The Spanish capital is awash with art. Madrid has so many museums that even the biggest art enthusiast will have trouble visiting them all. The most popular choices are the Prado, Reina Sofia, and Thyssen-Bornemisza, which are affectionately known as “the Big Three.” A specially-priced museum pass is on offer to encourage visitors to tour all three. But their collections are vast and specialize in different genres. You might not have the time or inclination to give each its due. So which of Madrid’s Big Three museums should you visit? Hopefully this guide will help you decide!
Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza
The Thyssen-Bornemisza is my personal favorite of Madrid’s Big Three museums. Comprised of two private collections, it offers something for just about everyone. Every major period in Western art is covered, from 13th century Italian Renaissance to 20th century Pop Art. This is where you will find the Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, and German Expressionists. There are even a few examples of 19th century North American paintings by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. If you only have time for one museum in Madrid, the Thyssen-Bornemisza is a good choice.
The two collections of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum are housed in a custom-designed space that was once a palace. The works are grouped by century, showing differences in regional tastes as well as the progression of painting styles and techniques over time. It’s an easy museum to explore, even without a map. Check the website for information on special exhibits as well as ticket prices and opening hours.
Museo Nacional del Prado
The Prado is ranked among the best art museums in the world. It began as a showcase for the paintings amassed by Spanish monarchs, particularly those who reigned during the 16th and 17th centuries. As you might expect, there are many flattering royal portraits on display. The Prado has a wealth of masterpieces by the most sought after painters of their day, including Goya, Velazquez, El Greco, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Titian. Scenes from the Bible and Roman mythology are frequent subjects. Frustratingly, the museum doesn’t allow any photos inside. I’ve sourced the following four images from Wikimedia Commons which were made available by the Prado through a project with Google Earth.
The Prado Museum is enormous and it’s easy to spend an entire day admiring the collection. Be sure to pick up a map at the information desk, especially if you want to see just the cream of the crop. Audio guides are also available to rent. You can find opening hours and ticket prices on the museum website.
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia
The Reina Sofia is Madrid’s modern art museum. The collection is made up entirely of contemporary artworks, meaning they were created from 1900 onward. Naturally there is a special focus on Spain’s own modern masters – Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali. Pride of place goes to Guernica, Picasso’s interpretation of the Spanish Civil War. The dark and ugly subject matter is reflected on the canvas in gruesome detail and might not be for everyone. Dali’s quirky paintings offer a refreshing counterpoint and give one plenty to ponder. Other artists on display include Joan Miro, Juan Gris, Rene Magritte, and Paul Klee among many others.
The Reina Sofia is located within a massive 16th century hospital, with the permanent collection spread across four floors. A map will be essential for locating specific artists and masterpieces. (Guernica is on the second floor.) Photos are only allowed in certain areas so be sure to pay attention to the posted signage. Entry times and prices can be found here.
Together the three museums form what is know as Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art. It takes approximately 15 minutes to walk from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum to the Reina Sofia, with the Prado located in between. But although they are close together, I don’t recommend trying to cram visits to all three in the same day. Spacing them out over several days will allow you to better appreciate the vastly different collections and also prevent museum fatigue.
Now tell me: which of Madrid’s Big Three museums would you most like to visit?