Cardigan has the feel of a town waking from its slumber. An important entrepôt and herring fishery in Elizabethan times, it declined with the coming of the railway and the silting up of the River Teifi in the 19th century. Now, its surrounding natural beauty, hip craft shops, home-grown fashion labels, gourmet food stores and homely B&Bs are bringing it back to life.
Perched on a headland between its modern ferry port and former fishing harbour, Fishguard is often overlooked by travellers, many of them rushing through on the ferries to and from Ireland. It doesn't have any sights as such, but it's an appealing little town and it holds the quirky distinction of being the setting for the last foreign invasion of Britain.
Chepstow is an attractive market town nestled in a great S-bend in the River Wye, with a magnificent Norman castle and one of Britain's best-known racecourses. It was first developed as a base for the Norman conquest of southeast Wales, later prospering as a port for the timber and wine trades.
Betws-y-Coed (bet-us-ee-koyd) sits at the junction of three river valleys (the Llugwy, the Conwy and the Lledr) and on the verge of the Gwydyr Forest. With around seven outdoor shops for every pub, walking trails leaving right from the centre, and guesthouses occupying a fair proportion of its slate Victorian buildings, it's the perfect base for exploring Snowdonia.
In the heyday of the mail coaches, Holyhead (confusingly pronounced 'holly head') was the vital terminus of the London road and the main hub for onward boats to Ireland. The coming of the railway only increased the flow of people through town, but the recent increase in cheap flights has reduced the demand for ferries and Holyhead has fallen on hard times.
Llandrindod Wells (Llandrindod)
The Victorian and Edwardian glory days of this pleasantly faded spa town live on in its delightful architecture – Queen Anne and Edwardian baroque hotels and terraces that are arrestingly grand to this day. However, once the allure of the iron-, sulphur- and saline-rich waters dwindled, Llandrindod relaxed into sleepy obscurity.
Gower Peninsula (Y Gŵyr)
With its broad butterscotch beaches, pounding surf, precipitous clifftop walks and rugged, untamed uplands, the Gower Peninsula feels a million miles from Swansea's urban bustle – yet it's just on the doorstep. This 15-mile-long thumb of land stretching west from the Mumbles was designated the UK's first official Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956.
South Wales Valleys
The valleys fanning northwards from Cardiff and Newport were once the heart of industrial Wales. Although the coal, iron and steel industries have withered, the valley names – Rhondda, Cynon, Rhymney, Ebbw – still evoke a world of tight-knit working-class communities, male voice choirs and rows of neat terraced houses set amid a scarred, coal-blackened landscape.
Despite a few rough edges, busy little Porthmadog (port-mad-uk) has an attractive estuarine setting and a conspicuously friendly, mainly Welsh-speaking populace. It straddles both the Llŷn Peninsula and Snowdonia National Park, and has the fantastical village of Portmeirion at its doorstep.
Sitting at the muddy mouth of the River Usk and flanked by the detritus of heavy industry, Newport is never going to win any awards for beauty. However, Wales' third-largest city is in the process of smartening itself up, with the shiny new Friars Walk shopping complex opening up the historic city centre to a redeveloped riverside promenade.
Llanberis is a mecca for walkers and climbers, attracting a steady flow of rugged, polar-fleece wearers year-round but especially in July and August when accommodation is at a premium. It's positioned just outside the national park but functions as a hub, partly because the Snowdon Mountain Railway leaves from here.
With a Blue Flag beach and the beautiful Mawddach Estuary on its doorstep, the seaside resort of Barmouth has been a popular tourist destination since the coming of the railway, in 1867. In summer it becomes a typical seaside resort – chip shops, dodgem cars, donkey rides and crabbing – catering to thousands from England's West Midlands.