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Tower of London Tour: History, Tickets & What to See

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Take a tour of the Tower of London, and you’ll come face-to-face with some of British history’s most meaningful and influential events. The Tower of London, an iconic symbol of London and the United Kingdom, is a castle built on the north bank of the River Thames.

It has famously been used as a prison, a royal residence, and a place of execution. Now, it’s the home of the British Crown Jewels. It’s also one of London’s must-see attractions.

A Tower of London Tour is the best way to find your way around the 18-acre site and get an insight into this fascinating collection of buildings. Not only is this a stunning and unique landmark – it’s also played a significant part in England’s rich heritage.

Sunlit Tower of London against a blue sky, tourists strolling around
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Everybody knows it as The Tower of London – or just The Tower – but actually, that’s not the official name. The real name of this imposing ancient castle is His (or Her) Majesty’s Royal Palace And Fortress, The Tower of London. A great fact for pub quiz nights!

Before you go to this world-famous landmark, let us talk you through the logistics of visiting, the Tower’s history, and what you can expect to see. What’s more, you’ll find out what a Beefeater is.

Tower of London Tickets

Aerial View of the Tower of London with City of London
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

There are several ways to get Tower of London tickets. 

  • For the lowest ticket prices, buy tickets on the day at the Ticket Office on Tower Hill. To be sure of entry, it’s better to pre-book your ticket online. You’ll then download a PDF ticket to scan or print. Either way, you’ll wait in line for entry and unavoidable security checks. 
  • One way to beat the crowds is to opt for an early morning Tower of London ticket. Purchasers of this tour report being the first of the day to see the Crown Jewels exhibit. This is a real bonus: you can wait in line for 90 minutes or more at busy times to see the Jewels. 
  • You could book a private tour of the Tower. Your expert Tower of London guide will purchase the tickets for you and give you a personalized experience. This tour lasts three hours, with groups no larger than 15.
  • There are ways to maximize efficiency when getting tickets for the Tower of London. Many tour companies offer multiple attraction bundles. One package includes Tower of London tickets plus a visit to nearby Tower Bridge. Or you could combine visits to the Tower of London, the Changing of the Guard, and Westminster Abbey.

These multi-attraction tour bundles don’t necessarily save money, but they can save time when buying tickets. You’ll also have access to a tour guide or a recorded commentary.

London Tourist Passes That Include The Tower of London

Ceremonial guards on duty at the Tower of London
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Buying a London tourist pass is a more reliable way of saving money. Tourist passes are digital multi-attraction tickets that visitors purchase and store on their phones before starting their trip. A tourist pass will save you money if you plan to see many iconic sights when visiting London.

Two London tourist passes include the Tower of London: the London Pass and the Go City Explorer Pass. My personal favorite is the London Pass, but to help you decide which is better for you, I’ve put all the useful info in this table:


THE LONDON PASS
GO CITY EXPLORER PASS
Number of free attractions to choose from, including the Tower of London: 80+ 75+
How many you can visit: All 2-7
Within how many days: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 10 days 9 days
Cancellation policy: 90 days from purchase date to return non-activated passes for a refund. 90 days from purchase date to return non-activated passes for a refund.
Advance purchase: Up to 2 years Up to 2 years
Child discount: Ages 5-15 Ages 5-15
Group discount: No 10 or more
Price(s): £84-£199 £49-£119

If your main focus is museums, a tourist pass may not be for you. Many world-class museums in the capital city, such as the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, are free to visit. 

If you do buy a London Pass or a Go City Explorer Pass, you won’t need to book Tower of London tickets in advance. You may have to wait for the next available time slot when you are busy. And remember that even if a pass gives skip-the-line privileges, you’ll still have to wait in line for the bag search.

The good news is that both these passes give you a 10% discount in the on-site catering and retail outlets (excluding alcohol). Finally, if you’re a London Borough of Tower Hamlets resident and have an Idea Store card or Tower Hamlets library card, you can visit the Tower of London for £1.00. One ticket per cardholder can be bought daily from the ticket office.

See Related: Things to Do in London

How to Get to the Tower of London

Yeoman Warders' quarters and The Shard at The Tower of London
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Luckily, the Tower of London is easily accessible via London’s outstanding public transport system.

London Underground

Underground Station in the City of London
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

The London Underground, or Tube, subway system is the most straightforward method. Note that under-5-year-olds accompanying adults with valid tickets go free on the London Underground. Kids between 5 and 10 travel free with a Zip Oyster Photocard.

  • London Underground to Tower Hill StationTower Hill Station has step-free access to the street level and is on the District and Circle Tube lines. Once you exit the underground, head towards the River Thames. The Tower of London is a 5-minute walk away, to the right of Tower Bridge along the River Thames.
  • London Underground to Monument, Bank, Aldgate, or Aldgate East: A 15-minute walk to the Tower of London.

Docklands Light Railway (from Docklands and Greenwich)

  • Tower Gateway Station: a 6-minute walk

National Rail Stations

  • London Bridge Station, Fenchurch Street Station: a 15-minute walk
  • Liverpool Street Station: a 20-minute walk
  • London Charing Cross Station: a 25-minute walk

London Buses

Routes 15, 42, 78, 100, 343, and RV1 stop near the Tower of London. Kids under the age of 11 accompanied by an adult with a valid ticket travel free on public buses. All major sightseeing bus tours in London pass by the Tower of London.

Riverboat

You can reach the Tower of London by riverboat, though these get very crowded on sunny days. Tower Millennium Pier is only a few minutes walk from the Tower. It’s served by riverboats traveling from piers including Westminster, London Eye, and Greenwich.  

Walking from Central London or the City of London

Claustrophobic? Want to save money on the fare? A walk through London to the Tower is a fabulous way to take in some iconic landmarks. For example, the Tower is just 10 minutes from the Gherkin and the Walkie-Talkie skyscrapers in the City of London.

The walk from Trafalgar Square or The British Museum takes 30-40 minutes and might take in Covent Garden, Fleet Street (check out Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub), and St. Paul’s Cathedral. If you’re coming from the London Eye, you can swing by Shakespeare’s Globe, Borough Market, and The Shard on your 35-minute walk.

Other ways to reach the Tower of London

If you want to avoid public transportation, consider a car rental from RentalCars.com. But be warned: although the Tower is easier to reach by car than some London attractions, driving around London can be tricky AND expensive! Alternatively, you can rely on London’s ubiquitous Black Cabs.

Video Tour of the Tower of London

Tower of London History

Tower of London exterior with Union Jack against autumn foliage
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

The Tower of London is an iconic landmark and one of London’s most popular tourist destinations.  It has an incredibly rich history, with people coming from around the world to visit the White Tower, the Crown Jewels exhibit, the Beefeaters, and the Tower Ravens. But what’s behind these and other unique features? Let’s take a quick look at the Tower’s fascinating story. 

After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, King William the Conqueror wanted to wield his royal power. So, in 1078, the White Tower was built to consolidate his control over London.

The mighty fortress was sited strategically to be seen from afar as a reminder of who was now the boss. Of course, the city has evolved dramatically, and the twenty-first-century skyline now dwarfs the tower. 

William had the stone imported from France, but the story that animal blood was used to mix the mortar is – probably – just a gruesome myth. Later, kings strengthened the Medieval fortress and added walls, buildings, and towers – there are now over 20 towers. In 1285, the complex reached its current size when Edward I built the outer curtain wall.

13th Century History and Zoo

By the 13th century, the Tower included a Royal Mint and a Royal Menagerie, sometimes known as the Lion Tower. (When kings traded exotic animals as gifts, they had to stow them somewhere.) Both closed in the 19th century, with the animals moving to the London Zoo. 

There were other more unwilling guests, as by 1100, the Tower was in use as a prison. Up to the 17th century, grim torture chambers were used to extract confessions and inflict punishment.

The first-ever prisoner was Bishop Flambard. According to early history books, he escaped from the White Tower using a rope and sneaked into his cell in a jug of wine.

Other prisoners included King Henry VI, Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Guy Fawkes. During World Wars, the Tower was used for prisoners of war and German spies. Among the last inmates were the infamous Kray twins.

Its royal residence status meant the Tower of London was used only for high-profile detainees. That also applied to those condemned to death. Unlucky victims included the tragic Lady Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn, the second of Henry VIII’s wives.

Her headless ghost is said to flounce furiously around her place of execution. And the undoubtedly wacko Henry VIII also had his fifth wife, Catherine Howard, beheaded there.

Being a heavy-duty fortress, the Tower was the obvious place to store the monarch’s treasures. Since 1661, all the priceless coronation regalia have been kept at the Tower of London.   Early security arrangements sometimes fell short. In 1671, Colonel Blood stole the whole collection. 

Although the Jewels were recovered, one crown was seriously damaged. Today, the 23,578 gemstones are in a specially designed strongroom, behind bomb-proof glass, with an armed guard.

The Tower is no longer used as a fortress, a royal residence, or a prison. But as it’s still one of the historic royal palaces, it has to be guarded by the King’s Guard. This is the same unit that guards Buckingham Palace. Look out for those sentries outside the Jewel House and the King’s House. 

See Related: London vs Paris: What’s the Difference?

Beefeaters

A Yeoman of the Guard stands infront of the Tower of London, with the wild meadow Moat in the background
paula french / Shutterstock.com

So, what about the Beefeaters? In Tudor times, this was the nickname of the king’s bodyguard, the Yeomen of the Guard. And no doubt about it – the Yeomen of the Guard loved their beef. In 1485, each man’s weekly beef ration was 5 lb. 9 oz. 

Their uniform – and name – were so similar to those of the Tower of London’s Yeoman Warders that the Beefeater name was borrowed – and stuck. Yeoman Warders have guarded the Tower and the British Crown Jewels since the 1400s. All are veterans of the British Armed Forces.

Tower of London Ravens

Ravens at the Tower of London

And why the Tower Ravens? No-one knows! But it’s said that if the Ravens leave, the Tower, the monarchy, and the whole kingdom will fall. King Charles II took this very seriously back in the 17th century. When the Royal Astronomer asked for the Ravens to be removed, Charles had the Astronomer move to a new observatory at Greenwich.

Now, the Tower’s six Ravens are lovingly cared for by the Ravenmaster – and if there are any real Beefeaters at the Tower, it’s the Ravens. They’re given a ration of beef and other raw meats twice a day. Don’t try to feed them – they can get moody when strangers approach.

What to See at the Tower of London

Entrance to the Tower of London
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

First, you must cope with the steps to see everything at the Tower. While the Yeoman Warders are super-helpful, and access arrangements are in place, some areas are tricky. These include difficult stairs, low doorways, and narrow passageways. Check the Tower’s accessibility page before setting out.

The Tower opens and closes at varying times, depending on the season – check times here. If you’re coming with kids, collect child wristbands from the Welcome Centre. You can pick up a free Family Trail from there, too.

You cross the dry moat to reach the main entrance, Byward Tower, opposite the Tower Shop. Tours also start here. If you already have an admission ticket or are part of a large group, you can enter via the Middle Drawbridge opposite the River Thames.  

Every ticket to the Tower includes a 60-minute tour with a Yeoman Warder, with tours starting every 30 minutes. You can opt for the audio guide, which comes in several languages, but “Beefeater” tours definitely add humor and personal insight. They’re incredibly popular, though, so to avoid crowds, aim for an early slot or pick a private Tower tour.

Crown Jewels at the Tower of London

Entrance to Crown Jewels exhibition at Tower of London against a blue sky
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Waterloo Block, a former barracks, is now home to the Crown Jewels. You might want to head there early – at peak times, the wait to see the Crown Jewels can be up to 2 hours. Sometimes, though, queues die by 4 p.m., so you could gamble and leave the Jewel House till last.

Once inside, you’ll find powerful emblems of the British Monarchy, as well as the world’s most complete collection of royal regalia. The value is estimated at a whopping $6 billion. These treasures are so precious, there’s an armed guard, and no video or photography is allowed.

St. Edward’s Crown is one of the collection’s highlights. This sensational solid gold crown weighs nearly 5 lb. and was used in the coronations of Queen Elizabeth II and King Charles III. Another surprise is the Imperial State Crown, once a symbol of royal power in the British Empire, containing 2,868 diamonds.

There are over 2,000 diamonds in Queen Mary’s Crown, too. And you’ll see the world’s biggest colorless cut diamond in the Sceptre, which has been used in Westminster Abbey at every coronation since that of Charles II In 1661. 

The Crown Jewels
United Kingdom Government / Wikimedia Commons

Most items on display don’t date back further than this. Much of the regalia was melted down during England’s flirtation with republicanism after the English Civil War. With the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy came a new hoard of royal treasures. A rare exception is the gold 12th-century Coronation Spoon.

Traitors’ Gate

Gate with Water
jimbowen0306 / Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Another must-see is Traitors’ Gate. This is the water-gate entrance from the River Thames into the Tower of London. Although it originally provided access for King Edward I, it became notorious for transporting prisoners to the Tower.

As the accused were rowed through the gate, they would see the severed heads of recently executed offenders displayed on pikes. According to some accounts, a barge may have brought Anne Boleyn through here before she was executed for treason.

The gate lies underneath St. Thomas’s Tower, built as extra royal accommodation. This tower and the Wakefield and Lanthorn Towers are part of the Medieval Palace buildings. Here, you’ll see intricate recreations of Medieval interiors, including a fabulous canopied throne – plus some dreadful instruments of torture. 

The Bloody Tower

Historic Bloody Tower at Tower of London entrance
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

The famed Bloody Tower was once known as the Garden Tower. But thanks to the sinister behavior of the future Richard III toward his two nephews – the Princes in the Tower – a more grisly nickname took hold. In 1483, the dastardly Duke of Gloucester detained teenage Edward V and his younger brother in the Garden Tower to keep them safe. Or so he said…

The youngsters were never seen alive again, and their uncle was able to take the crown as Richard III – quite the coincidence. Then, in 1674, the remains of two boys were discovered beneath some steps in one of the towers. Widely thought to be the murdered princes, the bodies were interred in Westminster Abbey.

Another high-ranking prisoner here was Sir Walter Raleigh, the explorer who searched for El Dorado. As Raleigh was a nobleman, his living conditions were pretty comfortable. His son Carew was even conceived and born here. Fun fact: did you know that the actor Hugh Grant is descended from Sir Walter Raleigh?

The White Tower and the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist

Tower of London exterior with Norman and Tudor architecture
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

When you think of the Tower of London, you’ll almost certainly be picturing The White Tower. This massive structure, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, marked a huge development in 11th-century castle design. It was also a royal palace where King William I and his royal family once lived.

The White Tower’s entrance floor is actually above the ground floor. You’ll work your way up to the fourth floor before coming down to the basement, thought to be the site of the torture of Guy Fawkes. There are spiral staircases along the way, though there’s a lift to the basement.

Look out for the stunning Royal Armouries collection, which features the 350-year-old Line of Kings exhibit. One of the world’s first-ever museum displays includes exquisite armor made for a young, skinny Henry VIII. The Hands-on History display allows kids to try pulling a bow.

On the third floor, you’ll find a Norman chapel. St John’s Chapel, a beautiful example of Romanesque architecture, was a Chapel Royal, where William I and the royal family worshipped. Oddly enough, this unique and atmospheric space was later used for storing documents. At the top of the bell tower, you’ll see a block and ax used at the last public beheading in 1747.

And why “White”? It looks grey now, but in the 13th century, Henry III ordered the White Tower to be whitewashed, giving it the name we use today.

Tower Green and The Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula

Chapel Royal of Saint Peter ad Vincula - The Tower of London
ClaraNila / Adobe Stock

There’s more to the attractive Tower Green Plaza than meets the eye. It was here that three young queens were beheaded. Anne Boleyn was in her early 30s, and Catherine Howard was about 21 – both accused of treason by Henry VIII. 

Lady Jane Grey, who reigned for just nine days in 1553, was only 16. Tower Green contains a poignant memorial to those condemned to death by the state.

To see where Anne Boleyn was laid to rest, visit the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, close to the execution site. There’s been a church here for over 1,000 years, although this building dates from 1520. This Chapel Royal is still a place of worship, so it may be closed to visitors during services. 

On another side of the Green, you’ll see the King’s House – formerly the Queen’s House – where the Constable of the Tower lives. This half-timbered building is one of the few Tudor houses to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666. That massive curtain wall did the trick!

See Related: How to Take a Day Trip from London to Stonehenge

Battlements

The Shard behind Tower of London walls with Thames River
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

If lines to the better-known attractions are too long, take a Wall Walk along the Tower of London’s battlements. Many towers contain exhibits and displays, often much less crowded than the Jewel House and White Tower. For example, Martin Tower has an exhibition about royal crowns.

At Salt Tower, you’ll find some 500-year-old graffiti. See if you can spot the five arrow loops the archers used when the Tower was under attack.

On the East Battlements, you’ll see a reconstruction of a Fighting Platform and hear the sounds of battle. And there are more exhibits at Bowyer Tower and Beauchamp Tower.

Other Things to See and Do at the Tower of London

Tower of London historic walls and towers under clear blue sky
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

Look out for the lions, elephants, and monkeys! These sculptures recall the 600 years when a Royal Menagerie was on-site. And check out Mint Street, in the west Outer Ward, the site of the Royal Mint until 1810. 

While only one bomb fell – harmlessly – on the Tower during World War I, the Tower Mint was seriously damaged in the Second World War. Fortunately, the nearby Bell Tower, one of the oldest buildings in the Tower complex, escaped unscathed. And don’t miss some super-ancient remains – part of the Roman city wall. 

Also included in your Tower of London ticket is entry to the Fusiliers Museum. Here, you’ll see displays of uniforms, weaponry, and other more personal items. Curiosities include a First World War cookie and a musket ball removed from an officer’s leg.

If you get hungry, there’s the New Armouries Café, plus a couple of coffee kiosks. Or you could bring a picnic to eat on one of the benches. If you want to leave the site for lunch – there are fast-food outlets near the Underground station – make sure to ask for a re-entry ticket on leaving the Tower.

You can also witness the fabulous 700-year-old Ceremony of the Keys, the nighttime locking-up of the Tower. Tickets are £5 and must be booked online. You’re admitted via the southwest corner of the Tower under escort at 9:30 p.m. and escorted out when the ceremony’s over.

See Related: Interesting Nicknames for London

Book Your Tower of London Tickets

Sunlit Tower of London against a blue sky, tourists strolling around
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

For more information on the Tower of London and other royal historic palaces, visit the Royal Palaces website. If you want to avoid big crowds during your visit to the Tower, GetYourGuide and Viator offer plenty of limited-numbers private tours, including kid-friendly ones. A London Pass is also handy for accessing other iconic London experiences.

Check out our Tower of London video for additional information on well-known London attractions, and consider subscribing to the ViaTravelers YouTube channel if you enjoy our videos and material.

See Related: Ultimate Packing Checklist for London

FAQs

Can you tour the Tower of London?

All tickets to the Tower of London include a 60-minute Yeoman Warder tour. After that, you’re free to make your way around. There are also many longer private tours available, for example, with GetYourGuide and Viator.

How long does a tour of the Tower of London take?

The standard Yeoman Warder tour takes about 60 minutes, with tours starting every 30 minutes. Private tours include more buildings and features and take up to 3 hours. There are tons to see, so you’ll need at least 3 hours to get it all in.

Does anyone live in the Tower of London?

Yes, 37 Yeoman Warders live in the Tower of London. They are all men and women from the British military. Their families live at the Tower, as well as the Constable, the Governor, a doctor, and a chaplain. There’s also a garrison of soldiers. 

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