The inside guide to Cardiff, Wales

From the centre to the suburbs, the Welsh capital is always reinventing itself, whether through its diverse architecture or dynamic dining scene.

By Luke Waterson
Published 18 May 2021, 08:07 BST
What Cardiff lacks in titular heritage it makes up for with a knack for reinvention.

What Cardiff lacks in titular heritage it makes up for with a knack for reinvention.

Photograph by Getty Images

It might be Britain’s youngest capital city (having held the title since 1955), but what Cardiff lacks in titular heritage it makes up for with a knack for reinvention. Its once woebegone docks have arguably become Europe’s boldest waterfront development and a showpiece for 21st-century architecture, while edgy restaurants are redefining the city’s dining scene. When you consider the city is also renowned for its elegant Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades, museums, live music and a proud industrial heritage, Cardiff is, perhaps, whatever you wish it to be.

Get your bearings at Cardiff Castle. The fort is Norman at its core, but the flamboyant, 19th-century reconstruction of the castle apartments is its most eye-catching element. Various tours can include behind-the-scenes explorations of seldom-glimpsed, astoundingly decorated rooms, and you can also admire the beautiful building free of charge from the castle courtyard.

Read more: Wales travel guide

The nearby National Museum Cardiff ranks among Britain’s finest neoclassical buildings, and its collections of impressionist and post-impressionist works is world-class. Don’t miss the multimedia Evolution of Wales exhibit, which whisks visitors through 400 million years of geological development with VR-rendered prehistoric beasts. 

Combine historic sightseeing with retail therapy in the city’s seven Victorian- and Edwardian-era Arcades, or the impressive Cardiff Market, flanked by many of the city’s most exciting shops and restaurants. Stop by the delightfully old-fashioned Wallys Delicatessen in Royal Arcade or pick up gluten-free picnic fare from Noglü at Cardiff Market. Alternatively, book a table at The Clink Restaurant, where prisoners serve standout Welsh-European food as part of their cookery training.

The view of Cardiff Castle from Bute Park.

Photograph by Getty Images

Much of Cardiff’s charm and character lies outside the centre. Meander through picturesque Bute Park and along the River Taff to leafy Pontcanna, with its avenues of grand townhouses. An Eden for leisurely lunch-seekers, the area is home to raft of spots to refuel, including chic bistro Milkwood and roastery-cum-workshop Lufkin Coffee Roastery, tucked away in Kings Road Yard.

Multicultural Canton is where you’ll find the self-titled ‘nouvelle Keralan restaurant’ Purple Poppadom and, further afield, Dusty Knuckle, which has transformed a corner of an industrial estate into a creative pizzeria.

Cardiff’s east side also deserves your attention. Over in Roath, the city’s first permanent street food venue, Sticky Fingers Street Food, is ensconced in a red-brick industrial building with an ever-changing array of local culinary names serving casual-but-creative fare under one roof alongside a lively bar. 

But for the best example of the city’s exciting renaissance, look no further than Cardiff Bay, the city’s ultra-modern waterfront. One of the area’s landmark buildings is the Coal Exchange. Once the hub of the world’s coal trade, in October 2020 it began a new life as Cardiff’s largest independent hotel. Nearby, the Wales Millennium Centre is the country’s main performing arts nexus, wrapped in slate mined from the five quarries that spearheaded Wales’ industrial revolution. But most interesting here is Cardiff Bay Barrage, the ingenious dam that transformed the bay from mudflats into sparkling sea.

About five miles outside the city is St Fagans National Museum of History, set over more than 100 acres of parkland, which paints a vivid timeline of the nation’s story through a number of re-erected original buildings from various historical periods.

Published in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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