The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, more commonly known as Kew Gardens, is somewhere I’ve wanted to visit since we moved to London almost a year ago. The world’s largest collection of living plants are cared for and studied here; because of this and the gardens’ historical significance, the gardens are now considered a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since their creation in 1759, the gardens have grown and developed into something truly special. Over a million people visit Kew Gardens every year to see the world famous glasshouses, historic gardens, and the royal palace. The only reason it took me so long to visit was because I was waiting for spring when all the flowers would be in bloom, but the weather outside would still be pleasantly cool. By early May, London had hit that sweet spot and we took the opportunity to finally see the gardens.
Encompassing almost 300 acres, Kew Gardens is not something you can see all of in one day, but you can cover a good portion of it if you get there early and plan to make a full day of it. We spent over six hours at the park on a lovely Saturday and managed to hit most of the highlights and still have plenty of time for wandering through the lovely garden trails without feeling rushed. We didn’t see everything, but I feel pretty confident we saw a lot of the best the gardens have to offer. If you were to ask me which attractions were my favorites, it would be these.
I might as well start with my favorite – the treetop walkway, a 60 ft high circular pathway that literally takes you to the top of the forest. I’m not going to lie – it’s a little scary. The pathway is open and you can see through the metal floor as you walk. My recommendation if you’re even a little afraid of heights – just don’t look down. Don’t do it. But if you’re brave enough to ascend the stairs, you’ll be able to reach out and touch the tops of the trees, plus get a beautiful view of the park from above. The treetop walkway is not only my favorite, but everyone else’s too, so if you want to walk it with less people, make this your first stop!
Warning: The perforated metal floor is flexible and will pop and move beneath your feet. I wasn’t expecting it, and the first time the floor popped I screamed so loud the birds flew out of the trees.
Palm House was my favorite of the glasshouses within Kew. Considered by some to be the most important surviving Victorian iron and glass structure in the world, Palm House really deserves a post all its own, so you can check out more beautiful photos of it here. Beautiful on the outside as well as the inside, this glasshouse is home to palms and tropical plants from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Australasia, and the Pacific islands. If you’re wearing layers, you’ll probably shed them the minute you enter Palm House, because it’s hot in here!
Besides the plants and trees, Palm House also features an underground marine aquarium recreating four major marine habitats and a 30 ft high walkway around the center portion of the glasshouse allowing visitors to get a closer look at the tops of trees growing within the greenhouse.
Located next door to Palm House is Waterlily House, a much smaller glasshouse enclosing a circular pond featuring waterlilies, ferns, and hanging gourds. You probably won’t spend much time in here, but it’s worth a stop, especially in May/June, to see the giant Amazon waterlilies blooming. (They hadn’t yet when we visited in early May.) Waterlily House is only open to visitors from April through September.
Kew Palace is the smallest of the British royal palaces, and each room within has been carefully restored as closely as possible to how it would have looked for its residents, King George III and his family, in the 18th century. This is another site within the gardens that truly deserves more attention than just a short paragraph, so click here if you’d like to read more about the royal family’s country retreat.
Two floors within the palace have been completed, but a third has yet to be restored. This section, which has remained untouched for almost two centuries, is still open to visitors. In a way, I found this surviving piece of history to be even more remarkable than the two completed floors below. Kew Palace is open from April through the end of September. Admission is included in the ticket price to the gardens, but donations are appreciated.
The Royal Kitchens
The Royal Kitchens, next door to Kew Palace, have just recently been opened to visitors for the first time in 200 years. From the kitchen gardens, visitors are allowed into the four preparation rooms where bread was baked, food was stored, and the washing was done, before heading into the Great Kitchen where meals were served. All of the open spaces here have been restored, but original pieces from the past still remain, like George III’s bath tub. He liked to take his bath in the kitchen to keep the servants from having to walk too far carrying his bath water!
Sackler Crossing is one of the two lakes within Kew Gardens and, in my opinion, the prettier one. Set in the northwest corner of the park, away from the main entrance and the crowds by Palm House, Sackler Crossing is the quieter of the two lakes which means you’ll see a lot more wildlife in this area. Visiting in the spring, we were able to see quite a few momma ducks with their new babies. One brave duck came right up to me and looked directly into my camera lens, but I froze and missed the shot. I was sure she was about to attack me and my strange clicking box! Benches surround the lake under the trees, making this the perfect spot for an afternoon picnic.
There are a lot of tree and plant sanctuaries within Kew Gardens, but I’d like to recommend one that is particularly worth visiting – the Redwood Grove. A mix of towering coastal redwoods and giant redwoods completely dominate this space on the west side of the park. These trees grow in my native country, but this was the first time I’d ever seen them myself in person. They are just as large, if not bigger, than I’d always heard they were. They’re so big around that it’s actually quite hard to truly grasp their width. The park helps our noggins comprehend their massive size by including a circular paved area on the path, 26 ft in diameter, which is the actual width of ‘Grizzly Giant’, a living giant redwood in Yosemite National Park. Trust me, it’s cool.
Queen Charlotte’s Cottage
You’ll have to time your visit just right to see this one, but if you’re at Kew Gardens on a weekend or bank holiday from April through September, you must make a stop at this charming little cottage by the bluebell woods used by Queen Charlotte, King George III, and their daughters as a place for resting and taking tea during long walks. The most attractive room within the cottage is the upstairs Picnic Room, which is where they took their afternoon tea. Princess Elizabeth herself painted the floral trellis artwork decorating the walls and ceilings of this room.
I hesitated to include this one on my list since it’s closed for renovations until 2018, but you can still admire the exterior of this famous glasshouse and take a quick peek at what’s happening indoors. Twice the size of Palm House, Temperate House is the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse in the world, and before renovations began it stored a collection of over 4,000 plants, some no longer growing in the wild. When renovations are complete, this will absolutely be a highlight in Kew Gardens you won’t want to miss!
Kew Gardens is made up of lots of different landscaped gardens, each specific to a type of plant or a time period in history. There are many more than you could see in a day, especially if you plan on visiting the other attractions as well, so I recommend picking a few favorites and making sure you don’t miss them while you’re there. For us, favorites were the Azalea Garden, the Bamboo Garden, and the Bluebell Woods, but we also liked wandering through the less-pruned garden trails where we often found ourselves alone on quiet dirt paths, flowers and trees surrounding us in every direction. That’s when I felt like one of the royals, wandering through my private park of 300 acres!
With over 100 attractions within the park, it’s a good idea to check out the official Kew Gardens website before you visit so you can plan your day. That’ll keep you from walking from one side to the other and back again which can get rather tiresome if you do it more than once. There is a train that comes around the park regularly, but separate fees apply, and unless you’re elderly or in bad health, the gardens are entirely walkable. Admission for adults into Kew Gardens is £15, but children can enter for free.
Early May is a prime time to pay the gardens a visit – most of the attractions are already open for the summer and all the gardens are green and blooming, but the crowds of tourists haven’t quite yet hit full capacity. In the summer, Kew Gardens is one of the most popular places visited in London, so keep that in mind. Getting there early is key. After visiting once, I can see why people buy annual passes to Kew Gardens – while pretty parks are common in London, none are quite like this one!
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