Nowhere else does London's history come to life so vividly as it does in this mini-city of 20 towers filled with heraldry and treasure, the intimate details of lords and dukes and princes and sovereigns etched in the walls (literally, in some places), and quite a few buckets of royal blood spilled on the stones. This is one of Britain's most popular sights—the Crown Jewels are kept here—and you can avoid lines by buying a ticket in advance online, by phone, or from the automatic kiosks on Tower Hill. The visitor center provides an introduction to the Tower. Allow at least three hours for exploring, and take time to stroll along the battlements for a wonderful overview. The Crown Jewels are worth the inevitable wait, the White Tower is essential, and the Medieval Palace and Bloody Tower should at least be breezed through.
Today's Tower has seen everything, as a palace, barracks, a mint for producing coins, an archive, an armory, and the Royal Menagerie (which formed the basis
of the London Zoo). Most of all, though, the Tower is known for death: it's been a place of imprisonment, torture, and execution for the realm's most notorious traitors, and a few innocents as well.
A person was mighty privileged to be beheaded in the peace and seclusion of Tower Green instead of before the mob at Tower Hill. In fact, only seven people were ever so honored—among them Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, wives two and five of Henry VIII's six; Elizabeth I's friend Robert Devereux, earl of Essex; and the nine-day queen, Lady Jane Grey, age 16. Free tours depart every half hour or so (until mid-afternoon) from the main entrance. They are conducted by the Yeoman Warders, better known as Beefeaters, dressed in resplendent navy-and-red (scarlet-and-gold on special occasions) Tudor outfits. Beefeaters have been guarding the Tower since Henry VII appointed them in 1485. One of them, the Yeoman Warder Raven Master, is responsible for making life comfortable for the ravens (six birds plus reserves) that live in Lanthorn Tower. It's an important duty, because if the ravens were to desert the Tower, goes the legend, the kingdom would fall. Today, the Tower takes no chances: the ravens' wings are clipped.
In prime position stands the oldest part of the Tower and the most conspicuous of its buildings, the White Tower. William the Conqueror began the central keep in 1078 and Henry III (1207–72) had it whitewashed (hence the name). Inside you'll find the Armouries, a splendid collection of arms and armor. Across the moat, Traitors' Gate lies to the right. Opposite Traitors' Gate is the former Garden Tower, better known since about 1570 as the Bloody Tower. Its name comes from one of the most famous unsolved murders in history, the saga of the "little princes in the Tower." In 1483, the uncrowned boy king, Edward V, and his brother Richard were left here by their uncle, Richard of Gloucester, after the death of their father, Edward IV. They were never seen again. Gloucester went on to be crowned Richard III, and in 1674 two little skeletons were found under the stairs to the White Tower and thought to be those of the two boys.
The most famous exhibits are, of course, the Crown Jewels in the Waterloo Barracks. This is the Tower's biggest draw, perfect for playing pick-your-favorite-crown from the wrong side of bulletproof glass. Not only are these crowns, staffs, and orbs encrusted with heavy-duty gems, they are invested with the authority of monarchical power in England, dating back to the 1300s. Included is the famous Koh-i-noor, or "Mountain of Light." The legendary diamond, which was supposed to bring luck to women, came from India, and was given to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. You can see it, in cut-down shape, in the late Queen Mother's crown. The Crown Jewels used to be housed in Martin Tower, which now hosts an exhibit that explains the art of fashioning royal headwear and includes 12,314 cut and uncut diamonds.
The little Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula is the second church on the site, and it's the final resting place of six beheaded Tudor bodies. Visitors are welcome for services and can also enter after 4:30 daily.
Evocative Beauchamp Tower served as a jail for upper-class miscreants. Latin graffiti about Lady Jane Grey, who was also a prisoner here, can be glimpsed on the walls.
For free tickets to the 700-year-old Ceremony of the Keys (locking of main gates, nightly between 9:30 and 10), write several months in advance; check the tower website for details. Also, check for winter twilight tours of the Tower on selected evenings.