Kew Gardens: London’s “Lesser Known” UNESCO World Heritage Site

King William's Temple, Kew Gardens
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London has four UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but one – the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew – is less visited than the others. Each of the others – the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and the Greenwich Museums – attracted more than 2.5m visitors in 2017. Plus countless more who just stood outside to admire the buildings and take selfies. Yet Kew Gardens only had 1.8m visitors last year. It’s still an impressive number, but why so many fewer than London’s other UNESCO sites?

King William's Temple, Kew Gardens
King William’s Temple, one of many temple follies in Kew Gardens

Why is Kew Gardens a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

The Royal Botanic Gardens are much more than “just another botanic garden”. There are several strands to the UNESCO listing, starting with the fact that Kew Gardens has been at the forefront of scientific research since it was established in 1759. Its collections of living and conserved plants are still central to international research in botany and ecology. Secondly, several landscape architects, including the great Capability Brown, contributed to the gardens, making it a sort of living museum of garden design through the centuries. In addition, the gardens are home to 44 historic buildings, including the famous Pagoda and the Victorian greenhouses.

Bamboo Garden, Kew Gardens
The Bamboo Garden and Japanese Minka House

Then there are the gardens themselves, which became an inspiration for similar gardens around the world. Set in 326 acres and incorporating a number of former royal estates, they take you on a journey through different parts of the plant kingdom. There are avenues devoted to single trees, like holly or cherry; areas planted with bamboo or rhododendrons; and lilies in the ornamental ponds. The surroundings are important too, with the River Thames on one side and Richmond Park on another. And if you walk along the central Syon Vista you will have an uninterrupted view across the river to Syon House, a grand manor house from the 16th century.

Royal Botanic Gardens, London
Pinnable image of the Royal Botanic Gardens
Kew Gardens - book with Tiqets


Exploring the Royal Botanic Gardens

I was initially disappointed, as some parts of the garden were closed when we visited. We couldn’t see the Pagoda or the Temperate House (the largest Victorian greenhouse in the world) as both were in the process of renovation. But there is more here than you could see in a day, and we enjoyed a walk past the Japanese Gateway, through the Woodland Glade and along the riverside. The spring flowers had started to bloom and we were surrounded by the chatter of birds (I was surprised to hear parrots and woodpeckers among the more common species).

Japanese Gateway, Kew Gardens
The Japanese Gateway and Landscape Garden

I was particularly interested in the buildings. There are several of the “temples” that were so popular in 18th century gardens, and in a far corner is Queen Charlotte’s Cottage (this former royal hideaway is only open in the summer but we were able to admire the outside and to walk into the bluebell woods behind the cottage). But, apart from the Pagoda, the most spectacular buildings are probably the greenhouses, Victorian confections of wrought iron and glass. Although the Temperate House was closed, we were able to go into the Palm House, and into the contrasting modern Princess of Wales Conservatory. Then there was the 19th century museum building opposite the Palm House which is now home to the Botanical restaurant: we enjoyed an excellent lunch here!

Palm House, Kew Gardens
Looking across the lake to the Palm House
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Something for Everyone at Kew Gardens

It was quiet when we visited at the end of March: just us and a few lively school groups. I can imagine it would get a lot more crowded in the summer, but the gardens are large enough to accommodate large numbers, and you could always find a peaceful corner. There is something for everyone here, from the serious plant enthusiast to those who simply enjoy strolling through gardens. There are places specially designed for children, including the Log Trail and the Giant Badger Sett. And, for those who don’t want a long walk, a little train connects the highlights of the garden.

Princess of Wales Conservatory, Kew Gardens
Inside the Princess of Wales Conservatory

Which brings me back to the original question: why is Kew less visited than London’s other UNESCO sites? I don’t know the answer, but perhaps it is the wrong question. Perhaps the visitor numbers are just right for this tranquil corner of London.

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9 thoughts on “Kew Gardens: London’s “Lesser Known” UNESCO World Heritage Site”

  1. Thank you for this recommendarion. I just added a visit to Kew Gardens to my must see list for rhe next time I visit London. I have found it most worthwhile and enjoyable to visit botanical gardens as we travel the world. Many places have lovely botanical gardens, but perhaps they lack the PR budget of more well known attractions.

  2. I visited Kew Gardens over thirty years ago and loved it. This post is a good reminder that it might be time to visit again on my next trip to England.

  3. I don’t even know how many times I’ve been to London, and I’ve never been to Kew Gardens! It just never occurred to me to go there. Next time I will, assuming it’s not the dead of winter!

    1. Actually winter might be quite a good time to go, because it’s very quiet and the map they give you shows the best bits of the garden to look at in winter. (It’s definitely a garden for all seasons…)

  4. I try to never miss visiting botanical gardens wherever I go and would love to see this Kew Gardens! Too bad that parts were under renovation when you were there. UNESCO sites are always worthy of a visit if I ever make it back to London I’ll put this on my list.

  5. Because not too many people know about it! I’ve been to London four times because my daughter lives there for 4 years and I had no clue! Neither does she! I should visit next time, even if she now lives in Melbourne. I manage to visit botanical gardens wherever I go since I took up photography. I bet I will have photos from Kew Gardens to add to my winning collection from UK!

  6. I am ashamed to say after countless times of being in London, I have yet to visit Kew Gardens :-). My parents lived in Battersea for eons and l finally went to Battersea Park last year, so l’m making headway :-). Will be sure to add it to the list.

  7. The Kew Gardens are beautiful and their inclusion is well deserved. We spent half a day there a few years ago and to be honest would be happy to spend a whole day again next time.

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