This wonderful white stone building which sits around a courtyard, fronted by the river on one side and The Strand on the other is home to cultural and artistic organizations such as The Courthauld Institute and The Courthauld Gallery – one the best collections of art in London.
There are also offices for fashion, music, environmental and literary organizations. In summer, the courtyard hosts fountains and film screenings (hopefully not at the same time), and in winter it becomes an ice skating rink. But the current building and activities represent the mere tip of the history of this site and its importance in London. The current building dates from the late 18th century and rose from the rubble of the previous palace, which dated back as far as the Tudor Era (1500s), when the first royal mansion was built just after the death of Henry VIII. The area was popular with courtiers who built their houses here from the 12th century on, but it wasn’t really until Queen Elizabeth lived here before her coronation that Somerset House became a royal palace.
Through the reigns of many kings and queens, a fortune was spent on building and renovating Somerset House. After the civil war and the execution of King Charles I, Republican leader Oliver Cromwell lived and died here. Then the Monarchy returned, the building was again renovated and expanded until finally Buckingham House (as it was then) became more favored as a royal home; soldiers and their horses moved into Somerset House. Some traces of the old Tudor palace and this long and amazing history still exist under the current building and you can take a free guided tour on Thursdays and Saturdays. I am told there is even an old sailing ship in the basement from the times when the river came right up to the walls. History, art, culture, ice-skating, movies: Somerset House has it all.