The National Gallery boasts one of the greatest collections of paintings in the world - and it’s free! Wander through the galleries any day of the week, amongst works spanning from the 13th to the 19th Century. The Gallery is devoted to education and inspiration, with everything from concerts to lectures and talks taking place in its hallowed halls.
Born from the personal collection of John Julius Angerstein and growing piece by piece, the National Gallery sits proudly in Trafalgar Square, considered to be (today, as in 1831) the centre of London. Physically and socially in between the rich in West London and the poor in East London, it was designed to be accessible to all - and still is! Its commitment to free admittance and education is part of its fundamental make up. Today, lectures, tours and seminars run in the Gallery, preserving the collections, from their physical appearance to their histories and hidden meanings. The main Portico entrance (now a Grade I listed building) gained a new wing and a dome in 1876, then five more galleries in 1907. The Sainsbury Wing was the final addition to the building, built in 1991 on the Northern extension and financed by the Sainsbury brothers. With all its extensions and new galleries over the years, the building has wound up covering a massive 46,396 metres squared; the same as six football pitches!
Rather than trying to get to grips with the whole place in one go, pick one painting, sit down in front of it and turn on the audio tour, or even start sketching! A few minutes spent in front of one painting can be more rewarding than an hour of aimless wandering.
The cloakroom at the National Gallery is free and expertly managed, so you can relax and enjoy yourself for as long as you like, without the inconvenience of a heavy suitcase. There is seating all over the Gallery, on Level 2, in the Sainsbury Wing foyer and right by the Getty Entrance. You can either bring your own stool or borrow one from the Information Desk or from the Sainsbury Wing cloakroom.
Talks given in British Sign Language are held to encourage discussion about specific paintings, and are free and open to all.There are also multimedia self-guided tours available for the deaf or hard of hearing. This BSL commentary is £3.50 for adults, and free for carers, and explores 23 of the National Gallery’s best pieces. The Getty, Sainsbury Wing, National Café and Pigott Education Centre have level entrances that are accessible to those in a wheelchair.
Tours of the Gallery’s most iconic works run every day at 11.30am and at 2.30pm. Pop by on a Friday night and catch a late tour at 7pm for a quieter, more intimate look around the gallery. Alternatively, explore the Gallery any time you like with the audio tours! A fun and easy way to get to know the Gallery, piece by piece. You can start with the highlights, or maybe explore the sounds of a painting, find out about the conditions it was painted under or the specific techniques used. Wandering at your own pace among some of the world’s most iconic masterpieces, you’ll be amazed at what you’ll discover.
The countenance of the National Gallery is constantly changing. From 17th Century ‘Darkness, Drama, Violence, Light’ in the exhibition ‘Beyond Caravaggio’, to Van Gogh’s bright yet muted ‘Sunflowers’ in the early 20th Century, there’s something here for you, whenever you choose to visit the Gallery.
Something for the kids
Take the littlest ones along to the Gallery on ‘Messy Mondays’ and get them properly stuck into the paintings, mark-making with materials inspired by a different painting each time.
Want something special to remember your trip by? Perhaps you’ve got some empty wall space at home or are longing for a tote bag with a bit of class. Postcards, full-size prints, ornaments or tea towels, you’ll find it in the National Gallery’s gift shop. Aspiring artist yourself? The Gallery also stocks art supplies to fuel your creative fires! Pick up anything from canvas to crayons and get started on your own masterpiece.
Eating and drinking
If your energy is failing you, why not stop off at the Espresso Bar for a quick caffeine fix and a snack? Or if you’re after something a little more substantial, try the National Dining Rooms for a delicious seasonal menu, healthy kid’s options and an all-day bakery! If time is of the essence and you’re headed out to a show after the gallery, the National Cafe does a pre-theatre menu! Call ahead to book a table at either the Cafe or the Dining Rooms, to avoid disappointment on the day.
Don’t spend your trip poring over bus timetables, If you’re planning to hit all the biggest and best bits, base yourself in the heart of the action at hub by Premier Inn in Covent Garden.
If you are driving, there are two public car parks not too far from Trafalgar Square- in Spring Gardens, SW1A 2TS, and on Whitcomb Street, WC2H 7DT. There are some parking bays on St Martin’s St, or some on Orange Street that are for blue badge holders only.
By bus or bike
The 3, 6, 9, 11, 13, 15, 23, 24, 87, 91, 139, and 176 buses all stop at Trafalgar Square. If you’ve got your own bike there are places to lock up on St Martin’s Street, St Martin’s Place and Duncannon Street.Alternatively, hire a bike for as little as £2 for 24 hours from a Santander Cycle docking station. You’ll find stations on St Martin’s Street, Craven Street, Pall Mall East, William IV Street, Charles II Street and Oxendon Street.
Charing Cross Station is just a short walk away along the Strand. Tube stations Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Embankment are also well within walking distance, and between them cover the Northern, Piccadilly, Bakerloo, District and Circle lines.
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