© Ross Brinkerhoff / Fodors Travel
Anyone with even a passing interest in art will want to put this near the top of their to-do lists while visiting London, for it is truly one of the world's great art museums. More than 2,300 masterpieces are on show here, including works by Michelangelo, Leonardo, Turner, Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, and more. Enter through the grand portico overlooking the north side of Trafalgar Square to delve headlong into the highlights of the collection, although the Sainsbury Wing (the modern building immediately to the left), which focuses mainly on medieval art, is invariably less crowded. You could easily spend all day discovering what the National Gallery has to offer, but among the best-known highlights are: in Room 4, The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein (1497–1543), a portrait of two wealthy visitors from France, surrounded by objects laden with enough symbolism to fill a book—including, most beguilingly, a giant skull at the base, which only takes shape when viewed from an angle;
in Room 56, the Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck (1390–1441), in which a solemn couple holds hands, the fish-eye mirror behind them mysteriously illuminating what can't be seen from the front view; in Room 57, The Virgin and the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), a magnificent sculpted altarpiece from 1480; in Room 34, Rain, Steam and Speed: The Great Western Railway by J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851), which seems, in its mad whirl of rain, steam and mist, to embody the mystical dynamism of the steam age (spot the fleeing hare); in Room 32, The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio (1573–1610), in which a freshly resurrected Christ blesses bread in an astonishingly domestic vision from the master of chiaroscuro; and, perhaps more famous than any of them, the Sunflowers by Van Gogh (1853–90), in Room 45. Special exhibitions, of which there are several every year, tend to be major events. Generally they're ticketed, so booking is advisable if it's a big name (the Rembrandt exhibition in 2015 sold more than a quarter of a million tickets, for instance). The permanent collection, however, is always free. Also free are weekday lunchtime lectures, or Ten Minute Talks, which illuminate the story behind a key work of art. Daily hour-long free guided tours start at the Sainsbury Wing weekdays at 11:30 and 2:30 (Friday also at 7 pm) and on weekends at 11:30, 2:30, and 4.