What makes the National Portrait Gallery so compelling is its familiarity; in many cases, you will have heard of the subject (royals, scientists, politicians, celebrities) or the artist (Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Lucian Freud), but you won't necessarily recognise the face. The collection is organised chronologically (starting with the early Tudors on the 2nd floor), and then by theme. The gallery is closed from June 2020 to spring 2023 for renovations.
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. In room 32 is a beautiful work of Malala Yousafzai, by Iranian artist Shirin Neshat.
Short-term contemporary exhibitions are held on the ground floor, often using a variety of media, including sculpture, photography and video.
The excellent audio guide (£3) highlights more than 300 portraits, or you can download the app (free wifi is available) and read the curation notes on your own device for free. The gallery also hosts child-focused activities, particularly on weekends and for the British school holidays.
The Portrait restaurant does wonderful (if expensive) food and has superb views over Trafalgar Sq toward the Houses of Parliament.