Standing proudly on the north side of Trafalgar Square, this is truly one of the world's supreme art museums, with more than 2,300 masterpieces on show. Michelangelo, Leonardo, Turner, Monet, van Gogh, Picasso, and more—all for free. Watch out for outstanding temporary exhibitions, too.
This brief selection is your jumping-off point, but there are hundreds of other paintings to see, enough to fill a full day. In chronological order: (1) Van Eyck (c. 1395–1441), The Arnolfini Portrait—a solemn couple holds hands, the fish-eye mirror behind them mysteriously illuminating what can't be seen from the front view. (2) Holbein (1497–1543), The Ambassadors—two wealthy visitors from France stand surrounded by what were considered luxury goods at the time. Note the elongated skull at the bottom of the painting, which takes shape only when viewed from an angle. (3) Da Vinci (1452–1519), The Virgin and Child—this exquisite black-chalk
"Burlington Cartoon" depicts the master's most haunting Mary. (4) Velázquez (1599–1660), Christ in the House of Martha and Mary—in this enigmatic masterpiece the Spaniard plays with perspective and the role of the viewer. (5) Turner (1775–1851), Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway, the whirl of rain, mist, steam, and locomotion is nothing short of astonishing (spot the hare). (6) Caravaggio (1573–1610), The Supper at Emmaus—a freshly resurrected Christ blesses bread in an astonishingly domestic vision from the master of chiaroscuro. (7) Van Gogh (1853–90), Sunflowers—painted during his sojourn with Gauguin in Arles, this is quintessential Van Gogh. (8) Seurat (1859–91), Bathers at Asnières—this summer day's idyll is one of the master pointillist's extraordinaire's best-known works.
Color coding throughout the galleries helps you keep track of the period in which you're immersed.
Begin at an "Art Start" terminal in the Sainsbury Wing or East Wing Espresso Bar. The interactive screens give you access to information on all of the museum's holdings; you can choose your favorites, and print out a free personal tour map.
Try a free weekday lunchtime lecture, or Ten Minute Talk, which illuminates the story behind a key work of art. One-hour free, guided tours start at the Sainsbury Wing every weekday at 11:30 and 2:30 (also Friday at 7 pm), and on weekends at 11:30, 2:30, and 4.
If you are eager for even more insight into the art, pick up a themed audio guide. Special audio tours include "sounds of the gallery," which are soundscapes to accompany the paintings.
If you visit with children, don't miss special programs for young visitors, including free Family Sundays (every Sunday). Check the website for other events.