Over time, many acquaintances of mine have asked me for pointers on Wales, so when my friend Béné mentioned that she could do with some recommendations for her forthcoming trip, I thought I’d put together a list of the things I had enjoyed during my trips to South Wales along the years, but the list was so long that it converted in this (fairly long) post.
My Ultimate Guide to South Wales will take you to Cardiff, Swansea, Bridgend, Vale of Glamorgan, Rhondda Cynon Taf, and Neath Port Talbot, and will cover transportation, food, entertainment, culture, and much more. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
- Good to know
- Suggested itinerary
- CardiffHow to get there
- Where to eat
- St Hilary
- Penderyn Distillery
- Port Talbot
- Swansea & The Mumbles
- How to get there
- Where to stay
- What to see
- Where to eat
- Rhossili Bay Beach
- Hiking/Walking in Wales
- Souvenirs to bring home
- Seasonal Activities
- What to pack for your trip to south Wales
Located in the west of the island of Great-Britain, Wales is bordered by England to the east, the Irish Sea to the north and west, and the Bristol Channel to the south. And it is very, very pretty.
With a population of a little over 3,099,000 inhabitants on a surface of 20,779 km2 (8,023 sq mi) — fewer than 150 inhabitants per km² — Wales offers a nice break if you feel like disconnecting for a bit. Indeed, it is not rare to walk for miles in the countryside without running into anyone, which is absolutely perfect. But Wales isn’t just valleys and mountains; it also boasts a vibrant culture, fantastic food and some of the most beautiful places one can hope to visit in a lifetime.
I had originally set out to write about south east Wales, but then I realised that I wouldn’t be mentioning Swansea or The Mumbles, which are technically located in West Wales, and that would have been a shame because there are so many things to do there, and the region is ridiculously underrated. Here are the districts that will be covered in this Ultimate Guide to South Wales:
- As Wales is part of the United Kingdom, which is (still) part of the European Union (at the moment), European citizens are not required to presenta passport or a visa upon entering the territory. All European rules and regulations (still) apply. American tourists don’t need a visa to visit the U.K. The only rule is that the passport must not expire before their planned departure date. There are no passport checks after entering the British territory.
- The currency is the Pound Sterling (£) like in the rest of the U.K. As far as I am concerned, I never bother to order Pounds from my bank before visiting Wales, because you can pay with a debit/credit cards in literally every shop, pub or restaurant, and there are cash machines everywhere. Depending on your own bank, fees may apply when you withdraw money in Wales.
- Though Wales benefits from the Gulf Stream and has a generally warmer climate than the rest of Western Europe, the weather can change in the blink of an eye, so don’t forget to pack for all weathers. Last summer was extremely hot, and last winter was abnormally warm too, but it will definitely rain, even for a couple of minutes, and you’ll be happy to have a raincoat.
- There are plenty of options to get to Wales. Cardiff Airport has over 50 direct routes and more than 900 connecting destinations worldwide through hubs such as Amsterdam, Dublin and Barcelona. There are direct flights to Cardiff from many European cities thanks to KLM, Vueling Airlinesn, Iberia, etc.
- As far as we’re concerned, Jon and I take the ferry from Calais to Dover then drive all the way to Cardiff, because we like being on the road — and also because if you do it any other way, you miss the sight of Wales from the magnificent Prince of Wales Bridge (which everyone still calls the Second Severn Crossing anyway), which marks the lower limit of the River Severn and the start of the Severn Estuary. Bonus: in December 2018, the bridge tolls were scrapped in December 2017 and the crossing is now free. Hurrah!
- Don’t forget to drive on the left, though! Drivers in the U.K. are generally more civilised than on the continent, and the Welsh really take the cake. When you want to overtake another vehicle on the motorway, just indicate your intention and the next driver on the lane you want to move to will slow down and flash their headlights when it is safe for you to make your move. Don’t forget to (briefly) blink your stoplights to thank them.
2. Suggested itinerary
Here’s the itinerary which I think will make it possible for you to make the best of your trip. I have worked on a hypothetical 10-day stay, but it’s all a bit artificial because, if I ambeing honest, the south of Wales would take a lifetime to visit.
- Day 1: Arrival in Cardiff. Hotel check in. Lunch at the Secret Garden Café. Visit of the Castle and Bute Park. Dinner at The Thai House. Drinks at the Owain Glyndwr.
- Day 2: Cardiff Bay. Walk to Roald Dahl Plass and the BBC Village. Lunch at La Chacha’s. Boat trip to Bute Park. Tea at the Pettigrew tearooms. Walk to Llandaff and back.
- Day 3: Caerphilly Castle. Evening on the Bay.
- Day 4: National Museum of Wales. Shopping in the city centre. Hotel check out. Lunch at the Bay. Drive to The Mumbles. B&B check in. Dinner at Verdi’s.
- Day 5: Walk to Limeslade Bay. Lunch by the Pier. Spend some time looking at the sea. Ice cream at Joe’s. Visit of Oystermouth Castle. Dinner at the Mermaid.
- Day 6: Visit of Penderyn distillery. Lunch at The Angel Inn. Sgwd Gwladys (hike). Regressive date night in the centre of Swansea.
- Day 7: Swansea Marina and National Waterfront Museum. Lunch at the Pump House. Drinks at the Pilot.
- Day 8: Visit of St Hilary. Lunch at the Bush Inn. Henrhyd Fall (hike in Coelbren). Night out in Uplands.
- Day 9: Beach day at Rhossili Bay Beach (in the summer) or Waterfront Wonderland (in the Winter) or lazy day.
- Day 10: Check out. Drive to Cardiff. Stop in Port Talbot on the way.
It’s all purely indicative, of course, but I believe this itinerary offers a nice balance of culture, outdoors and fun.
I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Cardiff really has it all, and especially the advantages of a big city without any of the inconvenients. It is a buzzing place, and as a woman, I feel particularly safe there, much more than I ever feel in Brussels — let alone Paris.
Here’s a breakdown of the info you need to have to spend a fantastic couple of days in Cardiff.
3.1. How to get there
As I was telling you earlier, Cardiff is super easy to access by plane as it boasts the main airport of Wales. By the way, if you feel like saving a couple of quids on your plane tickets, I strongly advise you to check out Nomadic Matt’s Ultimate Guide to Finding Cheap Flights in 2019, which is a real life-saver.
If you prefer arriving by the road, as I do, just keep driving west. It’s easy because all motorways in the U.K. have gigantic panels shouting “THE WEST” at you in all caps every five miles.
From Dover, if you’re crossing from the continent, just take the M20 to Wrotham, then follow the M26 until it converts into the M25. At junction 12, take the M3 exit to Basingstoke/Southampton then the A322 exit toward Woking/Bracknell/Blackwater (otherwise, you’ll end up in Slough and NO ONE wants that). Follow the A329 up to the junction with the M4 and stay on it until pretty much the end of your journey. Take the A48 whenever you see a Cardiff/Caerdydd sign. The whole thing should take you about 4 hours, but make room for delays due to works on the road and whatnot.
From London, take the M4 West as soon as you possibly can, and remember that I love you when you’re stuck in the Heathrow and Slough traffic jams.
If you’re travelling by train from London after arriving in the U.K. with the Eurostar, you’ll first need to take the Tube to Paddington via the Hammersmith & City (“the pink line”) or the Circle Line (“the yellow one”) from King’s Cross/St. Pancras (Eurostar terminal). Your best option not to pay too much and avoid getting confused by the various rates, I suggest using the National Rail Enquiries website.
3.2. Where to stay
My favourite hotel in Cardiff is the Radisson Blu on Bute Terrace, because of its perfect location. Without being widely superior to other hotels in town, it is in the city center and at walking distance from the bay. It’s also three minutes away from Cardiff Central train station, and it has an undergound car park in which you can book a spot for your car. The bar is really nice (they make a mean bloody Mary), and the restaurant has a lovely menu that includes locally-sourced products.
The Radisson Blu, . From £89/bedroom for 2 people. Join the Radisson Rewards programme and save up to 10% on your room when you book direct with them.
In the past, I have also stayed at the Mercure Holland House Hotel & Spa, and though I do prefer the Radisson, the Mercure has pretty rooms AND a swimming pool as well as a good offer of spa treatments. It also has a car park, though I wouldn’t mind if I was never had to face the mayhem in there for the rest of my life.
Mercure Holland House Hotel & Spa, . From £120/bedroom for 2 people. Ask for your free Accor Club card and get a 10% discount on your bill.
Now, if you ask my friend Gareth, who was born and raised in Wales, he’ll probably adivse you to stay at the Angel Hotel near Bute Park, a beautiful Victorian building that seems to have the favour of rugby players and fans alike due to its proximity to the stadium. I haven’t tried it yet, but I will by the end of the year.
The Angel Hotel – Part of the Cairn Collection, . From £77/person. If you book with The Cairn Collection, use the code TEN when placing your online booking to get a 10% discount on your bill.
3.3. What to do
There is A LOT to do in Cardiff, so it’s lucky the activities can be divided into three main zones: the city centre, the bay, and Llandaff.
3.3.1. In town
The centre of Cardiff is very easy of access as most of the attractions are located in a very small radius. Once you know where the Central Library or the Castle are, there’s no way you can get lost.
The National Museum
If you’re looking for a cultural activity, I recommend going to the National Museum. It has an impressive permanent exhibition on natural history, where you will see the Dracoraptor hanigani, a meat-eating dinosaur that lived in the earliest Jurassic about 201 million years ago and measured 70 centimetres high. It was discovered by two brothers, Nick and Rob Hanigan who describe themselves as “amateur paleontologists” in Penarth, about four miles from where the museum is.
If you’re into art, you’ll also be able to see five hundred years of magnificent paintings, drawings, sculpture, silver and ceramics from Wales and across the world, including one of Europe’s best collections of Impressionist art, not to mention the temporary exhibitions.
The Castle started out as a Roman Fort in the 50s AD. It was transformed into a shell keep by the Normans, then passed from one noble family to another until 1766 when the Bute family received it through marriage. By the 1860s, the 3rd Marquess of Bute was reputed to be the richest man in the world, and you can clearly see it when visiting the castle. From the Moorish ceilings to the clock tower, you will not believe your eyes during the visit.
In my opinion, Cardiff Castle is very different from the other castles I have visited because it boasts a little more than 2.000 years of history on the same grounds. It really is a must-see! My favourite parts of course are the lavish library and the façade of the main range.
Cardiff Castle [website], Castle Street/Duke Street [download the map]. Opening times: Open 7 days a week, all year (apart from 25, 26 December and 1 January), 9 am – 6 pm (March-October) / 9 am – 5 pm (November-February) Entrance fees: £13.00/adult, £11.30/senior/student, £9.25/child (5-16), children under 5: free. [Book online].
Located just next to the castle, Bute Park is the green area of Cardiff city centre. With its 53 ha (130 acres) of landscaped gardens and parkland that once were the grounds of the castle, the park makes for very nice walks in the summer as well as in the winter. Jon and I particularly enjoy walking up to Blackweir Bridge (north) and continuing to Llandaff. The park is also ideal if you like running, and there’s a fitness trail with all sorts of equipment on the side of the path for you to work on those abs.
Cardiff is not London, but it has a very nice offer of shops of all sorts on Queen Street, St Mary Street and The Hayes, where you can find all the High Street classics, from All Saints to Vivienne Westwood. On top of that, you have all your regular department stores (John Lewis, House of Fraser, Debenhams) and an enormous mall (St David) where makeup addicts will find stuff beyond their wildest dreams, as well as your more quirky shops (Bodlon, Daisy Daisy, and my personal favourite, Vintage Zizou).
Call me old-fashioned, but I like a nice arcade, and they come in all shapes and styles in Cardiff. My favourite is Castle Arcade with its beautiful 1887 wrought iron balconies and glass ceilings.
More things to do in the city centre
Wales being a country of rugby, it would be a shame not to see at least one game while you’re here. The Principality Stadium (along the river) is where the big games such as those of the Six Nations tournament take place. Initially built for the 1999 Rugby World Cup, it is also the home of the Welsh national football team.
3.3.2. At the bay
Cardiff Bay is one of my favourite places in the world, because it is both beautiful and quirky. Jon and I cannot go to Cardiff without taking the long walk from our hotel on Bute Terrace to the Barrage, which is as pretty by night as it is by day.
Again, it is very easy to find one’s way there, as you basically walk until you reach the Bay, but you can also take the bus (Baycar Service No 6, which operates every 12 mins Mon – Fri and every 15 mins Sat – Sun day times/every 20 mins in the evenings from Westgate Street, lower St Mary Street & rear of Central Train Station). Unless you prefer taking the train, in which case you’ll have to go to the station on Queen Street for a 4-minute ride to the Bay.
And of course, there’s the boat commute from Bute Park. Remember the picture of the statue with all the river animals? The small pier is just next to it, and there usually is someone selling tickets (£4/adult).
Whichever means of transportation you choose to get there, you’ll definitely end up on Roald Dahl Plass, where you will see (1) the Wales Millennium Centre, (2) William Pye’s Water Tower, and (3) the Pierhead building.
The Wales Millennium Centre probably is the most famous building of Cardiff, and it is massive. Now when I say massive, I still don’t manage to convey the sheer size of that thing. It is big. Like, gigantic. It’s also beautiful, if you ask me.
The Millennium Centre hosts the National Arts Centre. It’s where you want to go if you feel like seeing a play, a musical or a ballet. Opened by the Queen in 2004, the building is striking because of its copper-coloured façade (locally known as “the armadillo”) made of Welsh steel, which bears two poetic lines, written by Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis in the Welsh and English languages. The Welsh part of the text reads, “Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen” (“Creating Truth Like Glass From Inspiration’s Furnace”), while the English reads “In these stones, horizons sing.”
The large Celtic calligraphy represents the ancient tradition of stone carving and of Welsh poetry, and the lettering is formed by windows in the upstairs bar areas and is internally illuminated at night:
Geek Alert #1: The Tardis has landed
Now if you’re a bit of a fan of Doctor Who, Roald Dahl Plass probably looks familiar to you. And there’s a good reason to this: you’ve seen it on tv more than once. For instance, in Boom Town, the eleventh episode of the first series with Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and Billie Piper as Rose:
It was also used in Time Heist (eighth series, fifth episode) where it has been cleverely disguised as the square before the Bank of Karabraxos, which the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and Clare Oswald (Jenna Coleman) have to rob:
But wait! There’s more!
If you want to get closer to the Doctor Who action, you’ll want to take the short walk that separates Roald Dahl Plass from the BBC Roath Lock Studios and Drama Village, as your favourite show is produced there, together with Casualty and the now defunct Upstairs, Downstairs.
And who knows? If you’re in luck, you might be able to see some outer-space creature lurking behind the window.
And of course, there’s Torchwood. On the promenade down Tacoma Square, you will see a real-life shrine to Ianto Jones (a character of the show), which is still maintained by fans to this day, as the city council has more or less dropped the whole idea of getting rid of it so as not to upset the hardcore Torchwood fandom:
Honestly, if you’re a Whovian, you should definitely visit Cardiff.
3.3.3. In Llandaff
Pro tip: The busses in Cardiff have USB outlets with which you can charge your phone for free. I was flabbergasted the first time I saw that.
Gay friendly tip: Just like the rest of the U.K., Cardiff if very gay friendly. I am not one for invading gay spaces, but I have been told that the Golden Cross on Hayes Bridge Road was a fantastic pub, with drag acts and entertainment. It was voted as the best gay pub in the U.K. in 2004, and from what I’ve heard just passing by, the music is fantastic. Plus it’s located in a Grade II listed building with beautiful ceramic tiles on the façade. Just sayin’.
A general introduction to Wales, its people, why they are the best in the world, and how I got there in the first place; it’s all explained in my post on South Wales.
Cathedrals and rugby, shopping and boat rides; there’s always something to do in Cardiff. Find out about the best restaurant, the castle and much more in my Top 10 Things to Do in Cardiff.
A detailled itinerary of a lovely walk to Sgwd Gwladys Waterfall in Brecon Beacons.
All my posts about Wales.
Psst! While you’re here…
Liked this? Let me know in the comments, join the conversation on Facebook or help me continue devoting myself to good writing by checking out my Patreon. You can also receive The Unexpected Ms. Houyaux’ monthly newsletter for free.