The Welsh capital has a reputation for raucous nightlife – and it’s well deserved. But there’s far more to this vibrant city than nocturnal high jinks. Indeed, it’s a hugely popular short break destination with visitors from both Britain and beyond, thanks to its combination of high-energy city life and tranquil countryside and coastal surroundings.
Confident and cosmopolitan, the city centre is a hubbub of activity, much of which is focussed around the iconic Cardiff Castle. Elsewhere, Cardiff Bay, previously the world’s largest coal exporting port, is now one of Europe’s biggest waterfront developments, with a wealth of leisure activities and places to eat and drink. For fans of theatre, sport and shopping, there’s enough to satisfy anyone.
Just two hours from London by rail or road and only an hour and a half’s drive from Heathrow, it’s no surprise that so many choose to visit Cardiff. The weather doesn’t always comply, but one thing is certain: you’ll never be short of fun and original things to see and do.
1. NoFit State Circus
For most people, family trips to the circus are one of the most enduring memories of childhood, bringing to life the vivid colours and fantastical characters we had only previously known through books and television. Today it remains a hugely popular activity and none-more-so than in Cardiff thanks to the NoFit State Circus, the city’s own native circus company. Founded in the city in 1986, it today puts on intimate and immersive shows for captivated crowds. One of the best things about the NoFit State team is their ability to make every spectator feel part of the action. With the performers swirling all around you, it feels like only a matter of seconds before one of them whisks you up into the air. It is truly a magical experience and one that every visitor to Cardiff should make time for.
2. Norwegian Church
The links between Norway and Cardiff may not be particularly well known, but there’s one landmark in the Welsh capital that serves as a salient history lesson for us all. Nestled within the Port of Cardiff is a quaint former church established in 1868 to provide religious and social care to Norway’s fleet of merchant sailors. In the ensuing years, it became world famous as a meeting place for Scandinavian sailors and remained the oldest surviving church in Britain to be founded by the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission until its closure. Today it has been transformed into a renowned cultural venue, offering a diverse programme of arts exhibitions, concerts, hospitality and events. For a lesser known glimpse into Cardiff’s past, it makes for a fascinating visit and is highly recommended, not least for the building’s distinctive architecture and design.
3. Cardiff Castle
There are not many ancient fortresses so tightly packed into a modern city centre as Cardiff Castle, and it is this quirky juxtaposition of old and new that forms part of the enduring appeal of this iconic landmark. One moment you can be enjoying some high street shopping and the next immersing yourself in 2,000 years of history. Whether you’ve got 10 minutes to spare or an entire afternoon at your disposal, there’s a wealth of detail to enjoy both inside and outside the former stronghold, from its pristine grounds to the nooks and crannies of its interior spaces. For those keen to gain an in-depth insight into the castle’s fascinating history, there are guides available for house tours. Alternatively, if you time your visit well, you could also enjoy one of the myriad events that take place at the castle, including over 200 Welsh banquets each year, where guests can enjoy traditional Welsh food and entertainment.
4.Cardiff History & Hauntings
Some people get their kicks from sport or live music, while others can’t get enough of having the living daylights scared out of them. For the latter group, there are few better things to do in Cardiff than participate in one of its famed ghost walks. Run by Cardiff History & Hauntings, who also offer historical tours of the city without the ghoulish twist, visitors are taken on atmospheric walks through ruined abbeys and creepy woodland, as well as some of Cardiff’s most famous landmarks, including Llandaff, Cardiff Castle and St Fagans Museum and Castle. The tour guides help ensure you’ll come away with a wealth of fascinating facts about the Welsh capital and its rich – and sometimes creepy – history. For those of a more sedate disposition, there are also a number of themed private tours taking in diverse aspects of the city including its royal connections and assortment of civil buildings.
5. Jacob’s Market
Pottering around an antiques market has always carried a strong appeal with tourists. It’s hard to put your finger on why, but there seems to be no more reliable way of delving under the skin of a city and understanding its idiosyncrasies. In Cardiff, the stand-out offering for vintage bric-a-brac and curios can be found at Jacob’s Market. Housed in a four-floor, red-brick building in the heart of the city, it is one of the oldest antique emporiums in Wales, boasting more than 50 stalls selling second-hand and antique furniture, vintage clothes, books, military memorabilia, tribal art, coins, bank notes, stamps, and much more. Once you’ve exhausted your antique hunting, there’s a café on the 1st floor to kick back and admire your newly purchased knick-knacks. On the top floor is a contemporary art gallery and a roof terrace offering superb views over the Cardiff skyline.
6. Cardiff Indoor Flea Market
One of the more recent additions to Cardiff’s retail landscape is the charming Cardiff Indoor Flea Market. Tucked away in an industrial estate near the city centre, the market is housed in a huge restored building and plays host to around 60 permanent stalls selling a diverse mixture of antiques, retro goods and general purpose products. You can find vintage furniture, retro radios, watches, chiming clocks, jewellery, military goods, glassware, crockery, smoking pipes, sewing machines, type writers, guitars and much more. But equally notable are the people, and especially the regular stall holders whose familiarity help to create a vibrant, friendly atmosphere that permeates the venue. In a nutshell, this is a great choice for visitors seeking an enjoyable way to while away a morning or afternoon in Cardiff. And with such an impressive selection of items on sale, you may end up leaving with more than you bargained for.
7. Llandaff Cathedral
You can step back into Cardiff’s medieval past by visiting one of its most impressive historical landmarks, Llandaff Cathedral. Built in 1107, the Anglican cathedral is a bona fide ancient treasure, sitting on one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain and boasting some of the most important examples of medieval architecture anywhere in Wales. It underwent its most significant ‘modern’ restoration in 1869, with many of its present features having been added at that time, including the Welch Regiment Memorial Chapel and – most strikingly – a reinforced concrete arch which stands between the Nave and the Choir. Surrounded on all sides by urbanised Cardiff, it retains a serene and secluded charm, making it an popular choice for visitors keen to escape the hubbub of the city centre. Whether you’re an architecture buff, a student of church history or simply enjoy a relaxed stroll through a picturesque churchyard, this is one of Cardiff’s finest attractions.
8. The Clink
Set in the shadow of a prison and staffed entirely by serving prisoners, it may not sound like the setting for a fine-dining restaurant, but The Clink is without question the most unique place to eat in Cardiff – and perhaps the whole of Britain. Last year the 96-cover venue, which creates seasonal dishes with locally sourced ingredients, was last year voted one of the top ten restaurants on the British Isles. Around 30 prisoners from HMP Cardiff and HMP Prescoed work a 40-hour week either in the kitchen or restaurant at the city centre prison training towards nationally-recognised City and Guilds NVQs before returning to the prison at the end of each working day.
9. Rave in a Bank Vault
For clubbing fans, The Vaults is a truly unique venue located in the buzzing Cardiff Bay area. It is a real bank vault underneath an old large bank and is split into a main Techno room, a Funky House room and – in the old bank itself above the vaults – a huge cartoon cinema chill out room. The sound system rocks, the lasers deliver an intense visual experience and, most important of all, the people that attend are fun and friendly.
10.The Doctor Who Experience
Situated within touching distance from where the iconic BBC series is filmed, the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff features a spectacular interactive adventure where visitors become an official companion and come face-to face with some of the scariest monsters seen on screen, as well as having the chance to fly the legendary TARDIS for the Doctor. After experiencing the interactive walk-through, you can fully immerse yourself in props and artefacts from the television series within the exhibition area – see up and close the incredible sets, costumes and props that feature in the famous show including the entire collection of iconic costumes from 1963 to the present day.