I came for the view and stayed for the day. The Royal Botanic Gardens was not on my itinerary for Sydney until a friend who lives there told me it offered the supreme vantage of the city — skyline, opera house and harbour bridge, all unobstructed and oh so close. Then I began researching this green space, which covers 27 hectares on the shores of Sydney harbour, and made a series of pleasant discoveries.
This is not just a beautiful park, or a fine lookout point, or as the name suggests a botanic gardens. It is also a key historical site, a hub of science education, a venue for varied events, and a kind of nature theme park with rides, tours and shows inspired by the Australian environment.
What I intended to be a brief visit to savour the views became a full-day excursion as I recognised this may just be Sydney’s most diverse tourist site. One that manages to achieve something rare among such attractions — offering something to every type of visitor.
I’ll explain just how it does that soon but first let’s go back to the origins of Australia’s oldest botanical garden. More than 200 years ago, the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) began as a testing ground for imported plants. These exotic species were given the chance to acclimatise here, in a controlled space on the banks of Sydney Harbour, before being introduced into Australia’s natural environment.
As the RBG website explains: “From the moment the First Fleet came ashore in 1788, the site on which the Garden is now located was central to the hopes, aspirations and survival of the community. As the site of the first European farm in Australia, early attempts at food crops and other agriculture on the site failed, and resulted in near ruin for the colony”.
In 1816 it was transformed from this farm into the RBG, becoming Australia’s most important centre for horticulture and botany research. Few people would know it is the cradle of the nation’s world-famous wine industry. That industry began not in the Hunter Valley in NSW, or the Barossa Valley in SA, or our own Margaret River region. It was here at the RBG in 1833 that vine cuttings from Europe were first planted, leading to the formation of Australia’s first vineyards north of Sydney.
While there’s no vineyard on site at the RBG these days, visitors can enjoy a glass or wine at Busby’s Bar, which was named after the man who collected those vine cuttings, James Busby. There are also several cafes and restaurants in the grounds. These include the sweet treats of Piccolo Me, the fine dining at Terrace in the Domain, the Asian cuisine of Botanic House, and the less formal settings at Calyx Café, Terrace Eatery and Farm Cove Eatery. That’s a lot of choice.
The same could be said for the activities available within the RBG. There are Indigenous tours, regular garden design shows, free guided walks, train rides, behind the scenes greenkeeper tours, and rotating floral exhibits. Not to mention the gentle joys of simply wandering this lush space, which owns one of the most striking locations of any city park on the planet.
I started at the RBG’s south-western entrance, opposite the State Library of NSW, and planned to walk about 1.2km directly to its best view point, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. That 15-minute stroll turned into a four-hour detour as I got distracted by the complex’s natural splendour. Every garden, lawn, grove and nook was colourful, verdant and meticulously designed.
My senses had been so heavily stimulated by the time I arrived at my destination that, suddenly, one of Australia’s most iconic vistas — the Sydney skyline, opera house and harbour bridge — was almost underwhelming. I did say almost. It’s a sight that never becomes dull. I just hadn’t expected it to be overshadowed by a botanic garden.