Madrid Museums and Galleries
Plaza de Legazpi, 8, Centro
A slaughterhouse for most of the 20th century (hence the name), the Matadero today is a bustling hub for multitudinous arts pursuits. Drop by on any given day for an awe-inspiring spectrum of cultural activity: take a urban cycling course, catch a documentary at the Cineteca movie complex, check out the latest design show at the Central de Diseño, catch a concert at the Nave 16, or take the kids to an experimental reading session at the Casa del Lector. Along with presenting the latest in contemporary art and culture, the Matadero is also a hub for creatives, offering workspaces and residencies across a variety of disciplines, meaning a lot of the work you'll see here has been made on-site.
Paseo del Prado, 36, Centro
The Caixa is a necessary contemporary counterpart to the Prado, Reina Sofía, and Thyssen museums. In high contrast to the centuries-old palaces those institutions inhabit, the contemporary collections here are housed in an industrial warehouse that's been reinterpreted by Herzog and de Meuron. Fittingly, you can expect cutting-edge exhibitions of pieces from the last 30 years. Like the now iconic vertical garden at its entrance, the museum literally breathes fresh air into the neighborhood dominated by the old guard art institutions. Photo: Carles Escrig i Royo
Museo del Prado
Calle Ruiz de Alarcón, 23, Retiro
Nearly 200 years old, this is one of the best museums in Spain—if not the world—reflecting the tastes (and astonishing wealth) of the Spanish court through the centuries. The collection dates back to the 16th century and Spain's world dominance at the time shows with the sheer value of many of its holdings, including major pieces by Titian, Fra Angelico, Velázquez, and El Greco. The museum is enormous and can be somewhat intimidating so their approachable guide materials—some of them contextualized with music and geared toward a variety of interests, including a few for kids—make the visit all the more manageable.
Calle de Ventura Rodríguez, 17, Argüelles
The Marquis of Cerralbo lived in this palace in the 19th and 20th centuries and designed everything from the staircase to the displays, to the gardens he sketched out himself. Today his absolutely over-the-top vision (he always hoped it would become a museum) remains faithfully intact complete with his collection of masterpieces by Spanish greats like El Greco and Zúrbaran, early photography, and Japanese armor from the Edo period.
Museo Lázaro Galdiano
Calle de Serrano, 122, Salamanca
Off the beaten path from the so-called Golden Triangle comprised of the Thyssen, El Prado, and the Reina Sofia, this private collection is well worth the side trip. Beyond the individual pieces, which include decorative art over the centuries along with several works by Goya, Lucas Cranach, Velázquez, and the like, it's the way this collection, amassed by banker, publisher, and collector José Lázaro Galdiano himself, is displayed in his former mansion. While it's not a house museum per se, the collections are grouped in a way that has the feel of an old stately mansion mixed with a cabinet of curiosities. Galdiano is well loved in Spain for having bought back many important Spanish artworks that were almost lost during the Spanish Civil War.
Paseo del Prado, 8, Centro
The collection of works housed in this 18th-century palace represent the lifetime pastime of Swiss collector Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and his Spanish wife Carmen. While Heinrich and his German father August focused on everything from the Gothic period to major Dutch works of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, Carmen's collection brings in significant Modern American, Expressionist, and Impressionist works, making the museum a wonderful survey of art through the centuries—certainly the most complete in Spain. Though it's now owned by the Spanish state, it still retains the feel of a private family collection with artwork displayed on salmon pink walls, as dictated by Carmen herself.
Centro de Arte Reina Sofía
Calle de Santa Isabel, 52, Centro
Though its permanent collection is a who's who of modern Spanish art, including major works by Picasso—his Guernica is the museum's Mona Lisa—Miró, Dalí, Eduardo Chillida, and Antoni Tàpies, the Reina Sofía is also a major contemporary art institution both within and outside its Jean Nouvel-designed walls. Head to the museum for its contextualized permanent collection of Spanish and international masters, and then go to the Parque del Retiro to check out the exhibitions at the Palacio de Cristal and Palacio de Velázquez.
Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando
Calle de Alcalá, 13, Centro
The site of Spain's main art academy for centuries is today a pretty comprehensive museum for anyone interested in Spanish art history. It's often overlooked in favor of the much splashier Prado, which makes a visit here all the quieter and more enjoyable. Not only do its vast holdings include much of the artwork made during its time as an academy, including several important paintings and etchings by Goya, it's also been the benefactor of several major collections, including that of the Jesuits when they were expelled by the monarchy. This is a particularly notable destination for those interested in religious art history from the Renaissance on.