Castles, culture and Cardiff: 4 reasons why Wales is on my bucket list
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I’m very lucky that I’m able to travel a lot — both for personal trips and also with my job. I love flying, planes and everything about remote locations. But it has occurred to me that whilst I take various annual trips to see friends in far-flung places such as New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. West Coast, there are many places closer to home that I haven’t visited — but I would like to.
A few years ago, I wanted to get a bit more thoughtful about my travel plans and destinations and so in 2019, I ticked off four places that I’ve always wanted to visit but had never been: New Orleans, Iceland, Bali and Bath, England. The plan for this year had been Vietnam and Brazil, Chile or Ecuador.
On my less-defined bucket list has always been the trans-Siberian railway, a road trip through a European country, the Italian lakes, Morocco — and Wales.
Given COVID-19 means that my more far-flung bucket-list vacations are unlikely to happen this year, I have decided that 2020 is the year I visit Wales.
It’s a different country — yet close to London
Whilst it is part of the United Kingdom, Wales is a country with its own culture, language and heritage. It’s bordered with England on the east and the Irish Sea on the north and west.
It has a population of 3.1 million, compared to 5.4 million people who live in Scotland, meaning that just less than 5% of the U.K.’s population of 66 million live in Wales. With a coastline of 1,680 miles and largely mountainous terrain, Wales offers unique countryside and natural beauty. Both English and Welsh are official languages, with English being the predominant first language in most parts. Still, street signs and many sights have either retained their Welsh names or they’re shown in both languages.
I know very little about Welsh culture but have always been intrigued by the Welsh language — there’s something almost mystical about it. Whilst a lot of people might rightly have Scotland on their “must visit” list and are aware of its heritage and culture, I feel Wales can be a forgotten gem within the U.K.
Getting to Wales is relatively easy both via train and car, and Cardiff Airport has direct links to a number of U.K., European and international destinations — both scheduled and charter (largely aimed at Welsh residents heading on vacation). The currency is pound sterling like in the rest of the U.K.
For me, it’ll either be a train or car journey from London.
Castles and heritage
Having recently covered how to vacation in the U.K. in a castle, including the stunning Roch Castle in Wales, there is no shortage of majestic residences in Wales to visit, explore or stay at. Whilst I used to tell my parents as a kid on vacations that one waterfall or castle is nice but 15 of them get boring, there’s something fascinating about castles, their history and the roles they played in centuries past. Wales, from my research, has plenty to offer on that front. Here are just a few that I’ll be looking to include on my trip.
Conwy Castle in North Wales, built between 1283 and 1289, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and described as “one of the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th-century military architecture in Europe.”
Located on the northwest coast of Wales, Caernarfon Castle is a medieval fortress dating back to the 11th century. It was used for the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1911 and again in 1969 for Prince Charles (fans of “The Crown” might recognize it from being featured in the most recent series). It is part of the World Heritage Site “Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd.”
Built in the 13th century, Caerphilly Castle is the largest castle in Wales and the second-largest in the U.K. It is surrounded by a moat and extensive artificial lakes, which have been called “the most elaborate water defenses in all Britain” by historian Allen Brown.
More information on stunning castles to visit in Wales can be found on the official Visit Wales website.
Nature and National Parks
Snowdonia National Park is probably one of the best-known attractions of Wales and features the tallest mountain in England and Wales. With 1,000 square miles of nature, there’s a lot on offer. That includes almost every outdoor activity you can think of but includes more hidden attractions, such as the Llechwedd Slate Caverns where you can descend underground on the steepest mining cable railway in Europe, visit an underground trampoline park or Europe’s largest zip-lining zone. Or, of course, all of the above.
For those worried about reaching Snowdon’s summit on foot, the Snowdon Mountain Railway is your friend. Though it only goes at about five miles per hour, the wonderful views make up for it.
For those preferring coastal beauty, Pembrokeshire National Park is the obvious place to soak up glorious landscapes and sea views at the same time. In fact, National Geographic Traveler magazine in the U.S. rated the coast as one of the top two coastal destinations in the world.
Again, the range of activities on offer is extensive. Whether it’s a visit to St Davids Cathedral (St Davids is Britain’s smallest city with just 1,600 residents), the Wales Coast Path, various water activities such as coasteering or even whale and dolphin watching, there’s something for everyone.
The Brecon Beacons is the third National Park in Wales. Whist possibly lesser known than the two others, it has no shortage of things to do and see.
Portmeirion was developed less than a hundred years ago as a tourist village, designed to look like Italy. It is beautiful, if somewhat bizarre, as it is in Wales. It’s been used as the location for numerous films and TV shows, such as “The Prisoner” and “Cold Feet.” The whole village is owned and run by a charitable trust with the majority of buildings being used as hotel rooms or self-catering cottages. Visitors can head to the village for the day, and it’s certainly on my list.
Aberystwyth’s fame may well come from being the title of a famous hymn, but it’s not to be dismissed as a destination. It is one of Wales’ largest towns, has an ancient castle and is a good place to stop on your journey from North to South Wales.
Cardiff is both the capital of Wales and its biggest city with a population of 450,000. The Welsh Parliament, Senedd Cymry, is based there, and it is Wales’ commercial center. Visit Wales describes it as a “compact, friendly capital” and I am a fan of those — smaller capitals often offer plenty of culture and heritage to explore without being overwhelming. In fact, I am a big fan of free walking tours, which are usually on offer in most capitals and cities, including Cardiff.
Offering everything from pop-up dining to intimate gigs and global sporting events, national museums and a spectacular castle, I am likely going to spend at least two nights here to explore what’s on offer.
Cardiff offers everything you’d expect from a capital city. Cardiff Castle, the Wales Millennium Centre and Cardiff Bay are some of the attractions that should be on your list.
Travel isn’t about ticking boxes, but there are a lot of things about Wales that make me want to visit it. And this feels a good year to do it given international travel this summer feels unlikely.
There’s a certain mystery about Wales, given its culture and language. I always knew it was a gorgeous place but researching the destination and seeing stunning pictures has only made me want to go more. It’s also straightforward and very economic to get to — so I’m wondering why it’s taken a pandemic to push Wales to the top of my bucket list.
Gweld chi yno! (See you there!)
Featured photo by George W Johnson/Getty Images
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