When you’ve got a capital that’s as compact, culturally-rich and friendly as Cardiff, it’s easy to limit your exploring to within the city’s boundaries.
But take a short trip away from Cardiff, even just 10 minutes, and you’ll find yourself transported to a whole other world. Here are some suggestions for an unforgettable day trip from the Welsh capital.
The Vale of Glamorgan: piers, parks and ancient woods
The southernmost county in Wales, the Vale of Glamorgan is a rural area to the southwest of Cardiff. With over 50 miles of coastline and over 100 towns, villages and hamlets, it has quaint pockets of slow activity dotted amongst fields, cliffs, forests and country lanes.
From Cardiff Bay, walk over the barrage to find yourself in Penarth, a hilly town on the edge of the Vale of Glamorgan. Penarth pier, with wooden huts and decorative railings, juts out over the pebble beach towards the Bristol Channel. Walk along the colourful buildings on the promenade to see it properly. Penarth Pavilion, a small cinema and exhibition space at the start of the pier, has a perfectly-positioned cafe called Waterloo Tea that faces the waves.
Heading uphill from the seafront through Alexandra Park’s tree-lined paths takes you to Penarth town centre. After wandering along the shops, head further uphill towards The Pilot pub for views across the marina and all the way to Cardiff. If you want a meal to remember, visit Michelin Star Restaurant James Sommerin.
Driving further south from Cardiff will lead you to Cosmeston Lakes Country Park. Popular with dog walkers, runners and birdwatchers, its picturesque pair of lakes are surrounded by forest footpaths and reed-edged boardwalks. Beyond is Dinas Powys, a sprawling village with old Welsh cottages and a wide sloping common at its heart. Just north you’ll find Cwm George and Casehill Woods, ancient woodlands with dramatic arching trees, waterways and constantly-changing flora and fauna. While they’re at their most spectacular at the turn of each season, you have a good chance of seeing woodpeckers, sparrowhawks, goldfinches and leaping salmon at any time. Nip into The Plug cafe afterwards; the house coffee is always good and local touches make it cosy.
The Glamorgan Heritage Coast: beaches, butterflies and sand dunes
There are many picturesque seaside spots along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, a 14-mile stretch that runs from Aberthaw (near Cardiff Airport) to Porthcawl in Bridgend. Loved by walkers, surfers and cyclists, it’s a great area for outdoor exploration.
In the south is Nash Point, a rocky beach below jagged cliffs. Take a windy walk across the clifftop to reach the main lighthouse, here since the 1830s. To the east, Cwm Col-Huw Beach, better known as Llantwit Major Beach, is wide and has a mix of sand and stones. It’s an easy place to access the Welsh Coast Path from: walk away from the town of Llantwit Major (but only after paying a visit to its ancient church, a seat of ecclesiastical learning for well over a thousand years, with Celtic crosses to prove it) then wind up the cliffs by the beach cafe. The waters here are brilliant for surfing and windsurfing, with lifeguards on patrol during the summer. Keep an eye out for Small Blue butterflies, a tiny species that thrives there.
To the northwest, follow the coastal road from Southerndown to Ogmore-by-Sea then on to Merthyr Mawr via Ogmore for a stunning drive. Ogmore-by-Sea has a vast sandy beach dotted with starfish-laden rock pools, grassy banks and craggy patches that are ideal for beachside barbecues. The River Ogmore meets the sea at the beach. Follow it inland and you’ll arrive at Ogmore Castle, the allegedly haunted remains of a Norman stronghold. In the distance, across the stepping stones in the river beside the castle, are Europe’s second tallest sand dunes, home to rare flora and fauna. It’s safer to reach them by road as the stepping stones vanish with the tide.
For more on this spectacular section of coast, check out our walking highlights of southern Cymru.
Inland adventures: gardens and a castle
To the east of Cardiff is Dyffryn House and Gardens, a Grade II listed Victorian mansion house set in 55 acres of gardens. Owned by the National Trust, it’s a well-kept green haven that feels a million miles from the capital. Walk across impeccable lawns, through the arboretum, along the vegetable patches and inside the flower-filled landscaped gardens.
Cowbridge is a nearby market town known for its chocolate box charm and expensive mansions. It’s easy to spend an hour wandering around, especially if you pop into the Old Hall Gardens and the Physic Garden for a bit of peace and quiet.
For tapas and cocktails, Bar 44 is always good. For a pint, 1 Town Hall Square has a decent selection of craft beer and ale; for a cuppa and a cake or a lunchtime meal, Elephant and Bun Kitchen is the best option, with locally sourced ingredients and upmarket home cooking.
For a spot of exercise with some history thrown in, amble over to St Quentin’s Castle. It’s the remains of a large 14th-century courtyard castle on top of steep fields. You can loop through Llanblethian, a village with old stone cottages, weaving slopes and a trickling river, if you want to extend your walk.
Further afield: mountains, the Mumbles and a coastal national park
If you have wheels and fancy a longer drive, there are plenty of places in Mid and West Wales to spend a day. Brecon Beacons National Park is within easy reach of Cardiff, taking about an hour by car, with obvious draws for mountain-lovers: Pen y Fan is the highest peak, followed by Corn Du and Cribyn.
The southwest part of the park is nicknamed ‘waterfall country’. Four rivers run along the steep mountainsides and through thick forest, converging into the River Neath. Sgwd yr Eira is a good starter waterfall, where you can walk behind the cascading water. Follow the marked trail until you reach the falls (while the unmarked routes are tempting, they’re rather hairy). Consider staying overnight if you’re into astronomy; this area is an international dark sky reserve, meaning the light pollution is so low you can see amazing nighttime displays of stars.
The beaches of Swansea and the Gower Peninsula take about an hour and a half to reach by car but are worth the effort. Rhossili Bay beach is a must-visit, as is its island neighbour, Worm’s Head, if the tide is out. The waves are outstanding for surfing thanks to the Atlantic swell, the three miles of golden sand are fine enough to walk on barefoot and the views along the Gower Coast Path, which continues eastward to The Mumbles and north to Whiteford Beach, are second to none.
Pembrokeshire, the UK’s only coastal national park, is a beautiful part of the country. It takes about two hours to reach southerly areas such as Saundersfoot by car from Cardiff, meaning a day trip could be a bit rushed. So, if time allows, spend the night and opt for somewhere like St Davids or Tenby to get a taste of the rugged coastline, undulating countryside and heritage for which this region is famous.