Wales' southeast corner, where the misty River Wye meanders along the border with England, is the birthplace of British tourism. For over 200 years travellers have visited this tranquil waterway and its winding, wooded vale, where the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey have inspired poets and artists such as Wordsworth and Turner.
But there's more to the region than the market towns and rural byways of the Lower Wye. To the west, the dramatically serried South Wales valleys tell the story of the Industrial Revolution through heritage sites and still close-knit communities. Move north and the landscape opens out to the magnificent upland scenery of Brecon Beacons National Park, where high mountain roads dip down to remote hamlets and whitewashed ancient churches. The hiking and mountain-biking terrain here is superb.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Southeast Wales.
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.
The haunting riverside ruins of this sprawling monastic complex have inspired poets and artists through the centuries, most notably William Wordsworth, who penned 'Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey' during a visit in 1798, and JMW Turner, who made many paintings and drawings of the site. It was founded in 1131 by the Cistercian order and left to fall into picturesque ruin after the monks were booted out by Henry VIII in 1536.
The seat of the Morgan family for more than 500 years, Tredegar House is a stone and red-brick 17th-century building set amid extensive gardens, 2 miles west of Newport city centre. It is one of the finest examples of a Restoration mansion in Britain, the oldest parts dating to the 1670s. The National Trust took over management of the property in late 2011 and has done a great job bringing the fascinating stories of its owners to life.
Dramatically perched atop a steep limestone crag, high above the River Cennen, are the brooding ruins of Wales' ultimate romantic castle, visible for miles in every direction. Originally a Welsh castle, the current structure dates back to Edward I's conquest of Wales in the late 13th century. It was partially dismantled in 1462 during the War of the Roses. On a working farm of the same name, Carreg Cennen is well signposted from the A483 heading south from Llandeilo.
Imposing Chepstow Castle perches atop a limestone cliff overhanging the river, guarding the main river crossing from England into South Wales. It is one of the oldest castles in Britain – building started in 1067, less than a year after William the Conqueror invaded England. The impressive Great Tower dates from this time and includes bricks plundered from the nearby Roman town of Caerwent. It was extended over the centuries, resulting in a long, narrow complex snaking along the hill.
Ascending Pen-y-Fan (886m), the tallest peak in the Brecon Beacons, is one of the most popular hikes in the park (around 350,000 people make the climb annually, giving it the nickname 'the motorway'). The shortest route begins at the Pont ar Daf car park on the A470, 10 miles southwest of Brecon. It's a steep but straightforward slog up to the summit of Corn Du (873m), followed by a short dip and final ascent to Pen-y-Fan (4.5 miles return; allow three hours).
The last great medieval castle to be built in Wales, Raglan was designed more as a swaggering declaration of wealth and power than a defensive fortress. A magnificent, sprawling complex built of dusky pink and grey sandstone, it was constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries by Sir William ap Thomas and his son William Herbert, the first earl of Pembroke.
Fascinating Big Pit provides an opportunity to explore a real coal mine and get a taste of what life was like for the miners who worked here from 1880 to 1980. Tours descend 90m into the mine and explore the tunnels and coalfaces in the company of an ex-miner guide. Above ground, you can visit various colliery buildings, including the 1939 pithead baths, filled with displays on the industry and the evocative reminiscences of ex-miners.
Halfway up a thickly forested hillside in the Vale of Eywas, this tiny 11th-century church is like a time capsule of Welsh faith and culture, buried too deeply in these hills ever to change. Astonishing as it is in its perfectly situated, weathered simplicity, it's inside that its true wonders reveal themselves: a finely carved wooden rood screen and loft, dating from around 1500; medieval frescos of biblical texts; coats of arms and a red-ochre skeleton; and memorials to people long dead.