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Visiting London - Places

Updated on December 6, 2020

London sights

I've just been to visit three of the top London attractions for the visitor, which I thought I'd share with anyone visiting the UK. Everyone has different criteria and differing ideas about the top destinations, but for me they would include Bath, York, Dorset coast, Scotland, as well as London.

In my new hub UK Travel - England, Wales and Scotland I've listed some ideas of places that are really worth seeing, and linked to hubs on different regions of the UK. My London shortlist would include

At the risk of stating the obvious - these places are really educational. In a matter of hours or days you can get a very wide knowledge of Art, history and archaeology and in an easy and entertaining way. The National Gallery and National Portrait gallery are virtually next door to each other in Trafalgar Square so it's a good idea to see them both at the same time. The British Museum is within (long) walking distance, but it's worth taking a bus instead.

National Gallery

It's been a long time since I visited the National Gallery - but I was very impressed with the changes. The overall layout and design of the place seems to have been radically overhauled, and it is just brilliant now - and with free admission. I just wandered about without a plan, which can be a valid approach, and found dozens of fantastic and iconic paintings more or less by chance.

But possibly it would be better to have a plan, and this is it. Let's assume you're in Trafalgar Square - if you enter the gallery in the right hand corner and turn right you'll find the espresso bar, complete with very good coffee and excellent cakes, at a price! There are computer terminals loaded with digital images of the collection, arranged by artist, together with a commentary on each painting. You could spend a pleasant time here without even seeing the collection, and learn virtually everything about the history of art.

It's spacious, open-plan and comfortable and an essential first step at the gallery. There are coffee table books with a guide to the art collections, maps of the gallery, themed tours (like landscape, techniques, etc) and they are also in translation to Italian, Spanish and other languages. You can buy them in the well-stocked bookshop, but it's nice to have free copies available.

Highlights of the National Gallery

Amongst my favourite pictures are works by

  • Van Gogh
  • Michaelangelo
  • Raphael
  • Leonardo Da Vinci
  • John Constable
  • Odilon Redon
  • Monet
  • Vermeer
  • Manet
  • Renoir
  • Canaletto

The bookshop has a lot of unusual gift ideas - the usual diary/calendar/poster selections, art books etc but also more bizarre things like a Monet umbrella for £20! Actually, that would make a great Christmas present for a lady with refined tastes.

All of the pictures can be viewed at the national Gallery website, linked below.

A new picture I'd never seen before is A Still Life of Flowers by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder. Painted on a copper sheet in 1609, it somehow looks very modern, and it is quite amazing in terms of technique and realism - a real masterpiece.

Other Pictures

Sisley and other Impressionists are well represented. Some Dutch painters I'd never seen before, including a peepshow picture that is a kind of 17th century virtual reality, where perspective is subverted to create a fantastic effect when viewed through a hole in the box. The Canalettos were wonderful, and a good example of how the prints you find in books give a misleading impression of the power of great painters. Turner, Gainsborough, Van Eyck are all represented too, and Van Eyck's master piece Marriage of Arnolfini. Vermeer's paintings are amazing too. You could also do some preparation by looking at the National Gallery website before your visit.

I've put in a link below- there are 2,300 paintings in all, and the images on the website are beautifully reproduced, with correct colours.

Must-see pictures

Where do you start? - there are dozens of them. The Michaelangelo (Madonna and child) painting is fascinating, because it is unfinished. It's like he's just gone off for a lunch break, while waiting for some pigments to arrive. Consequently, the artist's method can be seen - for instance using black for shadows and then overpainting in blue, using egg tempura and oil paint, basing the composition on sculptural themes.

The Leonardo cartoon (1499) is pretty amazing too, and on a vast scale. The Canaletto pictures are interesting as a historical record of Venice. If you've been there, you'll recognise the scenes haven't really changed much.The Van Gogh pictures are very nice, although not his finest work - a new one to me was the woodland scene, which is a bit magical.

National Portrait Gallery

This is literally around the corner - as you are facing the National Gallery, just turn round the right hand corner. This is another free attraction. Downstairs there is a nice basement cafe and bookshop. I think the Gallery is most effective as a history lesson, rather than an art collection. For instance, you get a real impression of English history from the Tudor portraits of kings and notables, and also there is the only reliable picture of William Shakespeare - that is the only one thought to have been painted from life.

The bookshop stocks a lot of unusual items that might be good as Christmas gift ideas, including Beatles themed stuff.

British Museum

This is claimed to be within a 15-min walking distance from Trafalgar Square, and it's certainly a varied and interesting walk, but most people would take a little longer, maybe half an hour.

Yet another free attraction, suitable for a Foggy Day in London Town. The entrance is free, but special exhibitions are generally £12 entrance fee. This is the case with the current exhibition, Moctezuma, Aztec ruler. There were aspects of the exhibition that I didn't care for, because what we are looking at here is an exceptionally brutal culture, with plenty of human sacrifice and war, sometimes both together. As a history lesson, it was very well presented and interesting. Many artefacts with inlaid turquoise mosaics are superb in their craftsmanship. The bloodthirsty nature of Moctezuma and his culture made it somewhat of a horror show. In fact, it made you challenge the idea that Cortez and the Spanish invaders were altogether a bad thing.

Other great things to see would include the Staffordshire hoard, the Anglo-Saxon treasure hoard discovered recently. There are only a few tantalising examples at the moment, about four display cases, but these are really worth seeing. Room 37, upstairs from the south stairs.

Many other treasure hoards are on display, one from the Vale of York, A Viking hoard, the Sutton Hoo treasure - all very interesting. Then there are rooms and rooms full of Egyptian artefacts, The HSBC coin collection, Babylonian sculptures, and all the other results of plundering the world for centuries!

Getting there - travel bargains

If you're in London you will need an Oyster card, which is a transport credit card you can top up as needed - it will save a fortune in fares, and works for the tube and buses.

Getting to London from other parts of the UK - book in advance to save 30% on your rail fares outside peak times.Try or the for bargain fares. You can pay by credit card and collect your tickets from an automated ticket machine at the station. Don't just turn up, as you will pay much, much more for the ticket!


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