Visiting Cardiff: Castles, Quays, and Quirks
A Brief Introduction
Cardiff's legacy extends back to the year 6000BP, and the development of the city throughout the centuries has cast a vast influence not only on Welsh history, but on world history as well. Archaeological evidence, including burial sites, dates to this era. A Roman fort stood on the spot where the modern day Cardiff Castle stands - the walls from this fort still guard the Castle today. In 1955, Cardiff was granted the title of capital of Wales, and today is Wales' top tourist destination. Cardiff is a city that is difficult to resist; visitors will be hard-put not to fall completely, head-over heels in love with its charm, which it has in plenty.
The first stop for visitors to Cardiff is usually Cardiff Castle, and there is a good reason why. The Castle is beautiful, the city's history and the Castle's history parallel one another, and it is located directly in Cardiff's city center, making many pubs, cafes, and shops within easy walking distance for before or after your tour. A castle has been standing on this spot since the 11th century, when the castle was commissioned to be built on top of an existing Roman fort. It is uncertain by whom the castle was originally commissioned, but it was likely by either William the Conqueror or Robert Fitzhamon, the Norman conqueror of southern Wales and a comrade of William the Conqueror's.
Throughout the centuries, Cardiff Castle has undergone countless additions and renovations with each successive owner of the castle - and there have been many, which undoubtedly accounts for its delightful hodge-podge of architectural styles. Notably, in 1766, Cardiff Castle fell under the ownership of the prominent Bute family, who had become established in Cardiff society by their leading role in establishing the city as the world's largest coal exporting port. By the 1860's, the Bute family was reported to be the wealthiest in the world.
Cardiff Castle underwent a transformation under the Bute occupancy. The Castle's gothic towers were transformed internally, the walls becoming bedecked with stunning paintings, intricate tapestries, murals, stained glass, and countless other beautiful renovations, and each room in the Castle was given its own theme. The architect William Bruges was responsible for these renovations, and after his death, his work was continued by his assistant, William Frame, who designed the famous Animal Wall marking the entrance to Bute Park.
Cardiff Castle continued to have a prominent role in Cardiff culture and society into the 20th century, when it was used as an air raid shelter during World War II. The outer walls were capable of holding over 2000 citizens, and the Castle escaped the raids relatively unscathed. The exhibit is not to be missed; the propaganda posters posted along the walls are worth stopping to take a look at, and walking through the narrow corridors grants visitors a claustrophobic sense of what it might have been like to host 2000 individuals in those walls. Finally, in 1947, Cardiff Castle was given to the Welsh people by the 5th Marquess of Bute.
Also don't miss: the Norman Keep, the Roman Wall which still surrounds the Castle, and the Apartments (my particular favourite is the Library).
Cardiff Bay and Mermaid Quay
Today boasting Mermaid Quay, the Wales Millennium Centre, the Doctor Who Experience, Roald Dahl Plass, the Pierhead Building, and much, much more, Cardiff Bay is the heart of modern Welsh history and Cardiff's tourism. On a sunny day, there are few places more pleasant to be.
The Pierhead Building was originally the headquarters of the Bute Dock Company, and today stands as a marker for the importance that the coal exportation industry had in Welsh history. Nearby, you'll find the Wales Millennium Centre, home of the Welsh National Opera, and Roald Dahl Plass, both relatively new additions to the Bay's repertoire of prominent Welsh icons. Not far away stands the Norwegian Church, which Dahl attended as a child growing up in Cardiff.
The Bay is the perfect spot to enjoy lunch at one of Mermaid Quay's restaurants, cafes, or vendors, and the sky is the limit when it comes to options (although there does seem to be an abundance of Italian options, which certainly isn't a downside). Try to find a table overlooking the Bay as evening approaches - you may have to compete for a good table, but the view and tranquility as the sun sets is well worth it. If you are so inclined, Mermaid Quay also plays host to an array of bars and clubs by night, including some of which are Doctor Who-themed.
The Pierhead Building
The Doctor Who Experience
Don't Miss: The Doctor Who Experience
The Doctor Who Experience is an absolute must for anyone visiting Cardiff - even if you are not a fan of or have never heard of the Doctor. It is interactive, and it is wildly entertaining; even if you do not watch the show, the Experience is well worth a visit, as Dr. Who now occupies a prominent spot in the history of British television, having moved from a cult favourite to a popular sci-fi series with the revival series, which began in 2005. The revival has been produced and filmed in-house at the BBC in Cardiff, and The Dr. Who Experience has become an institution in Cardiff tourism, having moved there in 2012 after its initial opening in London in 2011. However, if you are not a particular fan of the show, be prepared to witness, perhaps with slight trepidation at first, grown men and women who are fans of the show acting like giddy school children. The Doctor Who Experience is truly a fan boy or girl's dream. By the end of the tour, you might just find yourself acting in just the same way.
At the beginning of the exhibit, visitors are given time crystals, and are invited to join the Doctor on a mission. Although this portion of the exhibit was - in all likelihood - originally designed for children, I dare any fan of the show to try to keep from smiling or to resist a rush of adrenaline as you hurtle through space with the Doctor or come face to face with true evil: the Daleks. Because of this portion of the exhibit, visits to the Doctor Who Experience are scheduled according to time-slots, so be sure to book on-line well in advance of your visit - some time slots fill up quickly.
Following the success of the mission with the Doctor, visitors are left to explore the rest of the exhibit on their own time - which, depending on how much time they have, could very well last until the end of the day. Every prop, costume, villain, alien, and TARDIS that you have ever seen in the show since its start date in 1963 is on display for you to admire, pose with, and photograph. The extent and detail to which this portion of the exhibit goes into is absolutely incredible - it leaves visitors with an entirely new-found appreciation for the impact and art that has gone into the making of this show - even people who loved the series before coming to The Doctor Who Experience will be left in awe.
The Doctor Who Experience is just a short walk from Mermaid Quay, so there is absolutely no reason to miss this Cardiff attraction. Be sure to go sooner rather than later, as this exhibit will only be in Cardiff until 2017.
At its core, Cardiff is a genuine, charming city with an abundance of quirks to offer every visitor. The time is always right for a visit to this beautiful Welsh capital.