Spain unveils new 'Art Walk' linking capital's three major galleries

Vast and clamorous building sites in the heart of Madrid will shortly reveal dazzling extensions to three of the world's greatest art museums, linked by a leafy stroll dubbed the New Art Walk.

The Prado, the Thyssen Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia museums, a few moments' walk from each other along the Paseo de Prado boulevard, are to expand into spectacular buildings set to open next year. The government this week hailed the New Art Walk as one of the world's most important cultural projects.

The galleries house some of the top international art collections and are the Spanish capital's main tourist attractions, drawing millions of visitors annually.

"Few European cities have such a high concentration of extraordinarily rich art and cultural activity so close together," said Spain's Culture Minister Pilar de Castillo. "Next year, this privileged district of art will draw even more people of all ages and from all over the world."

The New Art Walk is a demonstration of Spain's recent commitment to upmarket tourism based on culture and the cities, a commitment rewarded this week with the announcement that Spain has topped France for the first time as the favourite destination for Britons travelling abroad. The Spanish government has invested 147m euros (£102m) to provide 65,000 square metres (670,000 square feet) of extra space for the three museums, the biggest public investment in art that Spain has yet undertaken, Ms Castillo said.

By promoting the New Art Walk, the authorities hope to create a cultural space comparable to Washington's Museum Mall, Berlin's Museum Island and London's Kensington museum quarter. Each gallery will gain multistorey extensions to house libraries, bookshops, gift shops, auditoriums, cafés, study areas and new exhibition spaces. Big exhibitions are planned to inaugurate the new spaces.

The Thyssen extension, in a former palace gutted for the purpose by a group of avant-garde Catalan architects, BOPBAA, will open first and house the huge private collection of the Baroness Carmen Thyssen.

A steel, wood and class extension to the Reina Sofia down the road, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, will open in the summer. And the long-awaited Prado expansion masterminded by Frenchman Rafael Moneo opens next winter. The extension, plunging deep beneath the existing building and extending to the remains of nearby 17th century cloisters, doubles the Prado's size.

Museum directors and architects leading each renovation project mounted high-profile presentations this week, dodging the forests of cables, scaffolding, steel girders and naked concrete pillars.

The three museums have long felt poky for the treasures they own. The new buildings will enable works currently stored in vaults to be displayed, and free up space for temporary shows and shops.

The Thyssen plans a blockbuster next year on Gauguin, followed by German Expressionism; the Reina Sofia will launch its bigger self with Dali and Lichtenstein. And the Prado, which today unveils Velazquez's portrait of The Pope's Barber recently bought from an American private collector for 23m euros (£16m), is to celebrate Spanish portraits from El Greco to Picasso.