This Welsh woman living in Wales has a terrible confession. Until this year, I’d never properly explored the curving coastal stretch of Wales' mid-West. I did this year, discovered Cardigan, and fell hook, line and sinker in love.
Cardigan has everything: ancient history, modern comforts, beautiful landscapes, and the sea just in reach. Its spirit is part old-fashioned Welsh market town, part hippy, arty enclave, and both sides sing to each other in perfect chapel-pew harmony. Come and fizz in my newcomer’s enthusiasm. Let me tell you what you’ve also been missing…
Cardigan Castle, ancient and reborn
Over a yawning stretch of the River Teifi at Cardigan sits Cardigan Castle, a Norman fortress reborn after a gorgeous £12 million restoration. It still holds its heritage close but with a modern twist: an exhibition exploring the 900 years of history is narrated by Welsh Emmy-winning actor Matthew Rhys, and Cardigan’s status as the birthplace of the Eisteddfod is celebrated with an exhibition of its remarkable story, the only exhibition on the subject in the world.
And then in yr haf, the castle lawns gets transformed into a summer gig venue. Charlotte Church’s Pop Dungeon, Billy Bragg and KT Tunstall have been among the heavy-hitters that have travelled out West, as well as joy-raising ABBA and Motown tribute bands. There’s fantastic B&B and self-catering accommodation in the castle’s walls too, both for couples and family groups, and Welsh breakfasts can be enjoyed at the castle’s slate-and-glass restaurant, 1176.
Or if you’re feeling particularly indulgent, have it delivered to your room in a hamper. Be honest: it’s what the Normans would have done.
Pizzatipi – handmade food on the riverside
Across the bridge from the castle, you’ll find the fantastic Pizzatipi, where you can eat handmade woodfired pizzas, soft serve icecreams, and drink lashings of lovely local beer. It’s run by the four sons of the founders of the nearby Fforest Camp, and although the no reservations policy sounds tricksy, it’s a breeze being here. Waits are never long (you’ll be texted just before your woodfired dinner arrives), and the riverside courtyard is a perfect, picturesque spot to while away your time. Check the opening hours before you go, but they’re usually open through every school holiday, and throughout the summer.
Spend time in Stiwdio 3
This new studio, gallery shop and café arrived in Cardigan in 2018, and already it’s a thriving part of the community. Set up by community interest company Made It In Wales, workshops are run here throughout the week, from printmaking to bookbinding, creative writing to shoemaking and silver-carving. There’s also plenty on during school holidays too, much of it with a child-friendly quirky twist, like painting with food and felt-people making.
The Stiwdio 3 shop is also a little gem, selling work by artists from all over Wales. The licensed café is worth a break too, selling locally sourced, organic brecwast, lunch bowls and “mini-bowls for mini-people”.
Do some good old shopping
Cardigan is peppered with fantastic vintage and antique shops, both old and new. Go down the hill in St Mary Street towards the bright yellow building for starters: this is the Blue Boat Vintage Gift Shop and Artist Studio. It sells gorgeous Welsh blankets and old tapestry coats, plus pre-loved high-end high-street wear by brands like Boden and Whitestuff. Run by local artist Jennifer Hawkyard who also works here, she sells colourful, psychedelic artwork and cards in her upstairs studio, and runs regular workshops.
Bargain-spotters must also visit The Projects, tucked away on Middle Mwldan (you won't miss it from the fantastic colourful mural on its doors). Here, second-hand furniture and household items are collected for free from the community, and sold at affordable prices, and stock changes daily. The Cardigan Antiques Centre also sells all sorts of jewellery, vintage toys, books and curios six days a week, plus don’t miss DJK Collectables and Keith’s Antiques in the market for a proper dig-in. Which takes us to…
Cardigan Guildhall Market itself
This gorgeous market in the middle of town is an old-fashioned treasure. The architecture is beautiful: this was one of the first civic buildings in Britain built in the ‘modern Gothic’ style, with Arabic touches on the towers.
Inside, you’ll find homely Welsh businesses galore, from Dancing Sheep (handmade knits), to The Spinning Wheel (racks of lovespoons and flags), and even local toy buses and transport memorabilia in the brilliantly-named Teifi Traction. Long-term stallholders alongside new independent traders plus a cup of tea and some cawl under the brightly coloured umbrellas at Caffi Carn Alw can’t fail to raise the spirits.
Bara Menyn Bakehouse
In one of the lovely custom house buildings on St Mary Street sits Bara Menyn. Its name means bread and butter, and it nails both spot-on. The homemade beans on sourdough toast are like an old favourite gone heavenly, as are the fantastic hot-pressed sandwiches (posh toasties) for lunch. Local Welsh ingredients are used in everything too, from the Cwm-Cou organic eggs to the Felin Ganol flour.
Have your theatrical mind blown at Theatr Mwldan
A few minutes walk outside the town centre sits a fantastic arts, theatre and production venue, and Wales’ only completely independent multiplex cinema. Theatre Mwldan started up in the town’s old abattoir in 1983, before winning The Prince Of Wales Award and a BFI Film Society award. Its modern two-theatre building opened in 2004, and a busy programme of drama, music, opera and visual art has prospered inside ever since. The theatre also tours its own productions, including successful tours for local harpist and composer Catrin Finch. Latest film releases in 3D and hi-definition stock are also shown every week, and pop-up themed cafés help sate other appetites. A culture-lover’s dream, essentially.
Get another perspective on Cardigan
Now it’s time to get another perspective – literally – from The Welsh Wildlife Centre, down onto Cardigan town centre. Only ten minutes drive out of town, The Welsh Wildlife Centre is set high on a hill above the River Teifi's final meanders. Enjoy lunch outside from its lovely Glasshouse Café, and you’ll gawp at the sight of the town as the river runs to it. You’ll also gawp at the giant badger made of local willow sitting beside you, and the Wildlife Centre building itself, a beautiful eco-friendly construction.
Inside, you’ll also find adventure backpacks for kids, nature trails for walkers and cyclists, and regular activities like arts and crafts, pond-dipping, and mini-beast hunts. Get exploring.
Other jewels a few minutes drive away
Go west out of Cardigan, and after only five minutes you’ll come to St Dogmaels. The Pembrokeshire Coastal Path starts here, and the magnificent ruined St Dogmael's Abbey sits alongside it. Next door sits the Coach House, with an interactive abbey museum, and collection of ancient Christian stones. There's a great café here too, with Pembrokeshire crab and Caws Cenarth organic cheeses on the menu. (Top tip: on Tuesday mornings, there’s also an award-winning weekly produce market in the village, selling local wines, woodcrafts and charcuterie).
Five minutes further, you’re at the long stretch of the Blue Flag beaches of Poppit Sands. Sport is popular here, especially land boarding, kite boarding and Power Kiting, but there’s also plenty to room to, stretch and out and snooze in the sunshine.
Go even further west and you’re in the gorgeous stretch of north Pembrokeshire, but that’s for reading about elsewhere. For now, enjoy Cardigan for the wonderful, warm place that it is, wrapping you up, calling you back for more.