Ten fascinating museums in Spain you REALLY must visit

While millions of tourists flock to Spain every year to visit amazing galleries like the Prado and the Reina Sofia, the country is also home a wealth of other lesser-known museums you may not know. Here are ten of the best.

Ten fascinating museums in Spain you REALLY must visit
The weird and wonderful Cesar Manrique Museum on Lanzarote. Photo: 123_456/ Flickr

Fancy visiting a tranquil artist's villa full of astonishing paintings in the middle of busy downtown Madrid?

Or how about a contemporary arts centre built onto a bed of volcanic rock in the Canary Islands?  

Check out these amazing Spanish museums you might never have heard of but should visit at least once in your life.

César Manrique Fundacion, Lanzarote

Photo: Dr_zoidberg/Flickr

On the volcanic Canary island of Lanzarote, the César Manrique Foundation is an eye-catching architectural and aesthetic tribute to the late local artist and environmentalist of the same name, with exhibitions of his painting and others' work among avant-garde gardens, all built out of the suggestive forms of five bubbles in the volcanic rock.

Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida

Photo: Trevor Huxman/Flickr

The National Roman Art Museum in Mérida, one of the most important cities in Roman Hispania, was designed by architect Rafael Moneo to replace an older version. It was opened in 1986 and is a must-see for ancient history buffs.

Museo de Evolucion Humana, Burgos

Due to the discovery of Atapuerca outside the city, one of the most important human fossil sites in the world and a Unesco World Heritage attraction, Burgos is now home to a very modern Museum of Human Evolution, conceived by architect Juan Navarro Baldeweg as a huge box of light.

Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona

Photo: Matilde Martínez

High up on Barcelona’s Montjuïc, which overlooks the old city, the Joan Miró Foundation houses a valuable collection of the great 20th-century artist's abstract works, as well as excellent temporary exhibitions in a building which is highly modern but yet has great charm in a green setting.

Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao

Photo: Clar Gueibol

These days Bilbao is known for its Guggenheim, but the city’s Fine Arts Museum is a more than worthy companion to its more famous neighbour. Notable artists among its permanent collection include Francisco de Zurbarán, El Greco, Francisco de Goya and Francis Bacon.

Museo Sorolla, Madrid

Photo: Alejandro/ FlickrNear Madrid’s downtown business district there is an oasis of calm and beauty in  a villa where the Valencia-born painter Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) made his home. His widow, Clotilde García del Castillo, decided it should become a shrine to the artist and some of his most luminous and sensual paintings. The gardens alone, modelled on those at Seville's Alcázar Palace, make this museum worth a visit.

READ ALSO: Off the beaten track: Eight Madrid museums you've probably never heard of

Museo Vostell Malpartida, Cáceres

Photo: MichaelDeVos

This museum known as the MVM is one of the strangest museums in Spain, the brainchild of Wolf Vostell (1932-1998), a Spanish-German artist who was a co-founder of the anarchic Fluxus movement.

Oceanogràfic, Valencia

Photo: zx6r92/Depositphotos

Going some way to justify the massive expense of Valencia’s Arts and Sciences complex, the Oceanogràfic de la Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias is Europe’s biggest aquarium, and it is genuinely spectacular to boot. Look out for inquisitive Beluga whales and funny penguins.

Micromundi, Besalú

Photo: Museum of Miniatures

In the picturesque medieval town of Besalú, in the Catalan province of Girona, Micromundi is a miniature museum that strains the eyesight and beggars belief. Not just one camel passes through the eye of a needle, but a whole caravan finds space to camp there.

NMAC Foundation, Cadiz

Photo: Guillermo Varela

Between Cádiz and Tarifa in southernmost Andalusia, the NMAC Foundation sculpture park outside Vejer is well worth a stroll all year round, featuring, among other works, a James Turrell skyspace.

READ ALSO: These are Spain's ten weirdest museums


Spain’s scrap cathedral: A monk’s 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion

About 20 km east of Madrid, in the small town of Mejorada del Campo, stands a building that testifies to a former monk's lifetime of devotion to the Catholic faith. Paul Burge explores the Don Justo Cathedral, a religious edifice like no other.

Spain's scrap cathedral: A monk's 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion
Don Justo's Cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid. Photos: Paul Burge

The structure has been built by 95-year-old former monk, Don Justo Gallego Martinez, using nothing but recycled, scavenged and donated materials giving the building chaotic, eclectic and perplexing, if not impressive style.

Don Justo pictured here at the age of 73 in August 1999. Archive photo: AFP

Visitors are free to explore, stepping over bags of cement, buckets and tools which are strewn across the two-floor monument. Downstairs there is a shrine to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Chillingly Don Justo has already also dug his own grave in the basement, where he will finally be laid to rest at the heart of his labour of faith and devotion.

Don Justo, as he is known, is 95 years old. The cathedral still needs at least ten years' work, years that its creator simply doesn’t have. Yet, such is his devotion that he still works on its construction every day, except on Sundays of course. You may catch a glimpse of him in his dusty blue overalls, white shirt and trademark red beret. But as the notices pinned to the wall advise, he is not open to speaking to members of the public.

What inspired Don Justo to build it?

After eight years in a Trappist order at Soria‘s Santa Maria de la Huerta monastery, Don Justo Gallego Martinez was ordered to leave, for fear of infecting the other monks with tuberculosis that he had been diagnosed with.

When his mother died in 1963 and bequeathed to him a large plot of land, including an olive grove in the center of the town, Gallego had an idea. If he would never again be allowed to enter a Catholic church as an ordained member of the faith, then he would express his devotion in a magnificent way. He would build his own church. In fact he would build his own Cathedral from scratch and make a shrine to “Our Lady of the Pillar”, or Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

The future of the cathedral

Set amongst monotonous 1960s apartment blocks, the frame of the huge structure, with its 50-meter-tall dome modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome, towers over the town of Mejorada del Campo. Like the cathedrals of old, it will not reach completion during Don Justo’s lifetime.

What will happen to the building after Gallego’s death remains an open question and its future is uncertain. No one has yet stepped up to take over the project, nor is his cathedral recognized by the Catholic Church. What is more, Don Justo never applied for planning permission to build the cathedral and the structure does not conform to any building regulations.

There are rumous that it could be pulled down after Don Justo passes away but there is a concerted campaign to preserve it.

How to get there

Catedral de Justo is located in Mejorada del Campo, a small town just 20km from Madrid. To get there, there are two public buses from the centre: Avenida de América (line 282) and Conde de Casal (line 341). 

The bus stop in Mejorada del Campo is called Calle de Arquitecto Antoni Gaudí and is located right in front of the cathedral. However, going by car is a better option, so you can continue your day-trip to Alcalá de Heneres, Cervantes’ hometown, which is about half an hour away.

Listen to the When in Spain podcast episode for an audio tour around the cathedral with Paul Burge. HERE

Paul Burge is a former BBC journalist who moved from Oxford, UK to Madrid in 2013 where he now hosts the highly entertaining When in Spain a weekly podcast show about life in Madrid and beyond.  Follow Paul's observations and advice about living in Spain on FacebookInstagram, Twitter and his new YouTube channel.