Wales has dramatic natural wonders, from its coastline to its mountains, and enables a great deal of outdoorsy pursuits. For those more interested in man-made wonders, such as yours truly, Welsh offerings are somewhat less spectacular. This is not to say that you can’t find interesting things to do in Wales if you are primarily interested in history and architecture, but you will enjoy it more if you mix in at least some hiking or trekking or climbing or cycling or rafting or some such into your itinerary.
This article covers all the various destinations in Wales that we have some familiarity with.
Cardiff is not very remarkable aside from a couple of major points of interest. The first of them, Cardiff Castle ♥♥ probably makes coming to Cardiff worthwhile all by itself. Situated smack in the town center, the castle grounds house a 12th-century elevated keep, which opens fine views over the city rooftops, and the romantic neo-Gothic palace. Guided tours of the mansion proceed through a dozen of exuberantly over-the-top decorated rooms, for which the then-owner of the castle, the local fabulously wealthy coal baron, an Earl, spared no expenses in the second half of the 19th century (there are 60 different varieties of marble in the bathroom, for instance). Each room is designed with a “theme” in mind: The men’s salon is themed around the passing of time and seasons, the women’s salon is patterned after a harem (the Earl’s wife apparently did not mind), the children’s room is all about fairy tales, and so on. The library, the big banqueting hall, and the roof garden are among the striking highlights.
The National Museum and Gallery, according to tour books, boasts the biggest collection of impressionist paintings outside of Paris. Unfortunately, during our visit, large parts of the gallery were closed for refurbishment and only a small portion of the collection was on display.
The Cardiff Bay ♥ area is worth a look. The old docklands area has been transformed into a nice and happening waterfront, with many good restaurants, bars, and fine boutiques. The 19th-century Pier Head Building and the modern Wales Millennium Centre provide striking architectural contrasts.
The Brecon Beacons National Park ♥ is an enormous national reserve that is a primary spot for the aforementioned outdoor pursuits, with four mountain ranges and many lakes and rivers. It is also famous for its caves. We stopped at Dan-yr-Ogof ♥, which allows access to three different caves, of which we especially recommend the vast and magnificent Cathedral Cave. There are also dozens of dinosaur sculptures, which never fail to fascinate children, a model Iron Age village, and a nearby animal farm.
One outdoor activity that we did pursue was pony trekking – or riding lessons. You will undoubtedly be driving past stables here and there, no matter which road you are driving on in the Brecon Beacons. We picked one at random, and while there is little to support recommending that particular stable – down the road from Dan-yr-Ogof – it was entirely adequate for the purpose of letting kids ride for half an hour.
The seaside town of Aberystwyth ♥ is a logical middle-of-the-way stopover on a trek between South and North Wales. Its quay is a nice-looking promenade on a sunny day, but its central streets felt rather deserted on a Saturday night in late March, more so than we expected. The steep elevation on the town’s northern edge, Constitution Hill, lends great views over the town and the nearby coastline. Use the Cliff Railway funicular to get to the top (although more athletic may not mind walking up the trails).
About 12 miles away from Aberystwyth lies the popular Devil’s Bridge ♥♥. The trail takes you down to the valley floor around a series of dramatic waterfalls in a wooded ravine and is a marvelous hour-long hiking exploration. A word of caution: Very steep stairs, both down and up; not suitable for everyone.
In summer, you should be able to take the narrow-gauge Vale or Rheidol Railway from Aberystwyth to the Devil’s Bridge, but that option only works if you are spending the whole day in the area, as the train only makes a couple of trips a day in each direction, and it is not feasible by my estimation to get on the earliest departure back to Aberystwyth if you want to appreciate the waterfalls to any degree.
You can cover all of the walled historical center of Conwy ♥ in about 45 minutes – it is quite compact. The High Street area is small-town pleasant, with interesting architecture and inviting boutiques, facing a bay with different tide levels at various parts of the day. The Conwy Castle should be an interesting excursion if you choose to see multiple castles in the area (we went for its better-preserved sibling at Caernarfon), as could be exploring the town walls. The castle from the outside looks as if having descended from an illustration in a book, while the walls are in a remarkably good state, literally enclosing the town.
Plas Mawr ♥, a merchant mansion of the 16th century, is a sequence of several nicely presented rooms, including the kitchen, the attic, a servants’ bedroom, the mistress’ bedroom, etc. You can get an audioguide (included in the price of the ticket) or explore on your own, in which case a docent will be happy to volunteer additional information.
Another little attraction in Conwy is the Smallest House in Britain, on the quay, accessible on a very limited basis (and reasonably expected to require no more than a couple of minutes to see).
Spectacular Caernarfon Castle ♥♥ is one in the ring of castles in Northern Wales that the English crown built at the end of the 13th century to keep their then recently conquered subjects – Welshmen – in check (the serial UNESCO World Heritage property includes both Caernarfon and Conwy, in addition to a couple of others.) You can climb its polygonal towers – the view from the tops is really good – or lose your children in the labyrinths of its passages. There are no furnishings in the interior quarters, but instead a couple of themed expositions. A movie theater in one of the towers shows a 20-minute film every half hour on the history of Wales and these castles; it is very entertaining and educational – I highly recommend you take the time to watch it.
In the sloping, irregularly shaped courtyard, there are several tents manned by traditional workmen (a woodworker, a basket-weaver, etc), who schmooze with tourists and showcase their skills. In addition, a costumed “original architect” of the castle walks around the compound with building plans and a sword on his belt, chatting up visitors. He and the workmen mostly speak as if it is still the 13th century outside, which adds a fun flavor to the atmosphere.
The artificial village of Portmeirion ♥ is a curious place to visit. It consists of a central piazza surrounded by several dozens of fanciful buildings in various styles, with a clear Italianate flavor. The village has no residents, but visitors can stay in some of its charming cottages (or at the luxurious hotel). There are several boutiques selling souvenirs and crafts (local pottery is quite famous) around the piazza, but visiting Portmeirion is mostly about picture spots and imagining yourself in a Tyrrhenian sea coastal village.
Blaenau Ffestiniog is famous for Llechwedd Slate Caverns, which provide insight into the traditional mining industry (and are part of another serial World Heritage property). There are different tours that you can take around the quarries, in addition to seeing a re-creation of a Victorian village and other attractions on the surface. At the time we did take the tour, we found it rather disappointing in terms of structure and duration, but in over 15 years since, it may have been improved.
In the “memorable stays” category, Castlebank Hotel is situated right outside Conwy’s town walls. Pristine accommodations, great hosts, good location, nice breakfast, and excellent dinner if you choose to have it at the hotel.