The Guardian newspaper included the Cambrian Coast Railway as one of the world's 10 epic train journeys in 2016. We’re not going to disagree! Completed by 1869, this incredible feat of Victorian engineering follows our beautiful coastline for most of the journey, showcasing the sandy beaches, coastal villages and outstanding views of this part of The Coastal Way. The railway line is pretty dramatic; in places it clings to high cliffs and burrows through tunnels hewn from the rock.
It runs between Aberystwyth and Pwllheli (change at Machynlleth) following the curve of Cardigan Bay. The Cambrian Line from Shrewsbury connects the coast line with the Midlands and the rest of the UK.
The train ride itself can be a day out, but there's also loads to do for outdoor and watersports enthusiasts, heritage and history fans and for families looking for that perfect sandcastle-making beach. Come and explore part of The Coastal Way section of The Wales Way by train.
Towns and villages
Aberystwyth, Aberdyfi, Barmouth, Porthmadog and Pwllheli are attractive, vibrant harbour towns to explore anytime of the year. They have plenty of quirky and independent shops and markets to mooch around in and cafés serving homemade local produce to rest in afterwards.
Borth, Tywyn, Fairbourne, Barmouth and Dyffryn Ardudwy have long, sandy beaches, while Pwllheli is the gateway to the Llŷn Peninsula’s popular surfing spots. Many places offer water sports and activities to try, including sailing, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding and surfing. Most of our beaches are family friendly and safe for swimming and water sports, but please take care and follow the RNLI’s Beach Safety Advice.
Things to see from the train
The sun rising over the Dyfi Estuary to gently waken the landscape of birds, boats and misty hills is truly special. The line grips the vertiginous cliffs at Y Friog but don't look down, look towards Pwllheli, Barmouth, Porthmadog and Cricieth for panoramic views across Cardigan Bay. See who can spot the the colourful yarn bombing at Llwyngwril station (request stop) first. You can get off and follow the Yarn Bombing Trail if you like - a trail guide is available from outside the shop by Gwril's bridge.
As it heads north past Barmouth, the line veers inland slightly and the flatter landscape reveals some fantastic views of Snowdonia on both sides. On a clear day you should be able to see the distant Llŷn Peninsula and Bardsey Island draw ever closer, as you pass through Aberdyfi, Tywyn, Barmouth, Harlech, Porthmadog and Cricieth. Watch out for the quirky and colourful Italianate village of Portmeirion hidden in the trees across the Dwyryd river as you pass through Tygwyn (just after Harlech).
There’s plenty of wildlife to see as well – sea birds (including cormorants), dolphins, porpoises and various birds of prey live in the area. Along the Dyfi estuary, the Dyfi Osprey Project nest is visible near Dyfi Junction and the line passes the RSPB Ynys-hir Nature Reserve and the Dyfi National Nature Reserve and Ynyslas Visitor Centre. See if you can spot waders, ospreys and other sea birds from the train depending on the season.
History and heritage
If heritage and history are more your thing, it’ll definitely take more than one day out to get everything done!
Stop off and explore the mighty Harlech and Cricieth castles or watch as they pass by - it's hard to miss them. There are plenty of museums and galleries to wander round as well. Aberystwyth is home to the National Library of Wales and Ceredigion Museum; both host regular exhibitions and events. Machynlleth is home to the Museum of Modern Art Machynlleth and the Owain Glyndŵr Centre. The Narrow Gauge Railway Museum is based in Tywyn, Barmouth Sailor’s Institute is a lovely place to escape the busy town, and Porthmadog has its own Maritime Museum.
The Coast Line is a railway enthusiast’s dream destination. This area of Wales is world famous for its historic narrow gauge steam railways, many originally built to support the slate quarrying industry. Heritage railways you can visit along the route include the Vale of Rheidol in Aberystwyth, the Talyllyn Railway in Tywyn (which kick-started the railway preservation movement in 1951), and the Fairbourne Miniature Railway. Porthmadog is home to the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway plus the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railways - the Ffestiniog is the world's oldest narrow gauge railway. Some offer discounts to people arriving by public transport or who have a Great Little Trains of Wales discount card.
For a family-friendly mini-tour, Barmouth is a good starting point. During the summer you can board the ferry from the harbour to Fairbourne Point, travel on the steam railway into Fairbourne, then catch the Cambrian Line train back to Barmouth or vice versa. Remember to check train times, and leave yourself plenty of time to build sandcastles on Fairbourne's lovely beach. If you get off at Morfa Mawddach (request stop) you can walk across the spectacular viaduct into Barmouth, but be careful on the narrow roads leading into the town.
How about doing a circular tour of the Cambrian and North Wales Coast lines via the Shrewsbury to Chester line, the Conwy Valley Line and the Ffestiniog Railway? You can get a rover ticket (‘Ffestiniog Round Robin’) which allows you to do it all in a day. Please plan and check train times carefully before you set out - it’s usually only doable during the summer timetable.
Starting off early from Machynlleth (or other stations along the route), ask for a Ffestiniog Round Robin ticket. Head towards Shrewsbury, change there for Chester or Llandudno Junction, change at Llandudno Junction for Blaenau Ffestiniog (along the scenic Conwy Valley Line), and catch the Ffestiniog steam train to Porthmadog Harbour station. Walk through the town to the Cambrian Line station to get the train back to your original starting point. You can do it the other way round but check train times before you travel.
There are also various Rover ticket options to explore the railways over one or more days. Some include bus travel as well to really help you explore Wales by public transport.
Walking and cycling
Walkers can use the railway service to get sections of the Wales Coast Path ticked off their list without worrying about driving – there’s a handy guide on the Wales Coast Path website. Other well known walks include the Mawddach Way walking trail along the beautiful Mawddach estuary, starting from Barmouth. The Panorama Walk takes you high above the coast for fabulous views while Harlech's 2 mile Branwen walk explores the town and beach. The Visit Snowdonia website also has some good walks to check out.
Bikes can be taken on the train, although you may need to book in advance as there isn't a lot of space. The Mawddach Trail along the disused railway line towards Dolgellau is perfect for a family cycle ride - it's flat and very scenic. Aberystwyth is a good base to start exploring long-distance cycle routes - the Ystwyth Cycle Trail and the Rheidol Cycle Trail for starters. Machynlleth is the starting point for various bike trails and there's a cycle path to get to the Centre for Alternative Technology for a family day out.
Whatever you decide to do, try to finish off your day watching a spectacular Cardigan Bay sunset from the train, or settle down in one of the many seaside pubs or restaurants before catching the last train home. Being west facing, the vivid sunsets really are something special. Just like the Cambrian Line.
Find out train times, fares and attraction discount offers via the Transport for Wales website.