More sparsely populated and rural than neighbouring England, Wales offers a welcome and picturesque escape into a unique yet still familiar culture. Vibrant towns, castles seemingly around every turn, rolling green hills, and towering peaks lend Wales a rustic beauty and storybook quality. That’s not to say the country is only for the outdoorsy types. Cosmopolitan Cardiff and bustling Swansea offer a significantly different, but no less fascinating experience for visitors – not the mention the many vibrant, smaller towns. Stay with us, and we’ll cover some of the best examples of where to go in Wales.
The ideal way to really explore Wales (beyond the southern cities) is in a car. Whether you travel on the A487 along the coast or snake your way through the hills and mountains of the interior, there is no better way to see the Welsh scenery. But be warned, there is a distinct lack of major roads as you move north, so your journey can be a bit confusing. While it might be somewhat frustrating to navigate your way slowly around the hilly terrain, it remains the best way to experience the country. Rail travel is an option, but the trains are not well linked between the north and south, so journey’s can take much longer than they should. Bus travel is also an option, but this can take a while as well and is not nearly as enjoyable as driving yourself. Flying into Cardiff is possible from Canada, though you’re generally going to want to fly in via London (more on prices later).
Wales enjoys (if that’s the right word) a similar climate to most of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Winters are mild, summers are warm, and the weather is often cloudy and rainy. Overall, anytime of the year is a viable time to visit, though you’ll likely enjoy it more in the summer months (especially if you plan on hiking). Higher altitude regions in Snowdonia stay relatively cool year round – as you might expect. There’s an old saying from Swansea (the UK’s wettest city) that goes, “If you can see Mumbles Head it is going to rain – if you can’t, it is raining”. In other words, bring a raincoat.
Where to go in Wales
Like other major British cities, Cardiff finds itself stuck in an interesting middle ground between ancient history and the modern fixings of the 21st century. As the largest city in the country, Cardiff has exploded both architecturally and culturally over the last 15 years. Today, the city still possess remnants of its past but the main draw is the cosmopolitan atmosphere that you can’t find in many other places of the country. Take in a rugby match at the famous Millennium Stadium (if you can get a ticket), tour a museum, or simply let loose in one of the many bars, pubs, or clubs. While the city offers a lot to do and the modern buildings are impressive to look at, there aren’t a huge amount of sights in Cardiff if you’re looking for a more traditional tourist experience. Still, no trip to Wales should be undertaken without at least a stop in the capital.
Wales’ second largest city is a significantly different animal to Cardiff. While the city itself may not be hugely awe-inspiring at first glance, the location is second to none. Set on Gower Peninsula along Swansea Bay, the city possesses some of the most beautiful stretch of coastline you can find in the UK. Reaching all the way to nearby Mumbles, the cliffs and beaches near Swansea are sure to draw a gasp from any visitor. Despite the somewhat drab post war aesthetic to Swansea, the city itself is very lively, with a sizable student population contributing to a vibrant bar and restaurant scene. Swansea is undergoing some regeneration that is making it easier on the eye but the architecture isn’t the main reason to visit the city anyways. Whether enjoying a Premier League match from August to May, wandering along the picturesque coast, or having a night out – Swansea is sure to be memorable no matter what.
This mountain range located in South Wales offers some of the most spectacular scenery in Britain. The Brecon Beacons National Park is home to a dramatic variety of locations for hiking and other outdoor adventures. Black Mountain features high elevation moors and spectacular glacial lakes, Fforest Fawr features streams and waterfalls aplenty, Brecon Beacons are distinctive flat-topped hills, while Black Mountains (plural) offer rolling hills and ridges. Whether it’s hiking or biking you love, the park is a great place for more than enough of both, in a convenient location (the park stretches to the English border).
Set on the beautiful Cardigan Bay, this student town offers a raucous and lively escape from the more serene areas of Mid-Wales. The student population dominates the social scene during term time and gives life to the disproportionately high amount of pubs found in Aberystwyth. Rest assured, you’ll never not be able to find a drink in this town. Beyond the public houses, witness the amazing sunset (or sunrise if you’re still awake) over the bay, visit the ruined castle, venture out into the surrounding wilds, and much more. Still, drinking is the main pastime here during the school year, which makes the town ideal for the younger crowd.
This walled city in the north of the country is one of the premier historic sites in Wales. Conwy Castle, built by Edward I of England, is the dominating fixture in the town and a must-see if you make it up this way. Step back into the life of a garrison commander and you’ll be treated to sea views on one side and rolling green hills on the other. The rest of the town is interesting as well, with quaint B&Bs and great restaurants lining the atmospheric streets. Don’t expect the thrills of Wales’s bigger cities to the south, but if you have even the slightest interest in history, Conwy should be on your list of places to go.
Like Conwy, the town of Caernarfon is dominated by its imposing castle – and imposing is exactly the right word to describe it. Caernarfon Castle was built by the English to administer northern Wales, and has often been at the centre of many pivotal events in Welsh history. Despite its characterization as a royal town (and venue for the investiture of the Prince of Wales), Caernarfon has become a hotbed of Welsh culture, language, and nationalism over the years, culminating in an attempted bombing of Prince Charles’ train – though the leader of the group responsible has since said it wasn’t their intention to harm the Prince. Today, the massive castle is the prime attraction but the town offers much to see and do. Despite the wealth of sights, Caernarfon remains down to earth and relatively un-touristy – which only increases its charm. Whether it’s a trip into Welsh history you seek or you just want to explore the cobblestone streets, Caernarfon will deliver.
Visiting the many Welsh cities and towns is a great way to get a feel for the country, but you haven’t truly visited Wales until you explore the expansive countryside. Unlike the rolling hills, moors, and forests of the Brecon Beacons – Snowdonia offers a significantly more rugged experience, but arguably even more impressive. It’s home to the highest mountains in Britain south of the Scottish Highlands (including Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak), and feels more like the alps than the picturesque green hills of the surrounding country. Be warned, it rains a lot here, but the resulting mist and shrouded hills only add to the impressive nature of the region. The variety of animals, the many lakes and awe-inspiring views, and great hiking and watersports are just some of the things you can find in Snowdonia . The culture here remains very Welsh thanks to the rugged landscape cutting if off from outside influences. The scattered towns and pubs also offer a welcome escape from the outdoors, and are a great way to end the day. Like the Highlands in Scotland or the Lake District in England, Snowdonia has to be visited to get the complete picture of Wales.
This island off the coast of northwest Wales affords a great opportunity to experience the more unique elements of Welsh culture and way of life. Anglesey was the last part of Wales to fall to the Romans, and even then remained somewhat removed from the politics and struggles of the mainland thanks to its remote location. A similar level of cultural autonomy still prevails in the region. As such, the island retains a singular character and culture, with about 75% of the population still speaking the Welsh language. While it may be removed from the rest of Wales, Anglesey is arguably one of the most ‘Welsh’ region in the entire country. The town of Beaumaris is worth a look, but much of the joy will come from exploring the island and seeing what you come across.
How much does it cost?
Flying to Wales can be a very expensive endeavour depending on when you go and how you plan your trip. Oftentimes, it is a better option to fly into London or Dublin and go from there (either by plane or train), though prices for these flights can vary considerably. A connecting flight from Pearson to Cardiff will often run at least $1600 Canadian, though it could be significantly more. You can usually find cheaper flights to the English or Irish capital so if you plan on visiting other countries besides Wales, and it might be cheaper in the long run (closer to $1000 Canadian + cheaper flights or trains to Wales).
Once you arrive in Wales (or the UK in general), you can expect daily expenses to range anywhere between $100 and $220 on a mid-range budget. That being said, depending on what you’re doing and how frugal you are, you can get by pretty cheaply. Pubs often offer meals for less than 10 quid and some sights and activities will have minimal costs. Be warned, the exchange rate between the Canadian dollar and the Pound sterling is not great for Canadian travelers right now, but this is usually the case with the pound’s value.
Health and Safety
Wales (and the United Kingdom as a whole) is a generally safe and secure country. There is no nationwide advisory according to the Government of Canada, and normal security precautions are recommended throughout. As always, be aware of petty crime in tourist and urban areas. If you plan on hiking off into regions such as Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons (or anywhere else for that matter), make sure you are properly supplied, someone knows where you are going, and don’t overestimate your skill level. As long as you use your best judgment, you should come back from your trip to Wales wanting more.
These are just a few examples of where to go in Wales, there’s tons more to see and do. If you think somewhere else should be on the list, let us know in the comments. Check out our Country of the Week for more general information about the history and culture of Wales as well as our Currency Spotlight for information on the pound.
*Cover Photo: Lighthouse on Anglesey
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