The “Golden Triangle of Art” in Madrid’s city center is formed by three museums: the Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Each museum in the Golden Triangle provides a different and fascinating look at Spanish art and art in general, and this guide will help you navigate them.
EL MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO
The Prado is the granddaddy of the Golden Triangle. It originally served as a place for Spanish royals to display their art collections. Royal portraits by court favorites such as Titian, Goya, and Velázquez still make up a huge part of the Prado’s collection, along with Spanish, Italian, and Flemish paintings from before 1900.
Most museums feature a few pieces by an individual artist. The Prado gives individual artists entire wings. Goya has separate galleries for his royal portraiture, his Black Paintings, his “Disaster of War” series, and so on, through several rooms spread out over several floors. The Prado has more works by Goya, as well as his fellow Spanish masters El Greco and Velázquez, than any other collection in the world. What it lacks in variety, it makes up for in depth.
If you’re doing a full art museum tour of Madrid, go to the Prado first. The Reina Sofía focuses on modern Spanish art, and a good education in the old masters might be helpful before checking out the artists that followed. And if you’re not into art museums but feel like you need to get your requisite dose of culture while in Madrid, the Prado has enough recognizable paintings to keep you interested and on the hunt for each masterpiece in the huge collection.
- TICKET PRICE: €16 for general admission, with tons of discounts for seniors, disabled guests, youth, and students.
- TIME SPENT: I spent 3.5 hours in here and still didn’t see everything.
- BONUS: Walk there and enjoy the green-leafed shade of the Paseo del Prado, one of the loveliest streets in Madrid.
MUSEO NACIONAL CENTRO DE ARTE REINA SOFÍA
According to the museum’s website, the building the Reina Sofía occupies has only functioned as an artistic space since the 1980’s. Before that, it had been a hospital since the 1800’s. Does the word “spooky” have a Spanish equivalent? Regardless, when you forget what it used to be, the Reina Sofía is beautiful. Its arched windows fill the halls with light, opening into an inner courtyard filled with greenery and art.
The Reina Sofía filled the gap the Prado left and focuses on 20th-century Spanish art, including works by Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, and, of course, Pablo Picasso. Picasso’s Guernica, a broad canvas depicting chaos even in black and white, is the centerpiece of the Reina Sofía. Guernica is important as a watershed moment in painting, but also as a visual condemnation of the Spanish Civil War and the fascist government it brought to power.
If the Prado seems daunting, check out the Reina Sofía. It’s smaller, and its auxiliary locations in the Retiro Park (in the Palacio de Cristal and the Palacio de Velázquez) offer even quicker bites of art. Plus, everything is modern. If a barrage of religious Renaissance paintings and royal portraits aren’t your idea of an artistic good time, the Reina Sofía should be your Golden Triangle destination.
- TICKET PRICE: €8 general admission for the main building, free for the Retiro locations.
- TIME SPENT: 1 hour, but I didn’t get to see everything.
- BONUS: Drawings by Federico García Lorca. Lorca is one of Spain’s most celebrated writers, but he also dabbled in visual art, just like his college friend (and possible lover!), Salvador Dalí.
EL MUSEO DE ARTE THYSSEN-BORNEMISZA
The Thyssen opened in a revamped palace in 1992 and houses the art collection of the Baron and Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza, which had grown too large for their private space. It’s right across the street from the Prado, and it’s my favorite art museum in the Golden Triangle. Possibly my favorite in the world.
Art nerds are often struck with anxiety when visiting art museums in new places. What if I miss something and never get to come back? The Thyssen gets rid of that fear with its unique setup. Unlike the Prado and the Reina Sofía, which organize art by era, or artist, the Thyssen arranges its works in pure chronological order. The collection begins on the third floor in the 13th century and works its way downstairs into the present, without distinguishing between artists or geographical region. There’s no panicked flipping through the museum floor plan, wondering which galleries to visit and which ones to skip. At the Thyssen, just start at the start. As a bonus, its format tricks you into looking at artists and genres that you thought would never interest you. I walked in ready to see my favorites, like John Singer Sargent, Juan Gris, and Roy Liechtenstein. I didn’t expect to walk out liking Albrecht Dürer, too.
The Thyssen’s collection is the most varied out of the Golden Triangle, so if the Prado and the Reina Sofía feel too laser-focused for you, choose the Thyssen. It covers a larger time period than either of its Golden Triangle sisters and offers a summary of Western art rather than an in-depth dissertation. Art experts and newbies alike can enjoy the Thyssen and its nearly 700-year range.
- TICKET PRICE: €12 general admission, but, like the Prado, there are ample opportunities for discounts.
- TIME SPENT: Ideally, my entire life. In reality, 3 hours.
- BONUS: Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza built her own collection as an offshoot of the main one. She has her own fair share of van Goghs, Rodins, and Renoirs, but they come alongside more obscure artists that might not be featured elsewhere. Make sure to take advantage of Carmen’s collection and see something besides the advertised masterpieces.
Keep in mind the ticket prices and other practical considerations covered in this guide can change at any time. Check each institution’s website before navigating the Golden Triangle yourself.