Strolling the halls of the National Portrait Gallery is like taking a walk through British history, as you pass images of royals, politicians, and pop culture icons. When it opened in 1856, the gallery was the first of its kind. Now it houses the world’s biggest portrait collection, featuring more than 11,000 works.
Visitors can opt to explore independently on a self-guided tour or hire a multimedia guide, enjoying access to more than 40 rooms, spread over three floors. The vast permanent collection features paintings, drawings, photographs, and sculptures, dating from as early as the 13th century. Popular exhibits include portraits of Kings Richard III and Henry VIII (along with his six wives), and Victorian-era portraits of Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and the Brontë sisters.
The modern era is well represented too, including Diana Princess of Wales and the Duchess of Cambridge, actors including Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren, and other famous Brits such as The Beatles, Richard Branson, and J. K. Rowling.
Things to Know Before You Go
- Entrance to the National Portrait Gallery is free, but there is an admission fee for some temporary exhibitions.
- On-site facilities include a museum shop, paid storage lockers, a rooftop restaurant, and a café.
- Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the museum.
- The gallery is fully wheelchair accessible.
How to Get There
The National Portrait Gallery is located on St. Martin’s Place, just north of Trafalgar Square and right next door to the National Gallery. The closest Underground station is Charing Cross (Bakerloo and Northern lines), but it’s also a short walk from Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus.
When to Get There
The museum is open daily, year-round, but it can get busy at weekends, so make an early start to avoid the crowds. An atmospheric time to visit is Friday nights, when the gallery stays open until 9pm, and often hosts special events and exhibitions.
Portraits of Note
Highlights of the National Portrait Gallery include the “Chandos” portrait, alleged to portray William Shakespeare; a sketch of novelist Jane Austen by her sister; and the “Ditchley” portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. In the modern gallery, must-sees include Julian Opie’s celebrated Blur portraits, Sam Taylor-Wood’s video portrait of David Beckham, and Marlene Dumas’ painting of Amy Winehouse. The most bizarre is Mark Quinn’s Self, a frozen sculpture of his head made with his own blood.