Note that opening hours of attractions across the UK can change rapidly during coronavirus. Please check websites before visiting. Additionally, Cardiff is currently in a ‘firebreak,’ so visitors are not allowed.
The city centre retains plenty of vestiges from its Victorian and Edwardian heyday and is the logical start-point for exploring Cardiff – here are its 11th-century origins, at the castle that formed the heart of the medieval town, as well as its historic market, shopping streets and principal art gallery – but its diverse outer neighbourhoods carry just as much contemporary cachet: serene Pontcanna offers many of the best places to eat, drink and amble, Cardiff Bay ranks amongst Europe’s most impressive urban waterfront developments and on the city’s far-western fringe awaits Wales’ finest museum in the village of St Fagans.
Have a haggle at Cardiff Market
If you had to choose where to place your finger on Cardiff’s cosmopolitan pulse, this splendid Victorian covered market would be it. It might be simpler listing the items you cannot buy than those you can at this sea of stalls selling everything from veg to wool to walking sticks and food from old-fashioned sweets to Thai, as vendors’ sing-song voices ricochet overhead.
Insider Tip: It’s tough to pick a favourite stall, as the appeal comes from the full cornucopia, but ultra-old-school fishmongers Ashton’s have supposedly been trading here 150 years, while Hatts Emporium is one of Wales’ greatest vintage stores.
Contact: 00 44 29 2087 1214; cardiffcouncilproperty.com/cardiff-market
Stroll through the city centre’s century-old arcades
When people reference Cardiff’s renowned shopping, this septet of 19th- and early 20th-century arcades lie at the heart of the matter. Reconnecting shoppers with the city’s Victorian and Edwardian roots, these are a series of proudly independent retail outlets and places to eat and drink, coiling through a labyrinth of resplendent covered alleyways constructed between the 1850s and 1920s.
Insider Tip: The arcades consist of the Castle, High Street and Duke Street Arcades, together comprising the Castle Quarter, as well as the Dominions, Royal, Morgan and Wyndham Arcades. The must-experience store has to be retro delicatessen Wally’s, in Royal Arcade.
Opening Hours: Mon-Fri, 8.30am-6pm; Sat, 8.30am-5pm; Sun, 10am-5pm
Imbibe the intricacies of one of Wales’ finest fortresses
For a cultured breather amidst the city centre bustle, wander into Cardiff Castle’s grassy courtyard where this fortress’s enthralling history is on full show. Atop a mound squats a near-perfect example of a Norman motte-and-bailey keep, whilst the theatrically designed William Burges castle, mostly built during the 1870s for the fabulously extravagant 3rd Marquis of Bute, numbers among Wales’ most lavish buildings.
Insider Tip: Post-Covid-19, the castle’s courtyard is free-of-charge, but if possible take a tour of the fantastically decorated Burges-Bute Gothic Revivalist masterpiece. Especially, look out for the ostentatiously ornate interiors of the Arab Room, Winter and Summer Smoking Rooms.
Contact: 00 44 29 20 87 81 00; cardiffcastle.com
Admire world-class art and artefacts at the National Museum
Fronted by a lovely landscaped park, the National Museum would be a wonder for its domed, colonnaded early 20th-century façade alone. But its sublime art collection catapults Cardiff onto the world stage. One of Europe’s most dazzling displays of impressionist and post-impressionist art headlines, whilst the Evolution of Wales exhibit whisks you on a vibrant 4600 million-year trip through time in Wales from the Big Bang onwards.
Insider Tip: Other collection highlights include a striking array of ceramics from Wales and the Far East and works from Welsh artists like post-impressionist luminary Augustus John, whose famous portrait of Dylan Thomas hangs here.
Contact: 0044 300 111 2333; museum.wales/cardiff
Linger in leafy Pontcanna
This fecund neighbourhood northwest of centre is where Cardiff grows all green and lovely. With tree-flanked thoroughfares strung between the four parks of Pontcanna Fields, Llandaff Fields, Thompson’s Park and Victoria Park, it seems expertly tailored to the roving gastronome, its bars and cafes, many in swanky set-back townhouses, dotted every couple of blocks. The thrumming community hub is the Chapter Arts Centre: a focus for innovative cinema, theatre, exhibitions and talks.
Insider Tip: The Pontcanna crowd are friendly folks, and with proprietors invariably willing to engage passers-by in food-related debate, this is a great place to discover how Cardiff really ticks.
Contact: 00 44 29 20 31 10 50; chapter.org
Quaff a beer at a microbrewery
Cardiff might be synonymous with S.A. Brain & Co, Wales’ biggest brewer, but the capital is at the cutting edge of Welsh craft beer too. Newport-based, national beer award-scooping Tiny Rebel brewery opened Cardiff’s first craft beer bar in 2013 and the city has since spawned Pipes Brewery, operating out of Pontcanna, and Crafty Devil brewery, with outlets in Pontcanna and Penarth.
Insider Tip: Pipes Brewery is based in the sequestered-away Kings Road Yard, a dinky mews of unique, famously flavoursome foodie businesses worth nosing around, and with a worthwhile farmer’s market on Saturday mornings.
Whirl around Cardiff Bay’s waters from the National Watersports Centre
Out on its own peninsula along from Cardiff Bay, it is easy to overlook the National Watersports Centre as a visitor. Do not. This is your springboard to sampling some of Britain’s most incredible city-based water activities. Stand-up paddle-boarding, tubing and latest craze river-boarding are available at this Olympic-standard facility but the best adventure is kayaking out into Cardiff Bay, with one of the continent’s most ambitious and dramatic waterfront developments fanning photogenically around you.
Insider Tip: From here it is a 10km-odd loop right around Cardiff Bay by foot/bike via Cardiff Bay Barrage. The National Watersports Centre hires out bikes if you prefer pedalling.
Contact: 0044 29 2082 9970; ciww.com
Opening Times: Pre-booked activities only
Get a fix of seaside time at Penarth or Barry
Penarth sits across the River Ely from Cardiff, but a very different vibe permeates in this smart, laidback old resort town, dipping to a stone-and-sand beach and elegant late-Victorian pier. Just west, Barry boasts two beautiful sandy beaches and has undergone a major image change recently to become touted as the next Cardiff Bay because of its growing tally of sophisticated restaurants.
Insider Tip: Barry still sports fun-loving tack a-plenty along its seafront, not to mention its myriad connections to cult comedy TV show Gavin & Stacey, but suave new Barry is emerging a few streets back around The Goodsheds and The Pumphouse developments.
Contact: Vale of Glamorgan Tourism 00 44 14 46 70 48 67; visitthevale.com
Be mesmerised by a microcosm of Welsh heritage at St Fagans National Museum of History
This is one of the world’s very best open-air museums, where buildings from across the country and its most seminal periods of history have been dismantled then faithfully reassembled across delightful 100-acre grounds enfolding St Fagans Castle. The result is a touching architectural tapestry of Wales, weaving together such edifices as a Middle Ages farmhouse, 18th-century chapel, WW1 miners’ institute and legendary early 20th-century Cardiff boozer The Vulcan Hotel.
Insider Tip: Save time for the imposing Elizabethan manor house of St Fagans Castle itself, as well as for the brilliantly recreated Iron Age roundhouses and llys (court) of medieval Welsh prince Llywelyn Fawr. The museum is free; the parking you pay for (£6.50).
Contact: 00 44 30 01 11 23 33; museum.wales/stfagans