Roughly speaking, you might say there are two kinds of visitor to London – the kind that’s coming for the first time and the one that’s been before (or even is a regular visitor). In which case, these two different types of visitor will likely be interested in seeking out different types of attractions. For an area of the city that’s over-spilling with attractions, the West End’s a great place for both – or indeed – any travellers. Blessed with hugely popular, well known sights for those first-timers, as well as brimming with rarerthings to see for those who’ve done the more obvious touristy things. Here are just some examples…
For first-time visitors
The National Gallery
(Trafalgar Square WC2N 5DN)
Aside from containing 600 years’ worth of the finest Western European art, one of the best things about this most iconic of London attractions is that it holds ‘taster tours’ to guide visitors through some of its most impressive works. These include the likes of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Madonna and Child’ and the Wilton Diptych. Tours take place twice a day – at 11.30am and 2.30pm and three times at weekends (also at 7pm on Fridays and 4pm on Saturdays and Sundays).
(Opens: 10am-6pm daily; 10am-9pm Fridays)
(Strand WC2R 1LA)
This one-time ‘Whitehall’ building has flourished as a popular tourist venue in recent years. Famous for its impressive courtyard, originally laid-out in the 18th Century and featured in many a movie, it perfectly serves young ’uns when filled by an ice-rink in the winter months and with fountains in the summer months (and does the same for adults when it hosts a terrific outdoor cinema come the summer evenings). Inside, you’ll find many a fascinating exhibition put on in the Embankment Gallery and a stirring collection of artworks and sculpture from the 16th-20th Centuries in the Courthauld Gallery, which recently took up residence in the building.
(Open: 10am-6pm daily)
(7 Charing Cross Underground Arcade, Strand WC2N 4HZ)
Know a Harry Potter fan in your family? Indulge them during your trip to London by giving this illustrious magic shop a visit. Not only does it sell professional-level magic tricks and paraphernalia, it also holds courses for budding David Copperfields held by the staff who are all trained magicians. How do you like that? Not a lot!
(Open: 9.30am-5.30pmMondays-Fridays; 10.30am-4.30pm Saturdays)
The National Portrait Gallery
(St Martin’s Place WC2H 0HE)
Blessed with a quite extraordinary array of fine art and photographic portraits of famous British figures from monarchs to social reformers and politicians to pop culture movers-and-shakers, this outstanding gallery also stages the annual BP Portrait Award and boasts a small but perfectly rooftop restaurant, from which you’re rewarded with a terrific panorama of Trafalgar Square and view of Nelson atop his column – making it surely one of the best meeting places in West End London.
(Open: 10am to 6pm daily; 10am-9pmThursdays and Fridays)
For regular visitors
The London Silver Vaults
(Chancery House, 53-64 Chancery Lane WC2A 1QS)
A one-time Victorian storage facility for the rich and powerful, the Silver Vaults are now one of the most little known but surely one of the most rewarding – certainly one of the most lustrous and glistening – of the attractions in the West End. In fact, they’re a market of several individual family-owned silver merchants. With thousands of beautiful – and expensive – items down there beneath the ground you’d imagine the venue would be secure and it is; thanks to its thick, reinforced walls, the direct hit from a bomb it took during WWII did no damage whatsoever. For souvenirs, you can pick up a christening spoon for as relatively little as £35 – great value if you consider a pair of Tudor spoons from there will set you back thousands of pounds.
(Open: 9am-5.30pm Mondays-Fridays; 9am-1pm Saturdays)
Getty Images Gallery
(46 Eastcastle Street W1W 8DX)
Another little mentioned treasure trove – this time of photography. The Getty archive goes all the way back to the middle of the 19th Century, ensuring it contains a seemingly inexhaustible amount of fantastic, fascinating images of pretty much everything imaginable. The compendium here also includes private collections of the likes of the London-based UK newspapers the Evening Standard and the Daily Express, as well as of ace celebrity photographer Terry O’Neill. Fine art prints are available to buy as mementos.
(Open: 10am-5.30pmMondays-Fridays; 12pm-5.30pmSaturdays)
Royal Institute of British Architects
(66 Portland Place W1B 1AD)
Hard to miss, the entrance – a big bronze door – to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) is announced by two narrow sculpted columns; their building being quite the Art Deco edifice itself. Inside is well worth checking out too, containing as it does regular, accessible exhibitions that tend to look at how architecture impacts on society and our appreciation of the physical, man-made world around us. There’s also the obligatory gift shop and a nice little café.
(Open: 10am-5pm Mondays-Saturdays)
(40 Brunswick Square WC1N 1AZ)
And, finally, in spite of the fact entry isn’t free for this one (although it is for those under 16-year-old), it’s well worth it. Because the 18th Century building that houses it was originally the home of the Foundling Hospital, the UK’s first home for abandoned children, the museum devotes itself not just to explaining and examining the history of the hospital, but also the work of the hospital and cause’s benefactors, including the revolutionary political cartoonist William Hogarth and the legendary composer George Frederic Handel.
(Open: 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday; 11am-5pm Sundays)