The smallest of mainland Britain’s component countries, Wales offers many wonderful reasons to visit. The south includes Cardiff, a superb base from which to begin exploring the rest of the country. With its splendid castle, arcades and historic buildings, it’s a city that’s well worth getting to know. When you’re ready to venture further afield, you’ll experience an abundance of great attractions, including some 400-plus castles and fortifications, stunning scenery, and numerous heritage railways. However you decide to spend your time in Wales, rest assured you’re in good hands: the Welsh are without doubt some of the most interesting, easygoing people you’ll find anywhere.
Think of Wales and you’ll likely think of Snowdonia, the beautiful range of mountains and hills located in the county of Gwynedd. Consisting of 14 majestic peaks over 3,000 ft high – the most famous being the 3,546 ft Snowdon (the summit of which is accessible by train) – Snowdonia can be seen as far away as Porthmadog on the west coast. When you’re there, it’s easy to see why the area has featured so heavily in local legends, including those based around King Arthur, who locals will insist was Welsh. Snowdonia National Park is also one of the most popular hiking and climbing destinations in Britain, and extends from the coast all the way to Bala Lake.
Brecon Beacons National Park
Brecon Beacons National Park encompasses one of the most beautiful parts of Wales. This hiker’s paradise is bordered by two quite different sets of Black Mountains. The first, to the west, is the source of the River Usk, while to the east is the range famous for its wild ponies. Most of the mountains in this 520 square mile park are higher than 1,000 ft, many in excess of 2,000 ft, and are named after the red sandstone that causes them to resemble the beacons of light once used to warn of invaders. Be sure to explore the park’s many caves and waterfalls, the most famous being Henryd Falls at Coelbren.
Devil’s Bridge and the Hafod Estate
Located 12 miles from the seaside town of Aberystwyth, a day trip to Devil’s Bridge is a day well spent. First, explore the three bridges that span the Rheidol Gorge, spectacularly stacked one-atop-the-other with the oldest dating from the 11th Century. From here you’ll get your first glimpse of the River Mynach as it plunges 300 ft into the valley far below. Next, follow the Falls Nature Trail to the bottom. It’s a bit of a climb back up – especially those steep slippery steps of Jacob’s Ladder, the segment leading to the oldest bridge – but the views are incredible. Afterwards, visit Hafod Estate, 200-acres of lovingly restored woodlands and 18th Century gardens once considered the finest in Britain. While the manor house is long gone, visitors can enjoy pleasant hikes along well-marked trails past waterfalls, ancient trees, and the estate’s old walled formal gardens. And if you’re looking for an idyllic cottage vacation, the wonderful old Hawthorn Cottage allows guests an unforgettable experience.
Wales by Rail
Wales was once famous for its mining operations, in particular of the slate used for the roofing still so common here. While the majority of these mines and quarries have closed, the narrow-gauge railways used to shift goods (and later, Victorian-era tourists) around the country have been restored and now provide a fun means of getting about. Wales boasts more than 10 heritage railway lines, and it’s now possible to take in many of the most popular landmarks, whether mountains, seaside towns or castles, simply by jumping on a steam train. Many of the bigger lines, such as the 14 mile-long Ffestiniog Railway running through Snowdonia National Park, offer unique train driving courses and volunteer opportunities to add to the experience.
Built by King Edward I in the 13th Century as a seat for the first Prince of Wales, Caernarfon Castle is one of the largest castles in the country. With its 13 towers and two gates, this massive castle is recognized as one of the most impressive and best-preserved medieval fortresses in Europe. Occupying the site of an even older Norman castle, Caernarfon Castle dominates the waters of the River Seiont and the Menai Strait on one side, and is protected by a moat on the other. Its royal heritage continues to this day, and in 1969 was the scene of Prince Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales.
Dubbed the “Queen of the Welsh Resorts”, Llandudno is the largest seaside resort town in Wales. Located on the north coast with views across the Irish Sea, this picture-perfect tourist destination lies nestled between the Welsh mainland and the Great Orme, a peninsula inhabited since the Stone Age. The town boasts a unique promenade free of the usual seaside shops and cafés, which were wisely placed behind the seafront to ensure Victorian visitors a more peaceful experience. The best views of the town and its surrounds can be had from the Great Orme, easily accessible by a heritage tramway. Well connected by rail and road, Llandudno is a wonderful place from which to tour Wales’ spectacular North Coast.
Portmeirion is a beautiful hotel resort and visitor attraction located on the coast of Snowdonia National Park in Gwynedd, North Wales. Built by Sir Cough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975, this remarkable destination – designed to resemble a quaint Italian fishing village – is best visited as part of an overnight stay. After the gates close, guests get the whole place to themselves to explore further, from its beautiful gardens, fountains and church, to the coastal paths of the lower village. The location for numerous films and TV programs – including the 1960s cult show, The Prisoner – Portmeirion is a must-see for anyone planning a trip to Wales.
Located on the north coast of Wales just a short distance from Manchester, Conwy offers just about everything one could hope for in a day trip: a stunning castle, medieval architecture, and plenty of great shopping. The best views of Conwy Castle and River Conwy with its suspension bridge designed by Thomas Telford are to be found from the 13th Century town walls built by King Edward I to keep the Welsh at bay. Afterwards, visit the National Trust’s Aberconwy House, Conwy’s only surviving 14th Century merchant’s house and one of the first buildings to be built inside the town walls. Other interesting homes are the Elizabethan Plas Mawr, as well as the Smallest House in Great Britain.
Separated from mainland Wales by the mile-wide Menai Strait – spanned by the Menai Suspension Bridge (1818) – the Isle of Anglesey is home to a number of quaint small fishing villages sprinkled along its more than 100 miles of attractive coastline. Along with its sandy beaches and landmarks such as South Stack Lighthouse, the island’s mild climate makes it popular for day-trippers and campers alike. The smaller Holy Island, linked to Anglesey by bridge, is a popular holiday resort with two promenades (one of them 1.5 miles-long), while tiny Salt Island offers great views and a chance for some bird watching. Finally, one of the world’s most famous photo ops is on the railway platforms of the town with the world’s longest place name -Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandysiliogogogoch.
Surrounded by water on three sides, Wales has more than its fair share of dramatic coastline. Some of the most imposing is to be found along the coast of Pembrokeshire Peninsular, which juts out like an old man’s chin into the Irish Sea. Whether on foot or by car, you’ll find everything here: historic castles and keeps (Pembroke Castle), cathedrals (St David’s in the town of the same name), and idyllic fishing harbors such as Laugharne, perhaps most famous as the place where Welsh poet Dylan Thomas lived for much of his life (his boathouse home above the bay is now a museum). As elsewhere in Wales, adventurous travelers can really get away from it all by staying in a variety of unique accommodations including classic old farm cottages, gypsy caravans, or vintage railcars.