Cardiff is steeped in history, but it’s also the youngest of Britain’s capitals, with bundles of creative spirit. Alongside its world-class museums and state-of-the-art theatre, it has hidden gems aplenty: think vintage shops, indie bars and tiny restaurants serving sustainably sourced Welsh cuisine. Even Cardiff Castle, with its 2,000 years of heritage and history, is full of fresh new experiences – while Cardiff Bay has transformed from unloved dockside into a haven for wildlife and watersports. From surprising tours to unique eats, here’s how to see Cardiff differently.
As you browse the antique tea sets, vintage fashions and eclectic memorabilia in Jacob’s Market, it’s funny to think that most of its treasures are older than Cardiff’s capital status. The city took on the role just 67 years ago, and it hasn’t stopped reinventing itself since. On a city centre backstreet, Jacob’s occupies an old red-brick block, a relic of Cardiff’s industrial past: from the outside, you’d never guess it’s full of curiosities to buy, from Samurai swords to rare comics.
But Cardiff has countless hidden treasures, many of which are concealed in plain sight. Tucked between its big-brand shops lie the doorways to seven Victorian and Edwardian retail arcades, filled with independent boutiques, restaurants and cafés. Step inside, and you’ll find a warren of beautifully-restored spaces, home to the world’s oldest record store, a retro clothing emporium, a Welshcake bakery and much more. And it’s not just shopping: whether you’re learning latte art at a Waterloo Tea workshop or playing old-school video games at The Arcade Vaults, there are lots of quirky things to do. Nearby, Depot occupies a decommissioned warehouse, hosting food markets, live music and fun ‘Bingo Lingo’ nights.
Close to the Principality Stadium – tours of the home of Welsh rugby run on most days – Cardiff Castle has several thousand years of history to discover. From sumptuous Victorian interiors to a lofty clock tower, there’s so much to see – but its themed tours take you to corners where visitors rarely tread. Maybe you’ll brave a spooky ghost walk, or explore its many movie locations, to see where Doctor Who, Sherlock and Torchwood were filmed.
The Castle is also the meeting point of the Cosmopolitan Cardiff Food Tour, which visits the city’s top indie delis, eateries and cafés, all in the company of a friendly local guide. You’ll even learn some Welsh language along the way. If you’re feeling crafty, join a ceramics-making class with Cardiff Pottery Workshops. Or for more of an adrenaline rush, try white-water rafting at CIWW, which also runs canoeing, kayaking and indoor surf lessons.
For decades, Cardiff Bay was little more than a gritty dockside – but as the city has grown, so has this district’s appeal. It’s now a hub for dining, nightlife and culture, home of the Wales Millennium Centre and Techniquest, with new street food market Teras also opening this May. But few people realise that the Bay also has a nature reserve: a lush haven for birds and solitude-seekers alike. It’s a tranquil spot for walking, but a paddleboarding session with SUP Cardiff will take you even further. Or, explore the coast on a speedboat tour with Bay Island Voyages, venturing out to Flat Holm – a rarely-visited island which is rich in wildlife and history.
The owners of Lincoln House Hotel have transformed their home into a luxurious B&B, offering bed and breakfast to seriously high standards. Expect four-poster beds, locally-sourced food and Victorian-inspired décor – while your hosts will happily arrange everything from dinner reservations to theatre tickets.
Though it’s just six miles (10km) from the city, Lodge on the Lake feels utterly secluded. This cluster of cabins is set on the banks of Cefn Mably Lakes – an area renowned for its fishing, cycling and walking, all a short distance from Cefn Mably Farm. From breakfast on the lake-view balcony, to stargazing from your private hot tub, every day can bring a new adventure.
With its foodie farmers’ market and beautiful castle ruins, Cowbridge is full of Welsh charm. The picturesque town is a 35-minute bus ride from Cardiff – and The Bear Hotel sits right on its bustling high street. Dating back to the 12th century, it’s full of original features, with cosy log fires and beamed ceilings, yet the bedrooms are modern and bright. Nearby, Hensol Castle is home to a micro-distillery, where you can even blend and bottle your own small-batch gin.
The city has a bounty of ingredients on its doorstep, from organic beef reared in the Vale of Glamorgan, to freshly caught crab, lobster and scallops. It’s served with pride throughout Cardiff, whether as street food at Riverside Market – held opposite the Principality Stadium every Sunday – or fine dining at Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant Nook.
Making gourmet cuisine a force for good, The Clink Restaurant is part of an award-winning rehabilitation programme involving prisoners from HMP Cardiff. Their work contributes to training for qualifications in food service and cookery, producing top-quality dishes and afternoon tea. This is much more than dinner: it’s the chance to be part of something life-changing.
For evening drinks, head to Gin and Juice, which has over 350 gins on the menu – all paired with premium tonics. Alongside tasting notes in the menu, the mixologists have an encyclopaedic knowledge and can recommend a tipple to try. Meanwhile, The Dead Canary’s cocktails are inspired by dragons (Welsh legends are full of them), featuring exotic liqueurs and fiery flavours aplenty.
Cardiff Airport is Wales’s international travel hub, and is just a 35-minute train ride from the city centre. If you’re travelling from London, the fastest services take around two hours (departing from Paddington Station), although rail links with Bristol, Bath and Birmingham are swift and regular too. Coach services also connect Cardiff with various British cities, including London.
The city is very easy to navigate on foot, though it takes around 30-40 minutes to walk between the centre and Cardiff Bay – so you may want to consider taking the train (4 minutes) or Baycar bus instead. Cardiff Boat Tours also runs a regular ferry shuttle between the two areas.