If you want to know the who’s who of British icons and legends, The National Portrait Gallery is where you’ll find them all. Well, most of them. Housing the world’s largest collection of personalities and faces, which is over 10,000 of them, you’ll spot everyone from Florence Nightingale, The Beatles and Kate Middleton to a sketch of Jane Austen and the famous ‘Chandos Portrait’ of William Shakespeare. And they’re not all created with paintbrushes, see portraits in the form of painting, sculpture, photography and video.
As the world’s very first portrait gallery, dating back to 1856, its location and precious portraiture content have moved around an uncountable amount over the decades. Due to expansion issues and then a threatening fire, the gallery moved from the West End, then to South Kensington, Bethnal Green and then finally to its current spot on St Martins Lane near Charing Cross.
With generous funding over the years, the gallery has grown in size to house more and more faces of the most prominent Brits in history. These have either been drawn, photographed or videoed by some of the most famous artists of our time including Hockney, Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz and Sam Taylor-Johnson.
Sandwiched in between Charing Cross and Leicester Square and just a short walk from Embankment tube station too, there’s no need to drive to somewhere like The National Portrait Gallery. You’re better off walking or jumping on public transport - you’ll get to see so much more.
Buses 24, 29 and 176 pull up near to the gallery at either the Trafalgar Square stop at bus stop C or Charing Cross Road at bus stop K which is opposite the St Martin’s Place entrance, too.
Charing Cross tube is just a stone’s throw away from the gallery and on both the Northern and Bakerloo lines. Leicester Square is also incredibly close by and you can hop on from either the Northern or Piccadilly line.
If you’re coming in by train, Charing Cross rail station is your best option. It’s only 320 metres away from the main entrance with trains coming in from Waterloo and King’s Cross.
There are three main entrances into the building - two on St Martin’s Lane and the third on Orange Street with ramp access on the Orange Street entrance. Once you’re inside, lifts can take you to all for floors with the lift in the gift shop giving you access to the Bookshop Gallery and Portrait Cafe. Accessible toilets can be found on the top, lower ground, ground floor and on the Basement Bookshop Gallery via the gallery shop and you’ll find gallery maps and braille systems at any of the information desks.
Exhibited in chronological order, you can really get a taste of British history as you work your way through the gallery. Plus, there’s temporary and permanent exhibitions by the bucketload so keep an eye out for those.
Starting from the top, you’ll find portraits from the life and times of kings, queens and terribly important people from the Tudor times. Moving through the rooms, you’ll see some important figureheads from the 18th century, The Romantics and icons from the Science and technology world. Down a floor and you’ll come to face to face with Queen Victoria and more notables from the Victorian era and British Empire plus heroes from the Second World War. Finally, as you reach the lower ground, you might start to spot the odd celebrity of our time - maybe it’s a famous musician or superstar footballer...but we’re not giving anything away!
Ever-changing, there have been so many notable things to see at The National Portrait Gallery, beside the eyes, ears and noses of some British greats. Past exhibitions have included a focus on Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth I and her people and portraits created by the famous Lucian Freud. Displays have been visited by thousands of people looking at portraits from the famous Glastonbury Festival, Charles Darwin and the 1975 Royal Ballet.
The Bookshop, not surprisingly a bookshop, is home to an array of books, DVDs, posters and magazines on British art, history, photography and costume and can be accessed through the Main Hall. For trinkets, prints and unique gift ideas, The Gift Shop has shelves lined with jewellery, stationery and your classic art gallery postcards. It also the coolest gadget, The Portrait Printer, where you can choose from over 10,000 Collection images and have them printed on canvas to take home and frame it as pride of place above your fireplace.
If you’re after something a little more unique on a Friday night, take advantage of the late night openings until 9pm at the gallery where you can enjoy talks, tours and live music. Pick up an audio guide (£3 for a single, £6 for family) and listen as it highlights over 300 portraits - listen out for some of the subjects and their artists, too.
Because of the great location of this stunning gallery, finding a bite to eat outside of the art-laden walls won’t be a tough job. However, if you do fancy dining inside, you won’t be disappointed - it just adds to your London experience.
With some of the most spectacular views of the London skyline, The Portrait Bar and Restaurant, you can enjoy it all at breakfast, lunch or dinner. Specialities include the Dorset crab and Berkshire pork plus seasonal pickles and preserves all year round. For something a little more casual, The Portrait Cafe’s menu of sandwiches, soups and stews will do the job and are accompanied with tasty pastries and cakes as well as fresh roasted coffees. Little ones can tuck into kids’ lunchboxes, perfect during the kids’ summer holidays.
For some of the best British fare in the heart of the West End, head to fine dining restaurant Tredwells, the AA award winner for London Restaurant of the Year.
With a menu of juicy steaks, field mushroom ravioli and slow cooked salmon with chilli green salsa, all the dishes have decidedly mouthwatering tendencies - not to mention the three-course Sunday roast.