Somerset House: Five Reasons Why Everyone Should Visit

There's only one building in London where you can view a van Gogh, take in the Thames, flit among fountains and creep through catacombs. That building is Somerset House on the Strand. London's finest Georgian survival holds many different adventures and, with the opening of an astounding new installation, there's never been a better time to visit.Here are five good reasons to go:1. The Courtauld GalleryFor a small museum, the Courtauld contains a staggering collection of world-class art. It is particularly strong on impressionist and post-impressionist work, with masterpieces from all the greats -- van Gogh, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Degas...you (literally) get the picture. The setting is also spectacular, accessed by a winding stair over three floors with elegant frescos and period furniture. Unlike most London galleries, the Courtauld charges an entrance fee, but £5 (for adults) is a trivial price to pay for some of the brightest canvases in the city. Highly recommended.2. The Fountain CourtWalking in to the central courtyard of Somerset House feels like walking into a period costume drama. As well it might, having featured in more films than almost anywhere else in central London. This dazzling space, designed by William Chambers in the 1780s, is brought to life by a grid of dancing fountains, a watery lure for kids of all ages on hot summer days. This versatile space is also used for pop concerts in the summer and ice skating in the winter.3. The Secret BitsUntil the end of May, the catacombs and light wells beneath the central court yard are open for exploration as part of the River Sounding experience. This must-see installation by Bill Fontana opens up normally inaccessible areas of the building, filling them with the sounds of the river Thames. You get to wander among Dickensian alleys at basement level and dip into the passageways beneath the court. One such space, known as the 'dead room' contains the gravestones of former courtiers who died 400 years ago. Should you visit after May, you can still see these areas as part of the regular tours (Thursdays and Saturdays), but without the installation.4. The StairsSomerset House contains two of the most remarkable stair cases in London. At the western end, the Nelson Stair twists its sinuous way upwards with an unusual combo of curves and straight bits. The original (by William Chambers) was destroyed during the Second World War, but it has been faithfully reconstructed using Chambers' 18th Century blueprints. At the eastern end, you can climb the Stamp Stair (so called for the practice of stamping newspapers, which once occurred in this part of the building). While clearly lacking the grace of its neighbour, the precarious-looking construction will remind you of Hogwarts. Note also how the intricate iron bannister changes to a much more workaday bar pattern as you descend to the servants' level.5. The River TerraceAfter all that action, there can be few more welcome sites than the riverside terrace, which commands impressive views of the Thames and South Bank. The adjacent café is among the best-stocked and fair-priced of any tourist destination. There's no better place in London to enjoy a cup of tea and a scone on a warm summer's day.And if that's not enough for you, head down to the basement level on the Embankment side to find an education centre, a small museum space about the history of the buildings, and a great arch which once led directly into the river.Somerset House can be found at the northern end of the Strand, or just west of Temple Tube on the Embankment. Admission to all areas except the Courtauld Gallery is usually free.

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