Births, marriages ... and masterpieces

What is it ?

This imposing late 18th-century building above the Thames was originally designed to accommodate government offices, including the Navy Office (Admiral Lord Nelson was often seen here), and was later home to the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Somerset House was opened to public for the first time in May 2000. It contains three museums, the Courtauld Institute with its Impressionist paintings, the Gilbert Collection of decorative arts and the Hermitage Rooms, displaying highlights from the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Where is it?

Tucked away off the Strand. Enter through the archway from the Strand, or from Victoria Embankment. Somerset House, Strand, London WC2 (020-7845 4600;

Something for children?

Somerset House has become popular for its winter skating, but there is much more to see. A new Learning Centre has just opened, offering free children's Saturday art workshops for 6- to 12-year-olds, from 2pm-3.30pm, as well as holiday activities and workshops for various ages including teenagers. The Gilbert Collection's special exhibition Quentin Blake: Fifty Years Of Illustration runs until 28 March. In summer the fountains are a great place for children to play and some well-prepared parents bring swimming costumes and towels. In July, there are free family events in the Courtyard.

Something for adults?

Some of the finest paintings in the country, including Manet's A Bar at the Folies Bergères and Van Gogh's Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear. On a stifling summer's evening the courtyard is a great place for a quiet drink or open-air concerts.

I'm hungry?

You can buy drinks, sandwiches and pastries at The Admiralty Deli, from 10am to 6pm and from 8am in summer, and eat inside or out. The Courtauld Gallery's café has a more extensive menu. In summer, the River Terrace serves drinks, soups and salads by the Thames. For a special occasion, try The Admiralty Restaurant (020-7845 4646).

Can I buy a souvenir?

The Courtauld shop stocks postcards, posters and art books, some for children. The Gilbert Collection shop is big on jewellery and gifts. The Hermitage Rooms shop has gifts, and all three shops sell pocket-money trinkets.

How do I get there?

By train: it is around 10 minutes' walk from Charing Cross along the Strand.

By Tube: alight at Temple or Covent Garden.

By car: it's just north of Waterloo Bridge, to the east. By river: the River Bus Service stops nearby at Embankment Pier.

Will there be queues?

It can get busy on a warm summer's weekend. All three museums open daily from 10am-6pm. The courtyard is open from 7.30am-11pm. Entry to Somerset House is free, although adults must pay to enter the museums: £5 to visit one, £8 for two, £12 for three.

Disabled access: visitors with disabilities can call the 24-hour access information line for more details (020-7845 4671).