Tower of London

Top choice historic site in City of London
Image by Bjorn Holland / Getty Images

The unmissable Tower of London offers a window into 1000 years of gruesome and compelling history. A former royal residence, treasury, mint, armoury and zoo, it's perhaps most remembered as the prison where a king, three queens and many nobles met their deaths. The immaculately dressed Yeomen Warders (better known as the Beefeaters) who live on site, protect the spectacular Crown Jewels, containing the biggest diamonds in the world, and lead tours of the Tower, as soothsaying resident ravens flit overhead.

The Tower of London is a densely packed history-laden site, so expect to spend at least half a day. To get your bearings, take one of the entertaining (and free) guided tours with the Yeomen Warders; the 45-minute-long tours leave every 30 minutes from the bridge near the main entrance until 3.30pm (2.30pm in winter).

Most visitors head straight to the Waterloo Barracks, which contains the spectacular Crown Jewels, including the platinum crown of the late Queen Mother, set with the 106-carat Koh-i-Nûr (Persian for 'Mountain of Light') diamond, and the Imperial State Crown, worn by the monarch at the State Opening of Parliament. Slow-moving walkways slide wide-eyed visitors past the collection.

Started in the 1070s by William the Conquerer, the striking White Tower is London's oldest building, with its solid Norman architecture and four turrets. On the entrance floor is a collection from the Royal Armouries, including Henry VIII's commodious suit of armour. One floor up is the impressive but unadorned 11th-century Chapel of St John the Evangelist, which was once used as the national record office.

Southwest of the White Tower is the Bloody Tower, where 12-year-old Edward V and his little brother Richard were held by their uncle, the future Richard III, and later thought to have been murdered to annul their claims to the throne. Sir Walter Raleigh did a 13-year stretch here too under James I, and wrote his Historie of the World.

Near the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula stood the Tower Green scaffold, where nobles such as Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (Henry's second and fifth wives) were beheaded.

Look out for the Tower's famous ravens, which legend says could cause the Tower, and therefore the kingdom, to collapse should they leave (a spare bird is kept in the aviary, and their wing feathers are clipped in case they get any ideas).

Book online in advance for cheaper rates.