Fine art doesn’t always feel very accessible. Imposing buildings, steep admission prices, and lack of amenities aren’t exactly encouraging for visitors who are curious but not necessarily passionate about art. But at London’s National Gallery, I’ve felt warmly welcomed for more than 20 years, and I think you’ll equally appreciate this traveler-friendly destination.
The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square, and that is one of the reasons I love it so much. I never feel like I need to make an effort to get there as I’ll always be passing nearby during my London getaway. The Leicester Square and Charing Cross Underground stations are both just a short walk away, and Trafalgar Square is on multiple public bus routes. There are hundreds of popular attractions within a 15-minute walk, making this a very convenient stop on any sightseeing journey.
Here are some more reasons why I love this art gallery, plus tips on making the most of your visit.
1. Know When To Make (Free) Reservations
Some of my favorite memories of visiting the National Gallery involve me popping in for just 20 minutes or so (often just to escape a brief rain shower). I got to know the collection one painting at a time and without breaking my budget.
Today, free online reservations are strongly recommended. This is a great new approach to keep crowds at bay, though I do admit I wish that a special pass was made just for me to dart in and out at my leisure! But I haven’t lost all flexibility. You can still just pop into to National Gallery, provided that walk-up tickets are available.
Your best bet if you’re taking this approach is to come early in the morning. Mid-week is much quieter to visit than weekends and holidays.
2. Make A Friday Night Out Of It
The National Gallery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., but on Fridays it is open until 9 p.m. I don’t know about everyone else, but I always feel like I should be doing something on a Friday night (you know, something other than hanging out in my hotel room and watching reruns of CSI, which I do maintain is a valuable travel activity). As such, I love that they offer Friday night hours. Even better, Friday night brings all kinds of special activities to the gallery, ranging from tours and lectures to concerts and drawing lessons.
If you want to make it a real night out on the town, head to the National Gallery’s next-door neighbor for dinner first. St. Martin-in-the-Field church is home to the Café in the Crypt. This underground café is equally loved by tourists and locals, and everyone from families to solo diners appreciate its affordable menu, which ranges from pre-packaged sandwiches to full hot meals (including dessert and custard!).
3. Follow These Routes For No Headaches
Far be it for me to criticize the layout of any art gallery (cough, cough, Louvre), but many seem to be set up to herd visitors into one or two prominent rooms where the “star” artwork is kept, leaving other areas quite neglected. As such, I very much appreciate that standout pieces feel more evenly distributed at the National Gallery. While you’re welcome to wander to your heart’s content, the National Gallery has three recommended “Art Routes,” each paced to take between 25 and 35 minutes of walking.
Route A features the Wilton Diptych and works by Bellini, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Uccello, Leonardo, van Eyck, Campin, Piero, and Raphael. A highlight of this collection is Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin Of The Rocks.
Route B features works by Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Constable, Stubbs, Seurat, and Van Gogh. Collection highlights include Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières, Monet’s The Thames below Westminster, and my personal favorite in the entire gallery: Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. I can still hear my art history professor’s instructions to look at Grey’s gorgeously painted gown, the luxurious silk of her skirt, the intricately laced ribbons on her bodice.
Route C features works by Bronzino, Holbein, Raphael, Titian, Turner, Gainsborough, Stubbs, Seurat, and Van Gogh. Must-see work includes Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger.
4. Take The Free Tours
If you’re able to plan your National Gallery visit for a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday afternoon, you’re in for a treat. This is when the gallery traditionally offers free 1-hour tours showcasing highlights of their collection. The tours typically start from the foyer of the Sainsbury Wing.
Remember, you’ll need to make a free reservation to visit the National Gallery to guarantee your admission to the gallery at this specific time. Given that mid-afternoon is one of the busiest times to visit, you probably don’t want to leave things to chance. However, you don’t need to make any reservation to be a part of the tour.
It’s well worth keeping an eye on the National Gallery’s event page as there are often interesting and unusual events throughout the year, including film nights, themed tours, and sketching classes. One thing that isn’t available for the moment, however, is audio guides. They’re often mentioned in articles about the National Gallery but have been discontinued as a result of the pandemic.
5. Use The Traveler-Friendly Cloak Room
Little things matter when you’re trying to squeeze in as many travel experiences as possible. The gallery cloakroom charges £2 per item for storage and accepts bags as large as airplane carry-on size.
6. If Applicable, Study The Accessibility Services
The National Gallery has a number of services, amenities, and programs to cater to the needs of visitors with disabilities, including a Changing Places toilet facility. However, some services (including accessible tours) have had their schedule disrupted due to the pandemic. You can see a full list of the Gallery’s accessible offerings here.
7. Pop Into The Lovely Gallery Cafe
All good travel activities include tasty snacks, so you know I can’t leave without mentioning that there are three eateries at the National Gallery, including the Ochre Restaurant and the Espresso Bar. But my favorite is Muriel’s Kitchen, which is not far from the main entrance and tucked down on the lower level. You can get a long list of homey lunch items for £12.50 or less, including lasagna with garlic bread, baked Scottish salmon, and quiche.