A visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, or Kew Gardens for short, is one of my favourite days out in the UK. There is so much to see and do at these gardens that a short visit just won’t cut it. Beautiful in all seasons, and with plenty of things to do for kids and families, read on to find out about the best things to do at Kew Gardens!
The best things to do at Kew Gardens
The gardens as we know them today were begun in the mid 18th Century by Princess Augusta, who spent a huge amount of time curating the gardens and having all sorts of buildings and follies added. Her son, George III, spent a lot of time at Kew with his family.
Today, Kew Gardens are more than just pretty flowerbeds and cleverly arranged displays. At Kew you’ll discover Royal Palaces, hidden cottages, modern art, Victorian feminist trailblazers, not to mention incredible plant species. The gardens are spread over 300 acres and cutting edge research and conservation takes place here too. All of this makes Kew Gardens one of the best botanic gardens in the world, and UNESCO agree – Kew Gardens was made a World Heritage Site in 1993.
Kew is an ideal place to bring kids of all ages. Smaller kids will get lots out of exploring and unstructured play as well as experiencing the different environments in the hot glasshouses. There’s lots of information on plants and plant biology for older children to get stuck into as well.
You’ll find Kew Gardens in Richmond, on the south-western outskirts of London. The gardens make a perfect day trip from London, and take only 30 minutes to reach from the capital.
We’ve visited Kew Gardens twice this year and we still haven’t managed to see absolutely everything. But we’ve covered the main attractions, and there’s more than enough in this post to keep you busy for a couple of days.
Read on to find out about the best things to do at Kew Gardens with kids.
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Kew Palace is the smallest of the Royal Palaces. It wasn’t originally a palace; the house was built by a Dutchman in around 1631, and if you look at the gables of the building you’ll see the Dutch influence. It was known as the Dutch House before becoming Kew Palace, when it was used as a summer retreat for King George III and his family. For a time, it was a happy family home.
Kew Palace does have some sad associations though. The palace is where King George III convalesced during his bouts of “madness” (probably due to porphyria) that he is so famous for today, and where his wife, Queen Charlotte, died. Today, Kew Palace is staffed by costumed guides (who are great at playing games with the kids in the gardens outside) and you can look around the setup of the palace which has been restored to how it looked in the time of George III. You can see items of furniture that the family used, including the chair that Queen Charlotte died in. A room right on the top floor has been left so you can see how it looked before restoration.
Just adjacent to the palace you can see the Royal Kitchens where the food for the royal family was prepared, and there’s also a nearby ice house that you can look in if you’re interested (this is something we haven’t got around to yet).
Kew Palace closes in the winter; it’s open again from April.
The Hive is set just off the main boulevard, Great Broad Walk, which leads from Kew Palace to the Palm House. You can’t miss it; it’s a glittering swirl of metal rising over the surrounding greenery.
This fantastic honeycomb sculpture is more than just art though. It represents a bee hive and replicates the sound and movement of bees in a real hive at Kew. A sensor called an accelerometer was embedded into a bee hive, and this instrument picks up vibrations from bee movements and transmits them to The Hive, which turns them into light and sound.
Once you’re inside the hive, you can hear a low hum, which is made up of the sounds of many different instruments. Look up and you’ll see hundreds of little lights which flash on and off in response to the bees’ movements in the real life hive. This effect is best observed at dusk.
The Hive is an attraction that the kids will really enjoy; it’s a lovely sensory experience for them. Ours particularly liked peering through the glass floor to see the people below looking up at them.
The Palm House dates from 1844 and is a hot, tropical environment filled with lush rainforest foliage. It reminds me of the large tropical biome down at the Eden Project in Cornwall (and I’m sure the Palm House is where the Eden Project got some of its inspiration). It’s one of the most important glass and iron buildings in the world.
The Palm House is chock full of plants that thrive in the tropics, and the atmosphere inside is thick and heady. It’s definitely the place to come on a cold winter’s day! When we visited on a warm spring day it was sweltering inside – make sure you’ve got water with you. This is a fun experience for kids as they probably haven’t been to a real rainforest, because you’ve not only got the sight of tropical plants, but the smell and feel of the air too.
As well as walking around the ground floor level of the Palm House you should also climb up the wrought-iron spiral staircases that take you up to look at the canopy.
Outside the flower beds change throughout the seasons and are always immaculate. Our kids were interested in the fantastical statues that line the flower beds, and this is a nice spot to have a snack as you look out over the pond opposite the Palm House.
Marianne North Gallery
Marianne North was a remarkable woman. She was born in 1830 and was a talented artist. Her family was well connected, but Marianne was a fairly solitary person and dedicated to her father. After his death in 1871 she became an intrepid solo female traveller. Such independence was practically unheard of at the time and she attracted some notoriety.
Carrying letters of recommendation (the social media profiles of the day) she made many trips abroad and painted as many native plant species as she could. Her paintings were incredibly realistic and scientifically accurate, but crucially she painted them in their settings, rather than just the plants themselves. Marianne painted using oils and bright, bold colours. She was a prolific artist and painted hundreds and hundreds of scenes.
Through the years her paintings were more and more appreciated and she became famous enough to have a gallery built to house her paintings at Kew. Today you can see her artworks displayed where she hung them herself, in the gallery that she designed. She had so many paintings to display that they cover the walls of the gallery completely, and they’re spectacular when viewed all at once. Marianne originally wanted the gallery to be a tea parlour but the chap in charge of Kew, Joseph Hooker, refused this request. Not to be outdone, Marianne painted tea and coffee plants around the doors.
If you can possibly spare the time, the documentary shown in the Marianne North Gallery is well worth watching, or you can watch it on Kew’s website. Sadly you can’t take photos inside the gallery but click this link to visit Kew’s page on Marianne North.
The Temperate House at Kew Gardens is the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world and has just reopened after five years of restoration. They’ve done an incredible job and the Temperate House is unmissable; and one of the top things to do at Kew Gardens! It’s double the size of the Palm House and has five main sections.
The Temperate House showcases plants from temperate zones around the world (surprisingly enough!). It covers a vast range of species and habitats, and it’s a far more comfortable visit than the tropical bath that is the Palm House. While the plants inside aren’t as dense as those in the Palm House (as all of them have been recently planted) this means that you can get a clearer look at them. It also includes a plant that was germinated from 200 year old seeds that were found inside a wallet at the National Archives.
But rare species of plants aside, the building is just as spectacular. The building, decorations and statues are now immaculate, and it’s worth taking some time to appreciate the structure as well as what’s inside.
The ten-storey Great Pagoda was being restored on our first visit, so we had to come back later in the summer to check it out. It was commissioned by Princess Augusta and built in 1762.
As part of its restoration, 80 dragons were carved out of wood and carefully painted so they resembled the originals that decorated the roofs of the pagoda when it was first built. The original dragons may have been sold but it’s more likely that they simply rotted. There’s one dragon with a difference; see if the kids can spot him!
You are able to go into the Pagoda and climb up to the top. Kids can climb too, if they’re over 5. The girl didn’t really want to go up so I went in by myself while the husband and the kids played on the lawn outside. The inside of the pagoda is spartan but there are some information boards about how the Pagoda was used as a bomb testing site in WW2; and on the ground floor there are some pretty murals on the walls and two fantastic, moveable dioramas of the Pagoda.
The Pagoda still gives a good view out over Kew Gardens to Central London – the best views are from the 9th floor as the windows are smaller and much more crowded on the top floor.
The Pagoda is closed in the winter months; it opens for the season in April. You need to book a time slot to climb the pagoda in advance, so it’s best to do this at the time of booking your tickets.
Near the Pagoda is a Japanese garden. Here you can see a replica of a shrine gate found in Kyoto and walk through calming, manicured areas complete with raked gravel beds. There is also a bamboo garden and traditional Japanese house on the far side of Kew, but we have run out of time on both our visits and haven’t made it that far!
Princess of Wales Conservatory
The Princess of Wales Conservatory is the third large glasshouse at Kew. It’s split into several different sections, each with their own climate. It’s a really fun conservatory for kids as there’s so many different plants and habitats to explore. Here they can take a close look at carnivorous plants like flytraps and pitchers and see flowering orchids, mangroves and cacti of all shapes and sizes, among many other plants.
The star attraction, if you’re there are the right time (we were not, sadly) is the Titan arum, an enormous flower that stinks of rotten meat to attract flies to pollinate it. The blooms only last a few hours so it’s a case of being exceptionally lucky if you do get to see it!
Our favourite plants in here were these cute pineapples we found decorating some pillars in one of the larger sections of the conservatory. The boy was dangerously drawn to the pools in the mangrove swamp area – keep a hold of little kids in here as there are several pools that small boys seem especially fascinated with!
Around the back of the POW Conservatory you can find the rockery and a much smaller conservatory housing Alpine plants.
Deep inside Kew’s magnificent arboretum is the Treetop Walkway. Only the most daring will climb up here; the walkway sits 18m high and is designed to move in the wind – which is not to everyone’s taste! But it’s definitely one of the best things to do at Kew Gardens with kids!
Once you’re up the views are great. I took the girl up to the top and for someone who claims she doesn’t like heights, she seemed to have a suspiciously large grin on her face the whole time. She then insisted on going up again with daddy, who was patiently waiting his turn with a sleeping boy.
You really do get a close look at the trees when you’re up here. You can also see the Temperate House and watch people scurrying like ants far below. There’s a lot of educational information at the Treetop Walkway too; both at the top and at the base.
While you’re in the Arboretum, make sure you head to the large lake and the innovative Sackler Crossing. This is one of the areas of the gardens that we’ve not managed to explore in depth yet. The lake is a great place for autumnal colour.
Queen Charlotte’s Cottage
Tucked away in a far corner of Kew Gardens, past a thick concentration of giant pines and rhododendrons, and surrounded by bluebell woods, you’ll find Queen Charlotte’s Cottage. Exploring the cottage is a lot like walking into one of Grimm’s fairytales; this could quite easily be Briar Rose’s cottage, or where Beauty lived with her father. It’s enchanting, and not at all palatial.
This thatched, gabled cottage was built for the Royal family to have light meals or a tea break while they were walking through the gardens, or visiting the nearby menagerie. The menagerie included kangaroos, black swans and even quoggas (now sadly extinct).
If you visit at the right time you’re able to look inside, which will take you about 10-15 minutes. While there isn’t really a huge amount to see, what there is is interesting. Queen Charlotte was a collector of Hogarth prints (17th Century satirical pictures) and the parlour is filled with them. Take a close look; while I don’t personally like their style, they depict some amusing scenes. Upstairs is a tea room decorated with a frieze of flowers painted by Princess Elizabeth, Charlotte’s daughter.
In late spring, Queen Charlotte’s Cottage is surrounded by some of the best bluebell woods in the UK.
Queen Charlotte’s Cottage is open at the weekends and Bank Holidays from April to September.
When is the best time to visit Kew Gardens?
We visited Kew Gardens in the spring for the cherry blossoms. We timed it perfectly and the blossoms were in full bloom. The best places to see cherry (and other) blossoms is along the main boulevard, Great Broad Walk, near the Hive and behind the Palm House.
From here you can walk towards the Temperate House where you can find Cherry Tree Walk; which was properly decked out. It’s probably the most beautiful display of trees and flowers we’ve ever seen.
Late April is an ideal time to catch cherries in the UK.
We returned in the summer, mainly to see the newly opened Temperate House and Great Pagoda. However the summer was also the perfect time for the Treetop Walkway and to see the rose garden in full bloom behind the Palm House.
In the autumn you can see autumnal colours in the arboretum and the in the winter there are illuminations after dark along a special trail. This is something we’ll try to get to next year.
Family friendly attractions at Kew Gardens
Kew’s attractions vary throughout the year, and according to the seasons. Check to see what’s on before you visit. Most attractions are included in your ticket price but there might be another small charge so do check to see if you need extra tickets.
When we visited this year the kids did a Dragon Trail. These sculpture treasure-hunts are always good fun for kids, and if they’re getting tired the promise of finding a new sculpture reinvigorates them! We found all six beautifully painted dragons, which were all designed by children.
On our summer visit the kids met a giant guardian of nature, Gnomus, a huge puppet operated by several puppeteers. Gnomus gave a guided tour of sorts around the Temperate House. He made quite an impression on the boy, who still talks about him!
Elsewhere kid friendly features include a walk through the forest to look for mini beasts and a large badgers’ sett, but ours were happy just tearing about; although the boy liked The Hive best, and the girl voted for the Treetop Walkway.
In the winter there is often a small carnival for children for the winter illuminations.
There is a special Children’s Garden currently being built at Kew Gardens. It will probably open in 2019, although it’s not clear when it will be ready. We’ll go back and update the post once we’ve seen it, so watch this space!
Know before you go
Kew Gardens tickets and entry
Kew Gardens is open throughout the year from 10am to 6pm in the summer and 3.30pm in the winter.
It’s best to buy tickets in advance; Kew is a popular day out and tickets may sell out. You’ll also need to book the Great Pagoda in advance, and perhaps some seasonal attractions, like the Winter at Kew illuminations.
Tickets cost £13.75 per adult and £3.50 for kids aged 4+. Kids under 4 go free.
How to get to Kew Gardens
It’s best to arrive at Kew Gardens by public transport. You can reach Kew Gardens by train and tube easily; alight at Kew Gardens station on the District Line, or Kew Bridge Station if you’re arriving by train.
If you have to drive (as we do) then make sure you arrive well before opening time. There is a small car park on Ferry Lane by the river but it starts to fill up from 9.30am onwards, so I’d try to arrive then especially if you’re visiting Kew at peak times. You need to pay £7 for the car park. There’s a pretty walk down by the river while you’re waiting for the gardens to open.
Where to eat at Kew Gardens
There are several cafes at Kew Gardens. The first time we visited we ate an early lunch in the family friendly White Peaks cafe which serves sandwiches and light lunches. There is a fine dining restaurant at The Botanical, opposite the Palm House. You can even get afternoon tea here. Other choices include the Orangery near Kew Palace and the Victoria Gate cafe.
On our second visit we bought a picnic but then discovered a weekend food market outside the Temperate House, which we’d much rather have raided.
You can pick up snacks and ice creams from several places dotted around the Gardens – great for bribing flagging kids.
Have you been to Kew? What did you enjoy the most? Let us know in the comments!
Gardens and arboretums are ideal places to let kids run free, and we love visiting them with our kids.
Take a look at these other posts on gardens in the UK and further afield: