Experience Cardiff - like a local
The view across Cardiff Bay, Cardiff
So you’re coming to Cardiff? Excellent - let me show you around. I’ve lived here for 20 years, and I absolutely love the place. It’s a thoroughly modern European capital, but with a few tricks up its sleeve that make it distinctively… well, Welsh. 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.
Where to begin?
A walk around the city centre. It’s very 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 cross-cross the city.
For a proper local flavour, it’s worth visiting Cardiff Market and, just outside its east entrance, Yr Hen Lyfrgell (‘the old library’), a Welsh cultural centre which has a permanent exhibition on Cardiff’s history. I’d also recommend seeking out Jacobs Market, a sprawling warehouse of antiques, art and eccentric curios and home to the oldest record shop in the world.
Spillers record shop, Cardiff
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.
Cardiff Castle by Wales On View
Behind the castle, Bute Park is a huge green space that has formal gardens, 3,000 tree species, wildlife reserves, several tea rooms, and 55 hectares of natural loveliness to muck around in. The best way to explore it is by hiring a bicycle from Cardiff Pedal Power, which has bases in Pontcanna and Cardiff Bay.
A leisurely lap of Bute Park will take less than an hour (with tea stop); if you want to make a day of it, follow the Taff Trail cycle path north for 3km to Llandaff Cathedral, or carry on a further 5km to the fairytale castle of Castell Coch. If you’ve got the energy, you can cycle all the way back to our next destination…
But Park runners
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 National Assembly for Wales 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.
Norwegian church, Cardiff Bay
History - reinvented
Back in the city centre, the National Museum Cardiff covers a lot of ground - natural history, geology, archaeology, art - but never feels as if it’s spreading itself too thinly. The collections are excellent, especially up in the art galleries, which has terrific impressionist and post-impressionist works, alongside Old Masters and plenty of modern Welsh art.
Incidentally, if you like museums, then it’s worth taking the 8km bus trip to the village St Fagans and the National Museum of History. It’s Wales’s most popular heritage attraction, for very good reason. More than 40 original historic buildings have been re-erected in parkland, including farms, a school, chapels, shops and terraced houses. All of our national museums are free, too.
Post office at St Fagans
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.
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.
Asador 44 restaurant by Asador 44
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.
Potted Pig restaurant interior by Potted Pig courtesy of Owen Mathias
Back in the city centre, there’s been a steady torrent of high-end burger joints, the latest of which, Elevens, is backed by our man Gareth Bale. But the most interesting development is the rise of guerrilla-style street food joints, the best of which you’ll find at events curated by Street Food Circus.
Elevens Bar and Grill by Elevens Bar and Grill
Where to drink
Cardiff’s quite a beery city, especially at weekends. You certainly won’t need any help finding the action: 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.
The Dead Carnary by The Dead Carnary
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.
Tiny Rebel, Westgate Street
For a civilised out-of-town pub crawl (if that’s not an oxymoron) head out of town to Cathedral Road stroll up towards Llandaff. You’ll pass by (or ideally, call in at) several good pubs, including Y Mochyn Du (a great place to hear Welsh spoken, and quite often, sung), the Cayo Arms, the Cricketers and the Conway (which also has terrific 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.
Chapter arts centre
But the best selection of ethnic restaurants is on the other side of town, on the upper reaches of City Road. Pretty much every region of the Middle East, southern Asia and the Far East is represented here, along with a fine home-grown vegetarian/cocktail/arts joint, Milgi.
Milgi Cardiff by Milgi
And if you want to hang out with the coolest kids in class, try The Depot, an industrial warehouse that hosts joyously left-field events at weekends, and 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 and Welsh National Opera. In the city centre, St David's Hall has an eclectic programme of rock, folk and comedy, but its 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.
Wales Millennium Centre
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. And for the perfect mid-size venue, check out the 1,000-capacity Tramshed.
A lot of international visitors arrive via London, which is around two hours away by car, bus or rail. But it’s becoming increasingly easy to fly direct to Cardiff Airport from around 50 cities; here are some of the airlines and routes:
Flybe: Amsterdam, Belfast, Bergen, Berlin, Chambery, Cork, Dublin, Dusseldorf, Edinburgh, Faro, Geneva, Glasgow, Guernsey, Jersey, Kirkwall, London, Lyon, Madrid, Milan, Munich, Nice, Nuremberg, Paris, Rome, Stornoway, Sumburgh, Verona, Vienna, Wick, Zurich
Vueling: Alicante, Barcelona, Majorca, Malaga, Milan, Rome, Turin
Ryanair: Dublin, Madrid, Faro, Tenerife
Eastern Airways: Bergen, Stavanger
Qatar Airways: Doha
Where to stay?
There’s plenty of choice, from five-star hotels to B&Bs and campsites. Check out Visit Cardiff for a complete list.