Top five London gems
Courtauld Institute of Art
Originally private museums, London's smaller galleries shelter many of the world's greatest art treasures and admission is often free. The Courtauld Institute of Art is one of three collections housed within Somerset House, an imposing 18th-century building. The Institute's gallery is a warren of small rooms, hung with Van Gogh's Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear, Renoir's La Loge and a profusion of other great works by Cezanne, Edouard Manet and Claude Monet, Gauguin, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. Somerset House, Strand, London WC2. See http://www.courtauld.ac.uk.
The Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House re-create, in miniature, the imperial splendour of the Winter Palace and its various wings that now make up the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia. The Hermitage, which houses what was originally the private collection of the Russian imperial family, was nationalised and expanded after the Russian Revolution to ensure its place as one of the world's finest art collections. This imposing setting of Somerset House provides the backdrop for rotating exhibitions. See http://www.hermitagerooms.com.
Kenwood House, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, is a neoclassical mansion refurbished in the 18th century. Its sumptuous interiors remain largely intact, including the richly decorated library. Thanks to the Iveagh Bequest, Kenwood House is a treasury of fine art, including a self-portrait by Rembrandt and many portraits of 17th- and 18th-century nobility by such masters as Hals, Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Hampstead Lane, Hampstead Heath, London NW3. See http://www.english-heritage.org.uk.
The Wallace Collection, set behind a leafy private park in Mayfair, was one of the world's finest private art collections and is preserved entirely as it was bequeathed, enshrining the Francophile tastes of 19th-century English aristocracy. Within Hertford House, an elegant Regency villa, lies a treasure trove of 17th- and 18th-century art including Francois Boucher's Madame de Pompadour (pictured). Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN (just off Oxford Street). See http://www.wallacecollection.org.
Sir John Soane's museum
One of London's most idiosyncratic collections, this museum is crammed into a trio of Georgian terraces in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Soane, a distinguished architect, rebuilt the properties to house his collected antiquities and works of art. Soane's finest pieces include antiquities as old as the sarcophagus of Seti I, one of the finest Egyptian pieces outside that country, and Roman bronzes from Pompeii. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2. See www.soane.org.