The Tower of London is one of the most iconic sites in the capital and an absolute must-see for anyone planning a visit to London. It’s great for kids who relish the more horrible parts of history as it’s packed with stories of torture, deaths, imprisonments, hauntings and murder. You’ll find everything from suits of armour to some of the most famous jewels in the world.
There’s so much to see and do here that it can seem a bit overwhelming. Here’s my guide to some of the best bits.
Go on a Yeoman Warder Tour
The Yeoman Warder Tours are a fantastic way to start your visit to the Tower. The Yeoman Warders (or Beefeaters as they’re more commonly known) live at the Tower and have guarded it for 500 years. They need to have served honourably in the armed forces for at least 22 years before they can even be considered for the job.
The tours take place every 30 minutes and take about an hour. The Yeoman Warders are full of stories and often very amusing. They’ll tease, disgust and entertain your kids in equal measure. We loved finding out that the reason why the grass is so green in the moat is because it used to be filled with carcasses, plague victims, rats and poo. Or that the Tower’s first prisoner managed to escape from the White Tower by sliding down a rope that had been smuggled into his cell in a wine casket. We found out that wild animals like elephants, bears and tigers were kept in the Tower as part of the Royal Menagerie, including a polar bear who used to catch fish from the River Thames and a zebra who liked to drink beer from the soldiers’ canteen!
Spot the ravens
There are seven ravens living in the Tower and it’s fun to spot them as you walk around. According to legend, the kingdom will fall if the ravens ever leave the Tower so the birds have been protected here since the time of King Charles II.
They have to be replaced if they’re not up to the job though: one raven was ‘sacked’ for eating TV aerials. One of the beefeaters is in charge of looking after them and they are fed with raw meat and bird biscuits soaked in blood.
Gaze in wonder at the Crown Jewels
The Crown Jewels are the most powerful symbols of the British Monarchy and still regularly used by the Queen. They’re every bit as impressive as you’d imagine. You can see everything that’s been used in the coronation ceremony since 1661 including the extremely heavy St Edward’s Crown which is used to crown the monarch. The original Crown Jewels were destroyed in the Tower on Oliver Cromwell’s orders after the execution of King Charles I but they were remade for the coronation of his son, King Charles II.
Some of the most famous diamonds in the world are part of the collection, like the 530.2 carat ‘Great Star of Africa’ which is in the Sovereign’s Sceptre, and the Koh-i-Nûr, the ‘Mountain of Light’ which is set in the crown that belonged to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother – along with 2,800 other diamonds.
The jewels are under armed guard in the Tower. Even the vault doors going into the Jewel House weigh 2,000 kgs each. It’s hard to believe that visitors used to be able to touch the Crown Jewels. That all stopped in 1815 after a woman grabbed the Imperial State Crown and tried to pull it apart.
The Jewel House is usually very busy so keep an eye on the queue while you’re walking around and try and nip in when the queue’s not too long.
Look at the Execution Site
On Tower Green, you’ll find a memorial to all those who were killed at this execution site, including the three Queens of England – Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey – who were all beheaded here.
Despite its reputation as a place of execution, only 22 people have actually been executed within the Tower of London. Most people were killed at nearby Tower Hill. It was considered a privilege to be executed within the Tower, away from the jeering crowds.
The remains of many of the people who were beheaded at the Tower are buried in the nearby Chapel Royal, including some of the most famous Tudors like Anne Boleyn, Sir Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. Their headless bodies were all found buried under the nave here during the 19th century.
See the armour in the White Tower
The White Tower is the oldest part of the Tower of London. It was built under the orders of William the Conqueror. It’s in here that you can see the suits of armour that were made for kings like Henry VIII and Charles I. It’s really interesting seeing the difference in size of the armour made for the young Henry VIII and the one made when he was older – he had clearly put on a lot of weight!
The ‘Line of Kings’, the armour arranged on life-sized wooden horses, has been on display to visitors for centuries. My children were particularly fascinated by the suits of armour made for young princes.
Go up the Bloody Tower
This is the tower where the two princes are said to have been murdered. The 12-year-old King Edward V and his little brother, Richard, were sent to the Tower by their uncle. They were then declared illegitimate and he was crowned King Richard III in 1483. They were never seen again. The Bloody Tower is said to be haunted by the ghosts of two boys in their nightshirts.
The upper chamber of the Bloody Tower has a display about the princes’ disappearance but you should also visit the lower chamber, where Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned. The rooms have been furnished as they might have looked during his time here.
Watch the Ceremony of the Keys
The traditional locking up of the Tower of London has taken place every night for over 700 years. At 9.52pm exactly, the Chief Yeoman Warder comes out carrying a candle lantern in one hand and the Queen’s keys in the other. He walks to Traitor’s Gate to meet the Foot Guards and the ceremony takes place. Forty to 50 visitors are admitted into the Tower to watch it from 9.30pm. Admission is free but you need to book online.
The Tower of London is open every day. Tickets cost from £23.10, adults; £10.50, children; under 5s, free. If you’re travelling by train, print out a 2 for 1 offer. You can pick up family trails and worksheets from the information desk. There are often special activities for families during the school holidays.