Barcelona's top museums and galleries

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This highlighted list of museums and galleries is taken from Lonely Planet's city guide to Barcelona.

GALLERIES

CaixaForum

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Image of CaixaForum by montuno
Housed in a former Modernista factory, an outstanding brick caprice by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, this extensive private collection of contemporary art is in constant flux. The Caixa building society rotates its international line-up of works and organises frequent temporary exhibitions, which means that no two visits will be the same. Among the names in the permanent collection are such Spanish icons as Antoni Tàpies and Miquel Barceló. The setting is a completely renovated former factory, the Fàbrica Casaramona, itself an outstanding modernista structure designed by Puig i Cadafalch. From 1940 to 1993 it housed the First Squadron of the police cavalry unit - 120 horses in all. Now it houses selected items of the 800-strong collection, rotated on view every month or two, while some space is set aside for external temporary exhibitions. In the courtyard where the police horses used to drink is a steel tree designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.

Museu Picasso

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Image of Museu Picasso by Pixonomy
Barcelona's most visited museum shows numerous works tracing the artist's early years and is especially strong on his Blue Period, with canvasses like The Defenceless, as well as ceramics and early works from the 1890s. The rest of the museum traces Picasso's life and travels. The stunning stone mansions that house the museum are situated on the Carrer de Montcada, which was, in medieval times, an approach to the port. The 1st floor is devoted to Picasso's Blue Period. The 2nd floor displays his impressionist-influenced works, produced in Barcelona and Paris between 1900 and 1904. The haunting Portrait of Señora Canals (1905), from his Rose Period, is also on display. Among the later works, all painted in Cannes in 1957, is a complex technical series entitled Las Meninas, which consists mostly of studies on Diego Velázquez's eponymous masterpiece.

Related article: 18 free things to do in Barcelona

Fundació Joan Miró

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Image of Fundació Joan Miró by Morgaine
A wonderfully captivating gallery showcasing the delights of Miró. Miró's friend Josep Lluís Sert designed the gallery and its amazing use of white and light makes it an unforgettable experience. The gallery was Miró's gift to his beloved city. It also houses exhibitions by contemporary artists. The displays tend to concentrate on Miró's more settled last 20 years, but there are some important exceptions. The Sala Joan Prats and Sala Pilar Juncosa show work by the younger Miró that traces him moving away slowly from a relative realism towards his own later signature style. Transitional works from the 1930s and '40s are especially intriguing. Another interesting section is devoted to the 'Miró Papers', which include many preparatory drawings and sketches, some on bits of newspaper or cigarette packets. A Joan Miró is a collection of work by other contemporary artists, donated in tribute to Miró and displayed in a basement room.

Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona

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Image of Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona by yisris
The ever-expanding contemporary art collection of the Macba starts in the Gothic chapel of the Convent dels Àngels and continues in the main gleaming white building across the square. It shines as a stage for the best of Catalan, Spanish and international contemporary art. What's on show is in constant, restless flux, although in the chapel you are more likely to see established names such as Alexander Calder and Antoni Tàpies. The ground and 1st floors are given over to exhibitions from the gallery's own collection, which counts more than 1600 pieces, only a portion of which is ever on show. They tend to change things here a lot so it is difficult to say what you will see. Works start with artists such as Antoni Tàpies, Joan Brossa, Paul Klee and Alexander Calder. Artists such as Miquel Barceló and Ferran García Sevilla, protagonists of neoexpressionism who emerged in the 1980s, also generally get a run.

Fundació Antoni Tàpies

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Image of Fundació Antoni Tàpies by morgaine
This Domènech i Montaner building - considered by many to be the prototype for Modernisme, and the first in the city to be built on an iron frame - houses the experimental work of Catalonia's greatest living artist, Antoni Tàpies, as well as exhibitions by other contemporary artists. The building is crowned with coiled wire, a curious Tàpies sculpture titled Núvol i Cadira (Cloud and Chair). Tàpies saw fit to crown the building with the meanderings of his own mind - to some it looks like a pile of coiled barbed wire, to others…well it's difficult to say. Antoni Tàpies, whose experimental art has often carried (not always easily decipherable) political messages - he opposed Francoism in the 1960s and 1970s - launched the Fundació in 1984 to promote contemporary art, donating a large part of his own work. The core collection spans the whole arc of Tàpies' creations, and also includes some contributions from other contemporary artists. The Fundació houses an important research library devoted principally to Tàpies, but again embracing a wider range of contemporary art.

BEST MUSEUM FOR…

Ancient History Buffs: Museu d’Història de la Ciutat

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Image of Museu d’Història de la Ciutat by anaru
The entrance to this museum is through the 16th-century mansion Casa Padellàs, which was shifted here, stone by stone, in the 1930s to make way for the bustling ramrod artery of Via Laietana. Digging the foundations one day, what should labourers stub their shovels on but the ancient Roman city of Barcino. Descend into the remnants of the Roman town and stroll along glass ramps above 2000-year-old streets. You walk past the old public laundries, where pots were left outside for passers-by to pee in - urine was used as a disinfectant in Roman laundries! Explore public baths and drainage systems. Peer into storage areas for wine (Catalan wine was plentiful and rough) and garum (a whiffy fish sauce popular throughout the Roman empire). After Barcino, you emerge into the buildings of the Palau Reial, the former royal palace, and can admire the broad arches of the Saló del Tinell, a 14th-century banquet hall.

Lovers of the Sea and Gothic Architecture: Museu Marítim

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Image of Museu Marítim by Ben B Miller
Much of Barcelona's medieval prosperity depended on sea trade. In these one-time Gothic shipyards, you can get a sense of the glory and adventure of centuries of maritime history , from the era of rafts to the age of steam. Entry also gives access to the 1918 three-master Pailebot de Santa Eulàlia, moored at Port Vell. The centre of the shipyards is dominated by a full-sized replica (made in the 1970s) of Don Juan of Austria's flagship. A clever audiovisual display aboard the vessel brings to life the ghastly existence of the slaves, prisoners and volunteers (!) who at full steam could haul this vessel along at nine knots. They remained chained to their seats, four to an oar, at all times. Here they worked, drank (fresh water was stored below decks, where the infirmary was also located), ate, slept and went to the loo. You could smell a galley like this from miles away.

Devotees of Romanesque Art: Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya

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Image of Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya by laura padgett
The grandest and worthiest of all Barcelona's art museums, the MNAC gathers under one roof a plethora of Catalan works that range from the Middle Ages to well into the 1900s. The Romanesque art in particular is a unique experience. If that was the initial intention, then its conversion into the seat of the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya is all the more ironic, since the 'nation' in question here is Catalonia, not Spain. The museum's two main permanent expositions cover Romanesque and Gothic art, although these are slowly being augmented with other collections, including those of the former Museu Nacional d'Art Modern de Catalunya, covering Catalan art from the mid-19th century through to modernisme and Noucentisme . By far the most extraordinary section is that dedicated to Romanesque art, one of the most important concentrations of early medieval art in the world.

Aficionados of Pre-Colombian Art: Museu Barbier-Mueller d’Art Pre-Colombí

In this branch of the prestigious Barbier-Mueller museum in Geneva you'll find a sparkling assortment of art from the pre-Columbian civilisations of Central and South America. Gold glitters in the form of at times highly intricate ornamental objects, expressive masks and women's jewellery. These pieces are complemented by plenty of statuary, ceramics, textiles and ritual and household objects from all over South America. Together, the museums form one of the most prestigious collections of such art in the world. In blacked-out rooms the eerily illuminated artefacts flare up in the gloom. South American gold jewellery introduces the collection, followed by rooms containing ceramics, jewellery, statues, textiles and other objects.

Kids and Chocoholics: Museu de la Xocolata

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Image of Museu de la Xocolata by EileenRose
Explore the sticky story of chocolate through audiovisual displays (in English on request), touch-screen presentations, historical exhibits and the most extraordinary chocolate models of anything from grand monuments such as La Sagrada Família to cartoon characters such as Winnie the Pooh. Sign up for cooking demonstrations and tastings. Trace the origins of chocolate, its arrival in Europe and the many myths and images that surround it. It's enough to have you making for the nearest confectionery shop, but you don't have to — they sell plenty of chocolate right here! Kids and grown-ups can join guided tours or take part in chocolate-making sessions.

You can find many more cultural sights in Lonely Planet's city guide to Barcelona