Overlooking the Thames in central London, Somerset House was originally built at the behest of Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and lord protector of England. In its original incarnation it was a grand Tudor palace, and one of the first examples of Renaissance architecture in England. Over the years Somerset house served as residence to Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Anne of Denmark, and General Fairfax. It was even used to display Oliver Cromwell’s body after his death in 1658.
Over time the original Tudor Palace fell into disrepair, and by the mid-19th-century Somerset house had been demolished and rebuilt as a grand and imposing neo-classical “national building,” housing various public offices. Today Somerset House functions primarily as a public space and cultural hub. Inside you can find the acclaimed collection of the Courtauld Gallery, cafes and restaurants, and visitors can enjoy free historical guided tours.
Outside, the courtyard is used as a venue for open-air concerts, films, and contemporary art and design exhibitions. In summer the courtyard is known for its 55 fountain dancing water display, while in winter, Somerset House is popular for its outdoor ice rink. It has also served as a filming location in several big budget films including Tomorrow Never Dies, Sleepy Hollow, Sherlock Holmes, and Love Actually.
An easy walk from either Charing Cross or Temple stations, Somerset House itself is open all week from 8am-6pm, while the galleries are open from 10am-6pm. The courtyard is open until 11 pm. Some of the galleries have individual admission, but entrance to the main Courtauld Gallery is between £7 and £8.50, depending on how much of it you want to see. Free tours are available on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Come early to reserve a space, as tours are known to sell out.