The handsome market town of Brecon stands at the junction of the River Usk and the River Honddu. For centuries the town thrived as a centre of wool production and weaving. Today you'll find Brecon Beacons hikers rubbing shoulders with soldiers from the town's large military base in the bars, eateries and outdoor shops that dominate the old stone streets.
Hay-on-Wye (Y Gelli Gandryll)
Hay-on-Wye, a pretty little town on the banks of the River Wye, just inside the Welsh border, has developed a reputation disproportionate to its size. First came the explosion in secondhand bookshops, a charge led by the charismatic and forthright local maverick Richard Booth.
Against a background of pastel-painted Georgian prosperity, the compact market town of Monmouth bustles and thrives. It sits at the confluence of the Rivers Wye and Monnow, and has hopped in and out of Wales over the centuries as the border shifted back and forth. Today it feels more English than Welsh.
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.
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.
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.
Fforest Fawr & Black Mountain
The western half of Brecon Beacons National Park is sparsely inhabited and devoid of any towns of note. Fforest Fawr (Great Forest) was once a Norman hunting ground and is now a Unesco geopark (www.fforestfawrgeopark.org.uk), famed for its varied landscapes ranging from bleak moorland to flower-flecked limestone pavement and lush wooded ravines choked with moss and greenery.
This prosperous, picturesque, flower-bedecked village grew up around a Norman motte-and-bailey castle and a ford on the River Usk. All that remains of the castle is a few tumbledown towers, and the ford was superseded in the 17th century by the elegant stone bridge leading to the neighbouring village of Llangattock.
Merthyr Tydfil (Merthyr Tudful)
Merthyr Tydfil (mur-thir tid-vil) occupies a spectacular site, sprawled across a bowl at the head of the Taff Valley, ringed and pocked with quarries and spoil heaps. It was even more spectacular 200 years ago when the town was at the heart of the Industrial Revolution, and this bowl was a crucible filled with the fire and smoke of the world's biggest ironworks.
Of all the valley settlements that were decimated by the demise of heavy industry, the one-time coal and iron town of Blaenavon shows the greenest shoots of regrowth, helped in large part by the awarding of Unesco World Heritage status in 2000 to its unique conglomeration of industrial sites.
A handsome little market town of grey stone buildings set around a gurgling stream at the head of the Black Mountains (the name means 'end of the ridge'), Talgarth has some interesting historic buildings to explore, along with woods and waterfalls in its hinterland. In the 5th century it was the royal capital of the kingdom of Brycheiniog.