Madrid and Barcelona are the two major cities in Spain, and they are so different in many ways. Barcelona has a sunny and energetic vibe adorned by Gaudi’s lively and modern architecture, and Madrid has a majestic and grandeur quality as a Capital city decorated by historical monuments and buildings, battling sculptures like chariots, carriage, warriors, and knights… all of it reminded me of the Spanish Empire that almost took over half the Americas a century ago – “The empire on which the sun never sets”.
Now, the city still shines in its way. The city has a strong artistic atmosphere, especially in the Retiro district – three major art museums formed a Golden Triangle of Art, which has one of the most prestigious classical art collection in the world. With a Madrid Card, visitors could have free access to the three museums without queuing. I went to the three museums in a day. In fact, it would easily need three days for an art buff to appreciate truly and enjoy the art piece by piece.
Prado Museum (Museo Nacional del Prado)
Of all the “must-do” in Madrid travel guide, The Prado Museum could easily get voted the most important “things to do” in Madrid. Believe it or not, it ranks #1 TripAdvisor as a top attraction in Madrid. Unlike its fellow museums such as Le Louvre, or the National Gallery in London, the exterior of the Prado Museum may look a little bit subtle. It doesn’t undermine its scale and importance in European classical art. The national museum has an extensive art collection with over 7,000 paintings, standing as one of the biggest classical art museums in Europe among the top 10 museums in the world including Le Louvre, the National Gallery in London, the State Hermitage Museum, the Rijksmuseum, and the Uffizi Gallery.
The museum housed paintings from Spanish artists like Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and Peter Paul Rubens, along with other famous artists including El Greco, Titian, Rembrandt, Albrecht Durer, Raphael, and much more… (While Diego Velázquez had an artistic eye of making the decisions of purchasing these foreign paintings in the old days) The most iconic masterpiece of them all would probably be Velázquez’s Las Meninas, who brought portraits of the Felipe IV’s family to a new level of originality.
Personally, I love Goya’s high contrast and robust color style, the simplistic yet mindfully depiction of people in his paintings impressed and inspired me so much. Since the museum does not allow photography, we had to appreciate these masterpieces by heart. 🙂
Okay. Let’s talk about visiting the museum:
- Free entrance period is crowded with long queues outside the Velasquez entrance (2 hours before the closing time each day). Some say it is the worst time to visit the museum and should be avoided. I agree.
- Typically the best time to visit the art museum in Europe would be the opening hours in the morning. Usually, 9-11 am while visitors could enjoy the artworks. However, now it seems that everyone knows about this rule, and so everyone becomes an early bird and the morning is the rush hour of visiting. Apparently, the late birds get the worm in Spain and early afternoon would be a better time to view the artworks.
- That said, which period is the best to visit the museum is still unpredictable like the weather. So, it is up to you to be prepared and buy the ticket in advance to avoid the long queue! The museum charges €1 as a commission but it saves the trouble, and the ticket is valid for 12 months (for one entry). Save that buck on shopping or metro if you want to travel on a budget.
- Furthermore, there are some good deals and discount offers for visiting the museum that visitors could keep an eye on. As I said, I used the Madrid Card for a ‘free’ entrance, and there are also package deals for repeating visitors or free entry during special occasions such as the Spanish National Day.
- The museum is ENORMUS, and I am serious. In general, visitors are required to check in their bags before entering the galleries anyway, travel light and don’t forget to get a map in case you indeed plan to get lost in the compound. By the way, the rooms are numbered by Roman numbers, prepare to read some I, V, X, L and yes… it goes up to C!
- Interestingly, the Prado Museum allows its access to art students and professional painters to mimic the art on display. That’s amazing for art lovers, and I think that’s how to cultivate an art culture for the next generation. It’s only for students and painters with permission – General visitors are not allowed to set up the easel and paint…
Open Hours: 10:00 am – 8:00 pm (Sundays close at 7:00 pm)
Free Entry with Madrid Card, or two hours before closing time. General Admission €14
How did I get there: On foot! (If you are in the Retiro area), or take the metro to Atocha or Banco de España stations
Reina Sofía Museum
The Queen Sofia Museum, or Reina Sofia National Art Museum, on the other hand, housed a contemporary art collection of 17,000 artworks, including the most famous painting Guernica by Picasso, who transposed anger and frustration about a Guernica (Basque village) bombing scene during the Spanish Civil War on canvas and created a masterpiece.
The Queen Sofia Museum has different exhibition halls, with temporary and periodic themed contemporary exhibitions (including my favorite installation art exhibitions), and a permanent art exhibition (like Picasso) on the second floor. Of course, to me, the permanent exhibition sounded way more impressive with Picasso, Miró, and Dali. But if visitors have the time, explore the top floors for more modern and nowadays art.
Open Hours: 10:00 am – 9:00 pm (Tuesday close, different opening hours)
Free Entry with Madrid Card, General Admission €8
How did I get there: a short walk from Museo Nacional del Prado 🙂
The Museum was originally a private art collection of the Thyssen-Bornemisza (and a rather big one, second largest in the world after the British Royal Collection) and now it is a privately owned art museum in the Golden Triangle. Interestingly (or coincidentally), Thyssen has a comprehensive survey of Western Art – from classical to modern, impressionism to pop; so the museum kinda filled the gaps and holes of its fellow Prado and Queen Sofia with a new perspective.
Notable artworks are rather random; luckily they are carefully themed and arranged, so the paintings don’t lose the focus. My surprising moments would be seeing Pop-Arts at the end of our mini art tour day.
Open Hours: 10:00 am – 7:00 pm
Free entry with the Madrid Card or on Mondays between 12:00 nn – 4:00 pm, General Admission €12
How did I get there: a short walk from the Queen Sofia Museum 🙂
Another special place to go in the district is the Caixa Forum. It is a modern refurbishment of an old abandoned electrical station on the way between Queen Sofia and Thyssen. It has now become a museum and a cultural center. The site was constructed by Swiss architects – the roof of the old building was lifted up and encased with iron with a sharp color of red. In contrast, a green wall was built next to the building, and it was designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc. Love the way how old buildings are revitalized – and how the once abandoned, ignored structure has become popular again!