What makes the National Portrait Gallery so compelling is its familiarity; in many cases you’ll have heard of the subject (royals, scientists, politicians, celebrities) or the artist (Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Lucian Freud). Highlights include the famous ‘Chandos portrait’ of William Shakespeare, the first artwork the gallery acquired (in 1856) and believed to be the only likeness made during the playwright’s lifetime, and a touching sketch of novelist Jane Austen by her sister.
A further highlight is the ‘Ditchley’ portrait of Queen Elizabeth I displaying her might by standing on a map of England, her feet on Oxfordshire. The collection is organised chronologically (starting with the early Tudors on the 2nd floor), and then by theme. The 1st-floor portraits illustrate the rise and fall of the British Empire through the Victorian era and the 20th century. Don’t miss the high-kitsch statue of Victoria and Albert in Anglo-Saxon dress in room 21.
The ground floor is dedicated to modern figures, using a variety of media (sculpture, photography, video etc). Among the most popular are the iconic Blur portraits by Julian Opie and Sam Taylor-Johnson's (Sam Taylor-Wood) David, a (low-res by today's standards) video-portrait of David Beckham asleep after football training. Don't miss Self by Mark Quinn, a frozen, refrigerated sculpture of the artist's head, made from 4.5L of his own blood and recast every five years. The excellent audio guide (single £3, family £6, free for disabled visitors) highlights more than 300 portraits and allows you to hear the voices of some of the subjects and artists.
The Portrait restaurant does wonderful food and has superb views towards Westminster.