Visiting The Tower of London: A Rich Historical and Cultural Experience

If you’re coming to London for a short period of time and you’re looking for a must-see London attraction, then I recommend the Tower of London. I had the privilege of visiting the Tower of London with over 800,000 poppies on display for the 100 year commemoration of lost British soldiers in WWI. The poppies will be on display until November 11, 2014 and if there’s any way you can get there before that date I highly recommend it. While some of my photos will showcase that amazing display, the focus of this article is on visiting the Tower of London at any time of the year.

Panoramic of the Tower of London during the 100 year commemoration of WWI
Panoramic shot of the Tower of London during the 100 year commemoration of WWI.

People first hearing of the Tower of London usually have two questions: what is the tower and what was/is it used for? The name Tower of London is a little misleading because today the entire castle is referred to as the Tower of London. The “Castle of London” would perhaps be a more apt name. It’s also a little bit confusing because within the Tower of London, is the White Tower, which is the heart of the castle and the original building constructed on the premises. Just know that when people talk about the Tower of London they’re referring to the entire castle as pictured above.

As for the purpose of the Tower of London…. The Tower was ordered to be built by William the Conqueror sometime in the 11th century to serve as a fortress. Since then, it’s served as a power base in times of peace, a refuge in times of war, a prison for the most dangerous criminals, an armoury, treasury, and general conserver of records for king’s court of justice among many other purposes. On the outside, it’s underwent several additions over the centuries as walls and moats have been installed by different monarchies. Through all this time and through all these changes, the Tower of London has stood as a testament to the perseverance of the monarchy and today still captivates the imagination of visitors from all around the world.

Here are some things to know about the Tower of London before visiting.

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Prices and booking

  • £20.90 per adult with online booking
  • £22 per adult at the gate
  • Student and other discounts available

I recommend booking online so that you can save a little bit. One thing that is a little confusing is that if you buy online, you still have to go to the “Group ticket booth” and get them to issue you your admission tickets. The ticket booth is located next to the visitor center on the east side of the tower. Be sure to get those tickets because you can’t just bring an electronic version of your ticket confirmation and expect to get in.

The Yeoman Warders, or “Beef Eaters,” are highly entertaining and worth your time

A Yeoman Warder

One thing you must do is participate in a tour given by the Yeoman Warders. The tours go on for about an hour and they start about every 30 minutes from the entrance of the tower. They provide you with more information than you’ll likely be able to digest but they all have a great sense of humor and superb presentation skills so it makes for a really enjoyable experience. They’ll tell you all about the famous prisoners, murders, and tons of other random facts about special people who have spent time in the Tower of London. During the tour, you’ll basically be walking around to different locations, such as Traiter’s Gate, and then stopping for about 10-15 minutes to listen to all of the stories and see some of the exact locations of certain events, such as where prisoners were executed. You can hang around the tour for the entire time or wander off from the crowd at some point if the tour just isn’t for you or you are in a time-crunch.

Traitors Gate Tower of London
Traitor’s Gate

Don’t let the nickname “Beef Eater” fool you, either. One thing I was a bit surprised to find out is how accomplished these individuals must be in order to be granted such a prestigious position. The Yeoman Warders have to have at least 22 years of military service and have been awarded a number of accolades from the military to even be eligible for such a position. Not only that, but they also have to undergo a strenuous application process, including doing their own independent research to come up with presentations that are good enough to impress their superiors and allow them to become official Yeoman Warders. For those reasons, I have a lot of respect for them and think that they do a brilliant job of showcasing the highlights of the Tower of London. Definitely do one of these tours when visiting.

You’ll have great up-close views of the British guards

Maybe you’re not able to view the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace but you are still interested in seeing some of these famous stoic British guards up close. The Tower of London is the perfect place to do so. Every two hours there is a changing of the guards and while it doesn’t involve the same level of presentation as Buckingham, it’s still pretty cool to be able to see that up close, which can be a very difficult thing to do when you are attending the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace with hundreds of other tourists. Also, there are always a couple of the guards outside of the Jewel’s House and the Queen’s House and you can get up close to one of them and get some great photos.

Guard at Tower of London
Guard at the Tower of London
Changing of the guards at Tower of London
Changing of the guards at the Tower of London

The Crown Jewels will blow you away with some serious bling

The crown jewels exhibit contains tons of royal regalia from modern and historical times. You will be dazzled by the brilliant display of shiny silver and gold ornaments. You’ll find everything from sceptres, orbs, swords, robes, spoons, and of course, plenty of crowns. Most of the items are objects that have been used in coronations of English Kings and Queens throughout the centuries, with at least one piece dating back to the 12th century. It’s a pretty brilliant presentation and is by far the most impressive collection of jewels and regalia I’ve ever seen in person.

The Tower doesn’t allow any photography in the room so I didn’t take any photos but it’s an absolute must-see if you are to visit the Tower. Also, you can move through the exhibition at your own pace and get through it as slow or as fast as you would like. As a side note, the Crown Jewels exhibit is where I discovered that “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” was written to the same melody as “God Save the Queen.” If you weren’t aware of this fact then just listen for it when you get to a certain area of the exhibit and it will be pretty clear that the melodies are the same. I was a little disappointed to find out that one of my favorite American tunes (second to “God Bless America,” of course) wasn’t as original as I once thought. However, as I’ve spent more time in England, I’ve found it fascinating to discover links to America’s British heritage that I never knew existed. 

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Don’t forget to visit the heart of the castle: The White Tower

The White Tower is really the heart of the castle. At the time it was completed near the beginning of the 12th century, it was an imposing tower that was meant to serve as a reminder of the king’s authority and vast ruling power. It was the first of its kind in England and still today is one of the best preserved 11th century structures of Europe. Inside the tower you’ll discover many  noteworthy attractions. When you first walk in there’s an amazing display of medieval armour, including Henry VIII’s famous armour dating back to 1515. Other major attractions in the White Tower include St. John’s Chapel and the “block and axe.” The Tower of London notes that St. John’s Chapel is one of the most “complete examples of early Anglo-Norman ecclesiastical architecture.” The “block” is believed to have been used in the last public beheading in 1747 on Tower Hill (where most executions took place).

The White Tower looming over castle walls
The White Tower looming over the castle walls.

The “torture room” is a little underwhelming, though that’s probably a good thing…

A lot of torture occurred in the Tower’s walls and some of the mechanisms used for that torture were pretty gruesome. There’s one room designated as the torture exhibit in the tower. It’s a small exhibit with only a few displays and it was a little underwhelming. There were limited things to see and the small room got very crowded. Still, after taking a look at some of the model torture devices I got a little sick to my stomach thinking about the poor souls who were forced to endure that horrendous treatment. For those reasons, you’ll probably only spend a few minutes stopping by this room and be ready to step out and get some fresh air.

Be sure to take the “wall walk” around the castle walls

The “wall walk” is a neat experience that allows you to walk along with inner curtain walls and admire the different views of the Tower of London and also pass through many different exhibitions in the different towers. These walls were the place where archers and other soldiers stood willing to defend the castle at all cost. Several steel sculptures are placed along the walkways posing in different war-ready positions taking you back through the centuries. Along the way, you’ll also have some nice sights of Tower Bridge and other prominent buildings of the London skyline.

Tower Bridge view from the wall walk
Tower Bridge view from the wall walk.
A view of the Tower walls

As you walk along the wall be sure to take your time and enjoy the different exhibitions in the different towers. Some of them, such as the Salt Tower and Broad Arrow Tower, give you a close look at the graffiti left by prisoners who were kept in isolation in those rooms. Be sure to be mindful of some of the signs as you make your way through the towers because some of the exhibits prohibit photography while others allow it.

Prisoners graffiti inside Tower of London
A prisoner’s graffiti inside one of the towers.

Gift Shops and Cafes

There are multiple gift shops and cafes throughout the Tower. If you’re looking for royal souvenirs there are several crowns on sale in the gift shop that I thought would make for a great souvenir.

Visiting the Tower is a fulfilling English and historical experience

I recommend the Tower of London for visitors because once you leave you feel as if you’ve experienced a thin slice of centuries of English history. You’ve roamed where kings and queens have roamed, seen where some of the most famous prisoners and greatest minds have spent years of their lives (and last moments), and you’ve wandered over the walls where peasants revolted and archers stood to defend the crown. Simply put, this is a must-see attraction for London.

The only drawback to this experience is that it is usually going to be overrun with tourists. However, we visited on a Wednesday in September and it wasn’t too bad, especially when we wandered out to the wall walk and other spots further away from the main attractions. My advice would be to try to avoid the weekend crowd if you can.

Finally, as a last recommendation you should try to be around for the key ceremony, which is the ceremonial locking of the castle. It’s gone on for about 700 years without missing a night! You arrive at about 9:30 pm but if you’d like to witness this spectacle you’ll have to book your (free) tickets in advance. You can book those tickets here.

That’s it for the Tower of London. I hope you make it out to see this amazing site and enjoy your time in London!

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