Nowhere else does London's history come to life so vividly as it does in this mini city of 20 towers, the intimate details of lords and dukes and princes and sovereigns etched in its walls (literally, in some places), and quite a few buckets of royal blood spilled on its stones. Thousands of unfortunate souls spent their last days here, from its heyday in the medieval period, until it fell out of use in the early 19th century (although its last actual prisoner was Hitler's deputy, Rudlof Hess, in 1941). 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—and the nine-day queen, Lady Jane Grey, age 16. 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, to the right, is Traitors' Gate, where the most famous prisoners could be brought in by boat (all the better to shame and humiliate them).
Opposite is the Bloody Tower, so called because it was the scene of perhaps the most notorious murders in English history: that of the infant Edward V and his brother, the "little princes in the Tower." (Spoiler: their uncle did it, becoming King Richard III in the process). The most famous exhibit is, of course, the Crown Jewels in the Waterloo Barracks. 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. Free tours of the Tower 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 Tudor outfits (scarlet-and-gold on special occasions). Beefeaters have been guarding the Tower since Henry VII appointed them in 1485. Avoid lines by buying a ticket in advance online, by phone, or from the automatic kiosks on Tower Hill. 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.