Visiting Wales, UK
Steeped in mystic history stretching back to the days of King Arthur, the land of dragons is truly a unique and beautiful place. Named 'Cymru' in Welsh, this small country attached to the hip of England is often disregarded when speaking of the great sights in Britain. However, with one of the oldest spoken languages on Earth, a vibrant cultural capitol city, a breathtaking landscape, and more sheep than one can count, Wales has much more to offer visitors than she is often given credit for. When telling my friends and family where I was going to live for a year while I studied, the overwhelming response was, where exactly is Wales? Well I hope this article will bring to light all the beauty and history that Wales has to offer.
Wales is a country of three million people, attached to the west of England, and about 8,000 square miles in size, making it the smallest of the three major collective British 'countries.'
A Journey Through the Country
Wales is a country rich in beauty and adventure with more than enough to fill a travel book. I will just give you the major highlights to give you a feel for the country, and a few minor places I'm personally fond of. Depending on your time constraints and where in Britain you are coming, my proposed method of seeing Wales may not be exactly fit for you, but it's what I recommend if visiting Wales for the first time.
I would begin in Cardiff, the capitol city of Wales and work my way west by north west, ending the trip in the Snowdonia, the northerly national park. There are only a couple major highways going up north, so your options are rather limited anyway. The real factor when deciding a road trip in Wales is whether you will begin in the north or the south. I feel it's better to begin in a major city in the south in order to witness the great transition from the lowland valleys in the south to the high mountains of the north.
Cardiff- Cardiff is a cultural hub of Britain with history, culture, the arts, good cuisine, and a great night out; definitely one of my favorite cities in Britain.
For attractions around the city center make sure to hit Cardiff Castle, the National Museum, the Millennium stadium, Bute Park, and if you have time Llandaff cathedral-which is a bit north of the city center, but well worth a visit offering a beautiful medieval cathedral that houses the oldest manmade statue in Wales!
If you're young and looking for a night out look no further then all the bars and clubs on Greyfriars Rd, with places like Oceana, Tiger Tiger, Varsity, and Lloyds; and afterward head down the street to the Live Lounge for some late night frivolity.
If you're more modest and looking for some quiet adventure indulging in some fine cuisine or shopping head down to Cardiff bay, just about 2 miles south of the city center. Buses and cabs run down there regularly. Loaded with shops and unique restaurants right on the water front it's an entertaining scene for any crowd.
Barry Island- A family friendly theme park right on the coast of some beautiful Welsh coastline, Barry Island is a fun visit on a nice sunny day (which unfortunately in Wales happen very little). During low tide the beach front stretches for quite a ways and you can often find thousands of local and travelers alike soaking in the beautiful view of the Bristol Channel.
Caerphilly Castle- Just about 10 miles north of Cardiff lies Caerphilly Castle, a beautiful medieval castle built by Edward I. Built in the late 13th century, this massive fortress is a testament to Edward I's engineering genius, and his ambitions for conquering the country, which he successfully did. A great place to visit in its own right, the castle also has frequent exhibitions, featuring anything from jousting and sword play to launching off siege weapons. Definitely make sure to hit this castle on your way up north to the Breacon Beacons.
Brecon Beacons National Park- Keep heading north and you'll run right into the middle of the Brecon Beacons National Park. This protected landscape stretches 520 square miles and maintains the pristine beauty of the lower welsh countryside. Highly recommend if you love to hike, or nature walk, and even if you don't feel like getting your feet wet the park is full of neat little towns and lodges to explore. In addition to hiking the park offers caving, climbing, fishing, horse riding, kayaking, golf, and more. Definitely a great place to get down and dirty with the welsh countryside!
Hikes and walks I recommend:
The Ascent of Pen-y-Fan: At the top of the Brecon Beacons, this beautiful mountain ride offers spectacular views of the welsh countryside. The entire walk is marked at 12.5 miles and is fairly demanding so make sure you are up for a good hike.
Taff Trail- This 55 mile long trail runs from Cardiff bay all the way to the town of Brecon. You can pick up and leave off wherever you'd like, allowing for flexibility. The Taff Trail goes through some spectacular woodlands and valleys in the park, and well worth picking up anywhere you can.
Neat little towns and villages I recommend:
Brecon: as the administrative hub of the park, Brecon sees a lot of activity. The quaint little town located in the northern section of the park, is mostly a sleepy town other than travelers passing through. The town has a beautiful little cathedral that is well worth a visit. I actually met Prince Charles at this very cathedral. No joke.
Hay-on-Wye: Dubbed the 'the town of books' this small market town is a beautiful typicality among British park towns. Perched upon a hill, small and compact, these little towns are the bread and butter of Britain in my opinion. I really love this quaint place, so if you are in the northeastern section of the national park make sure to drop by the town of books.
Swansea and the Gower- After you've head your fill of the beautiful rolling hills and wide valleys of the Brecons, then make your way southwest back toward the coast. Here you'll find the lovely little city of Swansea, and the surrounding peninsula simply dubbed 'The Gower.'
Carmarthen- This small market town is a rich sanctuary of Welsh tradition and lays claim to being the oldest city in Wales. A large portion of the native populace still keep Welsh as their native language, which personally I love to hear walking down the small streets. This lowland Welsh town is well worth a visit on your northwesterly journey through Wales. Famous landmarks of note include the Picton monument, a memorial to Sir Thomas Picton who died during the battle of Waterloo and St. Peter's church, the largest parish church in Wales.
St. Davids- The last stop on your journey westward will be the small community of St. Davids, nestled along a small peninsula. Officially the smallest city in Britain, St. Davids is the final resting place of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. Here you'll find a quaint little town with enough shops and pubs to keep a man alive, but the real attraction is the cathedral, the official church of Wales. A beautiful medieval British structure St. David's cathedral stands testament to the great Norman architecture that dots the countryside.
Snowdonia National Park- From St. David's you'll hop on the A487 and head north toward Snowdonia, where you'll quickly find the terrain change from moderate to extreme. The route is largely a coastal one, offering beautiful coastline views and passing through small little villages along the way. The thing to do in Snowdonia is take in the natural surroundings. Ride the steam train up to the top of Mount Snowdon, and from here you'll find unrivaled views of the northern welsh countryside (that is if you get a clear day!). There are countless walks and hikes throughout the large protected area, along with a plethora of small villages, the same type found in Brecon Breacons.
Caernarfon- The royal town of Caernarfon has deep roots in Welsh history, stretching back to pre-history. The north of Wales was always a last vestige of Welsh culture, and it was here that Llwelyn ap Gruffydd defied Edward I homage, which led to his execution and the building of Caernarfon castle. This beautiful town of just a few thousand, sits right near the coast, which from the castle towers offer great views of the town and surrounding landscape. As a small northern Welsh town, you will find a strong cultural presence here. When visiting the town make sure to leave a lot of time for the castle, as nearly the entire castle is free for wandering and exploring. I recommend climbing one of the three mini towers, which lie on top a main tower to the side of the castle facing the coast. From here you'll get great views and photo ops.
Beaumaris Castle- Still on the trek toward the northern Welsh coast, take a small detour westward and skip over to the isle of Angelsey to visit beautiful Beaumaris castle. The isle of Angelsey is traversed by two bridges and a great hub of Welsh culture, with over three quarters of the island calling Welsh their native tongue.
Conwy- This small market town on the northern Welsh coast will be your last stop on the tour-de-Wales- and serves as one of the most popular tourist towns in Wales. Visitors from Britain and abroad alike come here to take in the beautiful coastal landscape while in the comforts of the quaint town. The top attraction is of course the castle, another of Edward I's great attempts to quell the unruly Welsh. I enjoy taking in the castle, walking the town, and then grabbing a bite to eat at the waterfront pub of the George and Dragon.
I hope this tour has encouraged you to visit the ancient and beautiful country of Wales. The country offers natural beautiful, splendid architecture, a hardy populace, and a rich cultural tradition. No trip to Britain is complete with a visit to the land of Dragons!