Updated April 2017 — When people think about European masterpieces, inspiring works such as the "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre in Paris typically spring to mind. But art lovers would be remiss to ignore Spain, where they can find art of a different flavor: emotionally wrought, dark, somber, and surreal.
Heavily religious and marked by a tone of realism borrowed from the Flemish School, classic Spanish masterpieces don't have the easy mass appeal that might be associated with galleries full of sumptuous Impressionist nudes. But, like Spain itself, a country influenced and shaped by cultures as disparate as the Romans, Celts, Moors, Christians, and Jews, Spanish art is captivating exactly because it's not mainstream. Whether you gaze at one of Goya's bloody battle scenes or ponder Picasso's cubist take on the female form, this is art that speaks as much to the mind as to the heart.
If time and space were as immaterial as realism was to Salvador Dalí, hopscotching between these museums across the country would define an art lover's dream.
Art in the capital
The place to start is right in the middle of the country at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. Housed in a stunning neoclassical building on one of the city's grand avenues, The Prado offers a vast repository of Spanish works from Romanesque to modern time. It also contains European treasures that speak to the crown's domination and influence of neighboring countries, including Italy and France. "Las Meninas" by Diego de Velázquez is akin to the "Mona Lisa"; it's a must-see sly masterpiece from the leading painter in the royal court that plays with perspective, light, and formality in ways unheard of in 1656.
Time travel to the 20th century with a visit to the Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, also in Madrid. Picasso, Dalí, and Miró are the stars of this show, artists who deconstructed form and challenged tradition with every brushstroke. This is a museum that strives for context, showcasing important modern work against the political, social, and technological changes of the day.
The capital city of Madrid, home of Cybele Palace, is home to a pair of must-see art museums.
To the north
Head to Bilbao, where the Museo Guggenheim is a work of art in its own right. Frank Gehry's jaw-dropping design of sumptuous titanium curves and soaring atriums sets the stage for modern and contemporary works by international and Spanish artists, including an army of sublime monumental sculptures by American artist Richard Sera.
In Barcelona, head into the Gothic Quarter, where the Picasso Museum houses some 3,600 works by the prolific artist, who lived here in the early days of his career when he was feeling quite blue. Stray off the canvas to the Textile and Costume Museum inside the Pedralbes Royal Palace, where you'll find a fab array of fashion from 17th century baroque to the 20th century, including homage to the 1960s babydoll dress.
Antoni Gaudí believed in art as architecture, but not everyone agreed with him. Decide for yourself with a visit to La Sagrada Familia. Under construction since 1892, this church is just one of his distinctive structures marked by sinuous designs abstracted from nature. Its spires tower 560 feet above the Catalan capital, a worthy climb for a spectacular city view. Continue northwest to Park Güell, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, to experience Gaudí's exquisite multicolor mosaic and architectural work, and find yet another impressive view of the city from its highest point.
The ornate La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was designed by Antoni Gaudi.
To the south
The towns along the southern coast of Spain attract visitors seeking sun-drenched beaches and an appreciation for the pleasures of life. Art thrives here, as well, in places like Málaga, where the Carmen Thyssen Museum spotlights this collector's personal love of 19th century Andalusian paintings, housed in a 16th century Renaissance palace.
In Valencia, a region famed for its oranges and paella, you'll have the chance to explore some 45 museums, ranging from the ultra-modern arts and science complex to the national ceramics museum. A quirky favorite is the Fallas Museum, a tribute to the annual pyrotechnic festival, with 80 bigger-than-life satirical doll-like figures — chosen to be spared from burning — displayed in an old lepers' hospital. Mardi Gras comes to mind.
Even if you're island bound, planning to sun in carefree Tenerife or Majorca, Spanish art awaits. Take a break from the rays and the partying to mull over the surrealism of Oscar Domínguez displayed in the modern Tenerife Space of Arts in the heart of Santa Cruz. A contemporary of Dalí and Picasso, the paintings of Domínguez are both ominous and impossible to categorize, which, come to think of it, describes a lot of art in this intriguing country.