With its windswept coastline, jagged mountain peaks, and storybook countryside, it's easy to see why Wales has been the muse of poets and writers for centuries, but it is often overlooked by travelers in favor of England and Scotland. This might be changing as the fashion world and the entertainment industry shine a spotlight on the country. Wales inspired the Autumn/Winter 2020 Alexander McQueen collection; Sarah Burton's designs incorporated the country's traditional quilts, the national color, red, and lovespoons. (The Welsh traditionally gave these carved wooden spoons as gifts of romantic intent). Wales was also featured in the most recent season of The Crown.
The country's charms lie not only in its stunning landscape, but its culture. The fiercely proud Welshmen and women have held on tightly to their distinctive language and traditions since becoming part of the Kingdom of England in the 16th century. This history is enshrined at the imposing National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, which contains over 6.5 million books as well as archives, portraits and maps.
If you do one thing in Wales, walk. Special regulations known as right to roam allow the public to access much privately-owned countryside. “Walks” will take you over gently rolling hills, through meticulously kept farmland and past plenty of castles. Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in Europe.
Summer is Wales' busy season making the shoulder season from April to May—when the flowers are blooming, baby cows and lambs are roaming the fields, and there are fewer crowds—a particularly fine time to visit.
Before heading to Wales, a word of warning if you're planning on renting a car. Roadways, often quaint country lanes lined by rock walls, are only wide enough for one car. Plan on plenty of backing up or moving forward until you get to a turnout, and remember you'll be driving on the opposite side of the road.
It is possible to fly to Cardiff International Airport from the United States, but if your plans take you to London, hop on a train. The fastest service takes an hour and 45 minutes from Paddington Station. Take some time to explore Wales' refined capital on the Bristol Channel. Cultural sites abound. 2,000-year-old Cardiff Castle is one of the city's most recognizable landmarks. The 12-sided Norman Keep provides a panoramic view of the city including Castell Coch to the northwest. Also visit St Fagans National Museum of History. The Earl of Plymouth donated the 16th-century manor and its extensive grounds to the people of Wales in 1948. Since then, over forty original buildings from different periods have been re-erected on the 100-acres such as farmhouses, schools, and chapels.
Cardiff also has a vibrant contemporary arts scene. The Albany Gallery displays poignant artwork, such as an exhibition calling attention to waste on Mount Everest while the light-filled Martin Tinney Gallery showcases the work of well-known Welsh artists like paintings by Peter Prendergast and 20th-century etchings by Augustus John.
Built in 1999, the five-star St. David's hotel on Cardiff Bay—with its glass-fronted atrium and metal canopy—provides a notable contrast to the city's Victorian architecture. The hotel's 142 guestrooms have floor-to-ceiling glass windows and a maritime-inspired color scheme. The hotel also has a hydrotherapy spa and the seasonal Welsh restaurant The Admiral. The elegant Park House Restaurant, located in a Gothic mansion built by a wealthy Marquess, is also worth a reservation. Diners sample modern French food using the best local ingredients such as foie gras with quince and redcurrant purée, and Cornish turbot with saffron and butterbeans.
To experience the pleasures of Welsh country life, including a countryside dotted with verdant hills, stone cottages, and ancient churches, head northeast to Monmouthshire. The town of Abergavenny has a Westminster-reminiscent church and a bustling market hall. Abergavenny Market sells locally grown produce and other goods each Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. Just down the street, Angel Bakery’s mouthwatering daily selection includes plump loaves made with locally-milled flour, sandwiches piled high with charcuterie and light as air croissants.
Gastronomes will want to make the pilgrimage to the Walnut Tree Inn just outside of town. At the inn's Michelin star restaurant, accomplished British chef and cookbook author Shaun Hill makes modern classics like scallops with lentil and coriander sauce. The Walnut Tree's accommodations are in several pretty cottages including the two-bedroom, two-bath Ivy Cottage with a fireplace and conservatory. If you prefer a more traditional hotel stay with a swimming pool, spa, and golf course consider St. Pierre Marriott and Country Club. The hotel occupying a sprawling 14th-century manor is a 40-minute drive southeast in Chepstow.
Not far from Abergavenny, Brecon Beacons National Park is home to the Black Mountains, a range of red sandstone peaks. A hike across the open moors to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain will include views of grazing livestock, wild Welsh mountain ponies and the wooded valleys below.
Just north of Brecon Beacons, the storybook town of Hay-on-Wye is a must-visit for book lovers. Dozens of bookstores, many with bookshelves right out front, line the streets. The Poetry Bookshop is the only second-hand bookshop in the United Kingdom dedicated entirely to poetry, and Hay on Wye Booksellers, a shop in a half-timbered building from the 15th century, sells everything from bestsellers to rare finds. The Hay Festival of Literature and Arts, which President Bill Clinton once described as "The Woodstock of the mind" takes place each May and draws many of the world's most respected novelists, poets, and playwrights. In addition to book shops, Hay, as the locals call it, also has cute coffee shops and locally owned boutiques. At The Welsh Girl, purchase limited edition ponchos made from traditional Welsh tapestry—a soft locally woven wool. The shop also sells cushions, tote bags and scarves.
This county in West Wales is home to a stunning slice of The Wales Coast Path (the 870-mile long footpath follows the country's entire coastline); it has steep cliffs, offshore rocks, and shaded turquoise inlets. Puffin sightings are plentiful on Skomer Island, a great day trip from Pembroke, in the spring, and there are frequent boat trips from the small bay Martin's Haven.
The most luxurious hotel option in Pembrokeshire is about a 40-minute drive in the pint-sized city of St. David. Twr Y Felin features an impressive collection of artwork by Welsh, British, and international artists and contemporary décor even though it's in a 19th-century windmill. The two-story Windmill Tower suite has an observatory with views of the St. David's Peninsula. The popular 21-room hotel will add another twenty guest rooms later this year.
The 17th-century Welsh lovespoon tradition continues at the Lovespoon Workshop in the hamlet of Cold Inn. Skilled craftsmen have been hand-carving authentic Welsh lovespoons using a range of symbols since 1975. Bespoke spoons made out of fine wood like mahogany and English yew, a coniferous tree linked with folklore and superstition, can also be commissioned.
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While not technically in Pembrokeshire, the town of Laugharne is worth visiting to see the home of famed Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. He lived in the boathouse overlooking Tâf estuary from 1949 until his death in 1953 when he was just 39 years old. Thomas wrote many important poems in the shed above the boathouse.
Twenty-five percent of Welsh land is protected, and North Wales, with its craggy mountains and sparkling blue lakes is an adrenaline junkie's dream. Wales' highest peak, Mount Snowdown, is located in Snowdonia National Park. It takes about eight hours to climb to the top and back. If you'd rather see the expansive views without breaking a sweat, don't fret. Visitors can take Snowdon Mountain Railway to the peak.
While the Welsh mines are long gone, the open pits they created remain. Entrepreneurs have found new uses for them as adventure parks. Adventure Parc Snowdonia is a surf lagoon and climbing gym while Zip World has a mile-long zip line.
For a more rarefied experience, check in to Palé Hall on the edge of Snowdonia. The most luxurious hotel in Wales opened in late 2016. An industrialist built the Jacobean-style mansion in the late 1800s; both Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill were guests. The current owners, a former Vodafone executive and his wife, have furnished it with family heirlooms and antiques from a variety of places and periods. A trip to Wales wouldn’t be complete without taking tea in the mint green drawing room featuring Japanese watercolors and a 19th-century Biedermeier sofa.