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Top Ways to Enjoy Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens

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by Carolyn Hopping (subscribe)
I'm a freelance writer based in Perth, Western Australia, who enjoys writing about the things I love: travel, nature-based activities, the arts, spirituality and creative, fun activities for children.
Published February 26th 2014
An Old Family Favourite That Just Keeps Getting Better
Situated on the shores of spectacular Sydney Harbour, just a short walk from the Opera House and Circular Quay, Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens have existed at the heart of Australia's largest city for almost two centuries. When the First Fleet arrived from England in 1788, it was in this vicinity that the colony was first established. However, long before their arrival, the traditional custodians, the Cadigal people, resided here, subsisting off the bounty of the land.

Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens
Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens

During the early years of colonial settlement the land on which the gardens is situated was utilised as the fledgling colony's first farm. Although this attempt to tame the land wasn't initially successful, the area has been in constant cultivation ever since, after ways were found to increase its productivity. June 13 1816 is generally observed as Foundation Day for the Gardens, making it one of the oldest botanic gardens in the Southern Hemisphere.

These days, the Royal Botanical Gardens are one of Sydney's greatest attractions - a tranquil 40 hectare oasis amidst the skyscrapers, traffic and crowds of the city, where locals and visitors alike can relax for a picnic, stroll shady pathways through exquisitely landscaped gardens, or learn about Australia's rich botanical heritage. The Garden's immense size means that you could easily spend a couple of days exploring their attractions, while their central location enables visitors to easily walk from them to many of Sydney's other premier tourist destinations.

The Gardens provide awesome views over beautiful Sydney Harbour
The Gardens provide awesome views over beautiful Sydney Harbour

There is much to see and do at Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens for the whole family, from the youngest child to the most elderly patriarch. The following paragraphs contain some suggestions which will easily keep you busy for hours.

A Picnicker's Paradise
With its awesome views over Sydney Harbour, abundance of secluded nooks and wide grassy expanses, The Royal Botanical Gardens is a picnicker's paradise. Whether you want a shady place to sit on a warm summer day or to enjoy a meal in the winter sun, you're sure to find just the perfect spot. If you can't pack your own picnic, a couple of local companies can arrange a picnic hamper to be delivered to you in the gardens. Otherwise, grab a takeaway from one of the park's cafes or kiosks.

A picture-perfect picnic spot overlooking the Sydney Opera House
A picture-perfect picnic spot overlooking Sydney Opera House

Heaven For Garden Lovers
If you have a penchant for all things relating to gardens and gardening, there is so much to see and do at the Royal Sydney Botanical Gardens. Whether you're satisfied to simply stroll through the various themed gardens or would like to develop a deeper understanding of some particular kind of plant or regional vegetation, there really is something for everyone. Specific areas of the Botanical Gardens have been designed to include a beautiful rose garden, tropical rainforest, tranquil oriental garden and herb garden, to name just a few. Ponds, artificial streams, statues, modern public sculpture, greenhouses and strategically-placed walls are also features which further complement the various plantings and horticultural displays.

A picturesque bridge in the Oriental garden.
A picturesque bridge in the Oriental garden

A Place To Rejuvenate and Daydream
Throughout the gardens, there are plenty of sitting places where you can relax, daydream, read or perhaps simply enjoy the magnificent views over Sydney Harbour. If you can't find a bench that's unoccupied it's also very pleasant simply lazing on the grass.

A tranquil retreat in the heart of the city
A tranquil retreat in the heart of the city

Walks and photography
If you love walking and crave to spend some time close to nature, a network of paths criss-cross the gardens, allowing easy access to all areas and attractions. Due to their immense size, an enthusiastic photographer could easily spend a whole day here, exploring their various features and finding the best vantage point for the perfect shot. Pathways also connect visitors with other attractions close-by such as the Domain, Art Gallery of New South Wales, State Library, Australian Museum, Opera House, Circular Quay, the Rocks and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There are plenty of signposts throughout the gardens so you won't get lost.

A tranquil walkway at Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens
A tranquil walkway at Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens

If you're totally overwhelmed by the sheer size of the gardens and would like to be escorted to the best attractions, on most days throughout the year there are free guided tours led by knowledgeable volunteers. These depart from the information booth just outside the Garden Shop at the Palm Grove Centre. To find out more, call 02 9231 8134.

Royal Botanic Gardens - Sydney
Royal Botanic Gardens - Sydney

To learn about the area's rich Indigenous heritage, there are also Aboriginal heritage tours escorted by the Garden's Aboriginal Heritage Officers. These tours focus on the culture, artefacts, traditional plant uses and bush foods of the original custodians of the land. For further information, including the current fees, call 02 9231 8134.

If you're a rugged individualist and would prefer to guide yourself, there are also a number of self-guided tours around the gardens including the Heritage Walk, the Aboriginal Heritage Walk and Art and Memorials in the Royal Botanic Garden & Domain. For more information and maps, visit the information booth at the Garden Shop.

For Artists and Art-lovers
Art-lovers will appreciate the many classical sculptures in the gardens that date back to the colonial days as well as the modern public art which is now also displayed. Large modern public art works include 'A Folly For Mrs Macquarie' by Fiona Hall, an ironic referral to the folly of colonisation (Elizabeth Macquarie was the wife of Lachlan Macquarie, an early governor of New South Wales) and the massive Wave Sculpture by New Zealand sculptor Chris Booth. As noted above, there is also a specific self-guided walk that visitors can take to learn more about the artworks which are situated in the gardens. Head to the information booth in the Garden Shop to learn more.

Herb garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens
Herb garden at the Royal Botanic Gardens

If you're creative, why not use your visit to the gardens as an opportunity to do some sketching, photography or whatever other artistic activity you enjoy? If you're a parent, bring some crayons or coloured pencils for your children during a family visit, and encourage them to interpret what they see around them.

Regular exhibitions of exquisite botanically-inspired artworks are also held regularly at the Gardens, so if you're passionate about the arts and nature, be sure to regularly check the Diary of Events on the Royal Botanic Gardens website. Other creative events held regularly at the Gardens include botanical art and scientific illustration courses as well as art and photography competitions. To learn more about these, check out this webpage.

Find A Special Gift
If you love shopping, the Garden Shop is a great spot to indulge your passion. Situated in the heart of the Gardens at the Palm Grove Centre, it provides one of Sydney's best selections of books relating to gardening, botany and horticulture, with a particular focus being Australian native plants.

The Garden Shop at the Palm Grove Centre
The Garden Shop at the Palm Grove Centre

In addition to its comprehensive range of books, the Garden Shop also stocks a great range of unique souvenirs and gifts including Australian native bushfoods, botanical themed cards, stationary, gardening tools, clothing, cosmetics derived from native plants, toys and Australian native seeds. Therefore it's a great spot to head for if you're looking for a special memento of your visit to Sydney or a gift with a difference for a nature-loving friend.

In addition to all the wonderful merchandise for sale, the Garden Shop also houses a visitor information centre which provides maps, brochures and general information, and a volunteer information booth which also has loads of information and serves as a starting point for free guided walks. Wheel chair hire is also available from the shop, but bookings are essential so be sure to call 02 9231 8125 before you visit.

Fun For The Children
With such a vast expanse of beautiful exotic gardens to explore, the Royal Botanical Gardens is a paradise for children. When my daughter was little we used to dress her up as a fairy and she'd spend hours pottering around, charming the tourists. Of course, parents should be responsible and supervise their kids, but a family visit gives children a rare opportunity to play creatively in a large area of great natural beauty. If you're a parent, why not prepare your child before-hand for a visit by discussing the gardens with them, and if they're old enough and interested, reading stories to them that may be of relevance.

Another child-pleaser at the gardens is the gorgeous little trackless train that winds its way around through the different garden zones. While the young, and young-at-heart invariably love the novelty of taking a ride, it's also an extremely practical way for families with young children to reach the more distant parts of the gardens.

The miniature train at the Royal Botanic Gardens is always a hit with the kids!
The miniature train at the Royal Botanic Gardens is always a hit with the kids!

Courses, Activities and Special Events
Throughout the year there are heaps of terrific courses and activities to educate and entertain the entire family. These include plant identification, bush foods, horticulture, art, photography and illustration for adults and a special school holiday program just for the kids. For more information about the Garden's school holiday program, take a look at this webpage.

Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens
Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens and the Domain are also the venue for many great public events such as Harbourlights (held every New Year's Eve), St. George OpenAir Cinema, the International Fleet Review, the Tomato Festival and Garden Grooves. To find out what's coming up in the near future be sure to check the Garden's website regularly.

Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens
Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens

In a nutshell, if you're yearning to immerse yourself in nature but can't be bothered travelling a few hours to get into the real bush, the Royal Botanic Gardens is definitely the place to head to. Whether you're simply wanting to chill out while admiring the harbour views, ignite your creativity, take a romantic stroll or entertain an active family, there is plenty to see and do for everyone. In a day and age when most city attractions cost a small fortune, it's also reassuring to note that entrance to the gardens is totally free of charge. Do yourself a favour and take a trip this weekend to this glorious national treasure. You won't regret it.
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Why? There is so much to see and do for the whole family, and entrance is free.
When: Opening hours vary: refer to the website.
Where: Mrs Macquaries Rd, Sydney NSW 2000
Cost: Free
Your Comment
It is very picturesque.
by Bastion Harrison (score: 4|12626) 3138 days ago
Lived in Sydney my entire life and yet I've never been to The Botanical Gardens, great article thank you for changing my mind about these gardens
by Anne Dignam (score: 2|870) 3131 days ago
Great Review. I can tell it strikes a special chord with you.
by Carole Liivrand (score: 2|899) 3128 days ago
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