The London Tower and Tower Bridge are such incredible tourist draws that I felt they rated their own travelogue. I have gone there each time I've visited London, typically joined by the thousands of visitors going there year round. No one who's visiting London should miss them. The bulk of this travelogue stems from my visit in January 2001, which was on a classic London gray winter day (well, my return visit in December 2003 was hardly any better). In person, the weather fit the ambience, though in photographs it looks awful. The first photograph, of the Tower Bridge over the Thames, is offered as evidence. More on the Bridge later.
The London Tower is the castle complex that used to be the home of England's great and many kings. It is now a rich museum complex containing various crown jewels, medieval arms and weaponry exhibits, and tours through the royal apartments. It also has some of the best (and best-dressed) tour guides available, the traditional 'beefeaters' in their flambouyant red garb. Also, much of the outer walkways are accessible, providing a wonderful view of the Thames.
I walked the outside perimeter first before going in. It gave me a sense of the Tower's size and prominence, despite now being just a couple blocks among the massive London downtown. Much of the moat was under renovation in 2003 (one time I was there in the mid-90s, parts of the moat were used as a soccer pitch), but the outer walls still had that 'old' look with all those cross-shaped holes the archers used to shoot down would-be attackers. The entrance gate, shown in the second photo, looks like it hadn't changed in centuries (I almost believe it was internationally renovated this way, it was under scaffolding during one of my previous visit).
The place is so filled with history, and it starts at the center with the square-shared White Tower, shown in the third photo. This was the first palace on the site, erected by William the Conqueror after he conquered the land in 1066. As castles go, it seems awfully plain and modest now, but it was pretty solid for its time. Now, it hosts a museum of English royalty, containing old thrones, medieval weapons of war, and historic artifacts about several particularly famous English kings -- especially Henry VIII, whose personal influence in English history is celebrated in many ways around the Tower.
Surrounding the White Tower are fields of green with several small landmarks. These landmarks are plotted along a walking route that identifies some of the Tower's most famous, or infamous, events. For example, one can readily find the site where Anne Boleyn was beheaded and where other traitors of the Crown were hanged. Sweet.
Also, visitors can get up close and personal with the royal herd of ravens -- the brilliant large black birds that have lived in the Tower for centuries. The ravens (kept in the cage above) are allowed to roam freely in the Tower grounds under the watchful eye of their well-dressed keepers. But if they approach you, be careful, they can be dangerous... and deceivingly so since they look and act so tame. One of them came right up to my feet while I walked along a sidewalk. He seemed totally unafraid. But he was under the very watchful eyes of the trained raven keepers (also wearing the same beefeater garb). The ravens are kept in the cages shown in the fourth photo, located below the White Tower.
My other favorite spot is the museum of the crown jewels, shown in the fifth photograph. This required an extra surcharge to enter and no photographs were allowed inside, so you'll just have to take my word for it that the exhibits were simply extraordinary -- the best display of royal jewelry, swords, scepters, cloaks, etc. that I've ever seen.
The area right outside the entrance gate is a serious tourist trap. Some of the stores look very posh, offering some really cool stuff, while others are crammed into older gallerias. My opinion was that all of it was overpriced and not worth it unless you were absolutely desperate for souvenirs. But, your mileage may vary.
For me, the place to go next was the Tower Bridge. It also happens to be a museum, where visitors can get a great view of the Thames River and see the mechanisms for the drawbridge. The sixth photograph rates as one of my all-time favorite photos, taken from the underside of the bridge at dusk. The blue cloudy sky in the background is real, that's how it appeared under the lights.
The Tower and Tower Bridge should be done at a leisurely pace, taking the time to read the history, hear the stories, and soak in the atmosphere. The British are plenty proud of their history, both the majestic and the scandalous, and you'd miss it if you try to rush through a visit to this part of London. After all, much of Britain's history directly influenced our own (and not just because of the American Revolution -- remember that the original London Bridge is now at home at Lake Havasu, Arizona!)
Trip taken 30 December 2000 - 7 January 2001 and 23-27 December 2003 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001, 2003 Tom Galvin