I’d come to Madrid to see Francisco Goya. And, okay... Picasso, Bosch, and Miró, too, who I don’t even really like, but that’s never stopped me from wandering through gallery after gallery looking for names and brush strokes I recognize.
Madrid has one of the finest triad of museums in the world. The Prado, the Reina Sofia, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza. Together, they're known as The Golden Triangle of Art. They put Madrid in the same league as Florence or Paris, though they're all ridiculously accessible. Here's how I got the most out of my trip.
So as to not be overwhelmed, I decided to make it my first stop, and then see the other two museums on my second day. The Prado is comparable to the Louvre when it comes to crowds and popularity. And like the Louvre, it can be overwhelming. One tip: Skip the horrendous ticket line at the Prado by purchasing a 3-in-one Paseo del Arte Carde to all three museums (for 30 Euros) beforehand. It's cheaper than buying tickets separately at each, and the ticket is good for a year and includes all three museums’ permanent collections.
It’s a great idea to download an app or make a list of the highlights before you arrive so you don’t get lost and confused—the museum's timeline definitely helps—as the Prado contains thousands of works from the 12th to the early 20th centuries, much of it based on the collections of former Spanish monarchs. Make sure to grab a bite to eat before you get there and leave your backpack behind. Photography is not allowed. Usually a rule like this is created because of camera-abusing tourists with selfie sticks that take 5 minute long photo shoots while others are waiting. You know who you are.
I was particularly excited to see Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. It’s been on my bucket list since I first studied it in an art class almost a decade ago, and Bosch didn’t disappoint. His depiction of hell is so freaky that even Stephen King would probably be queasy. Modern day horror movies have borrowed heavily from his masterpiece and to see the triptych in person, over 500 years after its creation, was amazing.
Prado’s other big star is Diego Velásquez. His most famous work, Las Meninas, commands the room in the giant parlor where it hangs. His style has inspired countless painters, and Prado has the largest collection of his work. Also here? Goya's early optimistic paintings and his darker unhappy works, such as The Black Paintings, the fourteen works he painted on the walls of his home in his later years when he was nearly deaf and fearful of his sanity. Saturn Devouring His Son is particularly disturbing.
Don’t miss: Goya's Naked Maja, Titian’s Equestrian Portrait of Charles V, and the "other" Mona Lisa. Almost exactly like the original at first glance, this Mona Lisa was painted by one of Da Vinci’s students during the same time period. This one has far fewer gawkers than the original at the Louvre, and it’s nice to be able to get close and have a good look.
I arrived the next day, as soon as it opened, beating busloads of tourists coming to see the massive collection of 20th century art and its biggest draw, the Picasso masterpiece, Guernica. Unlike his other works, Guernica is a monster of a painting that gets its own wall as well as two security personnel to scold you if you dare take photos. It’s impressive, and I recommend you read a little about the origin of the painting before you see it, otherwise it just looks like a hodgepodge of unhappy cubist characters and animals. The adjoining room is full of Picasso studies that mirror some of the subjects in the painting.
The museum is spread out over four floors with interesting modern art on the first floor and many works by famous artists on the second—Dalí, Miró, Juan Gris. There’s a lot of war-themed films projected on walls, as well as some disturbing black and white clips that came from God knows where.
Don’t miss: Dalí's controversially-named The Great Masturbator.
After a lunch break, you can definitely knock this museum out on the same day. The Thyssen-Bornemisza has been described as having all the works that the other two museums are missing. It’s the most intimate of the three and is filled with interesting art, spanning the 13th to 20th century.
I'd originally considered skipping it because I hadn’t heard much about it, but that would have been a mistake. If I hadn’t visited the Golden Triangle to find anything in particular, this would have been my favorite museum. There were a lot of surprises. Kandinskies that weren't abstract, Gauguins without all the naked Tahitians, a Munch that wasn’t screaming, and Georgia O’Keefes with no erotic flowers (okay, maybe one erotic flower). There's a small collection of El Greco’s work and a lot of Italian artists, and you'll also find Cezanne, Manet, Degas, Picasso, Hopper, Rembrandt, and Rubens. It’s an all-star team.
Don't miss: Dalí's Dream Caused by The Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Moment Before Waking (yes, that’s a real title) and Domenico Ghirlandaio's Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni. Apparently the museum’s name isn’t the only difficult name to spell or say aloud.
Dining & Lodging in Madrid
Madrid has almost 11,000 restaurants, including the oldest restaurant in the world, Sobrino de Botín (it's in in the Guinness Book of World Records and has operated since 1725). Here you can enjoy a glass of tinto, and munch on green beans and suckling pig. Hemingway wrote about it in several of his novels, and Goya supposedly worked here before he made it as an artist—according to management, he'd gotten off work about 170 years ago.
I stayed at the Hotel Mediodia, a mid-range property that couldn’t have been any more convenient. It was literally next door to the Reina Sofia—my balcony overlooked the entrance and I could almost see the paintings on the second floor. Both the Prado and Thyssen-Bornemisza are within a 10-minute walk, and there's a metro stop right outside that connects you to the airport (or anywhere else in Madrid) for 2 euros.
My point is that you can show up for a few a days on a cheap flight, not have to rent a car, and totally immerse yourself in art and great food without spending a fortune. Iberian Airlines and Ryanair have cheap flights into Madrid from every major European city for $100 or less round trip.