Although not as popular as visiting Edinburgh or London, here are the reasons why you must explore Cardiff in Wales on your next trip to the UK.
Wales and its capital city, Cardiff, are usually overlooked by people traveling to the UK, opting instead for destinations such as Edinburgh or London. However, there are plenty of reasons why you shouldn’t miss a chance to explore Cardiff.
The Welsh capital is steeped in rich history and there are lots of different things to see and do in Cardiff, from historic castles, Victorian-era arcades, and interesting museums to sweeping natural vistas and gardens and a fantastic waterfront. Cardiff is the youngest European capital and it’s a must-see destination for fans of Doctor Who and rugby lovers.
Bonzah loves showing you destinations that may not be that popular or trendy but are definitely worth a visit. Whether you are into history, sports, or simply want to enjoy the wonderful natural scene that Wales has to offer, you can’t go wrong if you include Cardiff in your itinerary plans. Are you ready to uncover the most interesting attractions that Cardiff has to offer? Here are our suggestions for what to see when you explore Cardiff.
Explore Cardiff Castle
Cardiff Castle is one of the highlights of any visit to the Welsh capital. Originally a Roman fort, it’s now a mixture of buildings from different eras. The Roman fort was then reused as a Norman Keep and the Bute family was responsible many years later for turning Cardiff into the world’s greatest coal exporting port.
Located within the beautiful parklands at the heart of Cardiff, its walls and fairy-tale towers conceal more than 2000 years of history. There’s so much detail and history that is definitely worth visiting!
History of Cardiff Castle
From 1766 to 1947, when it was donated to the city, Cardiff Castle was the private domain of the Butes, the family that transformed Cardiff from a small town into the world’s biggest coal port. The most conventional castle-like bits are the motte-and-bailey Norman shell keep at its center and the 13th-century Black Tower that forms the entrance gate. In the 1420s, the earl of Warwick built a grand house into the western wall. It was extended in the 17th century by the Herbert family. By the time the Butes acquired Cardiff Castle, it had fallen into disrepair.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the Butes discovered that the Normans had built their fortifications on top of Cardiff’s original first-century Roman fort. The towers and turrets on the western side date back to the 19th century.
During WWII, the tunnels located within the castle walls were used as air-raid shelters. In fact, there is plenty of wartime memorabilia in them and realistic air raid sirens that set the scene.
Visiting Cardiff Castle
Visitors can take a guided tour through the exquisitely ornate rooms in Cardiff Castle such as the Winter Smoking Room, the Nursery, Lord Bute’s Bedroom, and the RoofTop Garden. Visiting the castle’s apartments gives you an opportunity to see the rich fairytale rooms decorated with beautiful murals, gilding, wood carvings, marble, and stained glass windows.
The Arab Room inside the castle is definitely one of the highlights of your visit. You’ll be in awe with its double-height ceilings decorated with hand-applied gold leaf worth £8 million (a little more than $10 million). The banqueting hall boasts the heraldic shields of the Bute family and a fantastically over-the-top fireplace. The neighboring nursery is decorated with fairy-tale and nursery-rhyme characters while the small dining room has an ingenious table, designed so that a living vine could be slotted through it allowing diners to pluck fresh grapes as they ate.
The Animal Wall at Cardiff Castle is another must-see attraction that you can’t miss as part of our visit to Cardiff Castle. Just outside its outer walls, there are rows of playful animal sculptures that seem to be crawling out into the street! This is definitely one of the most unique visits you can do in the city. Located on Castle Street, next to the Castle, it’s a highlight of any Cardiff sightseeing tour.
Enjoy the City of Arcades
If you love shopping or at least enjoy great shopping experiences, Cardiff is the right place for you. The Welsh capital is known as the City of Arcades because of its six charming Victorian and Edwardian arcades and its super modern shopping center.
Cardiff Arcades are a maze of covered shopping streets that begin just across the road from Cardiff Castle. They were built between the 1850s and the 1920s as a result of the coal boom that brought untold riches to the city.
Each arcade offers a unique shopping experience offering everything from clothing shops, art galleries, and souvenirs to bars and cafés where you can grab a bite to eat. Wandering through the narrow and often glass-roofed walkways is one of the best experiences you can enjoy in Cardiff.
A good place to begin your exploration of the arcades is the Royal Arcade, which is the oldest one. Built in the late 1850s, many of the original shop fronts have remained unchanged. Royal Arcade is the more palatial of the arcades.
Castle Arcade connects the downtown area to the castle and it is home to beautiful art galleries, boutiques, and eateries. It also features a beautiful gallery with a wooden second-floor balcony and footbridges. It’s one of the longest Victorian arcades and one of the city’s only two-level shopping arcades. You can find an interesting variety of edible goodies such as specialty cheeses, pasta, and bread as well as delis and cafés.
Morgan Arcade and More
The Morgan Arcade has lots of stylish boutiques and refined gentlemen’s fashion. High Street Arcade, Duke Street Arcade, and the Castle Quarter Cardiff also offer great opportunities to find lovely souvenirs to take back home.
The Dominions Arcade, built in 1921, is the newest of the arcades and it’s located on Queen Street. While it is the smallest, it is equally impressive with its luxurious architecture. It’s definitely worth a couple of pictures!
Finally, the Wyndham Arcade runs from St Mary Street to Mill Lane. It is home to several independent eclectic shops.
Walk Around Cardiff Bay
Cardiff Bay is the former docks area of the city and it used to be the largest port in the world. The area was transformed into a lively place that locals and tourists enjoy exploring. You’ll find plenty of shopping, eating, and entertainment opportunities. Created by the Cardiff Barrage, it is located in south Cardiff. There are also very interesting and beautiful buildings in the area such as Techniquest, Roald Dahl Pass, the Norwegian Church, and the Millenium Centre. We’ll talk about some of them later on and they all contribute to making Cardiff Bay the trendiest district of Cardiff.
It’s a great place for adults and children alike that all the family can enjoy. Food lovers will find delicious treats in it, there are water expeditions for adrenaline seekers, cycling and hiking opportunities, and much more!
Techniquest is one of the most fascinating science-related venues in the UK and a must-see attraction for curious kids and adults alike. Here you can experience earthquakes, feel the strength of a hurricane, become a virtual surgeon, move half a ton of granite, and many other fascinating activities. With more than 120 hands-on exhibits waiting to be prodded, pushed, and explored, Techniquest is simply a fantastic experience.
Located in Cardiff Bay, it’s hard to miss. It’s a huge, glass oblong structure with various scientific apparatuses on display through the windows. Designed to make real science fun and engaging for visitors of all ages, it has attracted millions of visitors since it was inaugurated in the mid-1980s. Techniquest offers two floors of mesmerizing models, marvelous machines, and mind-blowing interactive displays organized around five main themes: space, biomedical science, chemistry, the environment, and world issues.
Among the exhibits you should check out are a giant rocket, a huge pop-gun, and a hot air balloon. There’s also a well-equipped 360-degree planetarium that will enchant stargazers from everywhere. There are also Curious Boxes on a range of topics from fossils to forensic science, mirrors to magnets, and lots more.
Wales Millenium Centre
Wales Millenium Centre is an arts center located in Cardiff Bay where operas, ballets, dance, comedy, and musical shows are hosted. It consists of one large theatre and two smaller halls: The Donald Gordon Theatre, the BBC Hoddinott Hall, and the Weston Studio Centre. There are also shops, bars, and restaurants.
The Wales Millenium Centre is home to the national orchestra and opera, dance, literature, and theatre companies. There are also incredible free art exhibitions and a nice gift shop where you can buy interesting souvenirs to take back home. Millet’s Den is a free and fun place for children to explore as well.
Affectionately known as “the armadillo” because of its unique design, this stunning massive building made of slate, wood, stone, and copper has Welsh and English poetry inscriptions along the frontage. Inaugurated in 2004, it has already established itself as one of the world’s most iconic arts and cultural destinations.
Just outside the front doors is Roald Dahl Plass, where over the summer months there are lots of free events and festivals.
Norwegian Church Arts Centre
The Norwegian Church Arts Centre is the last attraction at Cardiff Bay that we’ll mention in this guide and it’s one of the coolest entertainment venues in the city. This Lutheran church was built in the late 1860s by the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission to create a community for the Scandinavian sailors based in Cardiff. When the coal industry diminished, the Church fell into disrepair but fortunately, the locals saved it and found a new purpose as an art gallery.
Welsh author Roald Dahl was baptized here and was at the forefront of the campaign to save this church. If you visit it, don’t miss the Dahl Gallery located inside where you can admire items from his childhood. In fact, any fans of Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket should visit it as it is a great place for Dahl’s fans.
There are small concerts, art exhibitions, and conferences held here. And there’s also a charming café where you can taste delicious Norwegian-style food and an excellent art gallery.
Visit the National Museum
Visiting Cardiff National Museum is one of the best things to do in town. Exhibits range from natural history from the pre-Ice Age era in Wales to traditional and modern Welsh art. Its stunning collection includes exhibits suitable for all ages.
Located in the heart of Cardiff, the National Museum holds exhibitions that will amaze everyone. The ground floor is all about natural history and the displays tell the story of the evolution of Wales from the Big Bang to the end of the last Ice Age, woolly mammoths, the world’s largest turtle, and a jaw-dropping Humpback whale skeleton included! The upper floor is an art gallery with paintings and ceramics from Wales and around the world and it holds one of Europe’s finest art collections. With 500 years of magnificent paintings, drawings, sculptures, silver, and ceramics. The Gallery exhibits such treasures as a trio of Monet’s Water Lilies, Sisley’s The Cliff at Penarth, Renoir’s La Parisienne, a cast of Rodin’s The Kiss, and a couple of Van Gogh’s paintings as well.
Origins is the archaeology gallery. It houses objects from the very earliest humans. You can also find out what life in Wales was like in the Stone Age through Roman times and up to the Middle Ages.
The Clore Discovery Centre invites visitors to discover and handle hundreds of objects: investigate bronze age weapons, dinosaur bones, tropical insects, or ceramics! Use magnifiers and microscopes and you can even bring unusual objects to have museum experts identify them.
Travel Back in Time in St Fagans Museum
St Fagans Museum is the place to go if you’re interested in finding out more about how the people traditionally lived in Wales. Here you’ll see lots of original buildings that you can go into and invite you to a trip back in time.
St Fagans is an open-air museum that recalls the historical lifestyle, culture, and architecture of the Welsh people. It consists of more than 40 buildings from a variety of locations in Wales and sits on the grounds of St Fagans Castle, an Elizabethan manor house. The buildings include a village schoolhouse, a cockpit, a nonconformist chapel, and a tannery. The items displayed include a working blacksmith forge, traditional crafts, pottery, a weaver, two working water mills, one wool mill, a bakery, and a flour mill.
St Fagans Museum is a great family attraction, complete with outdoor activities for children including a high rope walk, farm activities, and craft demonstrations.
When You Explore Cardiff
There are definitely many attractions for you to see as you explore Cardiff. While London draws millions of visitors each year, you can experience one of the best-kept secrets of the UK when you visit Wales. Of course, if you want to extend your vacation and explore other parts of the UK, Wander has some suggestions for more of our favorite things to do as you visit Great Britain.
Explore Cardiff: A Charming Destination in the UK