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. It’s a hugely popular short break destination with visitors from both Britain and beyond, thanks to the 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 plenty to see and do.
Cardiff is just over three hours from London by rail or road and only two and a half hour’s drive from Heathrow Airport, but it also has its own airport and that of Bristol close by across the Severn Estuary. Even if the weather doesn’t comply with plans, there is always plenty to see and do indoors in and around Cardiff. Here are some of the city’s most unique experiences.
Watch a performance by 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. 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.
Four Elms Road
Encounter centuries of history at 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.
Follow in the footsteps of Doctor Who
Much of the iconic BBC series, Doctor Who, is filmed in the studios at Cardiff. When the studios aren’t enough though, the production team have gone out and about into the streets of the city and although you might not instantly recognise them from the show, places like the National Museum of Wales has been used many times in various episodes. A great way to get closer to Doctor Who in Cardiff is to take the specialised walking tour of the city that visits 20 different filming locations used in the episodes filmed around the city since 2005. If you want to find out more information, or make a booking, please visit this link.
Browse the antiques on sale at 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 new purchases. On the top floor is a contemporary art gallery and a roof terrace offering superb views over the Cardiff skyline.
West Canal Wharf
Take a guided tour of the Welsh National Assembly
Known in Wales as the Senedd, the National Assembly for Wales is the site where the democratically elected body of 60 members convenes to make sure the Welsh Government remains accountable to the people. This takes place alongside other duties that include setting local taxation rates and making laws for Wales that are not already set by wider UK law, as part of the ongoing process of devolution. The building is a public one, so anybody is free to walk inside. There is a cafe and gallery space within that holds temporary exhibitions. Occasionally there are performances staged in the space as well. Tours of the Senedd are available for small groups, families and individuals – at 11am Mon-Fri – and groups of up to 40 people. Booking in advance is recommended.
Hunt for bargain curios at Cardiff Indoor Flea Market
Cardiff’s retail landscape is gifted some added charm with the 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 an hour or so in Cardiff. And with such an impressive selection of items on sale, you may end up leaving with more than you bargained for.
2 Clydesmuir Industrial Estate
Get musical at Spillers Records
Not your average record shop, Spillers Records was established in 1894, and while their claim of being the oldest record shop in the world is not easily verified, it must be up there among the oldest (Edison invented the phonograph in 1877). The neat little store sells LPs, which are rising in popularity again due to their sound quality, as well as merch and music in other forms. Another bonus of a trip to Spillers is the events, with album signings and intimate live sessions with a range of artists from the locality and further afield. They also have weekly release lists and offer great recommendations of music to check out on their social media platforms.
27 Morgan Arcade
Visit a cultural centre inside a 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. This is also where revered author Roald Dahl was christened. 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.
Discover the city’s religious history at 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, when many of its present features were added, 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.
Eat a meal prepared and served by inmates at 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, and certainly not a romantic one, but The Clink is without question the most unique place to eat in Cardiff. The 96-cover venue, which creates seasonal dishes with locally sourced ingredients, is part of a wider network of similar projects aiming at providing inmates with skills and training that will benefit them on the outside, while simultaneously working to change attitudes towards the incarcerated. Around 30 prisoners from HMP Cardiff and HMP Prescoed work a 40-hour week either in the kitchen, gardens 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.
HMP Cardiff, Knox Road
See Cardiff from the water on a boat tour
Cardiff Bay used to be a major coal port, but now it is a wonderful, well-developed region of water that is sheltered by the Cardiff Barrage offering views of a characterful skyline punctuated by an eclectic range of structures like the modern Senedd to the red-brick, 19th-century Pierhead building. There are many ways you can experience the city from the bay, but a boat tour is the best option, and Aquabus offer the best way to explore the area. Their Cardiff Bay Cruises run for 45 minutes and include a commentary adding context to what you see as you pass by, including the Cardiff Bay Wetlands Reserve and the Barrage. Their boats seat up to 100 people and have toilets and an open air viewing deck Other great options of exploring the bay with Aquabus include the excellent value waterbus service connecting to Mermaid Quay in the city centre, and a private charter boat service for larger groups and events, seating up to 57 people.
Go to a rave in a former 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 a fancy old building 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. Events using the space can be somewhat sporadic so it’s best to check ahead before planning your night out around it.
Portland House, 113-116 Bute Street