Caught between an ancient fort and an ultramodern waterfront, the compact Welsh capital has a new-found confidence that makes it a thoroughly fun weekend getaway.
There’s a medieval keep at its heart, but it’s the later additions to Cardiff Castle that capture the imagination. During the Victorian era, extravagant mock-Gothic features were grafted onto this relic, including a clocktower and a banqueting hall. Flanking the castle is Bute Park.
A haven for cool kids about town, the laid-back Buffalo features retro furniture, burgers and other comfort food, life-affirming cocktails including a rhubarb and blackberry sour, plus alternative tunes. There’s a small beer garden at the rear, while upstairs a roster of cutting-edge indie bands takes to the stage. Friday clubnights often feature drum and bass.
Hunt down this solidly traditional wooden-panelled pub with armchairs, a fireplace, sports on screens and Brains beers on tap. The Goat Major’s gastronomic contribution comes in its selection of savoury pot pies served with chips. If it’s on the menu, try the Wye Valley pie: buttered chicken, leek, asparagus and Tintern cheese.
Take a morning browse through Cardiff’s historical network of Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades either side of St Mary St. Start at the Royal Arcade, which connects to Morgan Arcadevia covered lanes to form a ritzy precinct selling big-name fashion brands alongside skateboards, vintage books and antiques. The most decorative is Castle Arcade.
In the namesake arcade that begins just south of the castle walls is one of Cardiff’s best delicatessens, with a wide range of charcuterie and French and Welsh cheeses, and tables spilling outside. Read French newspapers and try a mixture of Breton and Welsh dishes, including rarebit, lamb cawl (a stewlike soup) and bara brith – traditional Welsh fruit loaf.
NATIONAL MUSEUM CARDIFF
Devoted mainly to natural history and art, this grand Neoclassical building is the centrepiece of the seven institutions that form the Welsh National Museum. It’s one of Britain’s best museums; allow at least three hours to do it justice. Welsh artists and ceramicists are well represented. Look out for the 9m-long skeleton of a humpback whale that washed up near Aberthaw in 1982.
What it lacks in size, this market by the River Taff makes up for in sheer yumminess, its stalls heaving with cooked meals, cakes, cheese, organic meat, charcuterie and bread. There are lots of options for vegetarians, an excellent coffee stall, and even Welsh cakes – hot off the griddle.
Lined with the Senedd and other important national institutions, Cardiff Bay puts the modern Welsh nation on display in an architect’s playground of intriguing buildings, open spaces and public art. The centrepiece of this area’s regeneration is the Wales Millennium Centre, an architectural masterpiece of stacked Welsh slate; wander the lobby or catch a free performance.
DOCTOR WHO EXPERIENCE
The success of reinvented classic TV series Doctor Who, produced by BBC Wales, has brought Cardiff to the attention of sci-fi fans. City locations have featured in Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood. This interactive exhibition includes a Tardis hovering outside.
There are direct two-hour train services from London Paddington to Cardiff Central Station, on the southern edge of the city centre, with Great Western Railway. National Express runs direct buses from cities including London, Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester. Most central city streets are closed to traffic. Local buses are operated by Cardiff Bus; you can buy tickets from the driver. Capital Cabs is a reliable taxi company.
WHERE TO STAY
Ty Rosa is a good, gay-friendly b&b with affable hosts and sumptuous breakfasts, a half hour’s walk from central Cardiff. Thoughtfully equipped rooms are split between the main house and an annexe opposite; some of them share bathrooms.
A touch of Georgian elegance in the heart of Cardiff Bay, Jolyons Boutique Hotel has seven individually designed rooms with antique furniture and modish colours. Front rooms face the Millennium Centre.
Somewhere between a large b&b and a small hotel, Lincoln House is a Victorian property with heraldic emblems in its sitting room’s stained-glass windows. For extra romance, book the four-poster room.
CENTRAL CARDIFF BAR CRAWL
Cardiff is a prodigiously boozy city with a lively alternative scene, swish bars and old pubs.
Gwdihw: At the charming last word in Cardiff hipsterdom, with an eclectic entertainment line-up.
Pen &Wig: Latin legal phrases are printed on walls at this traditional pub, but there’s nothing stuffy about the beer garden or entertainment roster.
Bunk House: Strewn with fairy lights, candles and bells, this hostel bar is cosy, kooky and cool. There’s even a made-up bed for lie-downs.
Porter’s: This attitude-free bar runs events most nights. Come for film screenings or ‘bandaoke’.