Designed by William Chambers in 1775 for government departments and royal societies – in fact, the world's first office block – Somerset House now contains several fabulous galleries. In the North Wing near the Strand entrance, the Courtauld Gallery displays a wealth of 14th- to 20th-century art, including masterpieces by Rubens, Botticelli, Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Seurat, Manet, Monet, Leger and others. The Embankment Galleries in the South Wing are devoted to temporary (mostly photographic, design and fashion) exhibitions; prices and hours vary.
The first Somerset House was a palace built for the Duke of Somerset, brother of Jane Seymour, in 1551. For two centuries, it played host to royals (Elizabeth I once lived here), foreign diplomats, wild masked balls, peace treaties, the Parliamentary army (during the Civil War) and Oliver Cromwell's wake. Having fallen into disrepair, it was pulled down in 1775 and rebuilt in 1801 to designs by Chambers. Among other weighty organisations, it went on to house the Royal Academy of Arts, the Society of Antiquaries, the Navy Board and, that most popular of institutions, the Inland Revenue. Free guided tours are run three times a week (check the website for details).
The grand Edmond J Safra Fountain Court hosts open-air live performances and Summer Screen films in summer, and ice skating in winter. Children love cavorting through the fountains in the court on warm summer days. The riverside terrace is a popular spot for coffee with a splendid view of the Thames.