on Goya. He created two commissioned pantings commemorating the Spanish uprising: The Second of May 1808 and The Third of May 1808. They’re both in the Prado and decidedly not your typical Salon paintings.

The Third of May 1808 is Goya’s most famous work and perhaps the best painting in the Prado. In it, Goya depicts man’s inhumanity to man, not a bloodless heroic affair.

It’s an emotionally charged painting where the central figure, an anti hero with baffled raised arms, is killed on the side of the road like an animal by anonymous gunmen.

Because it’s so raw, the painting was sent straight to storage, unseen by the public for 40 years. It’s a chilling image, a powerful anti-war statement that later influenced Manet and Picasso.

Raphael, The Cardinal, 1510
Raphael, The Cardinal, 1510

4. Raphael, The Cardinal

Raphael one of the great painters of the Renaissance period, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

Most of Raphael’s art is in the Vatican, but there are quite a few pieces in the Prado. At the height of his powers, Raphael was thought to paint people “as more real than they really are.”

The subject of this exquisite painting is unknown, thought the best guess is Cardinal Giovanni Alidosi. He has an enigmatic expression rather like the Mona Lisa.

But he was known as a ruthless man. And the severity and intensity of the portrait, with its stark colors, may reflect that.

Alidosi may also have been the lover of the warrior Pope Julius II, responsible for the Sistine Chapel.

detail of Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1498
Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait, 1498

5. Albrecht Dürer, Self Portrait

Albrecht Dürer was a famous artist of the northern Renaissance.

Born in Nuremberg, he combined the elaborate detailing characteristic of northern art with the Renaissance principles of perspective and proportion.

He was most famous as a groundbreaking printmaker. While that brought him fame, his commissioned portraits are what brought him money to live.

This Self-Portrait is the second of three Dürer portraits. Dürer had a high opinion of himself and his artistic genius. So his self portraits are rather self-aggrandizing.

In this one, a haughty Dürer appears as an aristocrat of some importance dressed in flamboyant clothes. His hair is reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous vortex curls.

Tip: Right next to this self-portrait are the artist’s tall paintings of Adam and Eve

detail from Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, mid 1420s
Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, mid 1420s

6. Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

Far Angelico’s exquisite Annunciation was an altarpiece for the monastery of Santo Domenico near Florence. It’s considered the first Florentine altarpiece in the Renaissance style.

Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar who became a revolutionary in the world of Italian painting. He used beautiful decorative elements and a rational treatment of space to depict the spiritual. He was known posthumously as the “Angelic Painter” with “a rare and perfect talent.”

To the left of the painting, you see Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise. To the right, an angel bows before the Virgin Mary telling her she’ll give birth to Christ.

The painting was recently restored in time for Prado’s major 2019 exhibition “Fra Angelico and the Rise of the Florentine Renaissance.”

Restoration uncovered the work’s vivid colors and intense light, which were obscured over time by aggregated layers of dirt and pollution. Now, the painting shines with new luminosity.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1635
Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, 1635

7. Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces

One cannot view a Rubens without the word “voluptuous” popping into your mind. The man had a thing for full figured curves and bare flesh.

But his pioneering treatment of the female image, with dramatic and sensuous brushstrokes, created new definitions of form and style.

And gave rise to a new adjective — “Rubenesque.” To me, his more realistically rendered women are a breath of fresh air compared to today’s skinny aesthetic.

Rubens was a Flemish Baroque painter known for his portraits and mythological paintings. Titian was a huge source of inspiration for him. Rubens was prolific, creating over 1400 paintings in his lifetime, and an influence on Velázquez.

In this Prado painting, he depicts the three graces from Greek mythology, daughters of Zeus and Oceanid. Their job was to entertain the gods and goddesses with singing and dancing. The painting exudes joie de vivre.

El Greco, Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest, 1580
El Greco, Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest, 1580

8. El Greco, Gentleman with his Hand on his Chest

El Greco had little interest in depicting things as they appeared. He used his imagination and reconsidered form and figure.

Initially inspired by Renaissance painters, El Greco quickly adopted the style of the new Mannerism movement. The Mannerists didn’t want to imitate nature. They sought to veer from reality and expose the underlying psychological aspects and inner world of a subject.

Consistent with this thinking, El Greco’s portraits, like the one above, depict tortuously elongated figures in sometimes starting pigmentation.

Gentleman With His Hand on his Chest is El Greco’s most famous portrait. The subject is unknown. He’s part of of El Greco’s famous series of unknown officials from Toledo.

Surrounded by muted dark colors, he stares intensely at the viewer. His beard, face, and fingers are stylized and elongated. El Greco practiced what he preached and “guarded the original style that beats within your soul.”

Juan-Sanchez Cotan, Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit, 1602
Juan-Sanchez Cotan, Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit, 1602

9. Juan Sanchez Cotan, Still Life with Game, Vegetables and Fruit

Why is a picture of vegetables significant?

Well, this painting is considered the first ever Spanish still life. It’s one of only six known paintings by Cotan. Cotan is known as “the father of Spanish still life painting” and a pioneer of Baroque realism.

He used light and shadow to give pictures a sense of volume and intensity. Cotan influenced other Spanish painters, like Francisco de  Zurbarán. His greatest works, like this one, are spare, with illusionistic arrangements.

Here, he paints the inside of a cupboard. The vegetables are offered up one by one, almost suffused with a spiritual aura.

Cotan was also a pious man. In 1602, spirituality won out and Cotan abandoned painting to become a monk.

osé de Ribera, The Bearded Woman, 1651
José de Ribera, The Bearded Woman, 1651

10. José de Ribera, The Bearded Woman

Lesser known among Spanish painters, Ribera spent most of his career in Italy.  

This riveting triple portrait, Bearded Women, is one of his rare secular works. It’s rendered in a fashion that was peculiarly popular in the 17th century — portraying a person with physical abnormalities.

The Duke of Alcala, a major patron of Ribera, commissioned Bearded Woman in 1631. Felix and Magdalena Ventura are the subjects.

They were a real life married couple with three sons. At age 37, Magdalena suffered a hormonal problem, developing a full beard and becoming something of a local celebrity.

Although her appearance is startling, Ribera creates a respectful portrait of the couple. Magdalena’s face is forlorn, but dignified. Her husband is fretting, but not judgmental.

The painting’s inscription calls Magdalena a “great wonder of nature.” Some modern experts describe her as a “17th century hero of gender fluidity.”

This painting originally hung in the magnificent Casa de Pilatos in Seville.

Titian, Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg, 1548
Titian, Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg, 1548

11. Titian, Emperor Charles V at Mühlberg

There are 35 Titians in the Prado — a vast number. The most famous is his large Portrait of Charles V on Horseback.

In it, you see the Holy Roman Emperor at the Battle of Mühlberg, where he defeated the naughty Protestant German princes who had joined the Reformation.

The Venetian painter Titian was Charles V’s favorite painter. And Titian does him justice in this portrait.

The emperor looks calm and courageous, his iron will evident. He looks every inch the commander.

It’s a bit of a fictional propaganda portrait though. When painted, Charles V was already 57 years old. He had abdicated and retired to a steady diet of beer, sausage, and eel pie. He had gout and was rather obese.

The portrait was damaged in the 1700s by a fire, which changed Titian’s trademark bold and saturated colors somewhat. But they still seem vivid.

Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring his Son, 1819-23
Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring his Son, 1819-23

12. Francisco Goya, Saturn Devouring His Son

There’s two room (67 & 68) devoted to Goya’s infamous and startling “Black Paintings” from late in his career.

The Black Paintings are some of the most disturbing artworks ever made. They depict existential despondency over the human condition and edge-of-death despair. They were originally murals in Goya’s home, but were taken off the walls and transferred to canvas with some damage.

The most famous Black Painting is undoubtedly Saturn Devouring His Son, based on Roman mythology. Saturn was a Roman god who come to power by overthrowing his father.

It was prophesied that Saturn would suffer the same fate. To avoid this fate, Saturn swallowed his children whole.

Perhaps the most striking detail of the painting is Saturn’s evident distress. He has a crazed, anguish look on his face. He looks shocked at his own monstrousness.

Francisco Goya, The Drowning Dog, 1819-23
Francisco Goya, The Drowning Dog, 1819-23

Goya left no record providing an interpretation of his Black Paintings. Art historians speculate that they reflect either Goya’s own fear of madness and death or his reaction to the horrors of the Napoleonic wars.

While you are in the room, check out my personal favorite of Goya’s Black Paintings, The Drowning Dog.

In it, a desperately expressive little dog with human features pleads for rescue, submerged up to its neck in a mud colored mire beneath a gloomy ochre hell.

The dog seems lost in the emptiness of the image. He could be buried or half drowned.

Diego Velázquez, The Crucified Christ, 1632
Diego Velázquez, The Crucified Christ, 1632

13. Diego Velázquez, The Crucified Christ

Diego Velázquez produced very few religious works. The Crucified Christ is his finest.

It’s an intensely powerful image. This painting is a realistic study of a man’s body, with a sculptural quality.

The composition is starkly simple yet dramatic. The white body contrasts with the dark background, reminiscent of the work of Caravaggio, whom Velázquez had admired.

There’s a naturalism in the way that Christ’s head droops on his chest. His face is obscured by damp and matted hair. The painting is a religious subject rendered in an original way in a pared down composition.

Francisco Goya, Nude Maya, 1797-1800
Francisco Goya, Nude Maya, 1797-1800

14. Francisco Goya, Nude Maya

Francisco Goya’s Nude Maja was famously controversial.

It was probably painted for Manuel Godoy, a nobleman and prime minister of Spain, and one of Goya’s key patrons. The model was either Godoy’s mistress or the Duchess of Alba (possibly Goya’s lover).

For its time, The Nude Maja was viewed as daring and almost pornographic. The voluptuous model’s pubic hair is visible and her pose is frankly sexual, vastly more “come hither” than traditional depictions of goddesses in Western art.

However, she isn’t just an object of male desire. Goya paints her looking directly at the viewer, suggesting the independence of Spanish women of the day.

Goya paid for the groundbreaking nature of his work. In 1815, the Spanish Inquisition interrogated him about this painting and Goya was stripped of his title of court painter.

Francisco Goya, Family of Charles IV, 1800

15. Goya, Family of Charles IV

This brilliant Goya painting is full of satire. Goya was a court painter who, due to his democratic tendencies, didn’t really like the royal family.

But he did like money. So he dutifully churned out portraits.

In this one, he gives them all the indicia of wealth and power, with glamorous gowns and uniforms. Yet, they are depicted in an unflattering way with a serious dose of realism.

As Velazquez did in Las Meninas, Goya includes himself in the painting. He’s seen working on a canvas in the shadows to the left. Goya knew all the secrets of the court and subtlety alludes to them here.

The domineering Queen Maria Luisa is placed in the center instead of the feeble king, indicating who really wielded royal power. But the queen is shown with a rather ugly jutting jaw, indicating that she was toothless.

On top of that, she’s had an affair with her daughter’s husband, unbeknownst to the king. Her child born of that union stands by the king, but is dressed in the exact clothing of his real father.

To the left stands the heir apparent dressed regally in blue. Behind him, his younger brother places his hand on his waist, suggesting that the prince was gay.

Murillo, The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables, 1678
Murillo, The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables, 1678

16. Murillo, The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerables

Bartolome Esteban Murillo was a prominent figure in the Spanish Baroque movement, and has several renowned works in the Prado.

One of his most celebrated paintings is The Immaculate Conception of Los Venerable. It was immensely popular theme in Spanish art during the 17th century

The painting depicts the Virgin Mary as a young woman looking up toward heaven. She’s stands on the moon, encircled by angels.

The painting is celebrated for its ethereal quality, delicate colors, and the peaceful serenity on Mary’s face.

Murillo’s treatment of light, the soft modeling of forms, and Mary’s tranquil beauty exemplify his skill in conveying religious themes with emotional depth and visual appeal.

Interestingly, the painting was stolen by Napoleon and the Louvre acquired it (for a small fortune) in 1852. After some horse trading, the Prado reacquired it in 1941. Though it’s been subject to many restorations due to damage, it’s still beautiful.

Tintoretto, The Washing of the Feet, 1548-49
Tintoretto, The Washing of the Feet, 1548-49

17. Tintoretto, The Washing Of The Feet

This is an immense painting by the Venetian artist Tintoretto, a prodigy of the late Renaissance. It’s a striking example of the artist’s dramatic and innovative approach to composition and the use of light and shadow.

It depicts the biblical scene where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples before the Last Supper. It’s enowned for its dynamic composition and the sense of movement it conveys.

In fact, if you shift your view from left to right and then back, the painting appears to move, especially the table. This is due to arrangement of figures and the perspective lines, which lead the viewer’s gaze in a sweeping motion.

The figures in the painting are depicted with exaggerated gestures and expressions, contributing to the overall dynamism of the scene.

statue of Diego Velazquez
statue of Diego Velazquez

Tips For Visiting The Prado

Now that you know where to scout out the Prado’s best masterpieces, it’s time for some other handy tips for the visiting the Prado.

To avoid being overwhelmed by the Pardo’s treasure trove of art, pick up a free brochure at the front desk. You can pick from “highlights” routes of 1 hour, 2 hours, or 3 hours.

Each has a progressively greater number of works to see. The routes are created to show you the most important art during your allotted time. Or, you can create your own route in advance.

You may want to download the Prado’s museum plan to map out your path through the nearly 120 galleries.

Be forewarned, the numerical order of the galleries doesn’t help much because they don’t connect logically. For example, Room 1 connects to Room 42, but not to Room 2.

Francisco Goya, Family of Charles IV, 1800
Francisco Goya, Family of Charles IV, 1800

The explanations next to the paintings are quite detailed, so you may not need an audio guide or guide book.

If you dread crowds and long lines, I highly recommend purchasing a skip the line ticket in advance.

You won’t have to queue up to collect your ticket. Just bring a print out or show the ticket voucher on your phone.

Unfortunately, if you’ve purchased a reduced price ticket, you’ll have to stand in line to collect your tickets and show ID for proof of age.

The best time to visit is probably around 3:00 pm, when Spanish siesta time is starting and tour groups may already have passed through.

If you want to avoid the rather high entry price, there are times you can enter for free. But it will be crowded then. If you come an hour before closing and there’s a line, try another day.

map of the various entrances to the Prado
map of the various entrances to the Prado

There are 5 access point to the Prado, which can be confusing. You can only buy tickets at the Goya gates, both on Felipe IV street in the Plaza de Goya.

The Puerto de Goya Baja offers a full range of tickets, including discounted ticket prices for seniors and children. The other entrance, Puerto de Goya Alta, has automated ticket machines. Automated machines may mean shorter lines.

You can only enter the museum through the Jerónimos entrance. You will go through airport style security and be required to check any backpacks or large bags.

If you want to visit all three museums in Madrid’s vaunted “golden triangle,” which includes the Thyssen and the Reina Sofia museums, you can buy a skip the line combo ticket.

entrance to the Prado Museum
entrance to the Prado Museum

Practical Information

Address: 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 Fees:

15 € permanent collection, free with the Madrid City Pass. General admission + the official guide book is 24 €. It’s a discount price for the book, but then you have to lug it through the museum on your visit.

If you want to visit on two occasions to reduce museum fatigue, you can buy a “two visit” pass for 22 €.

The audio guide is 4 €.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Sense of Sight, 1617
Peter Paul Rubens, The Sense of Sight, 1617

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

Pro tip: The museum prohibits photos and the guards are vigilant about enforcing this rule. You could easily spend half a day at the Prado. At a minimum, you’ll want to budget 2-3 hours.


I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Madrid’s Prado. You may enjoy these other Spain travel guides and resources:

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