The fern house at the Volunteer Park Conservatory. Photo credit: JiaYing Grygiel
Who’s up for a tropical getaway? How about a free tropical getaway?
Through Feb. 28, the Volunteer Park Conservatory is offering free admission for everyone, thanks to a donation from the Bennett-Shear family. It’s a gift from the children in honor of their parents’ 40th wedding anniversary – how sweet is that? If you’ve never been before, now is the perfect time to check out this beautiful indoor botanical garden.
The Conservatory occupies a historic Victorian-style building, built in 1912. It's located within Volunteer Park, in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. The greenhouse is maintained at a balmy 65 to 80 degrees and showcases lush plant life from around the world. There’s no nicer quick escape on a cold and dreary winter day.
Rooms of the environment
Each of the Conservatory's five rooms features a different environment: bromeliads, ferns, palms, cacti and a seasonal display house. My kids and I oohed and ahhed over the exquisite orchids and the humongous air plants. All kids will get a kick out of the carnivorous plants — Venus flytraps, sundews and pitcher plants — in the fern room. It’s also fun to point out the giant jade tree that started growing from a cutting in 1916. I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but really, everybody please don’t touch the plants.
The visitor count has bumped up since the free admission period began Dec. 24, but it wasn’t crowded at all on the weekday morning we visited. The walkways are narrow and groups are encouraged to spread out so as to not block pathways. Leave the stroller in your trunk if you can. Formal photography shoots aren’t allowed during regular public hours, but casual photography and artwork are okay. Everyone we saw was taking pictures. The flowers are so pretty that it’s impossible not to!
The Conservatory was free to the public until 2013. Even now, regular admission isn’t much — just $4 for adults, and free for kids ages 12 and under. If you like what you see, mark your calendar for the Conservatory’s regular free days: the first Thursday and the first Saturday of every month. We have a feeling once you visit this tropical-feeling gem, you’ll be back.
Parents should know
Basic park restrooms are located next door to the Conservatory. I didn't send my kids in by themselves, though, because of campers nearby.
No food or drink is allowed inside the Conservatory. There isn’t any food for purchase inside the park, but just two blocks away is the charming Volunteer Park Café (1501 17th Ave. E.). Breakfast is served all day, and the people-watching is especially good. (That expensive, studied casual look! I’ll never figure it out.)
The gorgeous Art Deco Asian Art Museum — originally the home of the Seattle Art Museum — is also in Volunteer Park, but note that it's closed for renovation. You can still check out the stately Bactrian camel statues at the entrance.
Kids will also love
Volunteer Park’s recently-renovated playground features two big play structures, a zip line and a cool sculpture to climb. The wading pool is closed for the season, but it’s worth coming back for in the summer. You can see Lakeview Cemetery through the chain link fence north of the playground. If you’re up for a bit of a hike, the entrance is off 15th Avenue East just up the hill, and inside you’ll find the graves of Bruce Lee and his son, Brandon.
The park's water tower demands a climb. Its observation deck is open daily at 10 a.m. If a 3-year-old can power up those 107 steps, this out-of-shape mama had no excuse. At the top are displays about the Olmsted parks around Seattle, and terrific free views of the city.
If you go...
Hours: The Conservatory is open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., year-round, including all non-Monday holidays.
Cost: Free admission for everyone through Feb. 28. Beginning March 1, regular admission rates will be in effect: adults $4; youth (ages 13–17) $2; kids ages 12 and under free.
Getting there: This area is pretty well-served by transit; bus routes go along Broadway and 15th Avenue East. The Capitol Hill light rail station is about a mile away. Parking is free.