My first visit to Wales was towards the end of my semester in England, so I was trying to 1) fit in as many places as possible and 2) spend as little money as possible. The result was one inexpensive day in Wales’s capital, Cardiff.
Cardiff is not as big or as shiny as London. It’s spread out and harder to get around just by walking (I ended up walking seventeen miles!). But something about it feels like home to me. If you’re visiting western England, a short stop in Cardiff is worthwhile, especially in the warmer spring or summer months.
Here are my top recommendations for a cheap day trip to this dear city.
1) Visit the arcades
Cardiff is known as the City of Arcades. Wandering down St. Mary’s Street, which turns into High Street, presents you with many arcades to explore. Some are busier than others—my personal favorite is the Castle Arcade, home of Barker Gelateria and this wonderful creation:
The Castle Arcade exits out, predictably, towards Cardiff Castle. Although I have not been inside the castle, you can buy a ticket if you want to visit the museum, and it is cool to see one of Wales’s famed castles even from outside the walls.
2) Cardiff Market
One of the numerous arcades off of St. Mary’s Street is actually the Central Market, a bustling Victorian structure filled with stalls and vendors. I know this is a list of free things to do, but I’m going to recommend that you shell out a pound or two to buy some Welsh cakes, which are like tiny, dense pancakes with sugar sprinkled on top. Heaven.
3) Alexandra Gardens
Just north of the castle and situated in the government district of downtown Cardiff between City Hall and the Welsh Government building lie the beautiful Alexandra Gardens. Here you can view the Welsh National War Memorial amidst colorful beds of flowers.
4) Cardiff Bay
Head south down Lloyd George Avenue past the eye-catching Wales Millennium Centre to the waterfront. There are a number of cute shops along Bute Street across from the Mermaid Quay shopping center (including more Welsh cakes 🙂 ). Walk along the bay in either direction—one way will take you to a small wetlands reserve area, and the other will take you all the way across the bay on the strip of land called the Bay Barrage. On a nice day, this is a really long, peaceful walk. You can see the boats along the shore and the city and hills across the water. If you want to make your seaside walk even longer, visit Penarth Pier in the small neighboring town on the other side of the Barrage.
I was grateful to stumble upon the Norwegian Church Arts Centre, which is located in Waterfront Park on Cardiff Bay. The Scandinavian-style church was originally built by Norwegian sailors to remind them of their home, and it now functions as a gallery space, event center, and cafe. When I visited, an English artist was putting up a show of his stunning ink wash paintings that portrayed the aqueducts in north Wales. I was able to have a conversation with him and learn more about the history of Wales and its industrialization.
On another visit to Cardiff, I went to Craft in the Bay, a gallery where you can purchase pottery and other work by Welsh artisans.
I don’t usually go out in search of galleries, but when I happen upon them, I love experiencing the talent and creativity of local artists. They are able to capture the flavor of their surroundings in such a unique way; I remember looking at Christmas ornaments at Craft in the Bay and thinking how well they encapsulated Wales—its ancient wildness, its history, its beauty. Taking one home would be like taking a piece of Christmas in Wales with me.
4) Cefn Onn Park
North of the city—requiring either a walk of several hours, a bus ride, or a short train journey to Lisvane & Thornhill station—is a beautiful garden that feels like entering another world. Under the shady cover of branches, explore the walking paths that wander over streams and through flowering bushes. It might take an hour or so to see the entire park; it is not terribly large.
5) Hike to Caerphilly
When Cefn Onn Park ends, the paths continue. Don’t forget your GPS or a picture of the map posted in the park—of all the hikes I did in the UK, this was one of my favorites, but it was also one of the most difficult to follow. Once you have reached the top of the park, it is another 2 to 2.5 miles to Caerphilly, a town north of Cardiff with its own castle.
I wanted views of the Welsh mountains, so I set out for the Rhymney Valley Ridgeway footpath. Though the arrival of nighttime shortened my hike, I was not disappointed by the views over Cardiff and Caerphilly.
As I walked, the green forest that began in Cefn Onn Park eventually gave way to what seemed to be some hilly farmland, where I met a flock of skittish sheep.
After a short break to snap about a million photos of the sunset over the distant hills, I reentered the forest, which felt spookier and the trees more gnarly the farther the sun went down. I took the dubious dirt path west to meet up with Thornhill Road, guided by my glowing GPS screen in the gathering darkness.
Thornhill Road approaches Caerphilly Mountain, which has a few paths to the top with nice views as well as a food shop with toilets. Beyond Caerphilly Mountain, I took the steep Mountain Road down past quiet neighborhoods to the town of Caerphilly, where I caught the train back to Cardiff Central. Mountain Road is missing a footpath at some points, so you have to walk on the grass beside the road.
I would not suggest starting this hike in the evening like I did. Go in the daytime when it’s light and there are more people around. My most questionably dodgy travel experience happened in Caerphilly on my second visit there, and after that, I definitely will not be wandering around the countryside in the south of Wales alone at nighttime again.
Accommodation in Cardiff
Even though I was only in Cardiff for a day, I stayed there for two nights because the hostel costs were quite low. I stayed at Bunkhouse, which is located right in downtown Cardiff, a five-minute walk from the train station.