Dylan Thomas called Swansea an 'ugly, lovely town', and that remains a fair description today. Though an arrival at the station is unlikely to set your pulse racing, Wales' second-largest city is set along the wonderful 5-mile sweep of Swansea Bay, ending to the southwest in the smart seaside suburb of Mumbles at the foot of the Gower Peninsula. Painted by Turner and compared by the poet Walter Savage Landor with the Bay of Naples, the golden arc of Swansea Bay is undeniably stunning. And the city itself is currently in the grip of a Cardiff-esque bout of regeneration, slowly transforming the drab, post-war centre into something worthy of its natural assets. A new marina, a national museum, a water park, an architecturally tricksy footbridge and a transport centre have already opened, and once-shabby Oystermouth Rd now has more the feel of a seaside boulevard.
Swansea makes up for some visual shortcomings with a visceral charm. A hefty student population takes to the city's bars with enthusiasm and a newly minted restaurant scene has emerged from among all the Chinese and Indian takeaways.
Swansea's Welsh name, Abertawe, describes its location at the mouth of the Tawe, where the river empties into Swansea Bay. The Vikings named the area Sveins Ey (Swein's Island), probably referring to the sandbank in the river mouth.
The Normans built a castle here, but Swansea didn't really get into its stride until the Industrial Revolution, when it developed into an important copper-smelting centre. Ore was first shipped in from Cornwall, across the Bristol Channel, but by the 19th century it was arriving from Chile, Cuba and the USA in return for Welsh coal.
By the 20th century the city's industrial base had declined, although Swansea's oil refinery and smaller factories were still judged a worthy target by the Luftwaffe, which devastated the city centre in 1941. It was rebuilt as a rather drab retail development in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, but gradual regeneration is slowly imbuing it with more soul.
A small pocket around Wind St and Castle Sq escaped the wartime bombing and retains a remnant of Georgian and Victorian Swansea as well as the ruins of 14th-century Swansea Castle (closed to the public). The castle was mostly destroyed by Cromwell in 1647, but had a brief lease of life as a prison in the 19th century.