If your favourite part of history lessons was always the gory bits, a trip to the Tower of London will be right up your street. This Norman architectural masterpiece on the Thames has had previous lives as a palace, an armoury, a Royal Mint, a zoo - and a vault for the Crown Jewels (a role it still plays today). But it’s the Tower’s bloody history as a place of imprisonment and execution that draws 2.5 million visitors each year - and this is a London tourist attraction that really does deserve the hype. With Beefeaters (or Yeoman Warders as they prefer to be called) acting as official tour guides and wandering actors recreating famous events, history is brought to life in a way that is educational, entertaining - and surprisingly moving. Expect the hairs on the back of your neck to bristle when you see the plaintive graffiti scrawled on the prison walls, or when the Beefeaters tell you the sad story of the Princes imprisoned in the Tower.
Over 1,000 years old, the Tower of London must be one of the most interesting buildings in the city. Built in 1066 by William the Conqueror, it was added to by a succession of kings and queens to become a huge royal palace and fortress, its riverside location giving it an ideal vantage point. The castle was used as a prison from 1100 right up until 1952 (when the Kray twins did a stint here), although it really got its grim reputation as a place of misery and death from 16th and 17th centuries. Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey were executed here, and many notable figures of the day, like Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh did time within its walls when they’d fallen from grace. Guy Fawkes confessed to his part in the Gunpowder Plot here after being tortured on the Tower’s infamous rack in 1605. No wonder today the Tower is plagued by ghosts - although not all of them are of the human kind. A ghostly grizzly bear is also said to appear at night here, a reminder of the time the Tower was used as the Royal Menagerie.
If you’re in London on a sightseeing city break, why not book into a Premier Inn near the Tower of London? Not only will it get your day trip to the Tower off to a great start, it’s also well-placed for the Fashion and Textile Museum and for exploring Bermondsey - a lively part of town, packed with excellent bars and pubs.
For the best river views, take the South Wall Walk from the Wakefield Tower to the Lanthorn Tower. From this vantage point, it’s easy to imagine the triumphant river procession of Anne Boleyn for her coronation in 1533, and then her miserable arrival through Traitors’ Gate three years later for her meeting with the axe.
Going to the Tower of London for a tour? Here’s all the essential information you need.
Last admission is at 4pm in winter and 5pm in summer. Ticket prices for full-paying adults is around £25 on the gate, although it’s cheaper if you buy online in advance. Should you need to call the Tower, the number is 020 3166 6000.
There are actually five shops at the Tower of London. The Tower of London is the main gift shop, but there’s also The Jewel House Shop, The White Tower Shop, a shop dedicated to Beefeater memorabilia and souvenirs, and The Raven Shop, just for children’s toys.
Tours are available in sign language on selected dates, and disabled people can get into the Tower at a discounted rate, with free tickets available to accompanying carers. There are places with steps and cobbles, so wheelchair access is limited.
Your ticket includes access to the White Tower and the Crown Jewels, plus all the exhibitions, a Yeoman Warder tour, live historical re-enactments and the children's activity trails. In fact, there’s so much to see when you get here, you’ll need at least three hours to take it all in - and even more if you want to stop for lunch. Here’s our pick of the must-see things to do at the Tower of London.
Yeoman Warder guided tours
You don’t have to do a Yeoman Warder guided tour, but you’d really be missing a treat. These former military men have a knack for telling a good story and, because they actually live at the Tower with their families, they know the place inside out. Known as Beefeaters because, as royal bodyguards, they could eat as much beef as they liked from the king’s table, a detachment of Yeoman of the Guard have been at the Tower since 1509. Tours start near the main entrance every 30 minutes.
The Crown Jewels
If you love a bit of bling, a visit to Jewel House will be the highlight of your day. The Crown Jewels are a unique collection of royal regalia still regularly used by the Queen in important national ceremonies, such as the State Opening of Parliament. The heavily protected vault contains 23,578 priceless jewels. Be dazzled by the Imperial State Crown, which contains 2,868 diamonds, then look out for the First Star of Africa on the Sovereign’s Sceptre - it’s the largest flawless cut diamond in the world.
The Torture Tower
The Tower of London has had a grim reputation for misery and pain right from the 16th Century. And, when you walk down the stone stairs to the bottom of the Wakefield Tower you’ll find out why that reputation is so well deserved. Here you’ll find an exhibition all about prisoners and torture at the Tower, including replicas of the infamous instruments used to extract confessions out of its poor inmates, such as manacles used to hang people from walls, the rack and the fearsome looking ‘Scavenger’s Daughter’.
Next to Wakefield Tower, you’ll find the lodgings of some of London’s most popular characters - the ravens. Known as ‘guardians of the Tower’, seven of the large, black birds have been kept here since King Charles II’s day. He was the monarch to start the legend that unless six of the birds remained at the Tower the Kingdom would fall (a spare bird is kept, just in case). Today, the birds are very well looked after, eating a diet of meat from Smithfield market, biscuits soaked in blood and salt and vinegar crisps.
If you can still eat after all the Beefeaters’ gory stories, you’ll find plenty of places inside the Tower of London. But if you’d rather wait until you get outside, a wealth of great restaurants await. And because you’re right on the Thames, many come with a side helping of spectacular riverside views.
Feeling peckish? You could get a gourmet British sausage from Raven Kiosk, or a coffee and cake from the Jewel Kiosk. If you’d like somewhere to sit and eat, there is a restaurant on site called the New Armouries Cafe. Each self-service counter is named after a famous London food market - for example, you can grab a hearty roast at the Smithfield counter or go for tasty fish and chips at Billingsgate. Prices are fairly reasonable for a central London tourist attraction, too!
The best place nearby is a cool and casual brasserie called the Perkin Reveller. It serves locally-sourced, traditional British classics, yet its atmosphere is anything but stuffy, with contemporary architecture and well-designed outdoor tables that are perfect on a summer’s afternoon. But the star of the show has to be the beautiful views of both the Tower and the Thames itself. You can get to the Perkin Reveller from the River Front, just outside the Tower of London site.
It’s best to get to the Tower as early as possible, as queues can start building by mid-morning. We’ve listed all the best ways to get you there, but remember, you could always save yourself the trek across town and stay at the Premier Inn near the Tower of London instead. It’s just minutes away from the main entrance, so you’ll have time for a leisurely breakfast and still get in early enough to beat the crowds.
Fighting your way through London traffic isn’t great at the best of times, and there’s not that much parking available when you get here, either. The nearest car park is close enough, on Lower Thames Street and about a two-minute walk away. But it’s not massive - there’s only space for 110 cars - so it does get busy.
By bus and boat
All the main sightseeing coaches stop at the Tower, as do local bus services such as the 15, 42, 78, 100 and RV1. Or follow in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn and take a riverboat up the Thames. Riverboats depart from Charing Cross, Westminster and Greenwich and take you directly to Tower Pier.
By tube and train
Hop on the District, Circle or DLR lines to Tower Hill - the main entrance to the Tower is a five-minute walk away. The nearest mainline station is Fenchurch Street, just a five-minute walk away. Or get off at London Bridge - it’s a 15-minute walk, but you can stroll along the pedestrianised walkway by the river.
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