Art lovers, adventurers, and scientific enthusiasts, the most famous museums in Spain are calling out to you!
Spain is home to some of the oldest cities in Europe, which today makes the land of seemingly eternal sunshine and tapas an unmissable destination for those interested in artefacts and art. However, don’t make the mistake of assuming all the modern attractions are further north – there’s a reason Spain is known as the birthplace of some of the greatest artists of the last century, and you’re about to find out.
From iconic paintings to Spanish modern art to stunning architectural wonders teeming with precious things, the museums in Spain are as varied as they are plentiful. So hold onto your hat (or is this not a hat?), because this list of the most underrated and deservedly famous museums in Spain is guaranteed to keep you busy.
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Feel the still-beating heart of the Al-Andalus Empire at these museums in Granada
1. Alhambra Palace and Nasrid Palace
Spain’s history is as proud as it is ever-changing, and hipsters today often hark back to the period of the Al-Andalus empire, which spanned the years 711 until 1492. Considering this predated coffee’s arrival in Europe by a few hundred years, you can only imagine how spectacular this epoch was for millennials to look back on it as something of a golden age (no really, there’s a non-zero number of ‘Make Spain Al-Andalus Again’ t-shirts in circulation).
Thankfully, you don’t have to wonder too hard – the Alhambra Palace and Fortress still stands today, perched in the rugged mountains of Andalucia (three guesses where the name comes from) as one of the best-preserved museums in Andalucia and the finest surviving palace of Moorish architecture in Spain.
Originally designed as a military fortress, the Alhambra is strategically positioned at the top of a towering hill to make access as difficult as possible to enemies, or a masochistic challenge for uphill running enthusiasts. But by the middle of the 13th Century, the royalty got wind that the Alhambra was the place to be and it quickly became not only the official court of Granada, but the royal residence.
Equally integral to the Alhambra’s origin story is its decline: Granada was the final Muslim hold-out against the newly formed forces of Spain. When they finally surrendered, the Al-Andalus empire’s 780-year reign came to a close… paving the way for the dark and gruesome Spanish Inquisition to come.
Today, it’s impossible to stand in the Alhambra and not feel the sheer ambience of kingdoms past. This spectacular royal palace can consume a full day of your time and still leave you wanting more.
Festooned with Islamic art and architectural stylings that will make you feel like an extra on Game of Thrones, the Alhambra grounds contain a number of museums that collectively rank amongst the best museums in Spain. They include:
📍The Museum of Fine Arts, housed in a colosseum-style exhibition venue, hosts a range of permanent and temporary exhibitions ranging from ancient Roman sculptures to the optical illusory works of M.C. Escher.
📍The Alhambra Museum, with seven halls housing thematic exhibitions and artefacts that detail the chronological history of the Alhambra, the Nasrid and the Caliphate
📍The Presentation Room, which hosts multimedia exhibits about the Alhambra
📍The Fine Arts Museum, filled with Grenadine sculptures and paintings from the 15th to the 20th century
📍The Museum Ángel Barrios, a modest museum dedicated to the composer and guitarist Ángel Barrios Granada, who lived from 1882 to 1964.
Tickets to the Alhambra can be extremely hard to catch on short notice. Andalucians in the know often encourage their friends to book a month (or more) in advance. This is especially good advice if you’re planning to visit in the summer months, or hope to buy a ticket that includes admission to the quota-capped Nasrid Palace (if you can get one of these – don’t hesitate, it’s well worth it).
It might seem like overkill to plan that far ahead, but when you’re standing in the Palace Gardens, there’s no doubt you’ll want to leave no stone of the Alhambra unturned (metaphorically, of course). Or, if you’d rather plan your trip a little more spontaneously, snag a last-minute ticket here without missing a beat.
2. Sacromonte Abbey
Nestled just at the edge of Granada lies Sacromonte Abbey, one of the most off-the-beaten track but worthwhile museums in Andalucia. Though not necessarily what one thinks of when visualising a museum in Spain, the theological history of Spain is a huge part of its modern identity – and Sacromonte Abbey is a key jigsaw piece in understanding that story.
This 17th-Century abbey combines classic Christian iconography (Tuscan columns and a blinged-out golden apse, anyone?) with some of the Al-Andalus flair left behind by the Moors in the form of symmetrical courtyards, which were often placed at the centre of buildings to keep them cool in the scorching Andalucian summers. Linger over the Abbey’s collection of historic tapestries and enjoy an incomparable vista of the city of Granada and the Alhambra on a neighbouring hill.
Take a guided tour of the caves below the Abbey, where holy men were martyred centuries ago, and learn about the crucifix found in the main cave that is believed to have belonged to St. John himself.
3. Science Park
Nature, astronomy, mechanical games and more await you at Science Park Granada, the most interactive museum in Andalucia.
To kickstart or reignite your passion for science, slip into a lab coat and slap on your thick-rimmed glasses (it’s not mandatory, but it sure does get you in the spirit), and head to this sprawling 70,000 m2 museum of scientific delights.
Science Park covers the full spectrum of scientific areas, from experimenting with optical effects to learning about the inner workings of the human eye to deciphering the secrets of the universe in the eye-popping planetarium . But the star attraction of Science Park is the Biodome, a climate-controlled biopark showcasing over 200 species of animals.
Witness the permanent multimedia exhibition that explores the cutting-edge cultural and scientific innovation of the Al-Andalus empire (yep, there’s that golden age again) or attend a bird of prey workshop to get an up-close view of how eagles and hawks hunt their unsuspecting dinner.
With 27,000 m2 of green areas, 5,000 m2 of temporary exhibitions, lots of rest and picnic areas, and a café-restaurant offering dishes aplenty, Science Park is the perfect day trip without even having to leave Granada.
If a full day of excitement at Science Park still hasn’t managed to scratch the educational itch, check out some many masterclasses in the Science Park classrooms. From particle physics to the mathematics of musical expression, if there’s a niche you’re interested in, odds are Science Park has offered it, at least one.
The real Seville: don’t miss the most authentic museums in Andalucia
4. Flamenco Dance Museum
Ask anyone in Seville and they’ll tell you the same thing: there is no better way to appreciate the history and passion of flamenco than to see a show. And there are few better shows than those at the Flamenco Dance Museum.
This famous style of music and dance is often generalised as ‘typically Spanish’ – something the proud Andalusian people object to, considering their region is the source of flamenco.
Teeming with historic exhibits, costumes, stunning interactive displays and videos, Seville Flamenco Dance Museum perfectly captures the essence and authenticity of the beautiful bailar. That’s no surprise, since it was founded by one of most famous flamenco dancers of all time, Cristina Hoyos, and sits in an 18th-Century building in the city centre, right atop the remains of a Roman temple – and there are few things more classically Sevillano than that!
If you only have time to see a few museums in Andalucia, or even just a few museums in Spain, make this one of them – if only to earn the right to throw down a well-timed olé in your everyday vernacular. Enjoy a range of extra perks to your ticket by purchasing your admission here.
5. Archaeological Museum of Seville
Situated just on the other side of the jaw-dropping Plaza D’España and the splendid (and free) Maria Luisa Gardens, is the museum district of Seville, where you can find the Archaeological Museum of Seville.
To understand the richness of this museum in Andalucia, it helps to understand Seville more broadly. The city has changed hands and names several times, from being the ancient Roman city of Hispalis to one of the most cosmopolitan and important cities in the world during the time of Christopher Columbus. Modern-day Sevilla is a property developer’s nightmare, since almost any drilling below the ground yields another ancient Roman ruin that must be preserved – and at the landowner’s expense, of course.
Consequently, the Archaeological Museum of Seville is so much more than just a museum in Spain – it’s the home of treasures from near and far, and a self-referential nod to its own city’s humble origins with extensive collections dating back to the Neolithic age, through the Roman occupation to the time of the Moors.
With a statuette of Astarte-Tanit, a Phoenician fertility goddess worshipped across the Mediterranean in the 8th Century BC, and the Carambolo Treasures, a stunning collection of gold jewellery from 1500 years ago, the Archaeological Museum of Seville is one of the most timeless (if you’ll pardon the pun) museums in Spain.
Museums in Madrid: where the classic and the contemporary mix
6. Prado Museum
See the most iconic works from Europe’s artistic geniuses at the Prado Museum in Madrid, one of the most famous museums and Spain and widely considered to be the single greatest collection of European art spanning the 12th to the early 20th Century.
The Prado is undoubtedly one of the best museums in Spain, with an eclectic collection of peculiar and iconic works from legends such as Bosch, Titian, El Greco, Rubens, Velázquez and Goya. The Prado’s chaotic-good energy isn’t just coincidence, however. The tastes of the Prado’s collectors were guided more by appreciation of individual artists than any interest in creating an overarching sense of unity within the collection.
Consequently, this “I like it, I’ll take the lot” approach sparked a reputation of the Prado as a museum of painters rather than of paintings… And to those of us who can’t decide if that sounds like a good thing or a bad thing: Don’t worry too much about it. Opinions, just like art, are subjective, after all.
The Prado is not only the museum in Spain within which the greatest hits of the greatest painters hang. It’s had an active role in shaping Spanish art and has arguably influenced the style of numerous famous Spanish paintings. The Prado has also interacted often and intensely with its country’s social and political history – and not always without controversy. During the era of Spanish fascism, Pablo Picasso was appointed Director-in-Exile of the Prado – a posting which drew international attention to the atrocities taking place within the country, and called to arms a new generation of revolutionary Spanish artists.
Check out this guide to Prado Museum highlights before you go, to plan your visit around the greatest works so you don’t have to crane your neck around crowds of people.
7. Museum of Illusions
Were you adamant the dress was black and blue, not white and gold?
Pretty sure it was ‘Yanny’, not ‘Laurel?
Don’t be so sure – if there’s one thing to learn from the Museum of Illusions in Madrid, it’s that seeing isn’t necessarily believing, and that perception is more malleable than you’d think.
Surrender to a wave of existential questions you’ve never considered before at this unusual and best-selling museum in Spain, where a world of optical illusions and exhibits are designed to trick your eyes and mind.
Learn about vision, perception, and the power of the human brain as you solve brain-teasing puzzles, grow and shrink like Alice Through The Looking Glass and traverse the perspective-shifting vortex tunnel.
Don’t forget your camera when visiting this famous museum in Spain – not only do the exhibits confound and amaze, they look mighty fine as well on the ‘Gram. Serve your friends and family up on a dinner plate or strike a pose in the kitschy, colourful rooms that make the entire museum feel like your personal life-size Barbie Dream House.
Enjoy a variety of museums in Andalucia in beautiful Málaga
8. Russian Museum in Málaga
Everybody knows Málaga is the home of Pablo Picasso (with the museum in his honour standing in the very same building where he was born), but there’s so much more to museums in Málaga than the city’s most iconic.
The Russian Museum in Málaga is one of the city’s best-kept secrets, a sleek modern art gallery housed in a historic tobacco factory. Showcasing works by Chagall, Tatlin, Wassily Kandinsky, and Kazimir Malevich, this enchanting museum in Andalucia showcases the best of Byzantine-inspired and Soviet-era work, mindfully selected from the 400,000 pieces that belong to the collection of Saint Petersburg (take notes, Prado Museum!).
It may not be quintessential Spanish art, but don’t let that deter you – many of the recurrent themes in Spanish modernist art are reflected right here in the Russian Museum’s collection. The parallels between Ilya Gaponiv’s From the Zero People Series 2019-2020 and the labourers of the now-defunct Rio Tinto Mine (situated just a few hundred kilometres further west, still in Andalucia) are impossible to overlook.
The ambience of this museum is sombre but soulful – you will find yourself having a moment over and over again with no small number of paintings. And to keep you in that magical feeling of suspended time that all the best museums have, the Russian Museum in Málaga also includes a small auditorium, three screening halls, a digital resource area, and a reading room packed with reference books.
9. Centre Pompidou Málaga
Centre Pompidou Málaga is touted as one of the best modern art museums in the world, and with good reason. Though one of the newest modern art galleries in Europe, it’s fast becoming one of the most famous museums in Spain, and is an unmissable destination for those looking for a one-stop-shop to witness the greatest works of Spanish modern art.
Housing artworks from Bacon, Magritte, and the prodigal son, Picasso – Centre Pompidou Málaga is as much a work of art as any of its contents. Situated a stone’s throw from the beach, prepare to be dazzled from the first glance by the enormous Rubik’s cube-style glass cube that marks the entrance, ricocheting rainbows all over the surroundings. But the real excitement begins once you descend underground into the heart of the museum. The gallery is designed with such elegant minimalism that even the most claustrophobic of visitors won’t notice the lack of windows!
Live large whilst checking out the best museums in Barcelona
10. Dalí House-Museum in Cadaqués
Visitors to Barcelona often arrive eager to visit the museum of Salvador Dalí, but don’t be caught unprepared: there is no Salvador Dalí Museum in Barcelona! However, the journey to the Dalí House-Museum in Cadaqués is a not-too-tricky day trip from Barcelona.
Looking over the Portlligat Bay, the Dalí Museum was the artist’s home for more than 50 years, making it a mini wonderland of all things Surrealist. The artist took care to add his personal touches to every detail there – from the canvas art to life-size sculptures and even the buildings themselves.
Make your own way to Cadaqués to see the Dalí Museum or arrange a convenient guided day trip from Barcelona to bundle this visit with the Dalí Theater-Museum, the artist’s gift to his home city of Figueres.
11. Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA)
Prepare to have your breath taken away at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA), the best contemporary art museum in Barcelona. To immerse yourself in the world of Spanish modern art is a sensory experience, and few modern art museums in Spain do it better than MACBA.
With a permanent collection boasting around 5,000 works from the mid-20th century onward and a rolling treasure trove of temporary and pop-up exhibitions, MACBA captures some of the greatest Spanish modern art – both from famous artists, and those so underground you haven’t even heard of them yet.
12. Erotic Museum of Barcelona
What? you thought Amsterdam and the Bible were the only ways to dive into the history of sin?
The Erotic Museum of Barcelona combines education with titillation (and before you ask: no, the museum doesn’t offer the origins of that particular word). This blush-inducing, saucy spot explores human sexuality through the shifting sands of time and geographical distance, from the kama sutra to modern BDSM.
Take a peek into the raunchy side of history, from Japanese shunga erotic wood-carvings to the not-so-private personal porn collection of King Alfonso XIII, who was clearly wielding his monarchic authority responsibly when he commissioned his own stash of naughty films back in the 1920s. Take a peek and figure out if you have tastes fit for a king – but do your fellow museum-goers a favour and keep the revelation to yourself!
If you’re a tourist in town looking for a break from the usual Gaudí, Gaudí, Gaudí, there are few museums in Barcelona further from the standard fare than the Erotic Museum of Barcelona.