The world is a big and intriguing place to explore, but I make a conscious effort not to forget to explore a little closer to home too. The UK has so much to offer, from the rolling hills of Wales, the mysterious Scottish Lochs, natural wonders like Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, beautiful national parks such as the Peak District or Pembrokeshire, and quintessential English villages and towns too. My staycation bucket list is, therefore, quite long, but I’m gradually working through it just like my world travel bucket list, except this one is much easier to fit into weekends between working 9-5. In fact, making good use of my time off on the weekends motivates me to get through the working week and I thrive on having adventures to look forward to both near and far.
A recent adventure took me on a day trip to the famous Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I’ve wanted to visit for so long, but when I lived in London and it was on my doorstep, I never got around to visiting it amidst the hustle and bustle of city life. However, I wish I had discovered this quiet and calming city-centre plot of nature offering some much-needed space and serenity a little sooner, as I can imagine that I would have spent a lot of time there to escape the London crowds and chaos from time to time.
Welcome to Kew
The Royal Botanic Gardens were founded in 1759 by Augusta, Princess of Wales. Since then, it has continued to develop, grow and flourish over time and is now listed as London’s largest UNESCO World Heritage site. Kew is home to the largest and most diverse collection of living plants in the world, growing across 326 acres of landscaped gardens and inside incredible Victorian greenhouses.
Plan your day trip
Planning in advance is my top tip if you’re thinking about visiting Kew Gardens.
How to get to Kew
We chose to drive to Kew Gardens, making the road trip part of the adventure. From South Wales, it was only a two and a half hour drive down the M4 and a short drive into the outskirts of London. Located in Richmond (a lovely area!), you don’t have to worry about driving into the congestion charging zone and our sat-nav took us directly to the parking, which although limited, it is not a problem if you arrive early enough. We got there at around 11am and there was plenty of space. Just be aware that parking costs £7 for the day! Alternatively, you can easily get to Kew from central London on the Tube or by bus, taxi or bike. However, for us, driving was the simplest option.
Entrance to the gardens
Before making your way to Kew Gardens, I would advise you to plan your day in advance, because there is too much to see in just one day and things can get quite expensive. We bought our tickets online the day before, costing £16 each (for adults). If you wait to buy your tickets at the entrance gates, you can expect to pay more.
When to get there
The gardens open at 10am, so don’t worry about getting up at the crack of dawn to travel to London. You might regret it if you arrive ahead of the crowds, but then have to wait for the gates to open. Besides that, the gardens are huge and your day will inevitably involve a lot of walking (over 17,000 steps according to my Fitbit!). The gardens also remain open until 7pm, so you will be exhausted from an early start and a busy day of exploring!
Map your route
It is a good idea to look at the Kew Gardens website before you visit, so that you can pinpoint exactly which features and attractions you want to see and plan your journey through the gardens accordingly. Check to see if any attractions are closed for maintenance and if there are any special events, activities or exhibitions available on the day of your visit, and make a list of priority must-see highlights to make the most of your time there. We wanted to see all of the key attractions at the Royal Botanic Gardens and we just about managed this in one day, but we won’t be short of new things to see next time we visit either.
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail
My final piece of advice is to be prepared. Wear comfortable shoes for walking around all day and take emergency blister plasters just in case (sadly, I needed them!). Dress for the weather – layers are a good idea, because you will find that the greenhouses are hot and humid, but then you’ll step back into the cool outdoor air and need to wrap up again once you’ve cooled down. You might also want to take sun cream and an umbrella, because the British weather cannot be trusted. Last, but not least, take a packed lunch with you and enjoy a picnic in the park. We filled a cool bag with tasty treats, refreshing drinks, a bit of savoury and a bit of sweet, and we packed a picnic blanket to make sure we did it properly. There are plenty of restaurants, cafes and places to eat within Kew Gardens, but you can expect to pay inflated London prices. No matter how tempting the Alice in Wonderland Afternoon Tea sounded, we couldn’t justify £35 per person for the privilege of table service, and we enjoyed our laid-back picnic under the trees much more anyway!
When I visited Kew Gardens, there were some key attractions that I wanted to see. I didn’t manage to do everything in one day, but the following were well worth the visit:
The Great Pagoda is an Oriental-inspired landmark that is visible on the skyline all around Kew Gardens. Standing 50 metres tall, this octagonal structure towers up above the trees, giving you spectacular views across the Gardens and London too. Designed to resemble a traditional Oriental pagoda, this structure isn’t actually as traditional as it first seems. Usually, Oriental pagodas would have an odd number of floors – often seven, to represent the seven steps to heaven. However, this one stands tall at 10 storeys high, each becoming narrower in diameter as you climb higher and adorned with an impressive collection of 80 carved and gilded wooden dragons guarding the structure. You can pay to go inside the Giant Pagoda and climb to the top to appreciate the bird’s-eye views, however we were more than happy to just appreciate it from the outside!
The palm house is like nowhere else I’ve been before, it was such an experience! Firstly, I was obsessed with the stunning architecture of this impressive Victorian glasshouse. They just don’t build them like that anymore and it is such a shame, but I’m so glad I had the opportunity to see it and explore what is hidden inside.
When you step into the glasshouse, be prepared. You know that feeling when you step off the plane on holiday and the heat hits you like you’ve walked into an oven?!… Imagine that, but extremely humid! My hair went from straight to curly in a split second – I’ve never experienced humidity like it, especially as we climbed the beautiful, ornate, iron staircases to view the indoor garden from above. I know heat rises, but wow! I could feel the temperature rising as I climbed the stairs and we couldn’t stay at the top long. Just long enough to take a couple of photos before we had to make a swift exit before I fainted from the heat and humidity!
We might not have managed to stay in the Palm House for long, but the extreme hot and damp environment is kept that way for a reason. This rainforest climate allows tropical plants from around the world to grow, flourish and thrive here, some of which are endangered or even extinct in the wild. It is well worth a visit if you can stand the heat!
The Temperate House – the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse in the world – was high on my list of things to see at Kew. As you already know, I am a bit of a fan of these incredible, decorative, architectural masterpieces and this one is twice as big as the beautiful Palm House, housing more of the rarest plant species on the planet. The thing I love about Kew and the Temperate House, is that it brings species from around the world to our doorstep, yet it also works to conserve endangered plants from every region on earth, preserving them for generations to come.
We spent a lot more time wandering around the Temperate House. Although it is a glasshouse and therefore still warm (especially when you climb the winding stairs), it is not a tropical environment, so it is far more bearable! When you visit, look out for the intricate iron works on the stairs and the frame of this grand old structure. It has been preserved beautifully and modernised to create the perfect environment to care for so many unique plants from across the globe.
Princess of Wales Conservatory
The Princess of Wales Conservatory allows you to take a walk through different climate zones and explore plants from different regions on Earth, from arid deserts to wet tropics. It is amazing that so many different zones, imitating so many different ecosystems and climates, can be created under one roof!
In this incredible conservatory, you can explore prickly cacti to flowering orchids, and swampy mangroves to carnivorous plant species. Every now and then, some rooms even rain, so be sure to check the sign on the connecting doors before stepping into a down-pour!
The modern and intriguing structure, known as the Hive, was designed with bees in mind. The symmetrical frame resembles a bee hive and the sights and sounds within it are triggered by a bee hive at Kew. It was a surreal feeling to be inside this structure, which gives us the closest experience we can have to being inside an actual bees hive. It is a multi-sensory experience and it made me love bees a little bit more! You can really get involved and get hands-on at the Hive. I bet you never knew you could hear through vibrations in your teeth?!
I wouldn’t recommend the Treetop Walkway if you haven’t got a head for heights. At 18 metres high, the Walkway takes you up above the trees and into the canopies, where you can appreciate gorgeous views of the Gardens from above and close up views of the trees and the ecosystems in their upper canopies. The structure is made of steel and the Walkway is designed with small holes in it so that you can look below at the flora beneath. Despite being made of steel, it does wobble and bounce as people move along it and it flexes in the breeze. This didn’t bother me, but some people looked uneasy about it. With 118 steps to the top, the Treetop Walkway added to my Fitbit step count for the day!
Last but not least, the Waterlily House was a memorable experience too. Located next to the Palm House and said to be hotter and even more humid than its neighbour, this little glasshouse has a positively tropical environment inside. With a circular pond at its centre, you can walk around this little glasshouse and see the Giant Amazonian Water Lilies floating peacefully, surrounded by pretty reflections in the water. We couldn’t stay in here for long either, because we were still over-heating from the Palm House, but as you leave, look out for the little patterns in the condensation on the glass caused by the creeping and climbing plants.
So that’s just a little taster of what Kew Gardens are like, but you’ve got to see it for yourself to fully appreciate it. Next time I visit, I plan to explore the Arboretum, Bamboo Gardens, Japanese Landscapes, Kitchen Garden and Alpine House. Like I said, a day is just not enough!
If you love places like Kew Gardens, you should take a look around Westonbirt Arboretum this Autumn. It is the best place to see all the beautiful colours of Autumn!
What are your favourite gardens to visit? I need some tips on where to go next and would love to hear your ideas!