There’s a lot going on in South Wales
Half the population live here, in the cities of Cardiff and Newport, and major towns like Barry and Bridgend. The famous coal-mining Valleys are here too. So as you’d expect, a lot of our major tourist attractions and museums are within striking distance.
But the best place to start any family trip is Cardiff itself, a vibrant young city with all the benefits of a capital city squeezed into a blissfully walkable centre.
Day 1 – A capital day out
Morning: Cardiff Castle
Cardiff Castle, Gatehouse and Grounds, Cardiff by fillbee
Let’s start in Cardiff Castle, whose high walls mark the northern boundary of the city centre. It’s 2000 years’ worth of history in one place: Roman garrison, Norman keep, and a richly decorated Victorian fantasy mansion, which is what happened when the world’s richest man, the Marquess of Bute, went berserk with a limitless budget and a riotous imagination. There are spacious lawns to run around on, too.
It’s time for lunch, so head across the road from the castle, where the pedestrianised heart of Cardiff begins. It’s full of restaurants and bars, ranging from the big-name chains like Jamie’s and Carluccios, to home-grown award-winners like The Potted Pig. You’re also in the midst of the best shopping in western Britain, all set out in the compact centre. The city was always known for its Edwardian and Victorian arcades, which are still the best places to find one-off boutiques. But it’s the £675m extension to the St David’s shopping centre, with its flagship John Lewis store, which really propelled Cardiff into the retail big time.
Day 2 - A day in Cardiff Bay
Morning: High speed thrills
Cardiff Bay has poshed up considerably since its days as the (in)famous Tiger Bay, the world’s largest coal port, exporting 10 million tons of anthracite a year. There’s now a huge barrage across the rivers Taff and Ely, creating a 500-acre water park, fringed by ultra-modern marine developments. The best (and quickest) way to see it is on a high-speed ride on an inflatable rib, which tears across the Bay at speeds we nautical experts call ‘like the clappers’. The barrage itself is a great place to walk (or hire a bicycle, or pedal car), with an outdoor gym and play area half-way along.
Afternoon: Science and fiction
Cardiff Bay has two of the city’s biggest family draws. Firstly there’s Techniquest, a hands-on science discovery centre where fiddling with the 150+ exhibits is positively encouraged. The exhibits look like (and are, in a way) giant toys, but each one is also a potted lesson in physics. Ten minutes’ walk away, science collides with fiction at the Dr Who Experience, an interactive, multi-sensory centre dedicated to His Timelordship and his Dalek foes, located next to the BBC studios where Dr Who is actually filmed. After all that, head back to Mermaid Quay for a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants and bars.
Day 3 – History and heritage
Morning: Living history
St Fagans Natural History Museum, near Cardiff
If a museum dedicated to Welsh National History sounds a bit dry ‘n’ dusty, trust us – it’s not. St Fagans is rated one of Europe’s best open-air museums, and Wales’s most popular heritage attraction, for a very good reason. During the last 50 years more than 40 original historic buildings have been re-erected here in 100-acre parkland just outside Cardiff, including farms, school, chapel, shops and houses. Quite apart from everything you’ll learn about traditional ways of life and craftsmanship, it’s just huge fun, poking around these ancient buildings. And like all out National Museums, it’s free to get in. Bargain.
More attractions in and around Cardiff
Afternoon: Heritage Coast
Head west out of Cardiff and you’re in the Vale of Glamorgan, a county of gently rolling farmland, edged by one of the most interesting – and, considering its closeness to Cardiff – least visited coastlines in Wales. The Glamorgan Heritage Coast stretches 14 miles, marked by spectacular layered cliffs which drop down into occasional bays and coves. Dunraven Bay at Southerndown is one of the best, and the easiest to reach - it’s got a big car park, making it deservedly popular with families and surfers.
More attractions on the Glamorgan Heritage Coast
Day 4 – Welcome to the Valleys
Morning: Waterfall Country
Sgwd Henrhyd waterfall, Brecon Beacons
The Vale of Neath is where rivers tumble down from the Brecon Beacons, through wooded ravines, over a series of gorgeous waterfalls. Some of them – like Sgwd Gwladys – are an easy walk even for young children, while others are a bit more of an adventure – notably at Sgwd yr Eira, where you can actually walk behind the thundering curtain of water. Pick up a Waterfall Country Walking Pack at the Tourist Information Centre at Aberdulais or the Waterfalls Centre at Pontneddfechan.
Afternoon: The Valleys
A drive along the A465 Heads of the Valleys roads takes you past a series of evocative names - Rhondda, Merthyr, Rhymney, Ebbw – that became globally known during the coal boom. The coal industry peaked exactly 100 years ago, in 1913, when a quarter of a million people worked at over 500 collieries. A few mines remain, along with lots of fascinating heritage attractions, including the Big Pit National Mining Museum at Blaenavon, which is a living, breathing tribute to the coal industry and the people and society it created. There’s lots to explore in the old colliery buildings, and you can descend 90m underground with a real miner and see what life was like at the coal face.
More attractions in the Valleys
Day 5 - Monmouthshire
It’s striking how abruptly the landscape changes when you leave the coalfield, and the classic Valleys terraces suddenly stop. Abergavenny is just a few miles from the coalfield’s northeast corner, but this is an utterly classic rural town, with a thriving market every Friday, Saturday and Tuesday, and a strong foodie tradition. The town is surrounded by seven hills: the Sugar Loaf is the most spectacular (and a great walk), while Skirrid is ideal with children – a bracing two-hour round-trip romp, with a ruined chapel at the summit.
Afternoon: Chepstow Castle
Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire, Wye Valley
There are more than 400 castles in Wales, so we’re never going to agree on which is best. But the whopper at Chepstow castle surely makes anyone’s top 10: built precariously on clifftops over the Wye, to guard the river crossing from England to Wales. When its fighting days were over, it became an essential part of the ‘Wye Tour’, a favourite journey of 18th century romantics. It’s also a lovely day out for 21st century families: the drive up through Tintern (with its famous Tintern Abbey) to Monmouth is delightful.
More attractions in Wye Valley and Vale of Usk