Image by Will Jones Lonely Planet
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) but not necessarily recognise the face. Highlights include the famous ‘Chandos portrait’, thought to be of William Shakespeare (room 4), the first artwork the gallery acquired (in 1856), and a touching sketch of novelist Jane Austen by her sister (room 18).
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, including sculpture, photography and video. Among the most popular are the iconic Blur portraits by Julian Opie. In the main hall is a beautiful work of Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman on her school bus.
The excellent audio guide (£3) highlights more than 300 portraits and allows you to hear the voices of some of the subjects and artists.
The Portrait restaurant does wonderful (if expensive) food and has superb views over Trafalgar Sq toward the Houses of Parliament.