5 of my favourite places in Wales
To most of the UK, Wales is its best kept secret. Sure, some people may travel west from London to holiday in Pembrokeshire. And folk may know the word Snowdonia for its poetic name and status as the park containing the highest point on the British Isles outside of the Scottish Highlands.
But beyond memories of the Stereophonics, Tom Jones and Charlotte Church, most thoughts end there. Even the Welsh name for Snowdonia, Eryri (pronounced eh-ruh-ree) isn’t on most people’s radars.
And that’s a crying shame. Because this snug and sing-song country tacked on to the west of England has some absolutely cracking sights.
Zip up your anoraks, pull on your walking boots, get ready to fill your stomach, your camera and your soul with good cheer and allow me to introduce you to five of my favourite places in Wales.
Cardiff, the Capital
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Although only recognised as the capital in 1955, Cardiff has been around for ages and it has the castle to prove it. Compact, cheeky and decidedly chippy, it was only a century or so ago that this was one of the biggest ports in the world. Cardiff Docks shipped coal from the Valleys to fuel the industrial revolution around the world. Tall tales and salty slang fuelled activities around Tiger Bay.
Today, it’s cleaned up its act a little. Sailboats drift on gentle water,the Welsh Parliament meets at the Senedd and slate gleams in purples and grey at the enigmatic Wales Millennium Centre (aka the Armadillo.)
While the columns and stony facade of City Hall and the National Museum of Wales give a sense of grandeur, Cardiff’s real charm lies in the fact that, quite frankly, it isn’t on the same scale as other capital cities. It is small and easily navigated. And as a result, residents tend to feel more connected, less stressed and happy to head to the beach at the weekend. Or perhaps that’s just me.
Strumble Head, Pembrokeshire
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Quite honestly, I could fill an entire article with beautiful spots in Pembrokeshire. But forced to choose just five places overall, let me introduce you to my entry for Pembrokeshire: Stumble Head.
This gleaming white lighthouse on the edge of craggy rock combines science and technology with that sense that you’ve reached the end of the world.
It serves as a conservation area today but over the years has been involved in several (unsuccessful) invasions from foreign powers. That’s hard to imagine now, as seals and porpoises swim and shimmer between the waves.
Other highlights of Pembrokeshire include St Davids, the city with the country’s smallest cathedral, Narbeth for foodies, Tenby for Victorian seaside charm and Newport Sands and Whitesands for long, beautiful sandy beaches.
The Centre for Alternative Technology, Powys
Long before Greta Thunberg skipped school and forced politicians to talk about climate change, the CAT got to work near Machynlleth. Founded in the 1970s on a disused quarry site, the CAT researches not only alternative technology but also all aspects of sustainable living.
But a James Bond-like chrome lair it is not. Perched high in leafy Mid Wales, it uses water power to lift visitors up into its elevated land. There, you can find a cross between a theme park, a garden centre and a research powerhouse.
You can head underground and meet insects and moles, look at how best to insulate your house via 3D models, learn useful gardening tips for a more eco-friendly life and let your kids go wild in the wooden adventure playground.
It’s fun, it’s useful, it’s inspiring and, let’s face it, it is needed in today’s (sorry) climate.
Good old Llanfair PG has not only the longest name in Wales, but also in the UK and even, let’s push the boat out, the whole of Europe. In fact, according to people who count these kind of things, it’s the second longest place name in the world.
Truthfully, there’s not all that much to see at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch itself, other than cheeky and cheesy tourists lining up to have their photo taken (yes, that is me against the wall.)
However, Llanfair PG sits between a range of stunningly beautiful places and that’s why it makes it onto this list. You can travel further west to sweeping lavender plains and stooping cliffs on Anglesey, or stay east of the Menai Strait and visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site castles of King Edward I at Beaumaris, Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech.
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Billed as the first tourist site in the world, the ruins of Tintern Abbey make a hauntingly beautiful highlight in a country that’s full of hauntingly beautiful ruins.
Tintern Abbey was originally built by Cistercian monks towards the end of the 12th century. What began as a simple wooden place of worship grew to become a work of architectural magnificence, with high vaulted arches and a seven-lancet window.
Come King Henry VIII (a Welshman, as it goes) and the Reformation, it was abandoned in 1536, crumbling to form a majestic ruin.
Then, in a strange quirk of fate, the French Revolution stopped wealthy creatives from their European trips, forcing them to explore areas closer to home. Work from JMW Turner and William Wordsworth fuelled interest in Tintern, and this sleepy part of the Wye Valley became a tourist hotspot.
Tintern is easily accessible at the end of the Wye Valley and sits surrounded by picturesque river walks and tasty genteel eateries. It’s a great place to stop and stretch your legs on the popular London to Pembrokeshire driving route or, indeed, as a day trip from Cardiff.
Abigail King is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who has worked with the BBC, UNESCO, the EU, NASA and more. She’s the founder of Inside the Travel Lab, described by National Geographic Traveler as “Essential Reading” and Lonely Planet as “one of the best travel blogs in the world.”