I found an incredible bargain at London's most expensive attraction.
The Tower of London was the first famous tourist attraction I ever set my eyes on. Studying in nearby East Sussex for a semester meant weekly field trips into London for the purpose of visiting galleries, museums, and other historic sites, with plenty of free time on the side. Rolling into London for my very first time, the gloomy and atmospheric Tower loomed in the distance, beckoning me to investigate its secrets and scandals.
So why did it take me over 12 years to visit?
The short answer is finances. As a student living in England when the exchange rate between the Canadian dollar and the British pound put me at a woeful disadvantage, the pricey admission equaled an entire day’s budget for me. Another reason was likely a bit of apathy. After all, the Tower wasn't going anywhere. Hadn't it stood in the same spot for nearly one thousand years? Each trip to London brought another tempting, unique opportunity from the study program not afforded to the average visitor, making it easy to put the Tower off for just another week, just another month.
The cost of admission to the Tower of London has risen considerably over the past decade, but fortunately for us Canadians the exchange rate has greatly improved, making the real admission cost to me about the same as it would have been many years ago. Still, at 21.45 GBP, the admission price is still expensive, no matter what the exchange rate. I’m use to visiting free sites – how would I find great value here?
Like any other attraction, I scanned the list of potential concessions to see if any applied to me. Striking out there, I noticed some fine print – the admission cost included a ‘voluntary’ donation of nearly 2 GBP. If I was feeling ungenerous I could ask to pay the actual admission price of 19.50. At the very least, I certainly wouldn't be reserving my ticket by telephone. Doing so would actually cost me 2 GBP. I like to skip the lines but not at any price!
One attractive option was to buy an annual membership for 45 GBP This would give me unlimited access to the Tower and four other castles for a year. This would be a fantastic deal if I had more time in London but unfortunately I was only in the city for a few days. Back to the drawing board!
Since the expensive admission fee seemed unavoidable, there had to be another way to find great value. Then I remembered London Walks. London Walks runs a city wide walking tour company that offers tours in every neighbourhood of the city on every theme imaginable. They also offer guided tours of popular attractions, including the British Museum and Westminster Abbey. (I have no affiliation with London Walks– I’m just a big, big fan!)
As luck would have it, they did offer a Tower of London tour, one which offered a steep discount on the admission price. In the end I paid only 22 GBP for admission to the Tower AND the two hour tour. Talk about a deal – it only cost me an extra 55 pence!
Normally, London Walks charges 24 GBP for the combined services of their tour and admission to the Tower (which offers the company a generous group discount). 24 GBP would have been a good value on its own – a few extra pounds is a small price to pay for such detailed and personalized service. But since I had previously purchased a “frequent walkers” card (for a one-time fee of 2 GBP!), I was eligible to save 2 GBP on each and every walk. If you’re doing two walks or more, this is a terrific saving and for me it really paid off when I got my 55 pence tour of the Tower!
Our tour guide, Brian, didn't start the tour at the Tower at all, but instead at Trinity Hill Park across the street. He described the history of park, where many of London's most infamous executions took place, and we were able to see the small memorial that marks the spot where Thomas Moore and so many others climbed the scaffold. There’s also a much larger, unrelated memorial to those who have served in the armed forces.
We then went on to get a comprehensive overview of the Tower and the surrounding area from outside the gate, including some information of what we were seeing on River Thames, as we had an incredible view beside Traitor’s Gate. Entering the Tower through the group entrance with no line up, Brian took us around the Tower complex, sharing both tidbits of royal history and some more modern information as well. Did you know that the Beefeaters who guard and serve the Tower also live there and they even have their own pub within its walls!
Finally, if you are on a strict budget and cannot afford the admission price, or if your interest in the subject matter isn’t strong enough to warrant the full price or several hours of visiting, you can tour around the outside of the Tower for free. You can get a fairly comprehensive view of most of the complex of the outside, including glimpses of the Beefeaters, many of the mesh ‘animals’ that represent the Tower’s former menagerie, and a close-up at Traitors’ Gate. There are many historical plaques to fill in the gaps of your knowledge. As well, the Tower is built right on the banks of the Thames, so as you walk around it you get a fantastic view of the river. There are gift shops, food kiosks, and public washrooms (for 50 pence) outside the Tower near the ticket booth for your convenience.
After our two hour tour, Brian left us outside the entrance to see the crown jewels. We were then free to spend as much time as wanted to in and around the Tower, investigating the different rooms and compartments to our hearts’ content. It seems obvious to me now, but I never realized that the Tower is actually a complex of many buildings, each with their own unique story. For those who enjoy the guarded tour experience, you can double your fun by joining a classic Yeoman Warder’s tour of the Tower (included free in all admission) and, for those truly passionate about the Tower’s history, you can attend the Ceremony of the Keys. It requires plenty of organization to attend this 700 year old ceremony, as the free spots are allotted up to several months in advance.
A visit to the Tower of London was a long time coming for me and I’m so glad I finally had a chance to see the legendary fortress up close and personal. I highly recommend spending the tiny bit extra to do a tour with London Walks as you will get so much more for your time and money. It was wonderful to learn so much about the Tower and the neighbourhood as a whole. That being said, budget travelers needn't feel bad if the admission price is too rich for their blood, as an observant walk around the perimeter will reward you with more than just a glimpse of the past.
As always, I welcome and encourage your comments. What do you do to get the best bang for your buck at an expensive attraction?
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