I was born here, and I absolutely love the place. It’s a thoroughly modern European capital, with a few delightful tricks up its sleeve. If you’re a first-time visitor, there are some obvious highlights that everyone should tick off the list – but to get deeper into the soul of the city, you may need a bit of local knowledge. So if you were my guest for the weekend, here’s where I’d take you.
But where to begin? To get your bearings, I recommend a walk around the city centre. It’s easy to navigate: a compact square kilometre, mostly pedestrianised, that’s bounded by the castle and civic centre to the north, the River Taff to the west, and railway lines to the south and east. Here’s where most of the pubs, restaurants, bars and shops are – the most interesting of which tend to be tucked inside the network of Victorian and Edwardian Arcades which criss-cross the city. More about them later.
For a proper local flavour, it’s worth visiting Cardiff Market. The market has gone through a bit of a foodie revolution over the past couple of years, and you can find the delicious Cheese Pantry, “Welsh” eggs from Holy Yolks, great coffee from Hard Lines, and pizza from Ffwrnes alongside all the usual market staples - Welsh cakes, butchers and fishmongers. There are also still some great greasy spoon cafes here, where you can grab a cup of builder’s tea and do some serious people watching. And don’t forget Kelly’s Records on the first floor - a great chance to do dig in those crates.
Just outside the market’s east entrance, you’ll find St John’s Church and Yr Hen Lyfrgell (‘the old library’). Yr Hen Lyfrgell is a Welsh cultural centre, which has a permanent exhibition on Cardiff’s history, and a great cafe/bar called Llaeth & Siwgr (Milk & Sugar) on the first floor, where you can practise your Welsh. St John’s is one of the oldest buildings in Cardiff, with parts of the building dating from the 12th century (if you’re brave, you can climb the steps to the belltower for a great view).
I’d also recommend seeking out Jacobs Market, a sprawling warehouse of antiques, art and eccentric curios. Over on Womanby Street you’ll find the Castle Emporium, with its collection of small, independent businesses and artists (we especially like the Sho Gallery on the first floor, and Heads Above the Waves - a social enterprise with great merch).
Other notable spots around the city centre include Spiller’s Records (the oldest record store in the world!), Hobo’s Vintage Clothing (dressing the city’s offbeat and quirky folk since 1994), and Pen and Paper (dog friendly shop selling stationery and arts supplies).
Don't miss ...
Definitely visit the National Museum, which has the largest collection of Impressionist art outside of Paris - for free! There are travelling exhibitions that change throughout the year - check the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff website for details.
Cardiff Castle is a potted city history in one place: Roman walls, a Norman keep, and a sumptuous Victorian mansion that was decorated by the Marquess of Bute. In the 1860s Bute was the richest man in the world, earning a vast fortune from Cardiff’s coal-exporting docks, and spending it lavishly on this Gothic Revival mansion. Make sure to get a tour - there are even ghost tours at night that will take you into rooms not usually open to the public. The animal wall outside the castle is also a particular delight.
Cardiff Bay is why Cardiff became a city in the first place. This was once Tiger Bay, the world’s biggest coal-exporting docks, dispatching millions of tons of Welsh coal to power the industrial world. In the 1990s they built a barrage across the rivers Taff and Ely to create a huge freshwater ‘lake’, which you can potter around on pleasure boats (or tear around on high-speed rib rides).
There’s some excellent new architecture here, notably the Senedd (the Welsh Parliament's HQ) and the Wales Millennium Centre arts centre, which sit happily alongside the original Pierhead building and the Norwegian Church in which Cardiff-born author Roald Dahl was christened. There’s also the newly renovated Exchange Hotel, and you’ll notice the Porth Teigr drama village as you wander across the barrage.
My tip for a lovely walk is to follow the coastline around to the Cardiff Bay Wetlands Nature Reserve, which sits next to St David’s Hotel. It’s an award-winning Green Flag reserve, and whether you’re a keen twitcher or not, it’s a great, leisurely stroll from the buzzy energy of Mermaid Quay.
Where to eat
Wales excels in first-rate ingredients - so if you see Welsh sewin (sea trout) on the menu, or Welsh Black beef, or locally-caught seabass or lobster, or anything involving cockles and laver bread, then go for it. Incidentally, remember Cardiff Market, which I mentioned earlier? If you head to Ashton’s Fishmongers there (the oldest business in the market) you can pick up small tubs of cockles to eat right then and there, with a good dash of vinegar. Yum.
The best things happen when Welsh ingredients meet international influences, and it’s Spain that reigns at the moment. There are two superb tapas bars on Westgate Street, Bar 44 and Curado, together with the northern Spanish-influenced Asador 44 and, just out of town, the Catalan-run La Cuina.
The Potted Pig is all about gutsy modern British food, while its sister restaurant Porro is a good bet in Llandaff, if you happen to be up there. Right at the top end, the Michelin-starred James Sommerin, across the Bay in Penarth, is a magician at turbo-boosting flavours. The menu and service at Milkwood in Pontcanna is top notch - fine dining without the stuffiness.
But the most interesting development is the rise of guerrilla-style street food joints, the best of which you’ll find at Sticky Fingers, a permanent indoor street food venue nestled in the Brewery Quarter. It’s hard to pick favourites, but my personal go-to is always The Two Anchors - great seafood every time. The Sticky Fingers bar is also (currently!) the only place you can get Old Blue Last lager in Cardiff, if you’re desperately seeking that out.
Where to drink
Speaking of drinking … Cardiff’s quite a beery city, especially at weekends. You certainly won’t need any help finding the action if you want something mainstream: head for St Mary Street or Greyfriars, the twin axes of pubby-clubby nightlife, and follow the crowds.
For a more sophisticated cocktail experience, I like small-but-perfectly-formed Lab 22, and the Dead Canary speakeasy. If you fancy a cocktail-crawl, head afterwards to the top of St Mary Street, where everything seems to be a cocktail bar at the moment.
Pubs are an essential part of British culture, and Cardiff’s no exception. The pubscape is dominated by the city’s biggest brewer, Brains; if you visit just one of their boozers, make it the City Arms, which always has a big selection of interesting guest ales. For a more indie experience, the Tiny Rebel is a champion of craft ales, and also a great venue for watching sports, watching bands, or even playing board games (check their website for events listings).
My favourite drinking place isn’t really a pub or a bar, but a night cafe - that’s the Blue Honey Night Cafe, which appears in Sully’s Cafe on Quay Street every night. There’s an ever-changing menu, DJs on the weekend and also Café Karaoke, where everyone sings!
For a civilised out-of-town pub crawl (if that’s not an oxymoron) head out of town to Cathedral Road and stroll up towards Llandaff. You’ll pass by (or ideally, call in at) several good pubs, including the Cricketers and the Conway (which also has terrific gastro pub food). By now you’re in Pontcanna, a suburb beloved of hip young professional families – with an according number of neat coffee shops and restaurants.
Blend in with the locals
If you want to venture away from the city centre and plunge deeper into local life, then try these two suburbs. The easiest to reach is Canton: cross the bridge west of the castle, and head for Chapter, a restlessly innovative arts/film/performance centre. There’s always something interesting going on, the bar is consistently excellent, and the clientele very friendly. Along the way you’ll have noted a dozen or so good-value eateries, which take in most of southern Asia.
But the best selection of ethnic restaurants is on the other side of town, on the upper reaches of City Road, which some locals tried to rebrand as our “International Mile”. Pretty much every region of the Middle East, southern Asia and the Far East is represented here.
If you want to hang out with the coolest kids in class, try the superb Porter's for beers and riotously fun live entertainment.
If you can get your visit to coincide with a big show at the Wales Millennium Centre, then happy days. It’s a splendid bit of architecture, and hosts a crowd-pleasing programme of musicals, theatre, the Welsh National Opera, and is home to the impressive and ever-growing Festival of Voice. In the city centre, St David's Hall has an eclectic programme of rock, folk and comedy, but the perfect acoustics really shine at classical concerts: it’s the home of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and hosts the annual Welsh Proms and world-class BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Sŵn Festival takes over various venues across Cardiff for a weekend each October.
There’s a thriving underground music scene that happens in bars and clubs all over the city; pick up a copy of the free local listings magazine Buzz for details. If you’re looking for live music or club nights, my personal favourite venues are The Moon, Clwb Ifor Bach (or “Welsh Club” if you’re old enough to remember when you had to be a Welsh speaker or learner to get in!), Undertone, Ten Feet Tall, Gwdihw, and Tramshed.