This blog post was originally posted on February 19, 2013 and was updated on March 2, 2017.
James, our Madrid history buff and tapas expert, gives us all we need to know about some of Madrid’s lesser-known museum treasures, perfect for the curious explorer and long-term resident to explore.
You’ve heard of the Prado, right? And the Reina Sofía and the Thyssen? Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art—the city’s three cheek-by-jowl uber-galleries—are impossible to ignore. And rightly so! They’re each packed with wonderful works.
However, I’ve always thought the capital’s art triangle had a lot in common with that other, more famous triangle south of Bermuda. The three galleries form an art vortex, sucking tourists in and leaving them with little time or headspace for Madrid’s tucked-away treasures. Which is a shame, because this city is littered with under-visited galleries and museums. Here are five of Madrid’s unknown galleries and museums — perfect for visitors looking to mix up the Big Boys with something more intimate.
Photo Credit: Roberto Pozuelo Domínguez
1. Convent of the Barefoot Nuns
Spitting distance from Puerta del Sol, the 16th century Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales (Convent of the Barefoot Nuns) is a spooky treasure trove of bony relics, priceless art and nineteen (last I counted) cloistered nuns. Founded by a royal spinster in 1559, over the centuries the convent attracted a bevy of unmarried or widowed noblewomen, all of them well-endowed. And when each of these wealthy countesses and duchesses joined the order, they donated to it their dowries and priceless possessions.
The upshot? The eerie convent houses tapestries designed by Rubens, a magnificent Titian, one of St John the Baptist’s fingers and a surfeit of glittering religious artefacts. It’s definitely one of the most interesting of Madrid’s unknown galleries and museums. But (and there’s always a but in Spain), if you do go, getting into the monastery is about as esoteric and mysterious as the place itself. Check the end of this blog entry for instructions on scoring a ticket. (As an aside, I recently discovered the nuns don’t actually go barefoot. But they do apparently abstain from wearing socks, stockings and—I’m guessing here—knee-highs.)
Address: Plaza de las Descalzas
2. Sorolla Museum
Joaquín Sorolla is well-known in Spain, but overseas he’s been eclipsed by more the famous Spanish painters of his time—namely, the Cubists. Which is unfortunate, because his work is like a sun-drenched Spanish dream. Born in Valencia, he had a knack for re-creating the Mediterranean’s gauzy light and is famous for his radiant beach scenes and vignettes of local fishermen.
The Sorolla Museum is the artist’s former home-cum-mansion (he moved to Madrid as a young man) and it tastefully combines Sorolla’s work with his personal belongings. Memorably, on an easel in the artist’s studio is the unfinished portrait he was working on when he died. And the sumptuous house wraps around an idyllic Andalusian-style garden, an inner-city oasis which you can enter for free. Be sure to get the excellent English-language audio guide.
Address: Paseo del General Martínez Campos, 37
3. Cerralbo Museum
Next up, another house-museum that is one of Madrid’s unknown galleries and museums. Just beside Plaza España in downtown Madrid, the Museo Cerralbo is the former mini-palace of an absurdly wealthy early-20th century Spanish marquis. He died in 1922 and bequeathed his house and belongings to the state. But there was one condition: the authorities weren’t allowed to move or remove anything. Which means the marquis’s home is just as he left it, making this an eye-popping insight into the life of the mega-rich in Belle Époque Madrid. His priceless art collection covers the walls, his hoard of weapons and armour crams a long hallway, sepia-stained photos of family members decorate dressers and the marquis’ office—his desk cluttered with an ink-well, sheets of paper and other work-day paraphernalia—suggest the long-dead grandee has just popped out to lunch.
Address: Calle Ventura Rodríguez, 17
4. Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando
If you’re in Madrid for art, especially Goya, then you’d be mad to miss the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, which falls among the ranks of Madrid’s unknown galleries and museums. A two minute walk from Puerta del Sol, the former fine arts academy (Picasso and Dalí are alumni) is now a sprawling gallery of 15th–20th century masters. Rubens, Titian, Picasso, El Greco, Gris and Sorolla are all represented. But for me the two standouts are Arcimboldo (a kooky Prague court painter with a penchant for faces formed of fruit and veg) and Goya. Considered by many to be the first modern artist, the gallery is home to thirteen of his works, including a boisterous madhouse scene, a chilling Inquisition scene and two of the painter’s most poignant self-portraits.
Address: Calle de Alcalá, 13
5. Naval Museum
Unless you’re a boat boffin, you probably can’t think of anything worse than two hours in a naval museum. That’s how I felt. But, of course, I was wrong. This is one of Madrid’s unknown galleries and museums that might surprise you. Madrid’s Naval Museum, just next to the Prado, is a fascinating glimpse into how Spain built (and then squandered) its considerable overseas empire. Weapons, globes, astrolabes, cannons, shipwreck artefacts and more model galleons than you can brandish a cutlass at, the staggering collection demonstrates just how powerful this nation and its armada once were. The highlight of the collection is the oldest preserved map of the Americas, dating from 1500. Displays are only described in Spanish, but English-language cards summarise each room. This is a military location (its inside the Armada’s offices), which means you’ll need photo ID to get in.
Address: Paseo del Prado, 5
So, if you’re returning to Madrid or coming for the first time, by all means plunge into the Golden Triangle of Art. But keep your head about you, and try squeezing in one or two of Madrid’s unknown galleries and museums.
* How to visit the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales
OK, here’s how access to the monastery works. Visits are always accompanied by a guide and they’re organised into groups of twenty. The doors swing open at 10am, but the queue outside starts forming at about 9:15am (unless it’s the dead of winter). When you reach the front of the queue, the convent gatekeepers will assign you a visit time that’s either straight away (if you’re one of the first twenty in the line) or later in the day if you’re further back. Don’t be surprised if you’re given a ticket and told to come back at 4 pm for your visit. Tours are in Spanish by default, but they run them in other languages based on demand. And by that, I mean you have to demand it. Both times I’ve visited with English-speaking friends, I’ve been told there were no English-language tours that day because there wasn’t demand. So I asked those in the queue around me and secured a posse of enough English-speakers (or tourists from other countries who didn’t speak Spanish, but did speak English) to show the monastery guards that there were clearly enough people for an English-language tour. Be brave! It’s worth it, and, what’s more, you’ll get a free-of-charge, first-hand glimpse into the byzantine workings of Spanish bureaucracy.
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Enchanted by the country’s exhilarating culture and cuisine, James has written about Spain for international publications, including the Guardian and the UK Sunday Times. He hosts a popular YouTube channel about Spain, and has appeared on the BBC and British Channel 4. A wine lover, he is WSET Level 3 certified.