Croeso (welcome) to Wales: a land of epoch-defining history, castles galore, ravishing beaches and mountains of myth. The country may appear small, however the recent launch of three national touring routes, The Wales Way, shows just how big Cymru really is.
Plan your road trip in search of stiff-booted hikes, one-pub hamlets or game-changing restaurants. Your only decision: will you go west, north or straight down the middle?
The Cambrian Way
This is the big one. Ffordd Cambria (Cambrian Way) is an epic 185-mile trip along the dragon’s backbone of Wales, from the north coast to the south. En route you can tick off seascapes, castle-encrusted hillsides, high-level walks, petrol-blue reservoirs and Snowdonia’s moody, skyscraping peaks in one of Britain’s most stirring landscapes – and the country’s Welsh-speaking heartland.
The cheery seaside town of Llandudno, with one of the UK’s loveliest Victorian piers, is your jump-off point. From here the road rolls south, with arresting views of broad-shouldered peaks and slate-roofed hamlets on almost every bend. First up: the Bodnant Estate ensconced in the hilly woodlands of the lower Conwy Valley, with its Italianate landscaped gardens, spirit-lifting mountain views and soon-to-be-reopened Welsh Food Centre. Skirting the eastern fringes of the 823-sq-m Snowdonia National Park, you could ramp up the action surfing at inland lagoon Surf Snowdonia, treetop zip-lining at Zip World Fforest, caving at Go Below, riding Britain’s steepest mining cable railway into the 1846 Llechwedd Slate Caverns, or mountain biking at Coed y Brenin Forest Park. Such highlights have put North Wales on the map as the UK’s adventure capital bar none.
Continuing south for the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Felinfach Griffin is just as a country pub ought to be, with low beams, open fires and culinary cachet. Brecon itself is a handsome market town for striking out into the park’s 45-mile ripple of bare, fin-like peaks and heather-flecked plateaus. The big climb is Pen-y-Fan (886m), but equally pretty is Ystradfellte’s four-waterfall walk, west of Nant Ddu. Nearby are the National Showcaves of Wales and Penderyn Distillery, producing much-lauded gins and whisky.
It’s onwards and southwards to capital, Cardiff, now, with its revitalised bay, flamboyant mock-Gothic castle, and cultural heavyweights like the Principality Stadium (home of the Welsh Rugby Union) and the shimmering bronze Wales Millennium Centre (Welsh National Opera).
The North Wales Way
To explore the 75-mile Ffordd y Gogledd (North Wales Way), reaching from the Isle of Anglesey to Chester, you’ll need to igam-ogam, as the Welsh say, or zigzag, allowing wiggle room to detour as the will takes you.
Anglesey, Wales’ largest island, is an appetiser of all it offers, with its pinch-me-pretty coves and surf-battered beaches, low-key fishing villages, forest and farmland, and abundant prehistoric sites. In the island’s west is Holyhead, where ferries breeze across the choppy Irish Sea to Ireland, best sighted from the lighthouse on the wave-pounded rocky islet of South Stack, and the cliffs of its nature reserve where puffins and guillemots often hang out. Ynys Llanddwyn at the island’s southernmost tip is special, with its crag-topped lighthouse, ruined chapel and get-away-from-it-all dune-flanked beach. Inching north brings you to Plas Newydd on the shores of the Menai Strait, an insanely romantic 18th-century manor, with landscaped gardens, a peerless Rex Whistler collection and uplifting views to Snowdonia’s peaks.
Further north is the first of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of four World Heritage castles: Beaumaris. Sitting on the edge of the comely Georgian seaside town of the same name, this moated fortress is pretty much your perfect medieval castle and consolidated the king’s Welsh conquests.
Before heading over the striking industrial-era Menai Bridge to the mainland, try to snag a table at Michelin-starred Sosban & The Old Butchers, whose menu fizzes with ingenious riffs on local produce. Over the water, dip south to Caernarfon Castle. With its polygonal towers, this hefty fortress forms another jewel in Edward I’s medieval crown. Afterwards, pop into the low-beamed, 16th-century Black Boy Inn for a pint in one of Wales’ oldest inns.
Back on the route proper, Conwy is a regular heart-stealer as Britain’s most complete walled town, with a knockout castle courtesy of Edward I. Across the Conwy River, Llandudno straddles a peninsula. The Victorian seaside resort hasn’t lost its touch with good old-fashioned fun on its pier and true wilderness on its doorstep at trail-laced Great Orme.
The Coastal Way
Hemming Cardigan Bay in Wales’ western crook, the 180-mile Ffordd yr Arfordir (Coastal Way) stitches together some of Britain’s most phenomenal coastal scenery, bounded by the Irish Sea to the west and high mountains to the east. South to north, charismatic St Davids, the UK’s smallest city, is a natural launchpad. Topped by a huge, purple-stone medieval cathedral, it’s one of Wales’ holiest pilgrimage sites as the birthplace of the national’s patron saint. The surrounding Pembrokeshire Coast National Park enthralls, whether you’re coasteering, surfing, or hiking over gorse-clad cliff and kissing-gate on the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path to secluded coves and Celtic forts. For seabird, seal and porpoise spotting, take a little boat over to RSPB reserve Ramsey Island.
North of St Davids, Abereiddi’s startlingly blue, shockingly cold Blue Lagoon is a flooded quarry now luring hardy swimmers and occasionally daredevil cliff-divers. It’s close to Porthgain, a tiny harbour wedged into a cove, home to the delightfully old-school Sloop Inn pub, and The Shed (check their website for hours of operation), dishing out fresh-as-it-comes seafood, from juicy crab sandwiches to lobster.
Swinging north, worthy stops include the narrow inlet of Abercastle (beloved of kayakers and coastal path walkers), the traditional woollen mill of Melin Tregwynt, and the stark, remote Preseli Hills, sprinkled with mysterious hill forts and standing stones. Further north still lies Cardigan and its historic blockbuster of a castle, venue of the first National Eisteddfod in 1176 and a bistro championing garden-grown produce. Close by, dolphins regularly splash around off the coast of the half-moon cove of Mwnt and cliff-rimmed New Quay.
Driving north, the beautiful Georgian estate of Llanerchaeron and the chilled university town of Aberystwyth, with its magnificent hilltop National Library and narrow-gauge Vale of Rheidol Railway, beckon. Between Borth and Ynyslas, the gnarly stubs of a prehistoric forest appear at low tide. Just before crossing the River Dyfi into Snowdonia National Park is Michelin-starred Ynyshir, hands-down one of Wales’ top restaurants, with Gareth Ward at the helm.
The last leg of your drive unleashes one coastal high after the next: the broad sands and striking estuary of Barmouth, Harlech’s formidable medieval fortress, colour-charged, Italy-inspired Portmeirion, brainchild of whimsical Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, and the world’s oldest surviving narrow-gauge railway, the Ffestiniog chugging deep into Snowdonia. Linger on the surf-lashed, wildlife-rich coastline of the Llŷn Peninsula before winding out in prettily whitewashed Aberdaron.
Lonely Planet has produced this article for Visit Wales. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.