The phrase 'good things come in small packages' may be a cliché, but in the case of Wales it's undeniably true.
Compact but geologically diverse, Wales offers myriad opportunities for escaping into nature. It may not be wild in the classic sense – humans have been shaping this land for millennia – but there are plenty of lonely corners to explore, lurking behind mountains, within river valleys and along surf-battered cliffs. An extensive network of paths makes Wales a hiker's paradise – and thousands of people duck across the border from England each year for that reason alone. Things are even more untamed on the islands scattered just off the coast, some of which are important wildlife sanctuaries.
Stones with Stories
Castles are an inescapable part of the Welsh landscape. They're absolutely everywhere. You could visit a different one every day for a year and still not see them all. Some watch over mountain passes, while others keep an eye on the city traffic whizzing by; some lie in enigmatic ruins, while others still have families living in them. There's also an altogether more inscrutable and far older set of stones to discover – the stone circles, dolmens and standing stones erected long before castles were ever dreamt up, before even histories were written.
Sure, the climate's not exactly tropical, but regardless of the weather's vagaries, Wales is a superb beach-holiday destination. The beauty of the British coast is cruelly underrated, and Wales has some of the very best bits. When the sun is shining, the beaches fill up with kids building sandcastles and splashing about in the shallows. And when it's not, how about a bracing walk instead? The Wales Coast Path traces the country's entire length, so you're unlikely to run out of track.
Hospitality & Hiraeth
Beyond the scenery, it's the interactions with Welsh people that will remain in your memory the longest. Perhaps you'll recall sitting in a Caernarfon cafe, listening to the locals chatter in the ancient British tongue. Or that time in the pub, screaming along to the rugby with a red-shirted mob. They talk a lot in Wales about 'hiraeth'. A typically Welsh word, it refers to a sense of longing for the green, green grass of home. Even if you're not from Wales, a feeling of hiraeth may well hit you when you leave, only to be sated when you return.
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Hidden in a hollow and behind high walls, St David's Cathedral is intentionally unassuming. The valley site was chosen in the vain hope that the church would be overlooked by Saxon raiders, but it was ransacked at least seven times. Yet once you pass through the gatehouse separating it from the town and its stone walls come into view, it's as imposing as any of its contemporaries.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Caerphilly Castle – with its profusion of towers and crenellations reflected in a duck-filled lake – was a film set rather than an ancient monument. While it is often used as a film set, it is also one of Britain's finest examples of a 13th-century fortress with water defences, and the largest castle in Wales.
Majestic Caernarfon Castle was built by Edward I between 1283 and 1330 as a military stronghold, seat of government and royal palace. Designed and mainly supervised by Master James of St George, from Savoy, its brief and scale were extraordinary. Today it remains one of the most complete and impressive castles in Britain – you can walk on and through the interconnected walls and towers gathered around the central green, most of which are well preserved but empty.
The preeminent Georgian engineer Thomas Telford (1757–1834) built the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805 to carry the canal over the River Dee. At 307m long, 3.6m wide, 1.7m deep and 38m high, it is the most spectacular piece of engineering on the entire UK canal system and the highest canal aqueduct ever built. In recognition of this, the aqueduct and an 11-mile stretch of the canal have been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. FYI, it's pronounced 'pont-kus- sulth -teh'.
Set on its own tranquil peninsula reaching into the estuary, this fantastical collection of colourful buildings with a heavy Italian influence was masterminded by Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Starting in 1925, Sir Clough collected bits and pieces from disintegrating stately mansions and set them alongside his own creations to concoct this weird and wonderful seaside utopia. Today the buildings are all heritage listed, the site is a conservation area, and festivals, fairs, gigs and other events are frequently held here.
A small but dedicated band of enthusiasts have spent 40 years practising sustainability at the thought-provoking CAT, set in the Dyfi Unesco Biosphere Reserve, north of Machynlleth. Founded in 1974 (well ahead of its time), the CAT is an education and visitor centre that demonstrates practical solutions for sustainability. There are 3 hectares of displays dealing with topics such as composting, organic gardening, environmentally friendly construction, renewable energy sources and sewage treatment and recycling.
Caernarfon is more complete, Harlech more dramatically positioned and Beaumaris more technically perfect, yet out of the four castles that compose the Unesco World Heritage Site, Conwy is the prettiest to gaze upon. Exploring the castle's nooks and crannies makes for a superb, living-history visit, but best of all, head to the battlements for panoramic views and an overview of Conwy's majestic complexity. Its role – to overawe and dominate the recently subjugated Welsh – couldn't be clearer.
Beaumaris is the last and most technically perfect of the ring of great castles built by Edward I of England to consolidate his Welsh conquests. Started in 1295, but never completed as fully designed, it enjoys World Heritage status. With its pleasing symmetry, water-filled moat, succession of four concentric 'walls within walls' and stout towers and gatehouse, it’s what every sandcastle maker unknowingly aspires to.
Sitting unobtrusively near the top of the Great Orme is the largest prehistoric mine ever discovered. Nearly paved over for a car park, this site of tremendous historical importance has been developed as a must-see attraction, with a visitor centre and the chance to explore portions of the 5 miles of tunnels dug over centuries in search of copper. What is truly astounding is that 4000 years ago the tools used to excavate this maze were just stones and bones.