Top 7 Art Galleries in London You Need to Tour

Whether you’re an aficionado of the old masters or prefer your art to be more modern and multi-medium, the art galleries in London have something for youRead More

The art galleries in London are some of the world's best. (Shutterstock / Tupungato)

London is one of the most vibrant cities in the world. With its layered history, cultural diversity, and unparalleled artistic talent, it’s not surprising that it has some of the best art galleries this side of Buckingham Palace. Whether you’re an aficionado of the old masters or prefer your art to be more modern and multi-medium, the art galleries in London have something for you. And while we can’t include all galleries here, we’ve included a few to provide a tasting of what’s available. So, grab your comfiest shoes and let’s get gallery hopping!

Royal Academy of Arts, Mayfair

Welcome to the historic Royal Academy of the Arts. (Source: Royal Academy of the Arts)
Welcome to the historic Royal Academy of the Arts. (Source: Royal Academy of the Arts)

The Royal Academy of Arts is essentially the mothership of art galleries in London, and a “must-go” in our view. Founded in 1768 by architect Sir William Chambers and 35 other artists and architects, the Academy was established to promote and teach the “arts of design.” Always independently-minded, the institution has been at the forefront of defining and debating the visual arts and their role in society since its inception. Famous academicians central to this movement include John Everett Millais, founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; John Singer Sargent; David Hockney; Richard Rogers; and Allen Jones, among many illustrious others.

Housed in the exquisite Palladian-styled Burlington House, the Academy has one of the oldest and largest permanent art collections in Britain. Works by Reynolds, Turner, Constable, and Michelangelo are among the 30,000 pieces exhibited. The Academy regularly hosts some of the finest touring exhibitions in London and its annual Summer Exhibition, always greatly anticipated by Europe’s arts illuminati, includes exciting works from both established and up-and-coming artists.

There are several eateries and cafés peppered throughout the Academy offering lite bites, lunch, afternoon tea, and cocktails. We rather fancy the Senate Room overlooking the adjacent Burlington Gardens. The Neapolitan-influenced menu includes daily pasta specials, cured meats and cheeses, and a variety of Proseccos and Italian wines.

Ticket prices vary, so best to look online ahead of arrival.

Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea 

Exhibits at the Saatchi Gallery venture into the avant-garde. (Source: Shutterstock / Ron Ellis)
Exhibits at the Saatchi Gallery venture into the avant-garde. (Source: Shutterstock / Ron Ellis)

The Saatchi Gallery was established in 1985 to house advertising maven Charles Saatchi’s extensive collection of mostly contemporary art. Today, the gallery regularly includes exhibitions by emerging and international artists who haven’t previously shown (or have rarely shown) in the United Kingdom.

The gallery’s permanent collection includes works by artistic provocateurs Tracey Emin, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Emily Prince, and others. There is a wall installation of a Gandhi speech comprised entirely of bones by Indian artist Jitish Kallat, as well as a room of life-size praying figures made from aluminum foil by French-Algerian artist Kader Attia. Exhibitions rotate frequently and tend to venture well into the avant-garde, both in theme and formulation, making this a standout among art galleries in London. If contemporary art is your passion, Saatchi is not to be missed.

While there, take a break at the Café for a warm croissant and Americano. For something more substantial, try the Saatchi Gallery Bar & Brasserie, recently opened by tony restaurateurs Searcys of London. Enjoy British favorites with a modern twist, such as Freedom Pale Ale-Battered Haddock and the Searcy’s Signature Burger with dry-cured bacon and aged cheddar.

Admission is free for most exhibits. Check online for an updated schedule and exhibition information.

Serpentine Galleries, Hyde Park 

The 2020 Summer Pavilion. (Source: Serpentine Galleries)
The 2020 Summer Pavilion. (Source: Serpentine Galleries)

Located on either side of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, the two Serpentine Galleries feature works from emerging and established contemporary artists from around the globe. Each year, the Serpentine commissions an architect to design and build an onsite summer pavilion, a truly unique installation even among the varied art galleries in London.

Artistic expressions in and of themselves, past pavilions have reflected a broad range of aesthetics – from Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto’s highly structured white steel poles to Dutchman Rem Koolhaas and Ceil Balmond Arup’s white hot-air balloon inspired orb.

This year’s Johannesburg-based firm, Counterspace, has created a modern take on the pavilion structure and its purpose. Using traditional and unconventional materials, moving parts, and changing spaces, the piece explores ideas of belonging and inclusivity, especially as they relate to migrant and other marginal communities. The opening is scheduled for June and will run through early October.

For a break from all that reflection, head over to Chuc’s Cafe Serpentine. Housed in architect Zaha Hadid’s famous globular-shaped extension to the gallery, Chuc’s serves up all-day fare, snacks, and children’s favorites. Light dinner options range from elevated pizza (Pizza Bianca with Cavolo Nero Pesto, Taggiasca Olives, and Salted Ricotta) to pasta and mains, like Chicken Milanese with Pink Fur Potatoes, Capers, and Salsa Verde. Sparkling wines are on hand to accompany any indulgence.

Admission is free. Check online for updated schedules and exhibitions.

Tate Britain, Westminster

Explore British art at the Tate Britain. (Source: Shutterstock / Kiev.Victor)
Explore British art at the Tate Britain. (Source: Shutterstock / Kiev.Victor)

If you want to focus your viewing experience on British artists, head to the Tate Britain. Meander through the history of British art, starting in 1500 and stretching to the current day. Exhibitions are designed to showcase each artist’s contribution to the history and development of art, rather than their nationality alone. Permanent collection standouts include works by JMW Turner (who bequeathed much of his own art collection to the gallery), John Constable, John Everett Millais, as well as modern pieces from heavy hitters Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth, David Hockney, and sculptor Henry Moore.

Built in the late 19th century, the massive, neo-classical Tate includes a grand porticoed-entrance and central dome. The Portland stone statue of proud Britannia stands atop the building roof, heralding the artistic heritage contained within.

For a bite to eat, you can’t miss the Rex Whistler Restaurant on the lower floor. Explore seasonal British favorites and the award-winning wine list while you gaze at Rex Whistler’s inspirational mural, “The Expedition in Pursuit of Rare Meats.” Completed in the 1920s when Whistler was just 21, the mural depicts seven explorers on the hunt for new foodstuffs to save their people from a diet of dry biscuits. You can’t get more British than that.

Admission is free. Check online for updated schedules and exhibitions.

Tate Modern, Southwark

An installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. (Source: Shutterstock / Eugene Regis)
An installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. (Source: Shutterstock / Eugene Regis)

Release your inner child at the Tate Modern for massive, awe-inspiring installations, hands-on exhibits, and interactive displays. Striking a counterpoint to the Tate Britain, the Tate Modern is the U.K.’s national museum of modern and contemporary art from around the world — and includes some of the most exciting art galleries in London.

Housed in the refurbished Bankside Power Station on the banks of the Thames, the museum is a wonder of innovative industrial design that weaves together glass, latticed brick, and metal. The expansive Turbine Hall runs the full 500-foot length of the building and rises to a dizzying 115 feet in height.

Works by celebrated masters such as Cézanne, Bonnard, Matisse, Picasso, Rothko, DalÍ­, Pollock, Warhol, and Bourgeois are there, as are those of more recent artists, such as sculptress Kara Walker. Her recent installation, “Fons Americanus” is a 40-foot working fountain inspired by the Victoria Memorial at Buckingham Palace. Controversial to some, the piece explores the intertwined histories of Africa, Britain, and America and is typical of Tate Modern exhibits in scope, scale, and ambition.

Hungry? Grab a bite at the Tate Modern’s onsite Restaurant and Bar, serving a family-friendly selection of sandwiches, salads, pastas, and more for the whole crew. If you need a little something to help you unwind, check out their wide selection of wines or craft beers locally sourced from some of Britain’s most innovative breweries.

Admission is free. Check online for updated schedules and exhibitions.

Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican

Provocative exhibits at the Barbican. (Source: Barbican Centre Facebook)
Provocative exhibits at the Barbican. (Source: Barbican Centre Facebook)

The Barbican Art Gallery sits in the heart London’s Barbican Centre, an ambitious civil works arts complex that includes a concert hall, theatre, library, music and drama school, and a handful of other facilities. Designed in the “Brutalist” architectural style in the late 1970s, the complex is a hodgepodge of modern block-like structures comprised of concrete with a chipped finish. It wasn’t for nothing that it was voted “London’s Ugliest Building” in 2003.

Regardless of its exterior, the gallery itself includes an eclectic mix of exhibits featuring the works of pioneers and masters in fine art, design, fashion, photography, and architecture. Reflective of the Barbican vision generally, exhibitions are curated with an eye towards exploring the interconnections and juxtapositions of different mediums, modes, and forms while imagining our world in new and different ways. An archive of previous exhibits is also on display.

Before you go, head to one of the complex’s several restaurants for a bite to eat. Options range from the rustic Barbican Kitchen, including an open kitchen and pizza oven; to Bonfire for classic pub fare; Osteria for modern Italian; and our favorite, the Martini Bar. Established during the “Designing 007” exhibition in 2012, the Martini Bar is helmed by celebrated mixologist Harvey Macaraig. Stop in for a Dirty (martini) before heading home.

Tickets range from £6 to £12 ($7 to $15). Check online for updated schedule and exhibition information.

National Portrait Gallery, Westminster

Faces from the National Portrait Gallery. (Spurce: Shutterstock / Paolo Paradisao)
Faces from the National Portrait Gallery. (Spurce: Shutterstock / Paolo Paradisao)

As with many of the art galleries in London, the National Portrait Gallery is exceptional in the quality and depth of its collection. Here you will find over 200,000 portraits created in several mediums, such as paint, print, sculpture, and photographs, to name but a few. The primary collection includes about 11,000 works and its subjects span an equally broad range. Check out Queens Elizabeth I and II, Olympian Dame Kelly Holmes, pop singer Amy Winehouse, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill for starters.

The size and scope of the collection is almost overwhelming and can’t be done in one afternoon; we recommend doing a bit of online research ahead of your visit to ensure you get the most out of it.

For a breather, check out the Portrait Restaurant and Bar for all-day eats, afternoon tea, or pre-theater dinner and drinks. We rather like the Truffled Egg Mayonnaise and Cress Sandwich, as well as the Gâteau Opéra, from the afternoon tea menu. Utter perfection with a bit of Earl Grey.

Admission is free. Check online for updated schedules and exhibitions.

Of course, we’ve only scratched the surface here. There are many more art galleries in London to peruse than we included in this compilation. If you have a favorite, let us know at editor@wideworldoftravel.com and we’ll add it to the list!