The fine arts don’t always feel very accessible. The towering buildings, steep admission prices, and lack of amenities aren’t exactly encouraging for curious but not necessarily art-loving visitors. But at the National Gallery in London, I’ve felt warmly welcomed for over 20 years, and I think you’ll enjoy this traveller-friendly destination, too.
The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square, and that’s one of the reasons I love it so much. I never feel like I need to make an effort to get there as I will always pass by on my London getaway. Leicester Square and Charing Cross tube stations are both a short walk away, and Trafalgar Square is on several public bus routes. There are hundreds of popular attractions within a 15 minute walk, making it a very convenient stopover on any sightseeing trip.
Here are a few more reasons why I love this art gallery, along with tips for making the most of your visit.
1. Know when to make (free) reservations
Some of my favorite memories of visiting the National Gallery involve only spending around 20 minutes (often just to escape a brief downpour). I got to know the collection one painting at a time and without breaking my budget.
Today, free online reservations are highly recommended. It’s a great new approach to keeping the crowds at bay, although I’ll admit I wish a special pass had been created just so I could get in and out as I pleased! But I haven’t lost all flexibility. You box just go to the National Gallery, provided walk-in tickets are available.
Your best bet if you take this approach is to come early in the morning. Midweek is much quieter to visit than weekends and holidays.
2. Make it a Friday night
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, but I always feel like I should do Something on a Friday night (you know, anything other than hanging out in my hotel room and watching reruns of ITUC, which I maintain is a valuable travel activity). As such, I like that they offer Friday night hours. Best of all, Friday night brings all sorts of special activities to the gallery, from tours and talks to concerts and drawing classes.
If you want to make it a real night out on the town, head to the nearby National Gallery for dinner first. St. Martin-in-the-Field Church is home to Café in the Crypt. This underground cafe is equally popular with tourists and locals alike, and everyone from families to solo diners enjoys its affordable menu, which ranges from prepackaged sandwiches to full hot meals (including dessert and custard!).
3. Follow these headache-free routes
Far be it from me to criticize the layout of any art gallery (cough, cough, Louvre), but many seem to be laid out to gather visitors into one or two prominent rooms where the ‘star’ works of art are kept, leaving the other areas quite neglected. As such, I very much appreciate that the standout pieces feel more evenly distributed at the National Gallery. Although you are welcome to wander around at your leisure, the National Gallery offers three recommended “art routes”, each paced to take between 25 and 35 minutes of walking.
Route A includes the Diptych Wilton and works by Bellini, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Uccello, Leonardo, van Eyck, Campin, Piero and Raphael. A highlight of this collection is Leonardo da Vinci 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 Sunflowersby Seurat Bathers at Asnièresby Monet The Thames under Westminster, and my favorite in the whole gallery: that of Delaroche The execution of Lady Jane Gray. I can still hear my art history teacher’s instructions to look at Grey’s beautifully painted dress, 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. Works to see include Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger.
4. Take the free tours
If you are able to time your visit to the National Gallery on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday afternoon, you are in for a treat. This is when the gallery traditionally offers free one-hour tours showcasing highlights of their collection. Tours usually start from the Sainsbury’s Wing foyer.
Remember that you will need to make a free reservation to visit the National Gallery to guarantee your admission to the gallery at that specific time. Since mid-afternoon is one of the busiest times to visit, you probably don’t want to leave things to chance. However, you do not need to make a reservation to join the tour.
It’s worth keeping an eye on the National Gallery’s events page as there are often interesting and unusual events throughout the year, including movie nights, themed tours and drawing classes. One thing that is currently unavailable, however, are audio guides. They are often mentioned in articles about the National Gallery, but have been discontinued due to the pandemic.
5. Use the traveler-friendly cloakroom
The little things matter when trying to get as many travel experiences as possible. The gallery cloakroom charges £2 per item for storage and accepts bags as large as the size of airline hand luggage.
6. If applicable, investigate accessibility services
The National Gallery of Canada offers a number of services, amenities and programs to meet the needs of visitors with disabilities, including a Changing Places washroom facility. However, some services (including accessible tours) have seen their schedule disrupted due to the pandemic. You can see a full list of accessible Gallery offerings here.
7. Step into the charming gallery cafe
All good travel activities include tasty snacks, so you know I can’t leave without mentioning that there are three restaurants at the National Gallery, including Ocher Restaurant and Espresso Bar. But my favorite is Muriel’s Kitchen, which is not far from the main entrance and tucked away on the lower level. You can get a long list of homemade lunch items for £12.50 or less, including lasagne with garlic bread, baked Scottish salmon and a quiche.