7 ways to get the most out of a city break in Cardiff

Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker

If you had told someone a few decades ago how Cardiff* would look today, they would never have believed it. Gone are the stinky mudflats of the docks and in their place is a parade of striking architecture.

Cardiff's Millennium Centre & Pierhead Building
Cardiff's Millennium Centre & Pierhead Building © Alan - Adobe Stock Image

Where the city once shipped coal to the world, locals now get a buzz white-water rafting or sipping expertly mixed cocktails on terraces with views across the bay.

Chefs are shooting for Michelin stars. Speakeasies glimmer with 1920s glamour. Embracing this newfound cool, the Welsh capital now has its moment to shine.

You'll find all the big city hallmarks here, from culture-rammed galleries to concert halls and a cake-topper of a castle resting on 2,000 years of history, but there's much more besides. Here's our pick of the best ways to get the most out of Cardiff.

Staying to Cardiff: browse great value accommodation in the Welsh capital at the likes of Hilton*, IHG*, Travelodge* and Premier Inn*.

Discover Bute Park life

Cardiff is a city on the fringes of some incredible wild spaces and Bute Park is where you really sense it.

Sculpture on the Animal Wall in Bute Park
Sculpture on the Animal Wall in Bute Park © Dudlajzov - Adobe Stock Image

Hugging the banks of the River Taff, this long ribbon of greenery threads through central Cardiff to the Pontcanna Fields and the ancient, protected Blackweir Woods, humming with wildlife from kingfishers to woodpeckers and otters.

You can walk for miles here through rewilded meadows, beautifully landscaped gardens snug against the medieval castle walls and along avenues plumed with rare trees.

If you're up for more than a quick stroll, walk two miles to Norman cathedral-topped Llandaff. This is where Roald Dahl was born, went to school and got up to all kinds of pranks at Mrs Pratchett's sweetshop (look for the blue plaque).

Or hire a bike with Pedal Power in Pontcanna to hook onto the 55-mile Taff Trail, linking Cardiff to Brecon.

Cycling the Taff Trail
Cycling the Taff Trail © Crown copyright Cymru Wales

When the sun's out, swing over to the green-minded Secret Garden Café and its lovely walled garden for locally roasted coffee, light lunches and homemade cakes.

Go for cocktails in the city centre

With one of the UK's biggest student populations, Cardiff fizzes with nightlife. And the Welsh capital loves nothing more than a good cocktail be it in a speakeasy with 1920s sparkle or on a roof terrace. There are so many cool bars popping up now, it's hard to keep tabs.

Look for the bell and golden feather to locate The Dead Canary, a dark, bronze-kissed, stylish den of a speakeasy, where you can order fabulous-looking cocktails inspired by Welsh folklore and superstitions.

Swing over to Victorian-chic, apothecary-inspired Pennyroyal for spirits and remedies by candlelight as DJs spin hip hop. Jacob's Roof Garden, perched on top of an antique centre near Cardiff Central, offers cocktails with on-high views, DJs and occasional live music.

Hit the water in Cardiff Bay

The great sweep of Cardiff Bay is the backdrop for Cardiff International White Water, where you can ramp up thrills white-water rafting Olympic-standard rapids or hotdogging on a two-person inflatable kayak.

Levels range from family to extreme in difficulty; bring bathers and a towel. Or for something gentler, admire the cityscape while stand-up paddleboarding.

Wave riding at Cardiff International White Water
Wave riding at Cardiff International White Water © Crown copyright Cymru Wales

If you would prefer to let someone else do the work, hop aboard the Aquabus. An enviable commute, the boat breezes from the Bay to the city centre, passing the wetlands nature reserve and big-hitter landmarks like the Millennium Centre and Pierhead building. There are departures hourly from 10.30 am to 4.30 pm.

Dive into Pontcanna & Canton

Many who visit Cardiff never stray beyond the city centre and Bay, but they're missing a trick. Victorian villa-lined Pontcanna and edgily urban Canton move to a mellow, arty, less-touristy vibe. This is where Cardiff locals come for indie cafés, craft breweries and the world on a plate.

Expert coffee at BRØD
Expert coffee at BRØD - photo courtesy of BRØD

Pontcanna's food and drink scene is flourishing; there's Danish bakery BRØD for cinnamon swirls, Milkwood for an imaginative brunch or lunch playing up superb regional produce, and the Brewhouse for hyperlocal craft beers for starters.

Cowbridge Road buzzes through neighbouring Canton, which is great for ethnic eats. Try the Purple Poppadom for sophisticated takes on Indian dishes and Mattancherry for nicely spiced Keralan curries and thali feasts.

Chapter Arts Centre delivers a mix of exhibitions, indie films and performing arts with an alternative edge.

Get your cultural kicks

The unmissable is the National Museum Cardiff, with displays on natural history, the evolution of Wales, from meteorites to dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, and five centuries of art under one beautiful Edwardian dome.

The art collection is particularly strong on impressionism and post-impressionism, with Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh wonders, but the Welsh landscapes are just as gripping, with scenes from steelworks to castle-topped hills.

Examining Rodin's work at the National Museum Cardiff
Examining Rodin's work at the National Museum Cardiff © Crown copyright Cymru Wales

Once the beating heart of the coal industry, rags-to-riches Cardiff Bay is now a showcase of cutting-edge architecture.

A wander here takes in the revamped Coal Exchange (now a boutique hotel), the shimmering bronze Millennium Centre, where the Welsh National Opera perform, the whimsically romantic red-brick Victorian Pierhead building and its sustainable sidekick, the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) with its flying carpet-like roof.

Book a date-night dinner

Cardiff's food scene has exploded recently, with a crop of increasingly exciting restaurants and pop-ups. One of the most raved-about tables is Pasture near the castle, with its hip industrial looks, dry-ageing cabinets and sensational Welsh steaks.

For Bay views, snag a window table at Tir a Môr at voco St David's, where the menu sings of the finest Welsh produce in dishes like Anglesey mussels with Welsh cider and 'nduja.

Soaking up the sun at Pasture
Soaking up the sun at Pasture © Kathy deWitt - Alamy Stock Photo

For more of a buzz, make your way over to Curado, a gorgeous hit of Spain, where carefully sourced vermouths are paired with pintxos (bite-sized snacks) at cheek-by-jowl tables.

For a meal to remember, hop over to Penarth and Michelin-starred Home by James Sommerin, where James and his sous-chef daughter Georgia (of Great British Menu fame) deliver stunning eight-course, season-driven surprise menus in sexily dark surrounds.

Show the kids castles & the Bay

With boats buzzing across the water and huge green spaces like Bute Park, Cardiff is a cracking city for kids.

Sights that are sure-fire kid pleasures include Techniquest, a temple of science wizardry and a brilliant rainy-day plan, jam-packed with hands-on experiments.

If it's warmer, you could walk or pedal the length of Cardiff Bay all the way to the Barrage. Here kids can let off steam in the boat-themed adventure playground, skate park and summer-only Aqua Park, with giant inflatable slides, flip stations and blast bags.

There's also a 10-metre-long Enormous Crocodile (of Roald Dahl kids' book fame), with a truly wicked grin.

Cardiff's castles are excellent for families; the biggie in the park, Cardiff Castle, has Roman roots and a Norman keep, while Castell Coch is whimsically turreted.

Both were the playthings of the crazily rich John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute, who unleashed his neo-Gothic fantasies (and cash) on them.

Impressive Castell Coch
Impressive Castell Coch © Crown copyright Cymru Wales

For a romp through Welsh heritage, make the short trek west to St Fagans Natural History Museum, where around 50 historic buildings have been painstakingly recreated in landscaped castle grounds, from Iron Age roundhouses to a corn mill, school and chapel.

There's plenty here for families, from native breeds of Welsh livestock in the farmyards to traditional craft demos with millers, blacksmiths and clog-makers.

Weather in Cardiff

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Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker is a Wales-based travel writer and author. Kerry specialises in Wales, Central and Southern Europe. She regularly writes for The Telegraph and National Geographic Traveller among others. She's also authored/co-authored over 20 travel guides. Kerry's a qualified translator, avid photographer and lover of mountains and remote destinations.

Posted on Tuesday 22nd August 2023 in: City Culture UK

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