I’ve travelled to the UK many times over the years, but had never made it to Wales. So, on a recent trip, I figured it was time!
The capital of Wales, Cardiff, or Caerdydd in Welsh, started out quite small. In 1801 there were only about 2,000 people living here. Rapid growth between 1801-1911 led to a population of 180,000 by 1911. Cardiff only officially became the capital of Wales in 1955 and is still a relatively small capital with around 488,000 people.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Cardiff, but quickly fell in love with its charm. The city centre is filled with restaurants, pubs, and shopping as well as historic sights to explore.
Cardiff is a city of Victorian and Edwardian arcades. Originally, these covered pedestrian thoroughfares were designed to enable locals to enjoy indoor shopping without any concern for the weather. Within the walls of Cardiff’s seven arcades, you’ll find a maze of over 100 independent stores and local eateries. But even if the weather is great, they are still beautiful to explore.
The Cardiff Arcade Company turned a retired slum house into the city’s first shopping plaza, The Royal Arcade, in 1858. Castle Arcade, which was built between 1882 and 1889, is one of my faves, most famous for its balconies and two large arches mirroring each other. It’s quite the sight!
As I only had two full days to explore the city, I started my visit with a quick stop for some Welsh cakes from Fabulous Welshcakes (they are delicious!) and then went on a free walking tour.
I find they are a great way to get oriented with a new city, learn some history and fun facts, and get great recommendations on where to eat, drink, and visit.
This tour was no exception, and I even learned a few Welsh phrases! Welsh is the oldest language in the UK. Wales in Welsh is ‘Cymru’ and Welcome is ‘Croeso.’ In the 1500s, the Welsh language was banned by England and English was the only official language until 1967, when Welsh was finally given language status. The 1993 Welsh Language Act gave Welsh equal status to English and you will now find all road signs, official documents, etc. written in both languages. There has been a big push to bring the Welsh language back after years of decline, and once again it is being taught in schools.
A must-see in Cardiff is Cardiff Castle, nestled right in the city between shops and the leafy green Bute Park. The castle’s history dates back 2,000 years, when the Romans built a series of forts. During the 11th century, the Normans built the Keep which is still found on the Castle Green. During the 19th century, the Bute family transformed the House into the lavish Victorian Gothic home that’s on display today. Then, in 1947, Cardiff Castle and its extensive parkland were given to the City of Cardiff by the Bute family.
A general admission ticket (£14.50) allows access to most of the castle grounds. You can also purchase add-ons for the Black Tower, a guided House Tour, or a Clock Tower tour.
The oldest parts of the residential buildings date back to the 1500s. In 1865, the 3rd Marquess of Bute began working with art-architect William Burges to transform Cardiff Castle into a medieval dream palace. Each room of the house is ornately decorated. Favourites of mine included the Arab Room and the Library.
The twelve-sided Keep continues to stand on the Castle Green and you can climb up to the top for a great view of the city.
In the Visitors Centre, you will find parts of the old Roman Walls that were hidden for 900 years, as well as the Roman Chariot corner. The Firing Line Museum is also found here, with displays from The Queen’s Dragoon Guards and The Royal Welsh’s military history.
My favourite part to explore was the wartime shelters & tunnels found within the walls. It’s estimated that over 1800 people took shelter within the castle walls during air raids in World War II.
While Cardiff can be quite a rainy city, I lucked into some nice sunny spring weather, perfect for wandering through Bute Park, the city’s green heart. There are numerous trails, gardens, champion trees, and food options amongst the many things to see in the park. You can also catch the water taxi to Cardiff Bay here.
My favourite part is the section of the walls lining Castle Street, near the west entrance of Cardiff Castle, known as the “Animal Wall.” Carving of the original animals began in 1880 under the direction of the 3rd Marquess of Bute. By 1890, the first sculptures on the wall were complete, including a pair of lions, a lioness, a lynx, a bear, a sea lion, a wolf, a pair of apes, and a hyena.
The wall was moved in 1923 and additional animals were added—a vulture, beaver, leopard, a pair of raccoons, a pelican, and an anteater. You can tell the originals apart from the later ones as they have glass eyes. There are 15 in total.
The Victorian Cardiff Market, located in the centre of the city, has been around in one form or another since the 1700s. While you will no longer find livestock here, many of the old features are still retained by this lively market, and shoppers will find everything from traditional Welsh food, produce, clothing, antiques, food stalls, and more. Closed on Sundays and holidays (of course, the days I was visiting).
One of the oldest medieval buildings left in Cardiff is the Parish of St John the Baptist Church, located across from Cardiff Market. Originally built in 1180, the 40m tower can be seen throughout the city.
Principality Stadium, located in Cardiff centre, is the main stadium for the national rugby team, Wales’ national sport. I also learned that the national animal is the dragon, the national flower is the daffodil, and unlike any other country I know, the national vegetable is the leek! It’s said that St David, the Patron Saint of Wales, told the Welsh soldiers to wear a leek on their helmets so they could spot each other better during the battle with the Saxons!
If museums are your thing, the Museum of Cardiff exhibits the history of the city with over 3000 artifacts from the city’s past. There is also National Museum Cardiff, a museum and gallery featuring special exhibits, including one currently running, ‘BBC 100 in Wales.’ Admission is free to both museums.
About a 35-minute walk north is stunning Llandaff Cathedral. Take a walk through Bute Park and along Pontcanna Street, with its beautiful old flats, as you make your way there.
Llandaff Cathedral stands on one of the oldest Christian sites in Great Britain, dating back to the 6th century. The present Cathedral dates back to 1107 and is considered to be one of the most notable medieval works of art in Wales.
I never thought of Cardiff as a foodie destination, but there are tons of restaurant options in Cardiff, including some serving traditional Welsh fare.
I had dinner at The Botanist and fell in love with the decor. I felt like I was eating dinner in a fancy greenhouse, where they played live music in a gazebo (including a great rendition of Dolly’s ‘Jolene’ by request!) and have a delicious Sunday Roast menu as well as their famous hanging kebabs.
And, of course, no trip anywhere in the UK is complete without a pint or two at one of the many local pubs!
Fly into Rhoose Cardiff International Airport. While the train doesn’t connect directly to the airport, there is a shuttle bus (£2) that takes you to Rhoose Cardiff International Rail Station where you can catch a train to Cardiff Central Station. (£5.20+)
You can also take trains, buses, or drive from England, Scotland, and the rest of Wales.
I found the train system in Wales to be excellent and you can easily book your tickets in advance online, usually saving you money.