Enter the Royal Botanic Gardens, as Kew Gardens are officially known, and you are enveloped by blazes of color, extraordinary blooms, hidden trails, and lovely old follies. Beautiful though it all is, Kew's charms are secondary to its true purpose as a major center for serious research. Academics are hard at work on more than 300 scientific projects across as many acres, analyzing everything from the cacti of eastern Brazil to the yams of Madagascar. First opened to the public in 1840, Kew has been supported by royalty and nurtured by landscapers, botanists, and architects since the 1720s. Today the gardens, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, hold more than 30,000 species of plants, from every corner of the globe.
Although the plant houses make Kew worth visiting even in the depths of winter (there's also a seasonal garden), the flower beds are, of course, best enjoyed in the fullness of spring and summer.
Architect Sir William Chambers built a series
of temples and follies, of which the crazy 10-story Pagoda, visible for miles around, is the star. The Princess of Wales conservatory houses 10 climate zones, and the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway takes you 59 feet up into the air. Two great 19th-century greenhouses—the Palm House and the Temperate House—are filled with exotic blooms, and many of the plants have been there since the final glass panel was fixed into place. Unfortunately the enormous Temperate House is closed for maintenance until 2018, so until then you won't be able to gawk at the largest greenhouse plant in the world, a Chilean wine palm planted in 1846 (and so big that you have to climb the spiral staircase to the roof to get a proper view of it).
Free guided tours, run by volunteers, are held daily at 11 am and 1:30 pm, plus seasonally themed tours at noon.
The Kew Explorer bus runs on a 40-minute, hop-on, hop-off route around the gardens every hour from 11 to 3. Tickets cost £4.50.
Discovery Tours are adapted and fully accessible, aimed at disabled visitors.
Walking tours are £5 per group, bus tours £30 per group. Book in advance.
Take tea at the Victoria Plaza Café or a meal at the elegant Orangery or White Peaks.