If you are in central London, it is hard to miss the Tower of London, located along the Thames River in central London, right next to the Tower Bridge.
This former royal residence and fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by 2.5 million people a year.
Inside the walls, there is a lot more to see than you might imagine looking from the outside and its worth a visit. Make sure to give yourself several hours.
The Tower, which is named for the White Tower which stands at its center, is far more than just a tower, its more like a small walled royal city.
In addition to having castle walls, towers and of course the royal living and sleeping chambers, the Tower of London has served as armory, treasury, mint, home of the Crown Jewels and my favorite, as home of the Royal Menagerie.
It also has a reputation as a prison. Although that was not its primary purpose, it did house some famous individuals including Elizabeth 1 before she became Queen of England. For its reputation, surprisingly few people were actually executed here – only 7 prior to WWII. However, nearby Tower Hill saw 112 executions during the same period, so its not that it wasn’t happening, it just wasn’t exactly here at the Tower of London.
The Crown Jewels are still housed here for visitors to see. Some of these items are still in use, so when there’s a coronation or an open session of parliament, the necessary items are simply borrowed from the collection. There are no photos allowed, which is too bad because it is an amazing collection of jewel-encrusted fine metal-work in the form of swords, scepters, crowns and those funny little orbs. Definitely worth seeing and probably the highlight of our trip to the Tower. (You can see a few photos here.)
The Royal Armoury houses a collection of arms, armor and artillery dating back to the 1st century BC. Their website and tour claim they are Britain’s oldest museum, one of the oldest museums in the world and the oldest visitor attraction in the world, as they’ve been open to and attracting “tourists” for many hundreds of years.
The menagerie, ie. the Royal Beasts, were housed at the Tower from the 1200’s. The first reference to the menagerie is during the reign of Henry III. All kinds of exotic animals have been kept at the tower – lions, baboons, even an elephant and a polar bear. Apparently it used to cause quite a stir when the King’s polar bear went fishing in the Thames.
In 1828, there were over 280 animals at the Tower. Many of the animals were diplomatic gifts, and of course, there wasn’t a whole lot known in England about how to care for say, a lion, at the time so it seems there were some serious negatives for the health of both the animals and the visitors. In the 1830s, the animals were relocated to Regent Park, the site of the London Zoo, where I’m sure they were better cared for and lived happier lives.
The only animals living at the Tower these days are the ravens. Six ravens (plus one spare) are onsite at all times, owing to the legend that “if the ravens leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall.”