When I picture Wales, I envision ancient castles along coastal cliffs that drop into the sea. Imagine my surprise when our entry into the country was by way of a very modern bridge across the River Severn.
We drove from England toward Cardiff, where we’d booked a room at the YHA Hostel. We’d always considered ourselves too old for hostels, which tend to cater to travelers in their 20s who are backpacking their way across Europe … or so we thought. But Cardiff hotel rooms were running in the range of $200-250 USD per night, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to blow the budget like that.
After GPS directions had us driving in circles for an hour (set your GPS for Sinclair Volkswagen Cardiff or these coordinates for more accurate wayfinding: 51.476522, -3.16289), we finally checked into YHA late in the evening and asked the friendly front desk staff for reassurances that we wouldn’t be sleeping on bunk beds in a room with 20 other people. We were pleasantly surprised by our room, which was simple but spacious and included two queen-sized beds and a private bathroom with towels (luxuries in the hostel world).
Our friend Emma spent her childhood in Wales and returns often to visit family, so she was our main resource for things to see and do during our visit. Her enthusiasm for the country is contagious!
We only had two days, which barely allowed us to scratch the surface of her wonderful list, but we loved what we did see. So we will pass all of her suggestions along to you and save them for our own future trips to Wales. Cymru am byth!
St. Fagan’s National Museum of History, the national museum of Wales, offers free admission and is located on the grounds of St. Fagan’s castle, which was built in the 16th century. It’s surrounded by beautiful gardens and has more than 40 historic buildings that have been relocated from elsewhere in Wales, including St. Mary’s Church and St. Telio’s Church. Traditional craftsmen such as blacksmiths and potters practice their arts on site, and many of them sell the works they create.
“I was there last July, and it has changed so much since I went on school trips and then with my family,” Emma said. “It is the first museum that I truly fell in love with because it’s a ‘living history’ museum — I remember the pure fascination of it all. As I recall, the first time I went was on a school trip from my teeny tiny village school in Gorsley (near Newent) in Gloucestershire, which you drove through to get to Cardiff.”
“If you go out the gate [of St. Fagan’s] behind the manor house, there is a pub over the road that does a good lunch.”
Caerphilly Castle served as the backdrop for BBC series Merlin, and the largest castle in Wales is set for a makeover with plans to add “an interactive maze, a mystical Dragons’ Lair with audiovisual effects, and regular live firings of four medieval Siege Engines,” according to Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic environmental service agency.
There’s no telling how this will affect the 750-year-old medieval fortress, except that construction will likely interfere with some aspects of castle visits over the next three years. But it’s still worth a visit in the meantime!
After some time seeing Cardiff, Emma recommends that visitors keep going and head for Rhossili Bay for a gorgeous hike out to the Worms Head and a true look at the Welsh Coast. “You can stand and look at Ireland practically!” It’s located within an area designated as the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the United Kingdom.
Then head towards Kidwelly Castle (a full Norman castle) and on to Laugharne, the home of poet Dylan Thomas and the basis for his 1954 radio drama Under Milk Wood and A Child’s Christmas in Wales, composed in 1952 (“Which my father makes us listen to every. single. Christmas,” noted Emma).
“When I was at the University of Wales,” she said, “my father came to visit me, and given that I am a writer and poet, we set out for Laugharne and had a nice walk round the town. We got to Thomas’s boathouse just as it was closing — literally, they were shutting the door. I begged and begged and begged and begged the lady to let me come in and look around, even said I lived in America. She would not have it! So, I went to his front door but never got to go inside — another trip! [Laugharne is a] nice town.”
Depending upon what direction you want to go and how far, Emma suggests driving a bit further out the Gower peninsula toward Swansea. “Just past there is the Mumbles — famous for ‘the Mumbles Mile’ — which is essentially a long line of pubs. Not sure if it is still a thing, but doing the Mumbles mile is a pub crawl to remember,” she noted.
Heading toward Snowdonia National Park and along that coast, Emma recommends visiting Portmeirion. “If you are fans of ’60s pop culture, you might be familiar with a cult favourite series (very mod) called The Prisoner,” she explained. The town’s unique architecture is was designed by a single architect with the intent of resembling a Mediterranean village. “Bright colours and interesting designs. Gorgeous garden as well.”
Not far from Portmeirion is Mount Snowdon, one of the highest peaks in the British Isles. “I have not been there yet, but given my proclivity for hiking and the outdoors you’d better believe it’s on my bucket list!” Emma said.
Hereford is a big market town, and Gloucester is close by. “Gloucester is a bit grim these days, but the docks are not bad,” Emma said. “A lot of Harry Potter was filmed at the Gloucester Cathedral.”
If you are heading toward Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds, Emma has several wonderful recommendations that I can’t wait to check out on a future visit:
- Bath: “It is a must, and I would also add Bristol to that.”
- Lacock: “So untouched that it is used for period pieces all the time. It has not changed — no electric wires anywhere or anything — and Lacock Abbey is home to the father of photography. Super interesting to tour!”
- Avebury: “Home of another famous set of standing stones and one of the most serene places I have been.”
- Tetbury: “Our home was not far from Prince Charles’s home, Highgrove, so last summer mum and I did a garden tour and afternoon tea there. Incredible! But you have to book online in advance. Rosemary Verey, the “mother” of British garden design, has a garden at Barnsley House nearby.
Emma leaves us all with two solid recommendations for a visit to Wales no matter where our journeys take us. “Have a Pimm’s Cup for me, and please try Welsh laver cake. It is a delicacy! It’s mostly in South Wales, so get it in Cardiff or go to Swansea and get it on the market.”
Thank you for everything, Emma! Cheers to you — and to Wales!