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Visit the Tower of London
It’s one of London’s top attractions. Here are my tips for visiting the Tower of London, including how to do a Beefeater tour!
Never have a small group of birds played such an important part in one of the greatest empires of history.
If legend is to be believed, the ravens of the Tower of London have been the protectors of the British throne and all the countries ruled by it over the centuries. Many an English king and queen have believed that if the ravens were ever to disappear from the tower, the empire would crumble.
Superstition has protected the birds and, since the monarchs no longer call the Tower of London home, the lineage of the ravens perhaps makes them the family to live longest here.
These days there are just seven of them. This number is attributed to King Charles II who, in the 1600s, ordered there be just six ravens kept at the tower because more than that was too annoying (the seventh is kept these days as a reserve).
Much like the royal family, the power of the ravens is symbolic and historical. They are also waited on hand on foot (or wing on claw) and need only behave themselves to fulfil their duties.
The true and hardworking keepers of the Tower of London are the Yeoman Warders. These are the royal bodyguards who have served here since at least 1509. More commonly they are now as the Beefeaters.
Tower of London Beefeater tour
While the beefeaters certainly do still have an official protective role here at the Tower of London, the real security is more likely to be done by people with less flashy outfits.
So, with a bit more spare time on their hands compared to the 16^th^ century, it’s the Beefeater tours that have become one of their main tasks.
When I first arrive at the Tower of London, I find Steve, a warder for only the past couple of years, addressing a group of tourists.
“Within these walls is mystery, intrigue, incest and…” he pauses for dramatic effect before turning to a child and shouting, “…murder!”
The tales he tells are chilling — of a time when queens were executed, prisoners were tied to the rack, and traitors had their heads carried through the streets of the city.
In years gone by, the Tower of London was a fortress of fear. The Yeoman Warders were hated by the population, taunted with the name ‘Beefeaters’ because they were well-fed within the stone walls of the monarchy while the average citizen starved on the plague-ridden streets.
Today, the wearers of the scarlet robes and the Tudor bonnet are as much a tourist attraction as the Crown Jewels which they protect.
There are 36 of them in the castle and all have been chosen from the military (they must have had at least 22 years of service, reaching the rank of warrant officer, to qualify).
The current group of Beefeaters have served in places like Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Now they live with their families in accommodations in the castle, the former home of British royalty.
When you visit the Tower of London, doing a Beefeater tour is one of the highlights. One of the royal bodyguards will take you through parts of the site, sharing stories about its history (some are pretty scary!).
And the best thing is that the Tower of London Beefeater tour is free and included in your admission ticket.
The tours start just inside the entrance to the Tower of London in the moat area. You’ll see people gathering around the stone block where your Beefeater will make a welcome speech.
It is worth buying your Tower of London ticket in advance to avoid the long queues when you arrive. You can buy the official entrance ticket from Historic Royal Palaces here through GetYourGuide.
The only issue with the tours is that the groups can get very large. Later in this story I’ll have some suggestions on how you can avoid that somewhat.
When are the Tower of London Beefeater tours?
The tours begin every half hour starting at 10:00 on Tuesday – Saturday and at 10:30 on Sunday – Monday.
In summer, the final tour of the day is at 15:30. In winter, the final tour of the day is at 14:30.
You can’t make a booking for a particular tour in advance.
How long is the Tower of London Beefeater tour?
How much are the Tower of London Beefeater tours?
As I continue to listen to Steve the Beefeater give his tour, I notice that his sleeve rides up his arm slightly and an aged greenish tattoo is revealed — a mark of his military past.
His stories also expose his time in the armed forces, with a sly grin appearing on his face every time he sneaks a slightly naughty joke into the history lessons.
You can tell things have changed now, though, and he beams as he proudly tells the tour group that his daughter will one day be able to get married in the chapel on the Tower of London grounds because of his position as a Yeoman Warder.
“So that’ll be a happy day… in fifty years time. Am I right, dads?” he jokes.
There are quite a few chuckles from the crowd. Being a royal bodyguard doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humour. And it’s mostly about the show these days anyway.
What to see at the Tower of London
I learn a lot by listening to Steve give his tour.
The first part of the Tower of London was built in the 1070s by William the Conquerer, who wanted something as a symbol of his victory over the English. The castle that he built, now known as the White Tower in the centre of the site, was supposed to stop rebellion from the locals.
Over the next couple of centuries, his successors expanded the complex with large defensive walls surrounded by a wider moat, and more towers within them. The layout from the 1300s is generally what you still find today.
From that period until now, the Tower of London has had many uses. It’s been a home for royalty, a prison for important captives, an armoury, a mint, and a vault for the most precious items of the monarchy.
Over the years, the events that have taken place at the Tower of London are some of the most notorious of English history. The murder of Henry VI, the disappearance of the two young sons of Edward IV, the execution of Anne Boleyn, and the imprisonment of Guy Fawkes.
Hearing these tales when you visit the Tower of London, you realise that these stone walls have seen more of this country’s story than probably any other building.
There are a lot of different things to do when you visit the Tower of London so, to help you get an idea of what to expect, here are the main areas you will want to see.
The Crown Jewels
The Crown Jewels are perhaps the most famous part and you will get free entry to the exhibition as part of your admission ticket when you visit the Tower of London.
The collection has more than 23,000 gemstones and there is a mixture of official items like crowns and rods, and more personal-style jewellery.
The items here are still used by the royal family for important ceremonies like the opening of parliament.
The White Tower
The White Tower is the most famous building in the complex and was the first part that William the Conquerer built.
It has classic Norman architecture and is particularly important from a heritage perspective because it has been so well maintained for almost a thousand years.
Inside the White Tower these days you’ll find several floors with interesting exhibitions from the Royal Armouries collections.
The Medieval Palace
The Medieval Palace is made up of three towers – St Thomas’s Tower, the Wakefield Tower and the Lanthorn Tower.
The palace was at the heart of the residential part of the tower and would’ve been richly decorated for the monarch and their family. Although the Tower of London was never their primary residence, it had to feel as though it could be.
When you visit, you’ll see the rooms decorated in styles from different eras to give you a sense of how it would’ve been during the Medieval period.
The Bloody Tower is the part of the Tower of London complex that was mainly used as a prison over the centuries.
Some people were kept in tiny uncomfortable cells and would have been tortured using some of the instruments that are on display here.
But there are other prisoners, like queens and princes, that would have been shown a degree of respect and given proper rooms and staff.
The Fusilier Museum
The Fusilier Museum tells the story of the British infantry regiment, raised at the Tower of London in 1685. It’s inside a building that was once the officers’ quarters.
The exhibitions here are relatively small and are not as connected to the tower’s history as other parts of the site. But the museum is free with entry to the Tower of London and will be of interest to people who like military history.
The Chapel Royal
There are actually two Chapel Royals at the Tower of London but the main one is the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula, off the green.
It was built in 1520 and still hosts regular services. (In fact, you can go to a service in the chapel without paying an entrance fee – but you can’t visit the rest of the tower without paying.)
Aside from the architecture, there are lots of interesting monuments in the chapel. You’ll also find some very important people buried here, particularly Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey, who was queen for nine days.
Tower of London tour
There are lots of information boards throughout the tower and, of course, there are the Beefeaters and their stories. But many people find it all a bit overwhelming.
One thing you can do, which I think is quite special, is take an early-access tour where you’ll see the official opening ceremony of the Tower of London, get access to the Crown Jewels without the long queues, and then have a guided tour of the site.
There are a few good options but I would particularly recommend this early access tour of the Tower of London.
But here are three choices you can choose from, in case you are looking for something in particular.
With so many centuries of stories – with conquerers, betrayals, torture, and jewels – having someone guide you through it all can make the experience much more rewarding.
Visit the Tower of London
If it’s your first time to London, then I really recommend visiting the Tower of London. It’s one of the most important sites in the city and, in some ways, the best representation of the country’s heritage.
Even if you’ve been to the city a few times and never made it to the tower, or it’s been a long time since you went, perhaps it’s time for another visit to the Tower of London and one of those great Beefeater tours.
To help you make the most of your time, I have a few tips for visiting the Tower of London that may help.
Tips for visiting the Tower of London
- There are often long queues to buy tickets outside and then to enter the building with the Crown Jewels. So try to arrive as early in the day as possible to save time waiting. If you can’t arrive at opening time, you can buy your ticket in advance to at least avoid that queue.
- As I mentioned early, another option to save time is to take this early access tour which skips the lines and gives you some other special experiences before other people come in.
- Speaking of tickets, the entrance fee for the Tower of London is quite expensive (more details below). But it is included in the London Pass. So, if you’re planning on some busy sightseeing for at least a couple of days, I would recommend buying the London Pass to save a lot of money.
- There is quite often a queue to get into the Crown Jewels exhibition. I recommend having a look as soon as you arrive to see how long the line is and, if it’s short, do that first. If it’s long, leave it until later because it may have died down.
- You can buy food at the Tower of London but it’s not great and it’s definitely overpriced. You’re allowed to bring food in with you and, on a sunny day, there are some nice places to sit and eat. So you might want to bring in some sandwiches or something like that if you’re going to be there for lunch.
- You could spend a long time exploring everything here. I would suggest a minimum of two hours (including the Beefeater tour) but you will probably want even longer, so prepare for at least three hours for visiting the Tower of London.
- And, my final tip, you will get a lot more out of a Tower of London visit if you know a bit about English history. A lot of it is explained along the way but there are so many people, it gets confusing (why are there so many Henrys?). So, if you like, do a bit of reading or other research before you go.
Whether you do a Tower of London tour, go around with a Beefeater, or just explore by yourself, there is no right or wrong way to visit the Tower of London.
But being prepared and having a bit of a plan will certainly save you time and money and let you concentrate on seeing all the different parts of the complex and reading about the tales of glory and woe that took place here.
Where is the Tower of London?
It’s hard to miss, really. The Tower of London is on the River Thames at the northern end of Tower Bridge, on the eastern side of central London.
How do you get to the Tower of London?
When are the Tower of London opening hours?
How much is the Tower of London entrance fee?
What did I take away from my visit? Well, the Tower of London may have been built for the royal family but it seems these days there’s a new family inhabiting the ancient citadel.
The warders, their wives and their children live here with the doctor, the cooks, and the other staff. Their ravens are looked after and loved like family pets.
And, for the Beefeaters in particular, there’s an unconcealed pleasure at showing their world and its history to the thousands of visitors who pass over the tower’s drawbridge every day.