Take a twilight winter walk along a magical trail of sound and light. Stop en route to toast marshmallows or sip a warming toddy. To round off the year with a dazzling light display, here’s a taster of the annual December nighttime treats at Christmas at Kew Gardens, London. Post updated 2023
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The ancient midwinter festival of the Winter Solstice was marked with fires and feasting to celebrate the shortest day. So a twilight visit to a magical winter light trail that winds through an historic royal garden seems a perfect way to mark the turning of the year.
I live in south west London so Christmas at Kew Gardens is an annual local event. I’ve visited it with friends and children, my sons go with their girlfriends, one year I walked the light trail in steady rain. Whatever the age or the weather, everyone seems to enjoy it. It’s a captivating evening of light installations and projections that highlight the beauty of nature in midwinter.
First held in 2013, this is the UK’s original Christmas light trail and it’s fitting that it should be set in the venerable and botanically unique landscape of Kew. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that showcases more than 50,000 living plants in historical garden landscapes. Within its grounds lie a royal palace and two stunning Victorian glass houses as well as ancient trees, a lake and even a pagoda.
From late November to early January the Kew light trail is a marker of the festive season. There’s something about fairy lights flickering against a dark sky, a natural landscape seen in a whole new light, plus the pervasive sense of seasonal cheer that triggers a childlike thrill. After an evening at the Kew Garden lights it begins to feel a lot like Christmas!
Kew Christmas Lights
The Kew light trail is a circular route. It follows a pathway that winds between signature trees and landscaped rides. Along the way the trail and turnings are adorned with over a million twinkling lights.
However well you know Kew Gardens it becomes a newly magical and mysterious place at night. Visitors follow the twinkling trail closely, stopping at every turn to look, listen and take photos.
Every year is different as the trail is re-imagined with new light installations and ideas.
Kew’s famous arched tunnel of light, the Christmas Cathedral, is a perennial favourite. The ‘singing’ trees serenade visitors with festive songs while a field of light dances to the sound of a carol. Sacler Crossing, the curving bridge across the lake, is the opportunity for a dramatic sound and light show that illuminates the majestic trees on the nearby island and reflects into the dark waters of the lake. By the stately Temperate house, bulbs like flickering flames adorn the scented fire garden.
The 2023 trail looks set to be as beautiful as ever: imaginative, dramatic and fun by turns. Dazzling new installations will include:
- Lili by TILT, a series of tall abstract illuminated flowers
- Trapezoid, a new geometric tunnel of light
- Spark Ballet, a collection of sparkling lanterns
- Candles, 100s of floating lights suspended above visitors’ heads
- 1000 LED lights illuminating the Hive, a permanent artwork at Kew
This year the trail is 3 km long so it’s likely to take around 1.5 to 2 hours to walk the whole route with breaks for drinks and fairground rides.
Kew Gardens at Christmas for families
Year round, Kew is a great outing for families. Not only for its wide open spaces for running around and picnicking but also for its thoughtful provisions like the Children’s Garden play equipment, the log trail, canopy walkway and badger’s sett. In the same way, the Kew Gardens light show has features for younger visitors too.
The lights and festive songs work their magic on all ages. Father Christmas will, as usual, be making an appearance to wave to delighted passers by. And a nostalgic vintage fairground with merry-go-round, swing boats and a helter skelter slide is an eye-catching favourite with adults and children. Fairground rides cost £3.50 each and you can buy tokens on the night or pre-book to collect 6 for £18 at the fairground booth.
Local’s tip Since bicycles, scooters, skateboards, roller skates and balance bikes are all off limits in Kew Gardens it’s a good idea to take a buggy as back up for small children.
Kew at Christmas food
A winter evening’s walk needs fuel! And street food stalls along the trail offer plenty of opportunities to warm hands and linger over frothing hot chocolate (with optional shots!), mulled wine or cider, roast chestnuts or – my favourites – plump marshmallows on sticks to toast at trail-side braziers.
If you’re feeling in a celebratory mood, crisp bubbles await for a festive toast. Kew’s cafes are open and a selection of independent street food vendors offer delicious suppers to go. Kebabs, sliders, halloumi fries and oozing cheese toasties are all promised for 2023.
For sit down opportunities the Victoria Plaza cafe will be open for the Kew Christmas light trail. But for a more luxurious treat you can indulge in a Christmas dinner at the Botanical Brasserie.
Four sittings are available each evening, bookable at the same time as your entry tickets. So you can choose a pre-walk meal at 5pm or a more relaxed supper at 8pm. The seasonal set menu has three choices for each course including celeriac and truffle soup, caramelized shallot, beetroot and mushroom wellington, turkey ballotine stuffed with sausage meat and cranberries and Christmas pudding with brandy cream.
The dinner option is only available for Victoria gate entrances and costs £39.50 for the adult menu, £17.50 for a children’s simplified version.
The Brasserie overlooks the grand finale of the trail at Kew’s Palm House and adjacent lake. Here in a spectacular light and music display, multi-coloured laser beams swoop and soar above the glass house and patterns scatter across its facade or seem to float in an ethereal sphere above the water. It’s a pretty memorable ending to a twilight Christmas stroll in a park!
What to Pack for Christmas at Kew Gardens London
👢This is a 3km walk in a park after dark. The trail can be slippery in places or muddy if it rains. Damp-proof shoes, boots or comfortable wellies are ideal. Naked flames such as lanterns, candles or flares are not allowed but a torch might be a good idea.
🌂Wrap up warm. It’s colder in the park than on a city street. Plus, you’ll want to be wearing enough clothes to be able to dawdle comfortably. Gloves, hats, scarves, warm socks, thermals – pile them all on. Bring a waterproof and pack an umbrella too. The trail is uncovered, but as long as you have the right kit rain needn’t spoil your evening.
🎠 Know that you’ll be tempted to spend more than the entry ticket. The ticket price, from £22.50 for adults in 2023, gives timed entry to the Christmas at Kew event. But half the fun of a Kew Gardens Christmas is in the goodies that line the trail, all at additional cost. The alluring vintage fairground is priced £3.50 per ride. NB this year, 2023, the food and drink outlets will be cashless so remember to bring your cards.
How to Get to Kew Gardens
The journey to Kew Gardens takes about 30 minutes from central London by tube or train.
Top tip Decide how you’ll travel to the event before you book. Tickets are specific to Kew’s three entrance gates so you can choose a gate with bookable parking or the one that is nearest to your transport route.
Kew Gardens by train
Kew Bridge station is on the main South Western Railways route from Waterloo and the journey takes around 30 mins. From here it’s 20 mins walk, crossing Kew Bridge, to the main entrance to Kew Gardens at Victoria Gate. Or you can enter via Elizabeth Gate at Kew Green which is closer to the station.
You could alternatively take the train from Waterloo to Richmond station and then catch the District line tube to the Kew Gardens Underground stop near Victoria Gate.
Kew Gardens by tube
The Richmond branch of the District line stops at Kew Gardens station: the journey from Earl’s Court station for instance, takes 20 mins. The London Overground stops here too: from Highbury and Islington station to Kew Gardens station takes around 40 mins. It is a 6 min walk from Kew Gardens station to the Victoria Gate entrance.
Parking at Kew Gardens
Now that parking is no longer allowed on Kew Road, driving to Kew Gardens, especially for a sold-out event like Kew Gardens Christmas, is ever more challenging!
The event has its own limited parking at Kew’s Ferry Lane car park by the Brentford Gate. To park here you’ll need to reserve a slot, £10, when you book your Christmas at Kew tickets. This year there’s a 10 minute walk from Brentford Gate to the light trail. Choose Brentford Gate when you book your tickets.
Limited bookable parking at £10 is also available in the National Archives car park. From here it is a 12 minute walk to Elizabeth Gate and your parking slot is accessible from 40 mins before your timed entry. Choose Elizabeth Gate when you book your tickets to use this option.
Local’s Tip Kew is a residential area so there are street parking opportunities, but as you’ll imagine these are sought after. I use Parkopedia to get an overview of car parks, street and private parking options. You could also book a place in advance on the Just Park app which often has private driveways available.
FAQs about Kew at Christmas
Which is the best entrance gate for the light trail?
The Victoria Gate on Kew Road, the A307, is the main entrance gate to Kew Gardens. It is close to the Victoria Plaza cafe and shop and the Botanical Brasserie, both of which are open during Christmas at Kew. This is the main entrance for the Kew Christmas lights trail. The Elizabeth Gate entrance by Kew Green is nearest to Kew Bridge railway station, whilst the Brentford Gate is close to the Ferry Lane car park.
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Christmas at Kew tickets
Christmas at Kew begins on Wednesday 15 November. It is open on 5 or 6 days a week until Sunday 7 January 2024.
The light trail is open from 4.20pm to 10pm with last entry at 8pm except Dec 24 which is 7pm.
Book your Christmas at Kew tickets early – they often sell out. As well as entry tickets you have options to book parking, fairground tokens and dinner at the Botanical Brasserie at the same time.
Please note that all visitor information here is for guidance only. Please check the relevant websites for the most up to date information eg. accommodation details, tickets, entrance requirements, opening times etc.
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