Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney - review by Rusty Compass
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Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

| 13 Oct 2021
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Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney
Macquarie St Sydney or enter from the Domain
13 Oct 2021

The Royal Botanical Gardens, right by Sydney's dazzling harbour, is the city's historic, green space. The gardens have played an important part in the evolution of scientific knowledge in Australia since they opened in 1816. Explore the scientific gardens, or simply enjoy one of the most beautiful harbourside locations in Australia!

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The first British colonials to explore Australia's east coast, aboard James Cook's Endeavour in 1770, were ecstatic about the discovery of previously unseen flora and fauna. Influential Botanist Joseph Banks, was especially excited by plants and animals never before seen by Europeans.

Banks, president of the Royal Society in London for four decades, was a man of considerable influence in British affairs and his enthusiasm for the new territory was important in the decision to establish a penal colony at Sydney Cove, by seizing the lands from the Indigenous inhabitants, in 1788.

Up until his death in 1820, Banks maintained a close interest in the developing scientific knowledge of the flora and fauna of Australia.

When the Royal Botanical Gardens opened in 1816, the scientific fascination with Australia was key. The gardens were to be a place of botanical learning and experimentation - essential in the new colony. The gardens are Australia's oldest scientific institution - an expansion of a botanical gardens concept already in place and led by Banks, in Kew, in London.

Royal Botanical Gardens Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Royal Botanical Gardens Sydney
Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

You can enjoy the beauty of Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens as part of a casual harbour stroll, or you can dig deeper, and explore the themed gardens. They include a stunning fernery, Australian natives, roses, succulents and more.

Sydney's Botanical Gardens are still engaged in some of Australia's most important natural science research. The herbarium, a plantbank and the Daniel Solander library are all part of the Australian Institute of Botanical Science.

The Calyx is a cafe and exhibition space. Stop by for coffee and a light bite and check out the green wall, current events and workshops.

The aesthetic of Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens dates back to the landscape garden traditions of 19th century Britain. They may seem overly ordered and manicured - but that's the idea.

In the 200 years since the gardens were conceived, Sydney's modern skyscape has risen around them. These days the Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and the city's modern skyline, all complement the garden space.

Take a big walk through the Domain from the NSW Art Gallery, to Lady Macquarie's Chair and through the gardens around to the Opera House. It's a wonderful Sydney walk that requires 2 - 3 hours or longer with stops.

Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

Historical landmarks in Sydney's Royal Botanical Gardens

Arthur Phillip monuments

As you enter the gardens from the State Library side, you'll see a massive 1897 statue of Governor Arthur Phillip. Have a close look and a think about some of the symbolism.

Nearby, there is a brick wall containing original bricks from Arthur Phillip's residence near Lyndhurst in England.

Peculiar agricultural concepts the Captain Phillip statue, Botanical Gardens Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Curious agricultural concepts at the Captain Phillip statue, Botanical Gardens Sydney

Government House

Governors of New South Wales have lived in this building since it opened in 1845. Royal architect Edward Blore designed the distinctive gothic structure that has hosted many royal visits including Elizabeth II's 1954 Australian tour. The building is frequently open to visitors.

Government House, 1845, Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Government House, 1845, Royal Botanical Gardens, Sydney

Governor Macquarie's Wall

To protect his new gardens from from the riff raff of the colony - there was a lot of it - Governor Lachlan Macquarie commissioned a sandstone wall, parts of which are still standing. You can see the old wall near the south eastern entrance to the gardens. It is among the oldest surviving remnants of the penal colony in the centre of Sydney.

Macquarie's Wall 1812-1816 - Royal Botanical Gardens Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Macquarie's Wall 1812-1816 - Royal Botanical Gardens Sydney

Wishing Tree

Close by Macquarie's Wall, a small stone sculpture marks the place where in 1818, a Norfolk Island pine was planted. That tree became famous in the colony as a place for making a wish. The pine died in the mid twentieth century causing an outpouring of sadness in the Sydney community. A Wollemi pine was planted as a replacement on the site and another Norfolk Island Pine is planted nearby.

The 1946 sculpture by Arthur Fleischmann beautifully commemorates the tree. Fleischmann also created The Explorers bronze doors at the nearby State Library of NSW.

The location of Lady Macquarie's Wishing Tree - removed in 1945
Photo: Mark Bowyer The location of Lady Macquarie's Wishing Tree - removed in 1945


Garden Palace Sydney Exhibition Building

It's difficult to imagine now, but one of Sydney's most extravagant buildings once stood in the Botanical Gardens grounds. The domed Garden Palace opened in the south western corner of the gardens in time for the Sydney Exhibition of 1879. The entire building tragically burned to the ground in 1882 - taking with it some of the most important collections of the colonial era - especially precious Indigenous artefacts. The southwestern Macquarie St gates are the only remnants of the original structure.

Garden Palace Gates - Botanical Gardens, Sydney
Photo: Mark Bowyer Garden Palace Gates - Botanical Gardens, Sydney

Nearby the Botanical Gardens

The Botanical Gardens share the wider expanse of The Domain and Lady Macquarie's Chair with a couple of other things worth checking out in Sydney.

The Art Gallery of New South Wales houses Sydney's best collection of local and international art. Check out our guide to the gallery here.

Boy Charlton Swimming Pool has one of the best pool vistas you'll find anywhere. It's a great place for a Sydney dip. There's lots of history too. Check out our guide to pools of Sydney here.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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