Recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew are home to an outstanding collection of plant life from around the world. The gardens were originally the grounds of Kew Palace but in 1752 Princess Augusta set about developing it into a serious botanic garden and in 1793 Sir Joseph Banks expanded the gardens’ role from a showpiece of exotic flora into a serious scientific and research role. It was not until 1840 that Kew Gardens was officially founded as a botanical garden, although many of the buildings date from the 18th century.
Kew Gardens now consists of several large temperature-controlled conservatories, each representing different climate zones. It is now a massive 131.9ha (326 acres) site with more than 40,000 different plant varieties (including many of the world’s rarest) and 40 historically significant buildings (including Kew Palace). The gardens employ around 750 staff and it even has its own police force, the Kew Constabulary, which was established in 1847.
What to see at Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens is much, much more than simply a nice park in suburban London. It contains a royal palace, art galleries, a museum, massive conservatories and greenhouses, temples, a pagoda and a tree-top walkway.
The gardens originally began as Kew Palace’s garden. Kew Palace is the smallest of Britain’s royal palaces and was once a much larger complex but the Dutch House is the main remaining part of the complex. Inside the palace, you can see the bedrooms of Princesses Elizabeth, Augusta and Amelia as well as the chair that Queen Charlotte died in.
The royal kitchens are located next to Kew Palace and have been restored to show how a palace kitchen would have functioned two hundred years ago.
The southern end of Kew Gardens is home to the rustic Queen Charlotte’s cottage. In the late 18th century the cottage was used as a retreat where royalty would rest and enjoy tea while walking in the gardens. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, this area near the cottage was used to keep exotic animals including tigers, pheasants and kangaroos.
The Palm House was built in the 1840s and remains one of the world’s greatest glasshouses. It features a 19m (62 ft)-high central nave and a 9m (29½ ft)-high walkway and is home to a diverse range of plants from tropical regions.
The 4,499 m² (48,426 sq ft) Princess of Wales Conservatory was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales in 1987 and features ten different climatic zones including desert, dry and wet tropics. The highlight of the Princess of Wales Conservatory is the massive Titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum).
The Nash Conservatory was originally built for Buckingham Palace but was moved to Kew in 1836. This structure is no longer used as a conservatory and is mostly used for exhibitions and private events (it is a popular spot for weddings).
The Temperate House is the world’s largest Victorian glasshouse with twice the floor area of the Palm House. It is home to plants from the world’s temperate regions.
The Orangery was built in 1761 and was originally used for growing citrus plants, although it is now used as a restaurant.
Constructed in 2014, the Alpine House is one of Kew Gardens’ most modern plant houses. It features a 10m (33 ft)-high roof and it is designed to grow plants from alpine regions. The Alpine House is noted for its alpine flowering plants.
Waterlily House was designed in 1852 by Richard Turner. It is the hottest and most humid of the plant houses and features a pond with giant water lilies from South America, some of which grow up to 1m (3⅓ ft) in diameter, as well as the only surviving examples of the world’s smallest waterlilies.
The Arboretum comprises two-thirds of the Kew Gardens and includes over 14,000 trees including some older than the Gardens themselves and many that cannot be found elsewhere in Great Britain.
The 200m (660 ft)-long treetop walkway runs along the tree canopy, 18m (59 ft) above the ground. It gives you a unique vantage point where you can see the trees from a birds-eye view and also look over much of the Kew Gardens.
The Hive is a 17m (56 ft)-tall interactive sculpture with 891 LEDs that highlights the work of the gardens’ 50,000 bees.
The 50m (164 ft)-high Great Pagoda was built in 1762. This ornamental structure was inspired by the Chinese pagoda. There is also a Japanese gateway (a replica of the gateway to the Nishi Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto) and a Japanese minka house in the gardens.
The Kew Gardens is also home to a museum and art galleries. Museum No. 1 has exhibits about humanity’s dependence on plants. The Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanic Art and the Marianne North Gallery both have exhibits of paintings of plants: the Shirley Sherwood Gallery has a programme of temporary exhibits from a variety of artists while the Marianne North Gallery focuses on the work of one woman, Marianne North, who travelled the world in the 19th century to paint plants.
Visiting Kew Gardens
Although Kew Gardens have a suburban location away from central London, it is easy to visit with frequent rail and tube services. Kew Gardens station handles tube (District line) and Overground services and Kew Bridge station has trains from London Waterloo station. Kew Gardens (tube and Overground) station is a five-minute walk to the Victoria Gate entrance to the gardens and Kew Bridge station is a ten-minute walk to the Elizabeth Gate entrance. The train from Waterloo to Kew Bridge takes 28 minutes and runs every 15 minutes and the tube takes 26 minutes from Victoria or 15 minutes from Earls Court with trains every 9–13 minutes. Bus route 65 stops right outside the Lion Gate and Victoria Gate entrances to the gardens; you can catch this bus from Kew Bridge or Richmond stations.
Although the admission charge may seem a tad steep, it includes all the attractions inside the gardens including Kew Palace, the museum and the two art galleries.
There are five restaurants inside the gardens, as well as several nice pubs outside the gardens. You can also stop by at a supermarket and bring a picnic lunch to enjoy in the gardens.
Allow around three hours to explore Kew Gardens, although it is really a half-day excursion once you figure in time for transport and afternoon tea or a pub lunch.