Day 1: A capital day out
The best starting point for any family trip is Cardiff itself - a vibrant young city with all the benefits of a capital city squeezed into a blissfully walkable centre.
Morning - Cardiff Castle
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.
Afternoon - Shopping
It’s time for lunch, so head across the road from the castle, where the pedestrianised heart of Cardiff begins. It’s loaded with restaurants and bars, with big-name chains like Carluccios and home-grown and award-winners like The Potted Pig.
You’re also in the centre 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; yet, the £675m extension to the St David's Dewi Sant Shopping Centre with its flagship John Lewis holding centre stage with many other major brand stores nearby.
Day 2: A day in Cardiff Bay
Morning - Exploring
Cardiff Bay has changed up considerably since its days as the (in)famous Tiger Bay - the world’s largest coal port which exported 10 million tons of anthracite a year.
Today there is a huge barrage across the rivers Taff and Ely, creating a 500-acre water park, fringed by ultra-modern marine developments. The best way to see it is on a boat trip around the bay. 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
Cardiff Bay has some of the city’s biggest family draws. 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. After 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
If a museum dedicated to Welsh National History sounds a bit dry ‘n’ dusty, trust us – it’s not.
St Fagans has been rated one of Europe’s best open-air museums, and Wales' 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.
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.
Day 4: Welcome to the Valleys
Morning - BikePark Wales
Heading north out of Cardiff, the South Wales Valleys have loads to do outside. Burn off some energy with a morning trying out the brilliant woodland trails at BikePark Wales. Purpose-built for mountain bikers of all abilities, there's bike hire on-site, you can book lessons and there's an uplift service for experienced bikers.
Afternoon - Brecon Mountain Railway
Take it easy and take in the mountain views by vintage steam train. Running alongside Pontsticill and Taf Fechan reservoirs before climbing to Torpantau, the Brecon Mountain Railway takes you right into the heart of the Brecon Beacons. There are loads of walks you can do around the reservoirs, plus you can visit the locomotive workshop and see what goes on there.
Day 5: Monmouthshire
Morning - Abergavenny
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
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.