Regular readers may recall that last September I went on a Seattle mini-tour with my best friend for her birthday. Our first tour stop was supposed to be the Conservatory at Volunteer Park, the one place she had requested to go. But we didn’t even make it to the park because the surrounding streets were shut down for a huge fun run event based inside the park.
Fast forward to this March. After weeks of gray rainy days, I suggested this would be a good time to finally retry our aborted trip. The Conservatory is a great outing option when the weather is cold and/or wet.
Mother Nature apparently has a sense of irony though. Our Escape From the Rain Sunday arrived, complete with cloudless skies and abundant sunshine. Oh well, off we went.
This was my first time going inside the Conservatory since I lived on Capitol Hill in my early twenties. (Entrance was free back then.) I have to admit it didn’t leave much of an impression on me at the time, as such things mostly bored me at that age. As a middle-aged fogie this time around I was quite enchanted by the experience.
The beautiful Victorian style Conservatory was built in 1912. It isn’t that large, but it seems bigger on the inside than it looks from the outside. Much of this is due to the height of the glass ceilings, which allow for some very tall plants, especially in the central Palm House. The Palm House feels very jungley and I was compelled to make monkey sounds under my breath to my friend, heh.
The Conservatory is divided into five themed rooms, each with its own microclimate. Three rooms are fairly warm and humid and house a tightly packed profusion of exotic plants. The airy, light-filled seasonal display room is temperate, and was the perfect place to sit in my shirtsleeves for a spell to enjoy the sun shining through the glass while not being too warm or too chilly. The cactus room at the east end is arid.
The number and variety of plants from around the world is rather staggering and you could visit several times before you’ve noticed everything there is to see. In addition to the aforementioned cactuses and palms there are orchids, tropical flowers, ferns, and carnivorous species like the pitcher plant. One of my favorites was the jade vine with its large hanging clusters of turquoise dragon claw blossoms.
The sides of the rooms are lined with raised plant beds, so you can wander and look with minimal crouching involved. Benches are located in three of the five rooms in case you need to rest, or just want to sit and soak it all in.
The pathways between plants are just wide enough to not feel claustrophobic when there aren’t a lot of people around. But at busy times that changes. Once you get several groups moving around in one room it can start to feel rather cramped.
My friend and I took our time and spent an hour and a half going through the Conservatory. But I still feel like I probably missed noticing more than half of what is there and could happily return next week for another leisurely wander with my camera.
Tips and Recommendations
You will see different things based on the time of year you go, but I think picking a rainy or gray day in cool or mild weather is the best choice. Since the building is made entirely of glass I don’t think it would be a fun activity on a hot day.
Try to get there when the Conservatory first opens at 10 am if possible, especially on weekends. As we were leaving on a Sunday at 11:30 am it was already feeling a bit too crowded inside, and a couple dozen new people, complete with baby strollers and scampering children, were pouring into the entrance.
How much time you should allocate for a visit depends on your style. If you aren’t the type to linger then you can easily tour all five rooms in 20 to 30 minutes. If you plan to take a lot of photos or like to read the signs and closely inspect everything that catches your eye you can spend an hour or two.
Parking is free. If you go early you can probably grab one of the few spots right in front. At least two of them are handicap spaces. If the parking in front is full, you can usually find a spot close by on the park roads.
There is a small giftshop at the back of the Palm House (central room). It sells things like mini potted plants, fridge magnets, art prints, books, and postcards. I bought a neat little Volunteer Park pin to put on my camera bag.
There aren’t any restrictions on personal photography, though you can’t use a tripod due to limited space. (You might be okay with a monopod.) Commercial photographers must make arrangements through the Parks Dept. and buy a permit.
Docent tours are available at no extra charge beyond the individual admission fees, though donations are welcome. You must make a tour reservation at least two weeks in advance.
Hours of Operation
10 am to 4 pm Tuesday through Sunday.
Open on Holidays (unless on a Monday).
$4 for adults, $2 for youth, children 12 and under are free.
Admission is free for everyone on the first Thursday and first Saturday of each month.
Admission is paid at a self-service machine just inside the entrance and it requires a debit or credit card. It’s a bit confusing to use and a volunteer was there walking us through the process. If you go at a busy time be prepared to have to patiently wait your turn. The machine dispenses a pass which is a sticker you put on your shirt.