Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Not many gardens are included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew is one of them. Although it's only a short train journey away on the London Underground, we recommend taking the slow travel alternative – a boat trip along the Thames*.
It is best to set aside a whole day to visit Kew Gardens to give yourself the chance to enjoy all that it has to offer. The site consists of 130 hectares of lovingly designed gardens and landscapes. Enjoy the sight of the famous Palm House, stroll around the Great Broad Walk Borders (the longest double herbaceous borders in the world) or take to the Treetop Walkway that rises 18 metres above the forest landscape of Kew. Meanwhile, in the Temperate House and Princess of Wales Conservatory, you can walk through dozens of climate zones and their flora.
* Several companies regularly set sail for Richmond and Kew (including from Westminster).
Chelsea Physic Garden
A shining example of a London garden is hidden in the heart of Chelsea, the borough of millionaires and stars (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are just two of the residents who lived nearby): Chelsea Physic Garden, a botanical garden established in 1673 as the Apothecaries' Garden.
In addition to curiosities such as the largest olive tree in England and the world's most northerly fruiting grapefruit tree, the history of the medicinal plants and culinary herbs that grow here will be revealed to you during a tour of the 1.5-hectare site. That said, these didactic aspects are almost secondary to the oasis of peace and beauty that the Garden offers. And there's no chance of visitors going hungry either, as the Garden restaurant has a number of fantastic dishes that are best enjoyed while sitting in the sun on the terrace.
The gardens around the Barbican
Multiple shining examples of London's garden culture can be found in the midst of the Brutalist architecture of the Barbican complex. The Barbican Conservatory, for example, whisks visitors away to a tropical oasis – in the second-largest greenhouse in London (after Kew Gardens) – that contains water features and over 2,000 plants. By contrast, Beech Gardens is a masterpiece of modern, biologically versatile and sustainable horticulture. The colourful plantations that constitute this roof garden are open to visitors throughout the year.
The remains of the Roman fortress wall that previously encircled London (worth an excursion in itself) are not far from the Barbican, as is the Barber Surgeons' Garden, which promises a visual and olfactory contrast to the roaring traffic outside the garden thanks to its countless medicinal plants and flowers.
Highlights of the London garden calendar
At the end of May, plant and garden lovers from all over the world converge on the Chelsea Flower Show, the leading light of global horticulture. Seeing and being seen is the order of the day at the annual show – both for the visitors (many of whom are stars and socialites) and the exhibitors. And there's no shortage of exhibitions to see here: world-class show gardens, the latest (and often controversial) gardening trends, thousands of plants, and the eye-catching headwear of the members of the British royal family ;-)
Those who would prefer to visit when it is quieter and/or would like to take a peek behind the scenes should go in June during the annual Open Garden Squares Weekend in London – an excellent opportunity to explore a countless number of gardens that are otherwise off limits to the public.