If you are looking for a getaway from the busy London or just want to spend a day out in nature with your family, then a visit to Kew Gardens is the perfect answer. I have created for you the perfect guide with all the attractions of the Royal Botanical Gardens and everything you need to know about where to buy your ticket from and how to get there, to make your visit easier.
Where is Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens is situated in the South West of London, in the beautiful neighbourhood of Richmond upon Thames. Being the largest UNESCO world heritage site in London and more than 250 years old, Kew Gardens is the home of the Millennial Seed Bank, the biggest wild plant seed bank in the world. The Kew Estate occupies an area of 121 hectares home to over 30,000 plants. You can find here large flower and vegetables gardens, woodlands, lakes and ponds, conservatories, natural reserves and wildlife.
When is the best time to visit Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens is open every day from 10am until 6pm (from the end of March until the end of October). For the rest of the closing times (due to the shorter days), you can check the schedule here. Kew Gardens is great to visit in any season, including in winter, when they have some amazing light shows. During the year there are several exhibitions and events that transform completely Kew Gardens. You can see a list with what’s on this season here.
How long to spend at Kew Gardens? I would say a day is not enough and you would want to return if you want to see the entire Kew Gardens and palace.
How to get to Kew Gardens
You can reach Kew Gardens very easy from central London by tube, the overground, bus or train. If you plan on traveling by tube, Kew Gardens is on the District line, in zone 3 (£3.30 one way with an Oyster or contactless card). The station is 500 meters from Victoria Gate.
If you choose to travel by train, South West Trains run services from Waterloo station via Clapham Junction and Vauxhall (£4.40 for a one-way ticket). The train station is 800 meters away from Elizabeth Gate.
Buses 65 (Ealing Broadway), 391 (Fulham), 267 (Fullwell) and 237 (White City) connect different parts of London to Kew Gardens as well.
In summer, there is a boat service that runs from Westminster Pier to Kew Pier (500 meters from Elizabeth Gate).
Where to buy your ticket for Kew Gardens
The cheapest place to buy your Kew Gardens and Palace ticket is online, where you can save up to 27% off the gate price. Not only that it’s cheaper but you will also skip the line at the gate, which in summer and during the weekends can get quite long. Click here to buy your ticket online.
How to plan your visit at Kew Gardens
Even if you are looking just to spend a day out in nature, planning is essential when visiting Kew Gardens because of the big number of attractions and the large area it occupies. You will receive a map of the gardens together with your ticket, but to make things easier, you can also download it from here.
Depending on the purpose of your visit, you will find some suggested routes on the map. However, I will tell you all about the attractions at Kew and how to organise your time so that you can make the most out of your visit. I have started my visit to Kew Gardens from Victoria Gate and headed to the attractions from the East, finishing in the West hours later. I did take my time and enjoyed the strolls through the different gardens and conservatories, chased butterflies (for photos) or gazed at the carnivore plants have their hourly “shower”. I’ve even met some of the permanent residents: a courageous fox, a few curious ducks, a mamma squirrel with 2 baby squirrels behind her and a lonely peacock.
There are a few cafes and restaurants inside Kew Gardens but you are always welcomed to bring your own food is you prefer a picnic under the trees.
The Hive is probably Kew Garden’s most ambitious project, a masterpiece of scientific research resulting in an incredible visual and sound experience. Stepping inside The Hive is like experiencing the inside of a real beehive, with all the sounds and lights triggered by the actual honeybee activity inside the Kew. This makes every moment inside The Hive different.
The Hive was first built for the UK’s pavilion at the 2015 Milan Expo, by Wolfgang Buttress. It is 17 meters tall, it weighs 40 tonnes and it is built from 170,000 of aluminium parts with 1000 led lights.
Because it’s such a popular attraction, I would recommend making your way to The Hive as soon as you arrive at Kew Gardens (the earlier the better). It is a truly fascinating experience.
The Treetop Walkway
The Treetop Walkway is a very exciting “climb” for the entire family, especially for children. The metal structure is 18 meters above the ground, 200 meters long and sways in the wind. The views from up there are pretty awesome, over the forest canopy. Some parts of the walkway pass through the branches of the chestnut and oak trees, on which you can observe different birds and insects.
The structure of the walkway was made in such a way that the rust made it look like it blends perfectly with the environment next to it. At the bottom you will find the Rhizotron, an underground laboratory where visitors can learn about how trees grow.
There are 118 steps up to the walkway.
The Palm House
Inside the Palm House you will discover a world of rare and even extinct plants (in the wild) that are growing here due to the efforts of the Kew scientists.
You will find here trees that are at the base of many products that we consume every day: the rubber tree, the Cocoa tree, the Pepper tree (I didn’t even know that pepper grew in a tree!), the sugar cane, the African oil palm or the coffee tree.
The building itself dates from 1844 and it’s an iconic Victorian building made from glass and iron, resembling the hull of a ship. This is because the architects have used techniques from the ship building industry when they designed the glass house.
Davies Alpine House
The Alpine House is quite the masterpiece of architecture if we take in consideration that it was built in such a way that 90% of the ultraviolet light of the sun passes through to the plants, in has an automatic system of blinds that go down when the temperature is too high outside and the air is cooled down though a system of pipes underneath the building.
There are over 200 alpine plants here, which is the wild are usually growing at altitudes of 2000+ meters.
The Temperate House
The Temperate House is currently closed for restauration and it will be opened sometimes next year, after 5 years of works. Inside the Temperate House there are collections of very rare and threatened species of plants. Some of the plants you will see here have been extinct in the wild and only live at Kew. Such a plant is the Encephalartos woodii (The South African cycad).
The Waterlily House
Have you ever seen a giant waterlily? Me neither, before visiting Kew Gardens. The Waterlily house is the most humid greenhouse from Kew Gardens and is the home of many heat loving plants. It was interesting to learn how the waterlilies from Amazon can grow so big that they can support a child’s weight. Of course, it is not recommended (or allowed) to let your child jump on them, but still it’s amazing how much strength these plants hold on their leaves.
The Princess of Wales Conservatory
Stepping into the Princess of Wales Conservatory is like entering the jungle from an exotic destination, like Malaysia or Indonesia. The first thing you notice is the high humidity and the warm temperature. But no wonder, this conservatory is home to many tropical plants, cacti and orchids. You will also find here a large collection of carnivore plants, out of which I recognised the Venus Fly Trap, which I once tried to grow in my own apartment.
An interesting fact is that below the conservatory there is a time capsule buried by Sir David Attenborough, with seeds of basic crops, endangered plant species but also a few books on conservation. The capsule will be opened in 2085.
One fantastic fact about Kew Gardens is that the trees planted here are cleaning the air in London, with over 8.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide absorbed each year. There are around 14,000 trees in the Royal Botanical Gardens, some of them as old as the garden itself, dating all the way back from the 18th century. The trees are planted in groups according to their species (over 2,000), with some very rare and ancient ones. The tallest tree at Kew Gardens is a coastal redwood, measuring 39,3 meters high, while the oldest ones are the Japanese pagoda tree (around 250 years old), the Lucombe Oak and the black locust tree.
Strolling inside the oak forest made me feel that I was in a different place, not in London but Canada or somewhere in North America.
The Plant Family Beds and the Kitchen Garden
This was one of my favourite parts of the garden to walk in. Even if it was autumn when I visited and not many species were still blooming, I enjoyed all the colours and the pretty butterflies flying from one flower to another.
The plant family beds are found in any botanical garden in the world and represent the arrangement of plants according to their relationship with each other. The scientists at Kew have been researching about the way plants relate to each other through their DNA and molecular characteristics.
Next to the Plant Family Beds is the Kitchen Garden, an area where fruits and vegetables have been grown all the way back since 1759, for King George III. Today there are over 250 different fruits and vegetables growing in the garden. I was delighted to see apples, pumpkins, a few giant cabbages and some turnips.
The Rock Garden
I didn’t really know what to expect from the Rock Garden until I found myself going downhill, through a path surrounded by colourful plants growing on high sandstones. The rock garden is a representation of the Pyrenean mountain habitat, a 150 meters valley with the path passing through simulating the course of a river. The rock garden is the home of over 3,000 alpine plants originally from Europe, South and North America, Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean climate, Australia and North America.
The Kew Palace and the Queen’s Garden
Kew Palace is the smallest British royal Palace and it is best known as the temporary “refuge” of King George III, the place where he was locked during his “madness” period. Beforehand however, the palace was used by the King and his family as a summer residence.
The Palace was built in 1631 but a Dutch Architect and this is why it looks like a piece of Netherlands on UK soil. If you look closely over the front door, you will notice a lover’s knot with the initials C and S on it. They stand for Samuel Fortrey, the Flemish merchant who built the palace and his wife, Catherine de Latfeur. The symbol of their love stands there even 400 years after their death!
Currently the Palace is closed for winter.
In the rear of the Kew Palace you will find a charming little garden with plants that used to grow in the 17th century. Most of them are medicinal plants and on the label next to them you will find what they were used for and a quote from an herbal book.
Queen Charlotte’s Cottage
King George III has built this cottage for his wife, Charlotte, in the 18th century. The cottage was used as a resting place during their walk and had a small menagerie in the back where exotic animals like kangaroos or black swans were held.
The Minka House and the Bamboo Garden
Towards the back of Kew Gardens, after walking through the beautiful quiet forests, in the middle of the bamboo garden you will find the Minka House, an original traditional Japanese farmhouse. The house dates from the early 19th century and it was used by Yonezu family from Okazaki City, in central Japan. It was donated to Kew Gardens after the last member of the family died.
The Minka houses were used by farmers, merchants or artisans and they were built with a low roof to protect them from rain and snow but also to keep them shade from the hot summers. They were divided into 2 areas: the floor of compacted earth and a raised platform for sleeping, with a built-in hearth for cooking and heating.
The Bamboo Garden is one of the UK’s largest collection, with around 1200 species growing around the Minka House.
The Great Pagoda
Unfortunately, the Pagoda was still under renovation when I visited Kew Gardens but rumours say that it’s supposed to open again to the public next year.
The Pagoda has been built in 1762 as a copy of the Chinese Ta. Back then it was such an unusual building in Europe that people didn’t believe it would stand up for long. However, it did and now the 10-storey high tower is one of the garden’s landmarks.
The pagoda is decorated with 80 wooden dragons and covered in ceramic tiles. A local tale says that the dragons used to be made from gold but have been sold by Kind George IV to cover his debt. Historians say that this is not true, the dragons were carved in wood from the beginning but overtime, they have rotten.
The Japanese Garden
Next to the Grand Pagoda you will find the beautiful and peaceful Japanese Garden, split into three areas: The Garden of Peace, The Garden of Activity and The Garden of Harmony. All three are leading up towards the Chokushi-Mon, a four-fifths scale replica of the gate from Kyoto’s Nishi Hongan-ji temple.
The Garden of Peace is created to resemble a traditional Japanese garden, with stone lanterns and a dripping water basin. The Garden of Activity symbolises the world, with elements reminding us of the sea, the mountains and the waterfalls. Between them stands the Garden of Harmony, linking them through shrubs and tocks representing the mountains of Japan.
The Sackler Crossing
Crossing the Sackler bridge I couldn’t not notice the beautiful reflections of the autumnal colours of the trees, in the water. It looked like the two entities are blending into each other, not knowing anymore which is the lake and which is the land. This is because the trees surrounding the lake are Chinese tupelo, known for their dramatic colour change in autumn.
The Slacker Crossing is made out of black granite, with bronze posts which from a distance give the impression of a solid wall. The bridge crosses the lake in an S shape, mimicking the rounded banks of the lake.
If you are wondering what a rhododendron is, you are not alone. I was asking myself the same thing while looking at the map of Kew Gardens and wondering if I should make my way all the way to the other side or now. To answer the question, yes, do make your way up there because rhododendrons are beautiful woody flower shrubs which grow up high in the mountains. The most common of them is the azalea, a flower we all know.
The rhododendron represents over 1000 different species of plants, out of which you can find hundreds at Kew Gardens. They are best seen in late spring, when they are all in full bloom.
The Woodland Garden and the temple of Aeolus
The original temple of Aeolus was built out of wood on an artificial mound, offering beautiful views over the gardens. However, by the middle of the 18th century it has been rebuilt in stone because the wood had rotten. The temple was dedicated to the Greek God of Winds.
The temple is surrounded today by oaks and maple trees and led to by a path through a carpet of primulas and blue poppies.
The Marianne North Gallery
This gallery is dedicated to Marianne North, the daughter of an MP who travelled alone in South America, Asia, South Africa and America to paint plants. Back in her days it was very unusual for a woman to travel alone. The gallery has 832 paintings, all belonging to Marianne North.
The Shirley Sherwood Gallery
Next to the Marianne North Gallery you will find the Shirley Sherwood collection of botanical art, one of the largest in the world. The oldest piece is in the museum dates from 512 and represents an illustrated copy of the Dioscorides’ de Materia Medica, a book written between 50AD and 70AD by a Greek physician from the Roman army, Pedanius Dioscorides.
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