No trip to Cardiff would be complete without a trip to its castle. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at 3 different sites when you see images of this castle – some show an old Norman keep, some a reconstructed Roman fort and others a Victorian Gothic fantasy palace awash with fairytale towers: 3 iconic images but none of which tell the full story.
Cardiff Castle has an extremely long and detailed history, but how the castle ended up looking like it is was primarily down to the Bute family, a name synonymous with Cardiff.
It was the first Marquess of Bute who instigated the major changes in layout in the 1760’s that left the open vista seen today inside the exterior walls. He employed landscape designer Capability Brown who demolished major ward walls and any building that was deemed ‘in the way’ of attaining the fashionable and highly desired landscape setting for the house, leaving the keep largely as we see it today, perched by itself on the motte. He was accused of a lack of appreciation for the castle’s ancient character and I’d be inclined to agree.
However, it was the 3rd Marquess of Bute and his collaboration with architect William Burges in the 1860’s that was responsible for making Cardiff Castle one of the most outstanding examples of Gothic revival architecture. Their joint taste for colour and exoticism pervades the entire interior – I’ve never seen such a variety of highly decorated and opulent fireplaces and ceilings. Every room is different but equally lavish: rich with murals, stained glass, marble, gilding and elaborate wood carvings.
Perhaps the three most celebrated features of Burges’s castle are:
Entry to Cardiff Castle costs £12 for adults and for an extra £3 it’s worth adding on the house tour as you get access to a number of rooms not available on the self guided tour. Its takes approximately 50 minutes and provides all sorts of fascinating information, for example: did you know that servants used to be summoned by pushing a nut into a monkey’s mouth? Yep – you couldn’t make that up! After you’ve done the guided tour, make sure you go back round the self guided part as you won’t want to miss the most impressive ceiling in the entire castle, that of the Arab room: not covered on the guided tour due to its small size and the need to protect its floor.
Make sure you take a walk around the castle walls and up into the Norman keep, both of which offer superb views of the castle and the city from different perspectives.
Settle on a place for lunch at Mermaid Quay. I did just that on arriving in Cardiff and chose a place that gave this view of the Bay while dining alfresco. There are numerous places to choose from but I was in the mood for Italian, so Zizzi’s it was.
Cardiff Bay is the city’s Docklands District, once known as Tiger Bay, notorious for its red light district and gambling dens. The area was given a new lease of life in the 1990’s with the construction of the Barrage which plugged the River Taff and Ely creating a large fresh water lake. The tide was considered an inhibitor to development with low tide causing inaccessibility for half the day, so with this now eradicated, development leapt into action and with 8 miles of waterfront, the Bay is now a top tourist and leisure destination with many major attractions including The Wales Millennium Centre, the Welsh Assembly and the Dr Who Experience to name a few.
There is certainly an exciting but relaxed vibe to Cardiff Bay – everyone is there to enjoy themselves and it’s a friendly and welcoming place.
If you like a good Bitter, try a pint of the local brew ‘Brains’ while you’re here. I headed to “Salt” at Mermaid Quay for a pint of Brains Smooth which went down very nicely thank you, and there are big screens there for watching sport also.
Opened in 2004, the Wales Millennium Centre is Wales’s home for performing arts and houses a 1900 seat theatre designed for opera, musicals and dance; a small studio theatre, a dance house and an orchestral hall. It is one of the UK’s leading cultural organisations with a large community learning and engagement programme. It has made the arts more accessible to those who might not otherwise have had the opportunity. The inscription on the building frontage “ffwrnais awen” means “furnace of Inspiration” and I can’t help but draw a parallel to my local theatre: “The Lowry” in Salford, Manchester where I worked as a volunteer for 6 years. I was glad to discover another such organisation in the UK.
There’s an exciting programme of shows on at the Wales Millennium Centre; currently Billy Elliot until the 16th July, followed by Chicago from the 25th – 30th July, then Chitty Chitty Bang Bang throughout the first 3 weeks of August. Check online for dates, times and prices.
Cardiff is one big mish-mash of architectural styles! Even at the Castle this is the case, but there’s none more apparent than those at Cardiff Bay. Innovative architecture sits alongside historic buildings. In just a few hundred yards of each other, there’s the aforementioned Millennium Centre, the vibrant orange of the Pierhead building (built in 1897 as the HQ for the Cardiff Railway Company), the modernity of the Welsh National Assembly, the quirky Norwegian Church and the massive domed monstrosity of the Dr Who Experience. It’s odd, but somehow it works! You’ll find your favourites of course, but the best part has to be the eclectic mix, no matter what your thoughts are on the individual buildings.
Take a wander up the River Taff from the bridge nearest the southern entrance to Cardiff Central Station, up to the castle. This is a very quiet route favoured by runners and walkers (and canoes at river level) and offers the best views of the Millennium Stadium, now known as the Principality Stadium, home to Welsh rugby.
On your walk you’ll encounter the intriguing sculptures on Fitzhamon Embankment, an artwork representing a range of popular spices created by local artists in collaboration with Riverside residents. A theme that emerged from early discussions was food – it plays an important part in local celebrations, festivals, trading and everyday life and so this was the inspiration for the artwork. A board positioned nearby provides further information.
Walk back across the river when you reach the bridge leading to the Castle and check out its endearing animal sculpture wall, another architectural feature we have William Burges to thank for. Originally built in front of the castle with 9 animals, the wall was moved in the mid 1900’s to its present position to accommodate a wider road and a further 6 animals were added. Subjected to the forces of nature the wall weathered badly and in 2010 was completely restored for us to enjoy today! The animals include a pelican, anteater, raccoon, leopard, beaver, vulture, hyena, wolf, apes, seal, bear, lioness, lynx and 2 lions. Which is your favourite animal? Mine’s the seal!
Llandaff Cathedral stands on one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain and dates back to 1107. Much of the ancient “City of Llandaff” is now a conservation area and therefore the area is comparatively ‘unspoilt’ and a peaceful area to spend a few hours. Don’t let the fact that the city’s cathedral is not in the city centre put you off visiting – there’s a delightful walk up the River Taff from the castle which takes you straight to it and will take about 30 – 40 minutes to walk. Alternatively take the car and park behind the neighbouring “Bishop’s Palace”.
Unfortunately when I visited the cathedral there was a wedding about to commence so I was unable to go in. I had to content myself by glimpsing from a distance. It’s on the list for my next visit!
Did you know that Cardiff is a city of parks and has more green space per person than any other UK core city? I didn’t until I spent a long weekend there. You should spend some time on your visit to Cardiff exploring one of its parks.
Perhaps extend your trip to the castle, by walking round the exterior and into the grade 1 listed Bute Park: there you will see one of the most photographed views of the castle; indeed it’s the one used on the front of the castle guide book.
Or head out to one of the parks in the suburbs such as Roath Park to the North, considered to be Cardiff’s most popular public park. You can walk right the way round Roath Park Lake in about half an hour and it’s a lovely place to watch the sun go down. There’s a wild garden north of the lake and a botanic garden to the south, as well as an adventure playground.
If you’re a fan of a bit of culture, head to Cardiff’s National Museum, located in Cardiff’s civic centre (beautiful buildings in themselves) and home to world class art, geology and natural history. It’s free to enter and there’s a busy programme of exhibitions and events.
Follow The Evolution of Wales exhibition from the beginning of time to present day, brought to life by film, light, sounds and specimens and see Wales’s diverse natural history from seashore to mountain top.
The art gallery situated on the upper floor features 500 years of paintings, drawings, sculpture, silver and ceramics from Wales and across the World, including a decent collection of Impressionist art and a space dedicated to contemporary exhibits. I saw an exhibition called “Fragile?” there in 2015 which was a unique ceramics exhibit in that it was more about the fragility of the medium, so featured ceramics being broken, smashed and walked upon by visitors.
Starting on the 16th July 2016 is “Quentin Blake: Inside Stories” celebrating the work of one of the World’s best loved illustrators, known for his artwork in Roald Dahl’s books. This will run till the 20th November 2016 and is part of the Roald Dahl 100 Wales celebrations.
Voted 6th best shopping destination in the UK, Cardiff has a fantastic shopping centre with a mix of designer labels, high street stores, independent and individual shops. Charming Edwardian and Victorian arcades exist alongside ultra modern shopping centres, the newest being St David’s; and there seem to be thousands of cafes, restaurants and bars to stop at and take a load off.
My favourite arcade is the Castle Arcade which runs in an ‘L’ shape from opposite the castle to High Street. My 3 favourite establishments can be found in here – the tiny but immensely quirky button shop, “Claire Grove Buttons” – a must for all crafters; the board games store called “Rules of Play” – my husband and I have a capacity to spend a lot of money in this place and never leave empty handed; and “Coffee Barker” who do a mean ice cream milkshake in all sorts of flavours, served in a milk bottle would you believe! This place fills almost the full length of one arm of the arcade with comfy sofas, arm chairs and arcade-side seating. The homemade soups are incredible too!
If you are that way inclined, Cardiff Bay is the perfect place to try out a new water sport. After being inspired by a weekend of sport the last weekend in June, catching the Cardiff Triathlon and the Extreme Sailing competition while I was there, not to mention Wales’s Euro 2016 match against Northern Ireland, I could almost be convinced to do so too.
There’s sailing, power-boating, windsurfing, rowing, fishing, and yes – white water rafting!
If you like the idea of getting out on the water but don’t want to actually get wet, then take a water taxi between the Bay and the city centre, or one of the Bay tour boats – includes a 90 minute tour of the Cardiff Bay and Penarth area.
Upping the thrill seeking level a touch but still staying above water, check out Coastal Sea Blast which takes you beyond the barrage, along the coast and out to Flatholm Island.
There’s many different water tour operators, these are just a few I like, but hit Google to check out which best suits your ideals online.
Hope this gives you some ideas of things to do when planning your trip to Cardiff!
Do any of these places feature in your top ten?