1. St Fagan’s National Museum of History
For your introduction to Wales, there’s no better place than St Fagan’s, just outside Cardiff. For the last several decades, the museum’s archaeologists have been tracking down endangered examples of ancient buildings all across Wales, dismantling them, and rebuilding them in the extensive gardens of St Fagan’s Castle. Wales’ biggest tourist attraction is free to enter, you can easily spend the whole day there, and there are frequent special exhibitions, especially during the summer holidays. From iron-age huts to medieval churches, to farm houses and townhouses, the huge collection includes a bakery, cobblers and weavers, a pottery, a tannery, and a water mill, many in operation, and all with immensely knowledgeable curators who are happy to talk extensively about the building. Currently under construction is a medieval prince’s hall, and The Vulcan pub from Cardiff (which I remember as being rather intimidating and scary — maybe that’s why it closed?). My personal favourite is the terrace of workers’ cottages, each one decorated and furnished in the style of each subsequent generation from 1800 to the 1980’s.
Following your tour of the buildings, there’s the gardens and the “castle” (actually a fortified manor house) itself to visit, which has changed little since the seventeenth century. Add to that the museum’s display galleries, and you’ll probably reach closing time before you feel you’ve seen everything.
2. Castell Coch, Tongwynlais
What does the richest man in the world do for a hobby? In the case of John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd marquess of Bute, who controlled most of Wales’ coal industry, he built castles. So do I, only mine are little ones made of match sticks. He bought ruins, and rebuilt them.
Not that the marquess lived in his castles. It was the building process that he loved, and he lost interest once they were complete. Castel Coch, with three bedroooms and no bathrooms, he never even spent a night in, but the riot of medieval fantasy, the extravagance of the decor, will make your jaw drop. Kids love it too, because it’s the fulfilment of every King Arthur and Princess fantasy they ever had.
Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis lived to be a very old man, nearly a hundred when he died in 1978, which was just as well because the famous architect’s fantasy village in Portmeirion was a lifelong labour of love, and would have been much smaller and less impressive had he lived a normal life span. Less ambitious people would simply have travelled from Wales to Italy. Williams-Ellis brought Italy to Wales, and what an extraordinary collection of building it is! Located just outside Porthmadog, it’s well worth a detour for a couple of hours as you motor along the A470. It’s as well to check in advance to make sure it’s not being used for filming.
4. Snowdonia National Park
To be honest, it’s simplistic to describe Snowdonia as a “place to visit.” You could easily spend an entire family holiday in Snowdonia, and still not come close to doing everything. What appeals to you? Sight seeing? Hiking or cycling? Outdoor activities? Fine dining? Shopping? Golf? Snowdonia’s got it all in such diverse quantities, it’s impossible to know where to start, or to do justice to it all in a short article. So, look, just check out the website, select for yourself what appeals, and see the huge range of things to do in Snowdonia
5. Big Pit, Blaenavon
Blaenavon is where the industrial revolution started, being here they found iron ore and coal in the same place. The size and complexity of the operation boggles the mind. For a century, an army of people poured wheelbarrows of ore and coal into the top of kilns the size of tower blocks, and another army tapped off liquid iron from the bottom and channeled it into moulds. And thus it continued 24 hours a day, every day, without ceasing for so much as Christmas, for a hundred years.
The coal mine at Big Pit continued long after the iron moved elsewhere, finally ceasing operations in 1980. Three years later, it reopened as a museum. Guides who used to be miners will take you down the lift and along the underground shafts with an unforgettable commentary about how they personally brought the coal to the surface. Attached to the mine are galleries with exhibitions of mining equipment. Next to it are the old iron works and workers’ cottages, with attached museums of the operation. A tremendous day out and all of it … umm, what’s that lovely little word again? Oh yes, free!
6. Caerfai Bay, St David’s
Visiting St David’s with an American friend a few years ago, she said, “I want to see a proper lonely smuggler’s cove.” So I took her to the coviest place I know, Caerfai Bay. Little known, and off the main road, accessible only on foot by a path winding down the cliffs, it’s generally deserted. Take a stroll along the cliff tops, and you’ll run into an old iron-age fort too. So if you keep a sharp look-out a couple of miles from St David’s, and head out there, there’s a good chance you’ll have the place all to yourselves — just you, the cliffs, the sand, the wild flowers and the butterflies, and the great blue yonder commonly known as the Atlantic Ocean — and if it wasn’t used by smugglers, I’d be astonished. Probably still is!
7. ZipWorld, Penrhyn Slate Quarry, Bethesda
There is absolutely nothing I can say of Europe’s longest zip line better than this video:
8. National Botanic Garden of Wales, Carmarthenshire
Set in the beautiful Carmarthenshire countryside, the Garden is a fascinating blend of the modern and historic.
Here you’ll find an inspiring range of themed gardens, the world’s largest single-span glasshouse, a brand-new tropical Butterfly House, play areas and a national nature reserve, all set in a Regency landscape which provides the stage for a packed programme of events and courses throughout the year. It’s wheel-chair friendly, you can bring your pets, and there’s plenty to keep the kids excited and entertained too. A really grand day out that is well worth the drive.
A world heritage site which hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages. With a royal castle and a fascinating history, a medieval walled town, an Elizabethan town house, and the oldest coaching inn in Wales, still independently owned after five centuries of continuous operation, Conwy is a delightful town in which you can easily spend the entire day, and which will be a fascinating for children as it is for adults
Conwy was initially established as a safe town for all the craftsmen who were needed to service the massive castle, where they led prosperous if often nervous lives hiding behind walls thirty feet high, unsafe more than a bow’s shot from the castle walls. The walls are remarkably complete. The town was largely flattened by a siege in 1400 (although one building, Aberconwy House, still survives), when the Welsh rebel, Gwilliam ap Tudor (yes, the same family as the royal dynasty) captured the castle during the Glyndwr rebellion. The town was rebuilt and entered its heyday in the sixteenth century.
It was in the 1570’s that Robert Wynn, a prosperous merchant, built himself a grand house, calling it — with no false modesty — Plas Mawr, which means “Great Place.” Although fairly unremarkable from the outside, the interior was fabulously adorned and remains largely preserved. It’s a terrific step back in time.
And if you’re looking for a meal, or even just a pint, the Groes Inn also dates from the same era, being largely unspoiled. Starting life as a coaching inn, where people exhausted by the gruelling journey from London could get a hot dinner and a bed, it has been in continuous operation ever since then, and remains a family-owned hotel, the oldest licensed inn in Wales.
10. Cardiff arcades
No holiday is complete without at least a little shopping therapy, right? Cardiff is fabulously blessed with shopping arcades, filled with all manner of specialist and off-beat outlets. Want a kilt? An antique book? A Thai face mask? Vine leaves farci? Take a stroll down the Morgan, Royal, Castle or Duke Street Arcades, where, in Edwardian splendour, you can spend hours browsing one fascinating artisan shop after another.