A Tale of Two Wales: Exploring the Welsh Countryside and City Life

Imagine a land where blue-gray waters caress historic beaches that give way to greenery-dusted valleys and mountains. Days start with the promise of plucking cockles out of velvet sand before discovering ruins rooted in wildflowers, then visiting parks speckled with sheep and sitting down to a farm-to-table feast. In Wales, the grand landscape isn’t a privilege—it’s a birthright. It’s no wonder artists have long flocked here to capture its interminable beauty and romantic spirit.

The road over Black Mountain in Brecon Beacons in Wales

The road over Black Mountain in Brecon Beacons

   A country of more than three million residents, Wales both possesses its own identity and embraces its place within the United Kingdom. Above all, Wales offers a diverse vacation, whether you long to get lost in nature or find yourself amid cultural thrills.

   Cardiff, Wales’ capital city, is a marriage of old and new. A college town boasting three universities, it has a vibrant food and nightlife scene housed in centuries-old buildings. The Welsh language, once waning, now thrives and can be heard on the tongues of babes and their grandparents. Even shopping corridors mimic this theme; step inside one of six historic shopping arcades to find the juxtaposition of old infrastructure and new commerce.   

The National Museum of Wales

   The National Museum Wales (above) anchors Cardiff’s cultural attractions. In addition to landscape works, it houses the Davies Sisters Collection, the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings and sculptures outside Paris; Rodin’s bronze version of The Kiss, images from Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series and Renoir’s La Parisienne are among this impressive grouping. Children will enjoy the natural history floor, which spans four-and-a-half-million years of Welsh history.

Cardiff Castle, one of 641 castles in Wales

   From the National Museum, stroll to Cardiff Castle (above). Wales has more castles per square mile than anywhere else, with a recent count of 641. Cardiff Castle stands apart for its impeccable condition and opulent interiors. Originally a Roman fortress, the castle was constructed following the Norman conquest around 1100. In the mid-1800s, it became the property of the Third Marquess of Bute, who hired “art-architect” William Burges to transform the interior to an homage to Gothic splendor. Each room is a work of art, ensconced in gold, carvings and all imaginable—and unimaginable—forms of luxury decor.

 interior of Cardiff Castle, decorated by art-architect William Burges

   South of the castle, experience another facet of the city’s history at Cardiff Bay. Sailors from more than 50 countries settled here, and it’s now a hub of tourism and local activity. The café at the Norwegian Church Arts Centre is a picturesque spot to have tea before visiting the architecturally intriguing Senedd, also known as the National Assembly building. Cultural highlights include the Wales Millennium Centre, home of the Welsh National Opera.

Langland Bay in Swansea

Langland Bay in Swansea

   Cardiff Bay represents a sliver of the Wales Coast Path, which, at 870 miles, is the world’s longest continual coastal byway. Whether you go by car or foot, travel east to Swansea. Known as Wales’ second city, Swansea feels worlds away from Cardiff, even though you can hop on the M4 and arrive less than an hour later. To explore the beaches of Swansea Bay is to step into the Victorian era, complete with fog-dense horizons and salt-swept bathhouses. Stop by Langland’s Brasserie by the Sea and savor a traditional Welsh meal of cockles and laverbread—not bread at all but a seaweed puree—as you take in the iridescent ocean view and the rugged Mumbles headland.

The Tawe/Swansea Valley in Brecon Beacons National Park

The Tawe/Swansea Valley in Brecon Beacons National Park

   Sufficiently sun kissed, travel into central Swansea and visit Wales’ biggest covered market. Order a batch of Welsh cakes before heading to central Wales and a drive through Brecon Beacons National Park. Established in 1957, it covers 520 square miles and is composed mostly of Old Red Sandstone that forms four regions of hills sliced by river valleys. This area is a wilderness fan’s Eden, perfect for hiking, biking, fishing and kayaking or, for those of simple pleasures, basking in one of the most glorious views in all of the United Kingdom.

   Brecon Beacons also has many small towns, all of which have their own identities and attractions. In Crickhowell, indulge in the British country-scape and stay at the Gliffaes Country House Hotel, a nineteenth-century estate with a Downton Abbey aura. Drive on to Abergavenny, the gastronomic capital of Wales with a foodie scene that includes an annual festival and the lauded Hardwick Restaurant, before continuing on to Llanthony. Here, you’ll discover the treasure that is Llanthony Priory, a twelfth-century Augustinian monastery. Today, half of the estate stands in stunning ruins and the other has been converted to a hotel. Lastly, visit Hay-on-Wye, the secondhand book capital of the world. A must for bibliophiles, Hay-on-Wye has charm to spare, with narrow, cobbled streets and 39 bookstores. If you miss the annual literary festival in May, don’t fret—simply spend the afternoon browsing books before tapping off the evening with a pint at The Blue Boar.

Raglan Castle in southeast Wales, one of 641 Welsh castles

Raglan Castle in southeast Wales, one of 641 Welsh castles.

   When your Wales adventure comes to a close and England beckons, there are many routes from which to choose. Opt to leave through Chepstow, tucked along the River Wye, and enter into Gloucester. Cross the river by bridge and, with Chepstow Castle at your back and England at your feet, start planning your next visit.


Travel Notes

  • Just outside Cardiff, purchase one-of-a-kind pottery at Ewenny Pottery, which has been run by the Jenkins family for more than eight generations.
  • Learn the art of Welsh whisky with a tour of Penderyn Distillery, the only whisky distillery in Wales.

Penderyn Whiskey - Welsh Whiskey

  • On the way to Swansea, stop at the Ewenny Priory, near Bridgend; this Norman monastic church was built in 1141, and artists such as JMW Turner have immortalized it on canvas.

Welsh flag, Oystermouth Castle, Swansea

Welsh flag, Oystermouth Castle, Swansea


The Wales Millennium Centre at Cardiff Bay.

The Wales Millennium Centre at Cardiff Bay.


Murder and Mayhem bookstore in the town of Hay-on-Wye, the secondhand book capital of the world

Murder and Mayhem bookstore in the town of Hay-on-Wye, the secondhand book capital of the world.

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