The National Gallery is an art lover’s paradise, home to over 2,600 paintings from the mid-13th century up until the early 20th century. It holds European paintings by masters like Sandro Botticelli, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, J. M. W. Turner, and Vincent van Gogh.

While the National Gallery’s collection of paintings is smaller than comparable art museums, it’s still regarded as the most representative of European works in the world. In fact, outside of Italy, its collection of Italian Renaissance paintings is unrivaled. The Gallery’s collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings may be small, but it’s still notable. You can also find paintings by Flemish, Spanish, Dutch, and British masters in the museum.

The National Gallery in London - one of the highlights of 8 Places to Learn Something New in London and 10 Best Galleries in London (Read all about London here)

History of the National Gallery in London

The art museum is at the north side of Trafalgar Square. The location was chosen because it was deemed to be at the very center of London. During this time, in the 1830s, the city’s rich were coming from the western side of London and the poor from the East End, with Trafalgar Square accessible to both. The aim was to have an art museum that can be accessed by all members of society, regardless of class. Besides its central location, admission was—and still is—free and the opening hours extended to ensure the collections can be enjoyed by the public, and not just the privileged.

While other European art museums were formed when existing royal collections were nationalised, the National Gallery’s beginnings can be traced to the British government’s acquisition of a private collection of 38 paintings in 1824. Because the British Royal Collection still remains in the possession of the British sovereign, the one found in the Gallery was carefully expanded mainly through private donations.

What are the highlights of the National Gallery in London?

Of the paintings exhibited in the National Gallery, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in room 43 remains the center of attention. It was painted in the summer of 1888 in Arles, in the south of France, during a period of excited optimism as he awaited the arrival of his friend, the painter Paul Gauguin. Today, this painting is one of the most well-known of his works and is frequently recreated in postcards and other memorabilia.

Apart from paintings, you can also find magnificent statues inside the National Gallery, including those of Roman rulers and Greek heroes and legendary figures. Perhaps one of the more surprising statues you may encounter here is that of the 1st U.S. President, George Washington. This was a gift from the Commonwealth of Virginia to the National Gallery in 1921.

The National Gallery’s architecture is also a sight to behold. It features a neoclassical structure designed by William Wilkins, a Greek Revival architect. The Sainsbury Wing extension by Venturi Brown Scott is considered to be one of the most sophisticated pieces that managed to bridge modernism, English Classicism, and contemporary construction.

What's good to know about the National Gallery in London?

Once you’re done admiring the art inside the Gallery, you can take a moment to rest and have tea at The National Cafe. You can also grab a bite to eat in the National Dining Rooms in the Sainsbury Wing. There are shops located at different parts of the building, offering high-quality prints, postcards, art books, souvenirs, and gift items to remember your trip by.

To get the most out of your visit, you can download the National Gallery podcast, which gives you more background information on the paintings on exhibit. When visiting the Gallery, it’s best to allot half-a-day for the trip so you can take your time admiring the paintings and explore Trafalgar Square afterward. Don’t forget to take a photo of Nelson’s Column, an iconic landmark right in the Square.

The National Gallery in London

Location: Trafalgar Square, Charing Cross, London WC2N 5DN, UK

Open: Saturday–Thursday from 10 am to 6 pm, Friday from 10 am to 9 pm

Phone: +44 (0)20 7747 2885

Geri Mileva | Contributing Writer