Visual art does not always feel equally accessible. Imposing buildings, high entrance fees and lack of amenities are not exactly encouraging for visitors who are curious, but not necessarily passionate about art. But the National Gallery in London has given me a warm welcome for over 20 years, and I think you’ll appreciate this traveler-friendly destination just as much.
The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square, which is one of the reasons I love it so much. I never feel like I have to make an effort to get there as I will always come close on my London getaway. Leicester Square and Charing Cross Tube stations are both just 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 this a very convenient stop on any sightseeing trip.
Here are some more reasons why I love this art gallery, plus tips for getting the most out of your visit.
1. Know when to book (for free)
Some of my favorite memories of visiting the National Gallery include popping in for just 20 minutes or so (often just to escape a brief rain shower). I got to know the collection painting by painting and without exceeding my budget.
Today, free online reservations are highly recommended. This is a great new approach to keeping crowds at bay, although I’ll admit I wish there was a special pass made so I could shoot in and out at my leisure! But I haven’t lost all flexibility. you can still just come to the National Gallery, provided admission tickets are available.
If you follow this approach, it is best 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 10am to 6pm but on Fridays it’s open until 9pm I don’t know about the rest but I always feel like I should something on a Friday night (you know, something other than hanging out in my hotel room and watching reruns of CSI, which I believe is a worthwhile travel activity). As such, I love that they offer Friday evening hours. In fact, Friday evenings bring all kinds of special activities to the gallery, ranging from tours and lectures to concerts and drawing classes.
If you want to make it a real night out, head to the National Gallery’s neighbor for dinner first. St. Martin-in-the-Field Church is home to the Café in the Crypt. This underground cafe is loved by tourists and locals alike, and everyone from families to solo diners appreciates its affordable menu, which ranges from prepackaged sandwiches to full hot meals (including dessert and custard!).
3. Follow these routes without a headache
Far be it from me to criticize the layout of an art gallery (cough, cough, Louvre), but many seem set up to direct visitors to one or two prominent rooms where the ‘star’ artwork is kept, leaving other areas quite neglected. As such, I really appreciate that standout pieces are more evenly distributed in the National Gallery. While you can wander to your heart’s content, the National Gallery has three recommended ‘Art Routes’, each at a pace of between 25 and 35 minutes’ walk.
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 that of Leonardo da Vinci The Virgin of the Rocks†
Route B shows works by Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Velázquez, Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Constable, Stubbs, Seurat and Van Gogh. Collection highlights include Van Gogh’s sunflowersSeurat’s Swimmers in AsnieresMonet’s The Thames under Westminster, and my personal favorite in the entire gallery: Delaroche’s The Execution of Lady Jane Gray† I can still hear my art history professor’s instructions to look at Gray’s beautifully 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 can schedule your visit to the National Gallery on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday afternoon, you’re in for a treat. This is when the gallery traditionally offers free 1-hour tours of highlights from their collection. The tours usually start from the foyer of the Sainsbury Wing.
Remember, you must make a free reservation to visit the National Gallery to guarantee your entry to the gallery at this specific time. Since mid-afternoon is one of the busiest times to visit, you probably don’t want to leave anything to chance. However, you do not need to make a reservation to participate in 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 sketch classes. However, one thing that is currently unavailable 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
Small things are important when you are trying to gain as many travel experiences as possible. The gallery’s cloakroom charges £2 per item for storage and accepts bags the size of hand luggage on an airplane.
6. Study accessibility services, if applicable
The National Gallery has a number of services, amenities, and programs to meet the needs of visitors with disabilities, including 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. Enter the lovely gallery cafe
All good travel activities include tasty snacks, so you know I can’t go without mentioning that there are three dining options in the National Gallery, including the Ocher Restaurant and the 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 homely lunch items for £12.50 or less, including lasagna with garlic bread, baked Scottish salmon and quiche.