20 unique experiences I’ve had in Wales that you can have too
Wales might be a tiny piece of Europe and often overlooked by foreign tourists in a remote corner of the UK. But the country sure packs in A LOT of adventures and this makes it larger than its body. Whether you’re into dramatic coastal-scapes, climbing mountain tops, exploring colourful villages, riding heritage trains or conquering mighty castles – Wales has got something for you.
For me, Wales is truly special and in total, I have spent about 2 years in Wales since 2007. It was the first country in which I lived abroad. I have made friends for life there, I met my Spanish girlfriend there and I have even represented a Welsh national team. But besides these very personal reasons, here are 20 unforgettable adventures I’ve had all over the country – and that you can have too:
Time travelling at Tintern Abbey
Just… wow! I mean, I have seen my share of historic ruins on my trips in Europe from Athens to Northern Ireland. But the ruins of Tintern Abbey in Monmouthshire offered a very distinct and melancholic atmosphere. A place where time seemed to stand still, despite the obvious fact that this abbey and its monastery-complex has seen better days. Surrounded by green and sitting next to the River Wye, this roofless wonder is an absolute must! Read more here: Discovering Chepstow and Tintern Abbey
Where: Tintern, Monmouthshire, South Wales
Book shopping in Hay-on-Wye
It’s been more than a decade since I visited this place back in 2007 when I first lived in Wales. An idyllic market town on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park that is set on the River Wye – right on the border to England. And what is so special about this town? Books! Literally. In Hay-on-Wye you can browse around 20 bookstores, most of them selling second-hand or antique books. And also, don’t miss the trusty “honesty bookshops” consisting of open-air bookshelves with a box in which to pay for your books. This is a booklovers paradise and so is the town’s famous Hay Festival in May which is focused on literature and arts.
Where: Hay-on-Wye, Powys, South Wales
Conquering Caerphilly Castle
Wales has previously been referred to as ‘Castle Capital of the World’. A deserving title giving that the country once held no less than 600 castles. Lucky enough for history-enthusiasts more than 100 of them can still be found – either as ruins or well-restored attractions. It’s difficult to choose your favourite, but Caerphilly Castle is definitely one of mine. The sheer view of this 13th-century fortress surrounded by a moat and set among rolling hills is simply stunning! But it is also worth a tour behind the think walls – watch out for the cracked, leaning tower! All in all a great day trip from nearby Cardiff. SEE ALSO: 12 extraordinary structures around Wales
Where: Caerphilly, South Wales
Driving through the Brecon Beacons
Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten my walking boots dirty in the hills and valleys of the Brecon Beacons… yet, although it’s definitely on my wish list to do some hiking there. But even driving through the Brecon Beacons National Park on the way north from Cardiff is a treat. A ride through waving landscapes in a thousand shades of green that beckons nature lovers like me to go into the wild. It’s definitely a road worth taking if you ever want to explore Wales by car and it’s also known as one of the best places in the world to do some stargazing. The town of Brecon is worth a stop too and best known for its annual jazz festival.
Where: Powys, Mid Wales
Cheering on the Welsh rugby heroes
Broad shoulders clashing to thunderous cheers from more than 70.000 spectators. Watching the national rugby team play at the Millennium Stadium (now Principality Stadium) in Cardiff is as Welsh as it gets. And rugby is a sport where this small country can compete and win at the highest level. The Welsh love their team and take great pride in their triumphs, and their passion on big game days is contagious. Even having a giant stadium like this in a city of 360.000 inhabitants is impressive in itself. A first-class venue treating the locals to many big concerts and events throughout the year. SEE ALSO: 10 reasons why I fell in love with Cardiff
Where: Cardiff, South Glamorgan, South Wales
Admiring the architecture at Cardiff Bay
Cardiff Bay is the classic story of the phoenix rising from the ashes. A former run-down harbour area that was brought to life and turned into a Welsh riviera through a large-scale regeneration project. While the Cardiff Bay Barrage kept the water at bay, so to speak, this created an entirely new experience at the waterfront where historic and contemporary architecture is standing side by side. Cultural and sporting events add to the atmosphere along with a large number of bars and restaurants, and I’ve spent endless hours sittin’ at the dock of the bay here. SEE ALSO: These 5 iconic buildings will lure you to Cardiff Bay
Where: Cardiff, South Glamorgan, South Wales
Getting lost in Victorian arcades
Forget about grand shopping malls – well, Cardiff has them too if you like – but the authentic shopping experience in the Welsh capital is found inside the old Victorian arcades. A disconnected labyrinth of speciality shops, barbers, tattoo parlours, atmospheric cafés and small restaurants. There are 7 different arcades to explore all around the city centre and they make for great places to hide away on rainy days. My personal favourite is Castle Arcade with Princes & Paupers, Coffee Barker and Fabulous Welsh Cakes among its highlights. But don’t miss the Illustrate shop in Morgan Arcade or Uncommon Ground Coffee Roastery in Royal Arcade.
Where: Cardiff, South Glamorgan, South Wales
Enjoying the beaches in Tenby
Standing with your feet in the sand on a nice summer’s day, you might be led to believe you’re much further south than West Wales. Colourful Tenby serves up a lively summer vibe than could belong in Southern Europe. Among the British, it’s a classic staycation-destination where you still get the feel of being abroad. With a cliff-top castle, two iconic lifeboat stations, two separate beaches and huge tidal changes that leave the boats stranded in the sand, there is certainly enough to explore on a long weekend. And I didn’t even mention the pubs (well, now I did). SEE ALSO: Take a trip to temptatious Tenby
Where: Tenby, Pembrokeshire, West Wales
Hiking along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path
I fell deeply in love with Pembrokeshire already during my first stay in 2015. I’ve returned three times since and spent a total of 6 months in this beautiful part of the world. A coastal region dominated by Pembrokeshire Coast National Park where the regional and the national coast path ofter some spectacular hiking routes. In fact, they’re the same, spanning the entire coastline of Pembrokeshire and leading you to charming coastal towns, secluded bays and wide sandy beaches while you can spot puffins, sheep and seals. SEE ALSO: 6 things you’ll miss in photos from Pembrokeshire
Where: Pembrokeshire, West Wales.
Being awestruck by St Davids Cathedral
Like with Tintern Abbey, there is something magical about St Davids Cathedral – the religious building that shares its name with the city in where it stands. In fact, St Davids is officially the smallest city in the UK and only got its city status because of the cathedral, despite being inhabited by only between 1500-200 people. The parallel to Tintern Abbey is a stunning location being hidden in the landscape. Unlike the Abbey though, this 13th-century cathedral is still going strong. It’s worth a look inside but is best admired from the benches above the cemetery where on clear days you can also spot the see in the distance. SEE ALSO: 15 reasons to visit the UK’s smallest city – St Davids
Where: St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, West Wales
Spotting wild seals on a sea safari
It is amazing to experience wild animals in their natural habitat and on their own terms. My girlfriend and I had an absolute blast on our sea safari in Pembrokeshire a few years back. A speedboat tour setting out from St Justinian’s lifeboat stations in Pembrokeshire – a nice country road walk from nearby St Davids, where the tour companies are based. This coastal region is a feast for wildlife-lovers, and besides the seals, you will be able to spot porpoises, puffins, dolphins and even larger whales. Check my blog post about our experience: Go wild in West Wales with Voyages of Discovery
Where: St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, West Wales
Going on a “café crawl” in Fishguard
The harbour town of Fishguard might not be the most beautiful of towns you’ll come by in Wales, but nonetheless, it has a certain charm, being split in upper and lower Fishguard and with a nice mix of pubs and shops. From here you can board the ferry to Rosslare in Ireland, but it might be worth hanging out a bit before you do. Because Fishguard is blessed with a selection of lovely cafés you’d be surprised to find in this corner of the country. The Gourmet Pig is a highly atmospheric delicatessen shop that serves excellent coffee, Mannings nearby is a nice grocery store and café set in a former bank building and Ffwrn (meaning ‘oven’ in Welsh) is a cosy café, bakery and event venue not to miss.
Where: Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, West Wales.
Volunteering in a tiny coastal village
Volunteering through Worlaway.info is one of the best things my girlfriend and I have ever done because this way we ended up in the tiny village of Trefin in Pembrokeshire. We volunteered at an eco-friendly hostel and got friends for life, while we were able to spend several months in Pembrokeshire National Park. There might not be much to do in Trefin itself besides looking out for seals in the local bay, but it’s a lovely base for exploring the coastline and nearby destinations. One favourite spot became the ever so charming harbour village of Porthgain, where you can browse the small galleries and grab a pint at The Sloop Inn. SEE ALSO: An offroad lifestyle
Where: Trefin, Pembrokeshire, West Wales.
Being hypnotized by starling murmurations
While Mid Wales is dominated by natural beauty, the university town of Aberystwyth on the west coast provides an urban and cultural touch. It’s an excellent base for you to explore the surrounding area but also to enjoy what the town has to offer. The highlight though is the natural phenomenon of starling murmurations by dusk. This is when thousands of starlings can be seen swarming in the air before “swooshing” down under the Royal Pier to roost. It’s a hypnotizing sight that is best experienced in the autumn and winter months. Simply amazing! SEE ALSO: Starlings and sunsets in Aberystwyth
Where: Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Mid Wales.
Watching red kites feast near Devil’s Bridge
Speaking of birds, I had another unforgettable wildlife experience near Aberystwyth a few years back, when I took the steam train to Devil’s Bridge. A lovely ride up through the scenic Rheidol Valley that alone is worth the trip. At Devil’s Bridge, the bridge giving the place its name is one of the main attractions, but for me, the highlight was watching the red kites feast at the Bwlch Nant Yr Arian visitor centre. Here, these beautiful birds of prey have been fed every day at 2 pm (winter) and 3 pm (summer) since 1999. A spectacle that is free for everyone to enjoy. Need accommodation in the area? Then check this out: Luxury retreat in the heart of Wales
Where: Devil’s Bridge, Ceredigion, Mid Wales
“Teleporting to Italy” at Portmeirion
Yes, you can in fact teleport in North Wales. Well, it feels like that anyway as you enter the gates of Portmeirion near the town of Porthmadog. Portmeirion is a curious and colourful creation and the brainchild of the Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellies. It’s an entire Italian-inspired village set in the Welsh landscape and an impressive project that took 50 years to complete. Today visitors can enjoy Portmeirion’s unique architecture and endless details while shopping, eating and even spending the night at the on-site hotel with breathtaking views. A cultural highlight is the annual Festival No. 6. SEE ALSO: Portmeirion in North Wales – an explosion of colour and creativeness
Where: Portmeirion, Gwynedd, North Wales
Travelling by steam on a former slate mining route
North Wales is a great destination for train enthusiasts and one of the most authentic journeys is the Ffestiniog Railway that travels between Porthmadog and Blaenau Ffestiniog – a historic slate mining town in Snowdonia National Park. In fact, the railway was built to transport slate from the quarries and down to the ships at the harbour of Porthmadog. It has been revived as a tourist attraction and is a lifeline to Blaenau Ffestiniog which has a very unique atmosphere among the slate-covered mountains. The railway takes you through almost wild west-looking landscapes and it is run by the oldest surviving railway company in the world. A company that also runs the connecting Welsh Highland Line (see below). SEE ALSO: A historic train journey to former slate mining mecca
Where: Porthmadog/Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd, North Wales
Riding the tracks through Snowdonia
Snowdonia National Park is the pride and heart of North Wales and I have been lucky to get to travel through it a couple of times. You could spend weeks and months exploring this place, but to get a good impression of its stunning natural scenery, I would recommend you to travel with the Welsh Highland Railway. This is a historic steam train connecting the harbour towns of Porthmadog and Caernarfon. A scenic route that stretches 40 kilometres through the park which makes it the longest heritage railway route in the UK. You sure won’t forget this journey and the charming castle town of Caernarfon is worth the visit too. SEE ALSO: Ride through Snowdonia with the Welsh Highland Railway
Where: Porthmadog/Caernarfon, Gwynedd, North Wales
Standing on the top of Mount Snowdon
It might be even more rewarding if you’ve hiked all the way up the mountain, but although I took the easy way by the Snowdon Mountain Railway, standing on top of Mount Snowdon is an unforgettable sight. That is if you’re lucky with the weather, of course. Standing at 1085 meters above sea level, this is Wales’ highest mountain and higher than any mountain in England. It is a natural icon of not only Snowdonia National Park but for Wales itself. While the train ride up is easy and enjoyable, I would love to return and do the hike up one day, because I know the sight on top will be worth the struggle. You can hike or ride the train up from the town of Llanberis. SEE ALSO: Snowdon Mountain Railway – on tracks to the top of Wales
Where: Llanberis, Gwynedd, North Wales.
Looking down from the towers of Conwy Castle
The promenade town of Llandudno in North Wales offers a lovely seaside atmosphere and Wales’ longest pleasure pier, but it’s in the nearby town of Conwy that you find the mighty Conwy Castle. A well-kept 13th-century fortress with a breathtaking location overlooking the River Conwy and the surrounding landscape. You can spend hours exploring these ruins while training your legs up the steps of the towers. Don’t miss a walk through the town itself and when back in Llandudno, take the Great Orme Tramway for spectacular ocean-views. SEE ALSO: North Wales: 4 great reasons to visit Llandudno
Where: Conwy/Llandudno, Conwy, North Wales
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