If you could visit only one site in London, the Tower of London should definitely make your short list. The defensive fortress served many purposes over the years – from royal residence to infamous prison and execution site – and today is home to the Yeoman Warders (also known as Beefeaters), who were appointed as guardians of the tower in 1458 by King Henry VII. The complex is anchored by the central White Tower (built by William the Conqueror in 1078) and was expanded over the years to include an ensemble of other towers, walls and a (now dry) moat that was designed to be wider than an archer can shoot.
It’s arguably one of the coolest attractions in the city, and with tons of free activities included with admission you can easily spend a half day exploring the Tower of London.
- Yeoman Warder tour – meet on the lawn near the main entrance for this fascinating hour-long overview of the tower’s history including those who lived (and died) here by actual Yeoman guards – tours depart every half hour so definitely plan on doing this first
- The Crown Jewels – you literally enter through vault doors to view this impressive collection of coronation crowns, scepters and orbs – which hold some of the world’s biggest sparklers including the Cullinan I (530.2 carats) and Cullinan II (317.4 carats) diamonds from South Africa and the Koh-i-Noor (105.6 carat) diamond from India – as well as coronation banquet pieces like a 3-foot wide punch bowl designed to hold 144 bottles of wine
- A medieval playground– after the Yeoman tour it’s fun to explore the Tower of London’s many other nooks and crannies on your own – walk the ramparts, climb the towers, visit the famed ravens and the Royal Armory (a bit of propaganda used to display power to foreign visitors) and more – all of which will have you feeling like a noble for the day
- London’s first zoo – once upon a time royalty swapped exotic animals like trading cards and the tower’s Royal Beasts exhibit brings to life the 600-year long story of the former Royal Menagerie – lions given to Henry III as a wedding gift, African elephants from France, a polar bear from Norway that was allowed to “fish” in the Thames, oh my! – until the animals were moved to the new London Zoo in 1832
- Interactive activities – throughout the day the tower hosts a handful of reenactments that the entire family can take part in (for example, “The Escape of Lord Nithsdale” and “Conquer the Tower” were on when I was there), plus you’ll find historical characters in period costume around the site who are eager to share their story with young visitors