The National Portrait Gallery was founded in 1856 with a single aim: to gather together portraits of famous (and infamous) Britons throughout history. More than 150 years and 160,000 portraits later, it is an essential stop for all history and literature buffs. If you visit with kids, ask at the desk about the excellent Family Trails, which make exploring the galleries with children much more fun. On the top floor, the Portrait Restaurant has one of the best views in London—a panoramic vista of Nelson's Column and the backdrop along Whitehall to the Houses of Parliament.
Galleries are arranged clearly and chronologically, from Tudor times to contemporary Britain. A Holbein miniature of Henry VIII is among the most famous image in the Tudor Gallery, although the enormous portrait of Elizabeth I—bejeweled and literally astride the world in a powerful display of Imperial intent—may be the most impressive. The huge permanent collections include portraits of Shakespeare, the
Brontë sisters, and Jane Austen. Look for the four Andy Warhol Queen Elizabeth II silkscreens from 1985 and Maggi Hambling's surreal self-portrait. Contemporary portraits range from the iconic (Julian with T-shirt—an LCD screen on a continuous loop—by Julian Opie) to the extreme (Marc Quinn's Self, a realization of the artist's head done in frozen blood). Temporary exhibitions can be explored on the first three floors, particularly in the Wolfson and Porter galleries, on the ground floor.