Beautiful, bustling Llangollen: the place my parents travel to from South Wales for the International Musical Eisteddfod every July, a town where my brother, a Swansea choirmaster, often absconds to with busloads of tenors and baritones. As someone who prefers their holidays less dense with crowds, I hadn't visited the riverside town until now. But I'm so glad I did: it's one of the most atmospheric and intriguing places I've ever been to in Wales.
First of all, there's the dazzle of its riverside setting. When I arrived in town in my car, its beauty had me nearly stalling the gears. The river is the River Dee, bubbling down from Snowdonia through the Clwydian Range, then travelling dramatically through the town before it runs away to Shropshire and Cheshire. The river makes the town look Alpine in a peculiar way, although the beautifully preserved old shops that surround it put you in mind of an unique, Welsh-looking wonderland.
I'd recommend parking nearby, and walking onto the incredible structure the river flows under: the Grade 1-listed, 16th century Llangollen Bridge. It's been widened to accommodate traffic since the 1500s, naturally, and given a two-storey stone tower with a castellated parapet, but it's hard not to sense the years under your feet as you look out from edges. You can also look at it from The Corn Mill, an old 18th century mill once left to go derelict on the riverside. Saved and sensitively converted into a pub and restaurant in recent years, it's a homely and popular spot. I recommend taking twenty minutes for a drink – or more than that if the weather's not being too Welsh – on one of the small tables on the platform right on top of the river.
While we're talking food and drink, Llangollen's a no-brainer if you're into either. If you're out for the evening, your first stop has to be the Cellar Bar, a quirky place full of Pop Art collage tables, coloured baubles of light, and a full and fruity cocktail menu. Then go to Gales of Llangollen, a stylish, wood-panelled wine bar with sharing plates and blackboards on the walls. It feels very modern, although it's been run by the same family since 1977. Ox cheek linguine and two-day pork ribs were on the menu when I was in town, but I grabbed some (delicious) charcuterie with my (gorgeous) wine, before having dinner next door. A very new local institution, The Three Eagles, values quality similarly highly. The food is seasonal, delicious and thoughtfully done, with fantastic plant-based menus for vegetarians. After my cured meat next door, I went for the mushroom risotto, and nearly fell asleep at my table with joy. (I did eventually cross the road to stay at the fantastic Cornerstones B&B, a beautifully restored sixteenth century guesthouse: the rooms are gorgeous, the breakfasts heavenly, and the staff an absolute delight.)
Although the town itself is small, it's also full of interesting shops. I loved Cafe and Books Llangollen on Castle Street with its beautiful, old painted shop sign, and its rooms upon rooms of second-hand volumes, shelved to the ceiling. Courtyard Books nearby is a much smaller, but still very sweet treasure trove, especially good on local interest (which helps when there's so much of it). Given the breakfast I'd had, I also embarrassed myself gawping at the locally sourced scotch eggs and pork pies at the Llangollen Oggie Shop, the many Welsh artisan cheeses at Porter's Delicatessen, and at the gorgeous vegan pies at Zingiber Wholefoods, a shop with a cheery, red exterior.
Thankfully, I also found Llangollen is lovely for walking. I particularly enjoyed crossing the river past the steam-hauled Llangollen Railway heritage line, which travels ten miles towards Corwen in high season. In town, St Collen's Church is also worth a diversion: Its carved oak ceiling, from around 1450, being both unusual and deeply beautiful. Just outside town,the Eglwyseg limestone escarpment also offers seasoned walkers (and car drivers) plenty of drama, while history-lovers shouldn't miss Plas Newydd, a black-and-white gothic house lived in by the Ladies of Llangollen. These were two Irish women, Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, who fled 18th century Ireland to be together, and the amazing house they created together, full of repurposed oak interiors and stunning gardens, is a testimony to their love for each other.
It set off in my head the idea of Llangollen as a place ahead of its time, as I left, I knew there was even more to this progressive, beautiful place. As the old bridge and head home, I know there's only one way to find out. And my return trip's already booked.
Discover Llangollen for yourself
Llangollen is a fab place to visit, especially if you love the outdoors. The Llangollen History Trail is an excellent introduction to the area. The 6 mile/9.5km walk takes you along the canal to the Horseshoe Falls and Llantysilio Church, then up to the atmospheric ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey and Dinas Bran Castle high above Llangollen. Link to a map of the Llangollen History Trail.
If you fancy joining the rafters and canoeists regularly seen hurtling down the River Dee, search our activities database for certified providers and other outdoor activities.
Use our accommodation search to find your ideal place to stay in and around Llangollen, including boutique hotels, 4 star hostels and campsites.