Compact, multicultural Cardiff dances to its own beat, with numerous historical sites, independent businesses and a friendly atmosphere.
Here are the best things to do in Cardiff, from its grand castle and leafy urban gardens to the best Welsh cakes and the world’s oldest record shop.
In the middle of the city center is Cardiff Castle, a medieval castle encircled by Roman walls. William Burges' opulent interiors epitomize Victorian Gothic design, and once inside, you can marvel at intricate woodcarvings, epic murals, stained glass and rich colors that stretch from wall to ceiling. Climb to the top of the Norman keep to see views over the entire city. On a clear day you can see its sister castle, Castell Coch, in the distance.
Stretching for more than half a mile between the main shopping streets and the castle end of the city, the Victorian, Edwardian and contemporary indoor shopping arcades give Cardiff the nickname of "the city of arcades." Along the winding corridors are independent boutiques, family-run cafes and quirky pop-up spaces, all much more charming than the chain stores in St David's shopping center. Browse the vinyl racks at Spillers, the world's oldest record store, or hug a mug in Coffee Barker, a coffee shop with cozy nooks and exposed bricks.
National Museum Cardiff
Home to Wales' art, geology and natural history collections, as well as touring exhibitions, the National Museum Cardiff is educational and vast. It contains the United Kingdom's largest collection of French Impressionist paintings outside of London and works from artists as diverse as Van Gogh and Picasso. The Evolution of Wales section charts the story of the country from the Big Bang up to the 21st century and features epic dinosaurs.
Cardiff Bay Barrage
Built to regenerate Cardiff's docklands, the Cardiff Bay Barrage is Europe's largest waterfront development. It's essentially an unwalled path for pedestrians and cyclists stretching across the water from Cardiff Bay to Penarth, a nearby seaside town, and it's a great viewpoint from which to appreciate the scale and history of the capital. Across the barrage, walk along Penarth seafront, which has an award-winning pier and old-fashioned shops. You can look out across the Bristol Channel to spot two islands, Flat Holm and Steep Holm.
With boat trips running all year, restaurants galore and stunning views, Cardiff Bay always has something to do, see or try. Experience the Welsh knack for storytelling and singing at Wales Millennium Centre, a first-class theater, dance and music venue. For performances of the political kind, check out the Senedd, home to the Welsh Parliament. Adrenaline junkies will love Cardiff International White Water, where you can try white water rafting, kayaking and stand up paddleboarding all without leaving the city. Those with a sweet tooth should visit Nata & Co, a Portuguese bakery that serves impeccable tarts.
Chapter Arts Centre
Founded by local artists more than 40 years ago, Chapter Arts Centre is the alternative culture hub of Cardiff. It embraces talent big and small in its theater, two movie theaters (which largely show indie releases) and an art gallery. Chapter's open-plan cafe is a watering hole for many local creatives. It captures Cardiff residents' friendliness, love of a good conversation and easygoing attitude, and it serves wholesome meals and craft beers.
The iconic Principality Stadium, formerly called Millennium Stadium, dominates the bank of the River Taff. It's regularly used for major sports including football, rugby, motorsport and boxing, and doubles as an arena for music concerts. Visitors can join a tour that takes you to the home dressing room (better known as the Dragon's Lair), the press suite, VIP boxes, players' tunnel, the highest seats in the 76,000-capacity house and, of course, pitch-side.
Next to Cardiff Castle is Bute Park, a thriving green idyll loved by locals. Relax with a walk along the River Taff, home to many species of wildlife including otters and rare birds, or wind your way through the pretty flower beds and woodland areas. Take a pit stop at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, whose alumni include Anthony Hopkins and Rob Brydon.
A former jail, Cardiff Market has two floors of stalls within its Victorian shell. You can buy almost anything here, which makes it perfect for wandering. Highlights include Bakestones, which makes the best Welsh cakes, and Clancy's, a spice and veggie food emporium with lentil dal to die for.
St. Fagans National History Museum
One of Wales’s most popular heritage attractions, St. Fagans National History Museum is an open-air museum of Welsh life. Buildings from throughout Welsh history have been carefully taken down from their original sites and re-erected here. You can walk through the ages via the buildings, from a stony medieval court to a functioning 20th-century bakehouse. Take a break at the quaint Gwalia Tea Room before ambling through trees and country paths on the 100-acre site.
Here to party? Cardiff’s got you covered – in fact, nights out here are pretty legendary. Most of the action centers around St. Mary’s Street and spills into nearby lanes. For fancy cocktails book a table at The Dead Canary, a speakeasy-style bar tucked behind a nondescript black doorway. To rock out, try alternative club Metros or catch a gig at Clwb Ifor Bach. For the LGBTQI+ scene, look no further than Pulse, Mary’s or The Golden Cross. When you’re done drinking and dancing, it’s time to head to Caroline Street – known locally as Chippy Lane – for a debrief over chips and curry sauce (or cheese and gravy).
It’s worth venturing out of Cardiff city center for a wander around Roath Park. The Victorian-era public park includes a colorful Botanic Garden, a conservatory filled with tropical greenery and a large lake featuring a distinctive white clock tower – a memorial to Captain Scott and his crew, who embarked on an ill-fated Antarctic expedition in 1910 and whose ship Terra Nova originally set sail from Cardiff. Get out on the water by hiring a pedalo or traditional rowboat, or grab a treat from the ever-present ice-cream van and watch the swans and geese waddling along the shore.
This article was originally published in January 2017.