Compact, multicultural Cardiff dances to its own beat, with abundant cultural and historical sights, independent businesses and a friendly atmosphere. Here are 10 things that first-time visitors to the Welsh capital should experience, from its grand castle and leafy urban gardens to the best Welsh cakes and the world’s oldest record shop.
Explore the Gothic revival Castle
In the middle of the city centre is Cardiff Castle, a medieval castle encircled by Roman walls. William Burges' opulent interiors epitomise Victorian Gothic design, and once inside you can marvel at intricate woodcarvings, epic murals, stained glass and rich colours 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.
Wander enchanting arcades
Stretching for nearly a kilometre between the main shopping streets and the castle end of the city, the Victorian, Edwardian and contemporary indoor arcades give Cardiff its nickname, ‘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 centre. Browse the vinyl racks at Spillers, the world's oldest record store, or hug a mug in Coffee Barker (instagram.com/coffeebarker), a coffee shop with cosy nooks and exposed bricks.
Hear the story of Wales at the National Museum
Home to Wales' art, geology and natural history collections, as well as touring exhibitions, the National Museum is educational and vast. It contains the UK’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 charts the story of Wales from the Big Bang up to the 21st century, and features epic dinosaurs.
Cross a sea-spanning barrage
Built to regenerate Cardiff's docklands, the 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, but it's a great viewpoint from which to appreciate the scale and history of the city.
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.
Custard tarts and boat trips on the Bay
With boat trips running all year, restaurants galore and stunning views, there's always something to do, see or try in Cardiff Bay. Experience the Welsh knack for storytelling and singing at Wales Millennium Centre, a first-class theatre, dance and music venue. Or, for performances of the political kind, check out the Senedd, home to Wales’s National Assembly. Those with a sweet tooth should visit Nata & Co (nataandco.co.uk), a Portuguese bakery that bakes impeccable tarts.
An inviting, unpredictable arts hub
Founded by local artists over 40 years ago, Chapter Arts Centre (chapter.org) is the alternative culture hub of the city. It embraces talent big and small in its theatre, two cinemas (which largely show indie releases) and art gallery. Chapter's open-plan cafe is the watering hole of many local creatives. It captures Cardiff people's friendliness, love of a good natter and easygoing attitude, and serves wholesome meals and craft beers.
Visit the Dragon’s Lair
The iconic Principality Stadium, formerly called the Millennium Stadium, dominates the bank of the 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, the VIP boxes, the players' tunnel, the highest seats in the 76,000 capacity house and, of course, pitch-side.
Meet otters in the inner city
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 flowerbeds and woodland areas. Take a pit stop at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, whose alumni include Anthony Hopkins and Rob Brydon.
Walk, talk and eat like the locals
A former gaol, Cardiff Market provides two floors of stalls within its Victorian shell. It's possible to buy almost anything here, which makes it perfect for wandering. Highlights include Bakestones, who make and sell the best Welsh cakes all day long, and Clancy's, a spice and veggie food emporium with lentil dahl to die for. Riverside's Sunday morning market is lovely, too; there, it's acceptable to eat cronuts and curry at 10am!
Step back into Welsh history
One of Wales’s most popular heritage attractions, St Fagans is an open-air museum of Welsh life. Buildings from throughout Welsh history have been carefully taken down from their original site 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 Tearooms before ambling through trees and country paths on the 100-acre site.