Tower of London (London)

https://www.hrp.org.uk/tower-of-london/

The Tower of London is an iconic complex full of over one thousand years of history. It should be your first stop on any family vacation to London!


History

The Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror in the late 11th century to serve as a reminder to the surrounding Anglo-Saxons of his might and power. It started as a single tower and grew to include a fortress with apartments, dungeons, and a royal palace. Many kings and queens lived in its sumptuous royal rooms, including the doomed Anne Boleyn who came back to the Tower years after becoming queen to be imprisoned and beheaded. 

One of my favorite stories from history took place at the Tower. Lady Jane Grey, the sixteen year old cousin of Henry VIII’s heir, Edward, was executed here in 1554. The nine-day queen as she was called was imprisoned in the Tower before her execution and saw her husband being led to Tower Hill to his death. She also had to listen to the building of her own execution scaffold as she was held in the fortress. 

The Tower now serves as the home of the crown jewels along with several museums containing armor and other artifacts from military and royal history. The Tower’s guards, known as Beefeaters, are an iconic part of London with their red uniforms, and the ravens are a part of the Tower’s lore. 


Visit

No visit to London is complete without spending some time at the Tower. The Tower complex is compact but you can spend hours wandering its grounds and buildings. It’s one of the most popular places for tourists in London so be sure to buy your tickets well in advance here. Also take a look at the map so you can plan your route.

You’ll enter the Tower on a picturesque bridge over what used to be the moat. It’s now just grass and in summer of 2022, it contains wildflowers planted for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (with the entrance to the Tower temporarily moved to the back corner). 

No matter how you enter, be sure to inquire about the next Yeoman Warder, “Beefeater,” tour. This hour-long guided tour with one of the guards of the Tower will be an entertaining way to learn about the Tower’s long and gory history. You can leave the tour at any time and even join an in-progress tour as it winds its way through the complex. We all really loved hearing the tragic tales and historic happenings from someone who actually lives at the Tower! 

An alternative is to hire a private guide to take you around the Tower. They can tailor your tour to your family’s interests and make a big difference in your understanding of the Tower. The guide I used for my Windsor tour, Vivien, would be an excellent resource.

If you don’t want the guided tour, you can purchase an audio guide just inside the Tower. We enjoyed its narration, and it even has a special tour for families.

Tour or no tour, head towards the main center of the complex, Tower Green, by way of the Traitors’ Gate. It was through this imposing gate that prisoners such as Elizabeth I and Lady Jane Grey entered the complex. If you take a river cruise later, be sure to look for the bricked up entrance to the Traitors’ Gate.

Once you arrive in Tower Green, look at the line for the Crown Jewels and if it’s not too long, go ahead and enter. If it is long, proceed to the White Tower and come back.

The Crown Jewels are one of the main attractions at the Tower and are sure to impress all. The long line winds its way through several dark rooms full of the treasures of the English crown. Pictures aren’t allowed and the line moves swiftly (aided by a moving sidewalk in one part!) so be sure to hold on to little ones’ hands. Even my teens were impressed with the crowns and jewelry with too-big-to-be-real diamonds, rubies, and other gemstones. 

Once you leave the Crown Jewels, head straight ahead to the entrance to the White Tower (or go here first if the line for the Crown Jewels is too long). This square tower is the original structure built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century – amazing! It’s the iconic symbol of the Tower.

Head up the stairs (peeking on the landing at the placard about the discovery of what’s thought to be the two princes’ remains, killed by their uncle, King Richard III). At the top of the stairs, you’ll enter one of the best museums in London! The museum is laid out in a very organized fashion but it does get crowded, especially around popular items!

Kids will be enthralled with the suits of armor you’ll see from a much slimmer King Henry VIII to one that shows his portly figure. 

You’ll go through the king’s chamber and then upstairs to the beautiful St. John’s Chapel. This is where kings and queens worshiped for centuries and is where Lady Jane Grey gave one final prayer before her death. 

The next exhibit is the Treasures of the Tower Armouries and here you’ll find more armor and weapons. Head upstairs to see a dragon made from old weapons and one of the most gruesome artifacts – the actual execution axe and chopping block. Outlander fans will recognize the man who is named as the block’s last victim – Simon Fraser, known as Lord Lovat, a Jacobite who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie (and who is the fictional Jamie Fraser’s grandfather!). 

Your kids will absolutely love the next room – it’s all hands-on activities to bring the Tower’s history to life. Even my thirteen year old spent thirty minutes here, playing with the bow and arrow game and mastering swordcraft!

Note that strollers aren’t allowed in the White Tower so park them at the bottom of the long wooden staircase. 

After you leave the tower, there are many other things to see! My military loving son enjoyed The Fusilier Museum. It’s a small museum packed with lots of information about the British military, including a heavy pack for your kids to try on – 80 kg! Note the wording about the British spy, John Andre. Here in Britain, the American revolutionaries are called “rebels!”

Don’t miss the atmospheric Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula to the left of the Crown Jewel rooms, built by Henry VIII. It’s where the people who were beheaded at the Tower and Tower Hill outside the walls were buried. Under these stones lie the final resting places for Queen Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey. Note their names on the chapel’s altar.

Outside the chapel is the somber scaffold site, the spot where convicted enemies of the Crown were executed. This is where Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey, Catherine Howard (wife number 5), and more were beheaded. Not as many as you think were executed here as most were killed on top of Tower Hill (just outside the walls).

Walk back down towards the entrance to begin your walk inside the walls, taking in the picturesque homes that still house the Beefeaters and the Queen’s residence to this day.

Start your tour with the most infamous site, the Bloody Tower, where you can view Sir Walter Raleigh’s prison cells. He spent 13 years here with his wife before eventually losing his head. You can also see where the two princes were held. Their true identity and death are still mysteries! Note that some of the sections you’ll walk through are narrow and have tiny spiral staircases. I recommend these rooms for ages 10 and up. 

Walk to the medieval palace which shows how the Tower was once a place where kings and queens lived in sumptuous rooms.

I like how they left the walls exposed so you can see how they are built.

My favorite place was the king’s private chapel built by Henry III in the 1200s.

Walking on the walls gives you a good view of the raven enclosure. Legend has it that if the last raven leaves the Tower, its walls will crumble. They keep the ravens here just in case it’s true! You can walk down and visit with the ravens later if you wish.

Keep walking on the walls for a great view of Tower Bridge and to continue the tour through the different towers.

My kids especially liked the Broad Arrow Tower where they could touch actual chain mail and try out a bow.

When you finish walking along the walls, you can visit the exhibit about the royal beasts once housed in the Tower (look around for elephants and other animal statues throughout the site!). You can also visit the torture exhibit or the raven habitat.

You can also view parts of a Roman wall enclosed in the Tower.

During the Platinum Jubilee celebration, don’t miss the Superbloom festival in the Tower’s moat. Entry to walk around the flowers (and to take a slide into them!) is a separate ticket but if you don’t want to do that, you can just view them on your walk around! 

I wish we had been able to visit the Tower for the Ceremony of the Keys – I’ve heard it’s really memorable! Check it out for your visit!

Before you end your visit to the area, be sure to walk towards the Tower Hill Tube stop to visit Trinity House Gardens. This peaceful spot is the site of some of the most tortured history of London – it’s the location where most of the doomed were executed. Visit the plaque in the ground and think about the thousands who would gather on the nearby streets in grandstands to watch the bloody scene unfold. 

At the Tube stop is one of the best preserved sections of the ancient Roman wall with, appropriately, a Julius Caesar statue in front of it. 

For an even better section of the wall, walk past the Tube stop and through the exterior parking lobby of the Leonardo Hotel. You’ll emerge on one of the prettiest views of a Roman wall you’ll ever see! You can actually walk through the wall which is very cool! To learn more about the London Wall Walk, check out this guide.

The Tower Hill Tube stop is a popular place to meet tour guides for an East End tour. We had a private guide one evening that met us here and took us through the parts of London best known for Jack the Ripper and other macabre events. Our teens loved the scary stories!

You could spend a whole day at the Tower and not see everything. It’s chock full of history from its almost 1,000 years as the royal seat of England. It makes a perfect start to any family trip to London!


Helpful hints:

  • Cost: £30/adults; £15/child (5-15); be sure to check out the family packages
  • Recommended: all ages (some exhibits on the walls best suited for ages 10 and up)
  • Tour time: 3 – 4 hours
  • Gift shops located in several locations inside the tower and online
  • Transportation: The Tower has its own Tube stop appropriately named Tower Hill. You can also arrive by boat at the Tower Pier (Uber Boat and most other tourist boats will stop here). 
  • Dining options: The Tower has several cafes and restaurants within its walls. Just outside the walls along the river are many food kiosks with food from around the world (including Nashville hot chicken!). We walked to Borough Market to eat, a twenty minute walk which crosses the river over London Bridge (not the picturesque bridge of the nursery rhyme!). Finding Borough Market closed thanks to the Jubilee, we ended up eating a really nice lunch right on the Thames at the Old Thameside Inn.
  • Nearby hotels: Hotels in London are plentiful. I recommend staying in west London but there are many chain hotels surrounding the Tower including an amazing Four Seasons and the more budget-friendly Doubletree
  • Nearby attractions include: The Gunpowder Plot immersive experience, Tower Bridge, St. Dunstan in the East Church Gardens, Jack the Ripper Museum, and Thames River cruises


Books to Read:

All images are Amazon affiliate links.

Adults/Young Adults:

Middle Grade:

Picture Books:

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