Stretching from the south to the north coast, the Cambrian Way takes you up the mountainous spine of Wales, along ancient routes that have shaped its history. There’s action and adventure, epic history and friendly communities - in between the biggest of skies and vast open spaces.
Day one: Cardiff to Merthyr
There are plenty of things to do in Cardiff so you might want to spend a day or two exploring our bustling capital city before you set off.
Today though, is about castles, coins and coal! First stop out of the city is Castell Coch. The ‘red castle’ is a fairytale cluster of turrets high on a hillside in the village of Tongwynlais, in north Cardiff. Inside it’s opulently decorated, an exuberant display of Victorian Gothic architecture and decoration.
Worth the detour: The Royal Mint at Llantrisant is the place to learn all about coins, how they are made, and why they make the world go around. The Mint supplies coins to 100 countries worldwide.
Continuing north, you’re soon in the South Wales Valleys. The Black Gold Experience at A Welsh Coal Mining Experience, Rhondda Heritage Park recalls the days when the ‘home of coal’ fuelled the Industrial Revolution. Guided underground tours and interactive displays re-create the harsh, heroic world of the Welsh miner.
Fancy some adventure? BikePark Wales at Abercanaid is one of the UK's top mountain biking locations with over 40 trails for all abilities from complete beginner to pro. You can hire all the gear too.
Two more historic marvels await and you might want to choose which you prefer. Much of that coal powered the smelting of iron and it made some people exceptionally wealthy. At Merthyr Tydfil, you can take a wander around Cyfarthfa Castle, a 19th century mansion built by an all-powerful ironmaster. It’s now a museum and gallery with collections that include the work of two Merthyr-born fashion icons, Laura Ashley and Julien McDonald.
Of else you can step back in time by roaming the stately house and gardens of Colonel Edward Pritchard at Llancaiach Fawr Manor. But mind where you tread - the house is said to be one of the ten most haunted houses in Britain!
Worth the detour: A 20 minute drive west from Merthyr, the Penderyn Brecon Beacons Distillery's visitor centre is the place to learn about Welsh whiskey and of course try a little.
Day two: Merthyr to Brecon
Distance: about 20 miles/32km
Merthyr is the gateway to the soaring peaks and glassy lakes of the Brecon Beacons National Park. A nice introduction is to explore on the narrow-gauge Brecon Mountain Railway. Restored steam locomotives run from Merthyr’s northern outskirts to the foothills of South Wales’ highest summits, a return journey of 9 miles/14km. The views are spectacular.
The main attraction for many, is walking in the Brecon Beacons. And if you’re into pulling on the boots, head on up the A470 into the National Park. You could stop by the Garwnant Forest Visitor Centre for trail inspiration (or a coffee and cake). There are walks starting right off the road including Pen y Fan - which can get very busy. Fan Fawr on the other side of the road is a great alternative.
Alternatively enjoy the expansive views as you drive through the park and then take a short detour at Libanus for the Brecon Beacons National Park Visitor Centre. Here you’ll find lots more walking inspiration along with panoramic views, local information and a tasty tea room.
And you don’t have to just walk. Outdoor adventures in the Brecon Beacons include horse riding, canoeing, canyoning, mountain biking and more.
On the other side of the National Park, Brecon itself is a vibrant, welcoming town perfect for an overnight stop.
Day three: Brecon to Builth Wells
Distance: about 19 miles/30km
Start today exploring Brecon. It does everything a good market town should: coaching inns, galleries, cafés and lots of independent shops line its handsome Georgian streets. On top of that, there’s a 12th century cathedral, the Regimental Museum of The Royal Welsh and an annual jazz festival.
You can leave town by means of a couple of intriguing non-car options: the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal flows for 35 miles (56km) into the Brecon Beacons, while the Taff Trail walking/cycling route runs 55 miles (88km) all the way to the sea at Cardiff Bay.
Heading north, the A470 meets the river Wye, following its course through the gorgeous Wye Valley. The area around Erwood is ideal for a walk through the woodlands, climbing high above the river. Or you could head east to tranquil Llanbwchllyn Lake, a local nature reserve teeming with birdlife.
To the west a little way off the A470 and most definitely to be sniffed at, Welsh Lavender is home to field upon field of fragrant fronds in summer months. They’re used to create the scented oil that goes into their balms, lotions and scrubs. You can visit most days during summer (it’s very pretty, the views are lush, and cake is on the menu) – but ring ahead first, just to check they’re not out tending to their crops.
Worth the detour: A short hop further north up the A483, leafy Llandrindod Wells is a fine spa town with elegant Victorian buildings. It’s also home to the National Cycle Museum, packed with every bike imaginable (only open certain days of the week). You could stay the night too at the opulent Metropole Hotel and Spa.
Returning to the Cambrian Way and the A470 you come next to Builth Wells, which is a friendly market town with a good range of accommodation.
Overnight: If you’ve visited the lavender fields and fancy something a little lux, cosy Lake Country House hotel is close by. There’s a spa here as well.
Day four: Builth Wells to Llanidloes
Distance: about 28 miles/45km
Continue north this morning following the sparkling Wye Valley towards the village of Rhayader. Just before you arrive there’s a chance for a brilliant wildlife encounter at Gigrin Farm.
Red kites are one of the big success stories of conservation in Wales. While they were extinct almost everywhere in Britain, they survived in remote pockets of the Cothi and Tywi valleys. Nowadays, they’re quite a common sight around here. The daily red kite feedings at Gigrin attract up to 600, a swooping, diving mass of these resplendent birds - along with a supporting cast of buzzards and ravens.
In the pretty village of Rhayader itself, you’ll find Welsh Royal Crystal, the only hand-crafted crystal glass maker in Wales. Do a fascinating tour seeing master craftspeople demonstrating their skills, before visiting the shop, stocked with crystal pieces all individually mouth-blown and hand-cut.
In the afternoon, experience more of the spectacular natural and man-made scenery in this part of Mid Wales. Rhayader is on the doorstep of the Elan Valley lakes, a string of moody, blue reservoirs created over 100 years ago.
Call in at the Elan Valley Visitor Centre before following the scenic mountain road that threads through these lovely lakelands. The centre also provides bike hire and walking information. There are accessible trails ideal for wheelchair users and buggies too.
If the kite viewings got you all a flutter for spotting birdlife, drop into the RSPB Carngafallt Reserve a short 10 minute stroll from the visitor centre. Depending on the time of year you might see woodpeckers, flycatchers, buzzards and of course, more red kites!
Overnight: You could opt for the cosy market town of Llandiloes where the venerable old coaching inn, the Trewythen Hotel is nicely located, or continue a little further to Maesmawr Hall a half-timbered country house hotel.
Newtown a short hop east along the A489 and a little off the Cambrian Way offers several options for places to stay too.
Day five: Llanidloes to Festiniog
Distance: about 61 miles/98km
If you’ve stopped in Llanidloes, start with a wander around interesting Llanidloes museum. If you’re in Newtown there’s the town’s Textile Museum which is located in a historic building that was once a weaving shop. Both museums are full of fascinating local history and exhibits.
Llanidloes is also ideal for walking with trails of all distances through the rolling hills and glassy lakes of Montgomeryshire.
Worth a Detour: From Llanidloes there’s a spectacular scenic drive towards Machynlleth along the B4581 past the still waters of Llyn Clywedog. It’s a twisty, swoopy road so take your time and enjoy those views with care. Continuing north brings you back to the A470 and the Cambrian Way at Llanbrynmair. Alternatively, fork left to Machynlleth and stop en route at the Wynford Vaughan-Thomas memorial. The vast panorama of Snowdonia here was the venerable broadcaster’s favourite view in the world.
Beyond Dolgellau, forest gives way to rugged moorland and mountain. If you want to enjoy the scenery close up, stop at Coed y Brenin. It’s one of the country’s best spots for mountain biking with trails for all levels and bike hire available. There are walking trails and trails for off-road mobility scooters through the forest too - along with a great café and picnic area.
At Trawsfynydd there’s a poignant memorial to Wales’ World War One poet, Hedd Wynn, who was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. He died before knowing he’d won the greatest prize in Welsh literature, the National Eisteddfod Chair. You can see his ‘Black Chair’ at Yr Ysgwrn, his renovated farmstead, along with other fascinating memorabilia.
Overnight: You could hop 20 minutes toward the coast and stay at the fairytale Italianate village of Portmeirion with luxury hotel and guesthouse to boot. Or glamp in style at Llechwedd glamping just up the road.
Day six: Festiniog to Betws y Coed
Today is just a short drive as you need plenty of time for the adventure capital of Wales!
They still work the quarries at the old ‘slate capital of the world’, but these days people flock to Blaenau Ffestiniog for action and excitement. Bikers hurtle down the screes at Antur Stiniog, while at Zip World Llechwedd zipwires soar overhead at Zip World Titan. In the vast slate caverns below ground, there are yet more zips and the surreal, trippy Bounce Below: layers of cargo nets connected by slides and ladders. To get it all into historical perspective, you could start with an underground tour of Zip World Llechwedd.
Whatever activity you decide on, make sure to book ahead as it’s all very popular!
Of course, you don’t have to be quite so full of beans to enjoy Festiniog. For a far more sedate way to take in the Eryri (Snowdonia) scenery, hop aboard the lovely old steam trains of the Festiniog & Welsh Highland Railways and puff past lakes and through ancient forests down to the shimmering coast at Porthmadog. It’s the perfect day out.
When you’re in Eryri (Snowdonia), all roads lead (eventually) to pretty Betws-y-Coed, the traditional gateway to the mountains. It’s the ideal place to stop for the night with plenty of cosy B&Bs to choose from.
Day seven: Betws-y-Coed to Llandudno
Distance: about 30 miles/48km
Betws-y-Coed is an excellent base-camp for hiking and cycling holidays. You could spend days here exploring Eryri. There are several great walks from the village, like the woodland climb to Llyn Elsi, or a riverside stroll to Swallow Falls. There’s more adventure and excitement at Zip World Fforest and the Conwy Valley Railway Museum has a miniature railway that kids in particular will love.
Time maybe for some more culture after all that outdoor adventure? Llanrwst, the historic ‘capital’ of the Conwy Valley, was once the domain of the influential Wynn family. Their ancestral home, Gwydir Castle, is a grand Tudor mansion with a palpable period atmosphere – and, apparently, quite a few ghosts!
Looking for some more gifts from Wales to take home? Stop off at Trefriw Woollen Mills, a historic working mill that manufactures Welsh tapestries and tweeds. Visit the mill museum before browsing the well-stocked shop.
We once asked Prince Charles (now King Charles III) to name his favourite gardens, and he rightly rates Bodnant as ‘one of Wales’ national treasures’. The upper section around Bodnant Hall comes with terraced gardens and lawns, while the lower Dell has a fabulous wild garden. The standard of excellence continues into the nearby Garden Centre, Craft Centre and Welsh Food Centre.
Your journey along the Cambrian Way is almost at an end. You’ve travelled from the bottom to the top of Wales. You finish at the Victorian spa resort of Llandudno.
There are lots of things to do in Llandudno. Stroll the historic pier, take the tramway up the Great Orme, visit the Oriel MOSTYN Gallery or find out how Welsh whiskey is made at the Penderyn Distillery.
For entertainment there’s Venue Cymru, North Wales’ leading venue, with performances by Welsh National Opera among many others.