the national collection of paintings

National Gallery London

Whether you’re looking to simply kill an hour or two or want to throw yourself in the artistic deep-end and soak up everything from Botticelli’s Venus and Mars to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, then London’s National Gallery ought to be at the top of your list.

Located in the capital’s historic Trafalgar Square, there’s free access to over 2,300 paintings and works of art, set in immense and humbling surroundings. You don’t have to be a culture vulture to pay a visit and you can appreciate the art on whatever level you choose. However, if you’d like to learn that little bit more, there are guided tours available. If you’d like to gen up before you go, the National Gallery even has its own podcasts and beginners’ guides available online. Art should be for everyone and this gallery is where you can check out what’s for you – for free!

Bury yourself in brushstrokes

Outside, the National Gallery has more than a whiff of a temple about it. Stone steps lead up to a beautiful entrance, lined with imposing columns, the building capped with its iconic dome. Inside, before the paintings, the first thing that hits you about the gallery is its sheer size. Where possible, the high, sweeping ceilings are fitted with vast skylights, flooding the huge rooms with natural light – which shows off the paintings to their best effect. Gigantic, marble-framed doorways lead you from one collection to another.

The atmosphere of the place changes; sometimes, it’s quiet and reflective and the perfect place to go to escape the continual, chaotic treadmill of London life. On busier days, it’s charged with the reverential buzz of art-lovers who come here just to bury themselves in the brushstrokes of their favourite painters.

Without doubt, the National Gallery boasts one of the most impressive collections of paintings in the world. If you’re new to art, this is the perfect place to begin your odyssey; there are pictures spanning hundreds of years, from the 13th Century right up to works from the modern day. It’s well worth paying the £1 fee for a map, as the collection is so extensive, it’s easy to accidentally skip a century or two. To help you out, there are signposts detailing a route through which you can see how art has evolved over time. However, if you just want to plump for your favourite artist or era, the displays are clearly marked. On top of that, the staff are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly and will cheerfully point you in the right direction.

Food for body and soul

Even if you’ve just popped in for a quick nose, the chances are you’ll be back again – and with more time to explore. The gallery has its own restaurant, serving brunch, lunch and dinner, in the form of the National Dining Rooms. The restaurant describes itself as ‘quintessentially British’, serving “classic dishes and comfort food”, with a dedicated children’s menu for younger visitors. However, if you want a lighter bite or a quiet coffee, head on down to the National Café, where you can sample their modern European menu, enjoy a freshly-made sandwich or top-up your caffeine levels. You’ll also find an impressive array of art books, stationery and jewellery in the gallery’s three shops where you can even take advantage of their Print on Demand service and purchase a print made directly from the original painting of your choice.

For those who are pushed for time, but want to make the best of it, the National Gallery has some aces up its spectacular sleeve. You can gain a bite-sized insight into a number of paintings by taking part in one of the 10-minute talks, which take place every weekday from 4pm. With one of these, you’ll be quickly dipped into the artist’s history, their influences and what to look for in other works. Alternatively, there are 60-minute talks, if you want to get a deeper perspective and lunchtime talks if you want to add a dash of culture to your lunch break.

Find the tour that suits you best

If you’ve never been to an art gallery, the thought can be a bit daunting; where do you start? Will you enjoy it? Luckily, the National Gallery has covered all the bases and even offers virtual, online tours, so you can get an idea of what to expect. Have a look and you’ll see the painting itself, supported by links to key facts about it and a short biography about the artist – ideal for any romantic souls who want to use the National Gallery as the backdrop to a date and want a few impressive facts to wave around!

However, the gallery isn’t just for newbies; for those who love art, it offers the chance to steep yourself in the lives, works and histories of some of the world’s greatest artists. You’ll find two-hour tours available that explore themes and artistic periods in fascinating detail, giving you a firm overview of a topic or cementing a collection in a wider context. There are even hour-long, private tours available so you can focus on a particular aspect of art or a painter – and these can be tailored to suit your interests.

What about children?

Art isn’t exclusively for adults and there’s plenty going on to introduce younger visitors to a brighter world. The ‘Teach Your Grown-Ups about Art’ audio tour feeds children with fun facts and secrets, which they can then reveal to their accompanying adults at specific points – almost turning them into a guide for an hour. Alternatively, they can take the opportunity to follow a pair of art detectives around the gallery and uncover clues to the secret meanings behind some of the more mysterious works of art. There’s also the chance for children to create their own masterpiece and have it displayed in the gallery itself. Some of these tours carry a fee, but are inexpensive and an ingenious way to acquaint children with the colourful worlds of art and history.

Getting to the National Gallery

London’s National Gallery is easily accessible – even if your knowledge of the capital is limited. The nearest tube station is Leicester Square, only about 200 metres away, swiftly followed by Charing Cross, which is around 250 metres away. In addition, there are a number of bus services that’ll bring you even closer. If you’re driving, there are designated parking bays on St Martin’s Street or you can advance-book a parking spot on Orange Street. However, if you’d rather leave your car in a car park, the most convenient ones are located in Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square.

If you really want to make a day of it and see London from the Thames, there are plenty of Embankment Pier boat services that collect and drop-off passengers from the Embankment, from where you can catch a tube train directly to Charing Cross underground station. As the gallery is set in one of the most historic parts of the capital, you’ll also find plenty of other attractions to visit, including the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, the Barbican Theatre and Buckingham Palace.

In 2014, the National Gallery was the UK’s second most-popular tourist attraction, seeing over 6 million visitors, enthusiasts and newcomers through its doors. The Director of Public Engagement, Susan Foister, said that “with its world-renowned collection of paintings and its location in Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery continues to be an extremely popular London destination and we look forward to welcoming more visitors.”

Pay a visit and you won’t be let down – it’s not one of the UK’s most-visited attractions for nothing! Whether you’re completely new to art and artists or a seasoned Old Master, there’s always something here to surprise.

Three quirky facts about the National Gallery

1. Every year, the gallery is welcoming 80,000 school children annually to a world of art which literally has inspired Alice in Wonderland. Massys’s painting the Ugly Dutchess in particular has inspired the illustrations for the children’s book.

2. The smallest painting measures only 7.6 x 7.0cm, whereas the gigantic painting Whistlejacket depicts a life-size horse.

3. The Gallery is surprisingly easy to navigate considering that its total floor area is equivalent to six football pitches. In theory it could contain 2,156 double-decker. In practice though, the buses are much more useful outside the museum.