Caerphilly Castle is the biggest castle in Wales, a 13th-century whopper surrounded by complex man-made moats, it's a great place to get a flavour of the awesome Norman fighting machine. Outside, there are working replica siege engines, while the original Great Hall has been restored. A great time to visit is during The Big Cheese festival in July, an extravaganza of street entertainers, living history encampments, music, dance, falconry and fire eating.
Beaumaris Gaol and Courthouse
You get two attractions for the price of one at Beaumaris Gaol and Courthouse. There’s the 17th-century courthouse and, just down the road, the jail where convicted criminals were sent to serve their punishment. It’s pretty bleak stuff, but the excellent audio tour (and staff) make it a powerfully evocative experience, especially for older children. And when they’ve been released from jail, they’ll fully deserve an ice-cream on the seafront.
Tudor Merchant's House
The old harbour town of Tenby is the classic seaside resort, with fabulous beaches set around a medieval walled town. The fine three-storey Tudor Merchant's House has been restored to its 1500 heyday, when a wealthy Tudor merchant lived and worked here. There are Easter, Hallowe’en and Tudor-themed family events, or you can play the Tudor Family Fortunes game at any time.
St Fagans National History Museum
This is simply one of the world’s best open-air museums. More than 40 original Welsh buildings, from Celtic times onwards, have been moved to 100 acres of parkland at St Fagans: National History Museum just outside Cardiff. The buildings in themselves are fascinating places to poke around, but it’s the skills of the traditional craftsmen and women, not to mention native livestock in the fields and farmyards, that bring it all so vividly to life. They also have regular family events – and amazingly, it’s all free.
Llechwedd Slate Mountain, Blaenau Ffestiniog
If kids today think they’ve got it tough, at least they didn’t spend 12 hours a day, six days a week, working underground in semi-darkness like Victorian children. This vast slate mine at Llechwedd has revamped its guided tours to include off-road adventures into the lunar landscape of the quarried mountains, and tours deep underground into cathedral-sized caverns. You can also stay in their Slate Mountain glamping cabins.
While the TV series Downton Abbey offers a rose-tinted view of master-servant relations, Erddig tells it how it really was. This splendid country house near Wrexham reflects 250 years of upstairs-downstairs life, from the luxurious upstairs rooms where the gentry lived, to the warren of downstairs kitchens and outbuildings where the real work was done. There are festivals, craft fairs and family fun days throughout the year.
The Iron Age roundhouses are built right on top of the excavated remains of a hill fort, dating back 2,400 years, now set in 30 acres of beautiful woodland and river meadows near the Pembrokeshire coastal village of Newport. But it’s the guided tours and sheer exuberance of the staff at Castell Henllys which turns an interesting day into a brilliantly fun one – for all the family, but especially children, who are encouraged to get properly stuck in to Iron Age life.
Conwy’s castle and medieval town walls are mostly intact (and great for exploring) but Aberconwy House is the only medieval merchant’s house to have survived the last 600 years. What makes this so special is the quality of the staff, who are brilliant at engaging young visitors’ imagination, with children’s trails, ghost stories and seasonal activities.
Llancaiach Fawr is a fortified manor house, furnished just as it would have been in 1645, and the costumed actor/guides play the part of its Civil War-era inhabitants. Children love trying to trick the guides into breaking character, but it’s impossible – all the staff remain brilliantly rooted in the 17th century. The Family Ghost Tours are a popular draw in the winter.
There’s a strict ‘hands-on’ policy at Judge's Lodging in the old shire hall in Presteigne, which means that children can (literally) feel what life was like in Victorian times, when judges relaxed in the apartments above, while prisoners suffered in the cells below. There are activity boxes for kids to explore, with dressing up clothes and toys, and they’ve taken a cheerfully ‘Horrible Histories’ approach by pointing out all the grisly details of what life used to be like here.