Last Updated on October 26, 2021
Heritage, culture and more in and around Cardiff
Paid partnership with Southern Wales Tourism
As a child I used to holiday in the Welsh valleys with my family, I have very fond memories of squashed in the back of my father’s Wolsey squabbling with my three siblings whilst my parents pointed out the beautiful scenic countryside. However, it’s all a very long time ago and if my memory serves me correctly I don’t think we ever went to Cardiff, so I was very excited to be offered the opportunity to explore Southern Wales and visit its capital city.
I always find it’s such a joy travelling by train, no motorway queues and stops at busy service stations, but instead time to answer emails or relax and enjoy the ride. We travelled very comfortably on a remarkably high-speed train with Great Western Railway, from London Paddington and arrived at Cardiff Central in just 1 hour 50 minutes.
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The Coal Exchange Hotel Cardiff
We stayed in Cardiff Bay at the Coal Exchange Hotel which in itself is a historical landmark, once the hub of the global coal and shipping industry. Rumour has it that the first million-pound cheque was signed here.
This grand hotel is situated in Mount Square in Bute Town just 450 yards from the redeveloped Cardiff Bay. Built in 1888, the walls of this Grade II listed building were once filled with ambitious coal traders and negotiators. However, as the industry got resigned to the past the building was left to deteriorate, but now after many years, it is in the process of being magnificently refurbished to its former glory as a hotel. Currently, they have 75 bedrooms in use and once it is fully completed it will host 146 bedrooms.
We were warmly welcomed into this stunning historic building. At its centre is the striking oak panelled Grand Hall is now used for weddings and events. Our spacious comfortable twin bedroom was decorated in shades of pink and green, creating an eclectic mix of traditional and modern décor. It housed two double beds, a luxurious whirlpool bath and rain shower, a dressing table, wardrobe, TV, Wi-Fi, towelling robes, tea and coffee making facilities. We also received a lovely welcoming gift of Prosecco, fresh fruit, and dainty strawberries dipped in chocolate.
On our first evening, we ate a delicious dinner in the restaurant, Culley’s Kitchen & Bar. The elegant dining room possesses beautiful high ceilings and contemporary furnishings giving it a stylish air.
The menu offers a good selection of modern European dishes including classic steaks, braised pork belly, salmon and butternut squash from the grill and fish & chips. We enjoyed crisp and creamy Welsh rarebit arancini balls, followed by succulent burgers with all the trimmings in brioche buns with crunchy slaw and crisp salty fries.
Breakfast is also served in the restaurant with an excellent buffet providing a choice of juices, granolas, yoghurts, pastries as well as cooked options. This grand hotel is ideal for couples, families or groups of friends and it’s perfectly situated just a minute’s walk from Cardiff Bay and a 20-minute walk from the city centre.
The History of Cardiff Bay
Cardiff Bay, once known as Tiger Bay, is situated between Penarth and the city centre within the communities of Butetown and Grangetown. Butetown was named after the powerful Bute family who brought untold prosperity to Cardiff by transforming it into one of the greatest coal exporters in the world.
Cardiff owes much of its history to the Industrial Revolution in the 1790s which galvanized mining in South Wales, supporting the building of the Glamorganshire Canal in 1794 which then brought coal and iron down from the valleys. During the 1980s a number of docks were constructed including Bute West Dock, the first dock, opened by the 2nd Marquis of Bute with an entrance known as the Oval Basin.
The area grew into a bustling cosmopolitan community of seafarers who arrived from around the world. It is thought that as many as 50 different nationalities settled in the area, helping build and develop the docks. By the 1880s, Cardiff had transformed from a sleepy backwater in Wales into one of the largest international ports, handling more coal than any other port in the world. In fact, in 1913 on the eve of the First World War, it had reached its peak with over 13 million tonnes of coal exports.
However, the demand for coal decreased after the Second World War and other countries developed their own steel industries. By the 1960s coal exports had virtually come to a halt and the Steelworks closed, the prosperous days were over.
Cardiff Bay Today
Today Cardiff Bay has been transformed by the Cardiff Barrage. This massive feat of engineering took 6 years to build, it impounds the Rivers Taff and the Ely to create a massive 500-acre non-tidal fresh-water lake. There are three bascule bridges which are pivot controlled bridges, that allow one side to rise so that boats can pass safely beneath whilst entering or leaving Cardiff Bay via the sluice gates.
We were given a fascinating tour by Bryan from Cardiff Bay Tours, an ex-local policeman who knows the area like the back of his hand. He provided a great insight into the history of the area and showed us all the relevant and interesting landmarks. Cardiff Bay is now a thriving waterside area with lots of bars and restaurants, water activities and attractions. It has a very nautical feel to it, with several buildings designed in the shape of ships and an evocative Merchant Seafarers Memorial, which is dedicated to the Merchant Seamen from South Wales who served during World War II. Parts of Bay are flanked by grand by Victorian house’s called Ocean buildings, where the mine owners once lived.
Roald Dahl Plass What was once the Oval Basin where the ships came into the dock, is now a public plaza which opened in April 2000 called Roald Dahl Plass, named after the Cardiff-born author.
The plaza’s oval shape with its large pillars which illuminate at night makes it a popular amphitheatre that is ideal for hosting open-air concerts and other events. There is also a Water Tower, which stands at approximately 70 feet which is well known to fans of the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood which was filmed here. The TV series Casualty was is also filmed in BBC studios in the local area.
The Wales Millennium Centre – This iconic building takes pride of place in Cardiff Bay looking out over the plaza. It is built of Welsh materials including slate and sustainable timber from Welsh forests. Emblazoned across the front of the centre, it has the words from the children’s poet laureate Gwyneth Lewis both in Welsh and English – ‘In these stones horizons sing’. The Millennium Centre is Wales’s home to the performing arts, housing everything from Wales’ National Opera to dance, musical theatre to rock gigs.
On our first evening in Cardiff, we went along to see The Boy with Two Hearts in the Millennium Centre’s studio theatre. This beautifully staged play was written by two brothers, Hamed and Hessam and adapted for the stage by Phil Porter. It was featured on BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week and tells an extraordinary true story of an Afghan family whose lives were under threat from the Taliban and who escaped making an extraordinary journey to safety in the UK and to receive urgent medical help for their son. A very moving story, full of love and hope.
The Senedd building is home to the Welsh Assembly. This 5,308-square-metre contemporary building was opened by Queen Elizabeth II on 1st March 2006, Saint David’s Day. This striking building which cost a staggering £69.6 million is situated overlooking Cardiff Bay. As well as being the government headquarters it is also open to the public.
The Pierhead Building is an imposing red brick Grade II listed building built in 1897 as the headquarters for the Bute Dock Company and is now part of the Senedd estate. It is one of Cardiff’s most familiar landmarks, its clock tower is known as the Baby Big Ben or the Big Ben of Wales.
Art and Craft in Cardiff Bay
Look out for the Craft in the BayGallery which opened in 2002 as the new base for the Makers Guild in Wales. Full of individual works from artists working in a wide range of materials including ceramics, textiles, silver, leather and glass. Perfect for buying a handcrafted gift or treating yourself of course!
You can find some lovely artwork around the Bay, including the ‘Beasty Benches’, the work of Welsh sculptor Gwen Heeney. These can be found in Britannia Park and Quay. They were inspired by the mythical creatures in Welsh poet Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘The Ballad of the Long-Legged Bait’.
‘People Like Us’ is a bronze sculpture of a young couple and their dog in Mermaid Quay looking out to sea. It was created by sculptor John Clinch in 1993, to represent the people who lived and worked in the area when it was a thriving port.
‘Antarctic 100 – Captain Scott Memorial’ this mosaic sculpture was completed by Johnathon William in 2003 and looks out over the Bay at the point where Captain Scott’s ship the Terranova set sail in 1910 on its ill-fated trip to the South Pole.
The Celtic Ring, was sculpted by Harvey Hood and is situated by the waterfront overlooking the Bay. It was commissioned by Cardiff Bay Development Corporation in 1993 to mark the start of the Taff Trail.
There’s a wonderful mosaic in Butetown called ‘The Pioneers’ which was made by Stuart Street, commemorating those who created, shaped and brought prominence to Cardiff’s docks communities.
More things to do in Cardiff Bay
For family entertainment, visit the Red Dragon Centre with 12 cinemas, a bowling alley, cafes and home to the local radio station. Other attractions include as Techniquest Science Discovery Centre ideal for all the family, Butetown History and Arts Centre, the Norwegian Church Arts Centre or try the luxurious cinema The Everyman.
Boat Tours – There are a number of different boat tours available which you can find at Mermaid Quay. These are a great way to gain an understanding of the local history and further explore this exciting and upcoming area. There is also a water taxi service which operates throughout the year from the Bay to the city centre and Penarth.
We took an exciting high-speed trip with Bay Coastal Voyages around the harbour and through the sluice gates out into the Bristol Channel which has the second-highest tidal range in the world only exceeded by the Bay of Fundy in Canada. We were able to spot island the Flat Holm which is now is a beautiful nature reserve but was once a retreat for monks and since then a sanctuary for Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, silver miners, smugglers and cholera victims. It is famed for receiving the first-ever radio message across the water by Marconi in 1897. We also saw Steep Holm which is also a nature reserve famed for its beauty and home to the remains of a 12th-century Augustinian priory.
Two unmissable food experiences
Welshcakes from Fabulous
Before you leave I can highly recommend paying a visit to Fabulous, a Welshcake shop in Cardiff Bay (there is also a shop in the city centre). The Welshcakes are made freshly in the shop on an iron griddle…. buttery, crumbly and absolutely delicious, especially when they are still warm! Alternatively, you can have them packaged up to take home and enjoy another day.
Penarth – Dining at The Deck
Just across the water to the west of Cardiff is Penarth is an elegant Victorian seaside town, which was formerly a major coal port. It boasts a Victorian pier, Art Deco Pavilion, charming Esplanade and modern Marina. We ate out one evening at The Deck in Penarth which is a lovely contemporary waterside restaurant overlooking the marina. Unfortunately, it was too cold to sit out on the evening of our visit but still enjoyed the stunning sea view from our table where we received friendly and efficient service.
The restaurant has a stylish modern nautical feel to it and was bustling with a busy weekend crowd. The menu offers a good selection of meat, fresh fish and vegetable dishes including moules marinière, whole baked sea bass, ribeye steaks, burgers and vegetable green Thai curry. There’s also an excellent wine list with a good variety of beers and soft drinks.
We dined on a succulent roasted duck breast with sautéed garlic potatoes tossed in caramelised jus and a good-sized fillet of tender hake perched on a bed of new crushed potatoes and black pudding. Accompanied by a couple of glasses of dry crisp and citrussy Gavi di Gavi La Contessa….a perfect way to relax beside the sea.
Barry Island – Gavin and Stacey Tour
No visit to Southern Wales would be complete without a visit to Barry Island. There’s a direct train from Cardiff Central which takes just under 30 minutes right to the seaside resort with beautiful stretches of sandy beaches, colourful beach huts, arcades, candy floss and fairground rides.
Barry Island is famed of course for the iconic TV series Gavin and Stacey, so it seemed fitting to go on the official Gavin and Stacey tour of Barry with BritMovie Tours, which is an absolute must if you are a fan of this popular series which was partly based and filmed on Barry Island.
The tour bus – ‘Dave’s Coaches’ picks you up at Barry Island station and takes you for a three-hour trip around the island, stopping at key locations and giving you the opportunity to see the beautiful surrounding countryside. We got to listen to the sing-along soundtrack on the coach as we toured the Barry getting the chance to see some of the sites seen in the 2019 Christmas special, plus we visited the street and the very house that Stacey lives in, the arcade (and tattoo parlour) where Nessa works and the church where she nearly married Dave.
Our tour was led by a fabulous actor/guide who kept us all entertained and amused. There were plenty of photo opportunities along the way and a break mid-way for a pint or a cuppa. The tour ends at Barry Island seafront or ‘Barrybados’ as it is better known, where you can enjoy the rest of the day beside the sea.
Cardiff City Centre
On the final day of our visit, we took a 20-minute stroll from Cardiff Bay into the city centre, you can also take a train, bus or a short cab ride. The centre has a lively bustling shopping area with lots of mainstream shops along the pedestrianised Queen Street, with independent boutiques, cafes, and restaurants tucked away in the elegant glass-roofed arcades in the Castle Quarter, which were built in the 1800s and 1900s.
There’s a large Central Market full of local food producers and lots of bars and restaurants to choose from including The Ivy and Chapel 1877. Burgers can be found at Honest Burgers or The Grazing Shed and street food at the Coconut Tree. If cocktails are your thing, you can head along to Dirty Martini or The Dead Canary. Alternatively, The Botanist offers a wide range of drinks including craft ales. Concerts are held at Motorpoint Arena, whilst the Principality Stadium hosts international rugby.
There are several museums including The National Museum of Wales which offers impressive exhibits of Welsh history and cultural development and the Cardiff Story Museum which traces the local history.
I was absolutely amazed to find Cardiff Castle in the midst of the urbanization of the city centre, standing proudly at the end of the main street sitting within beautiful parklands. Steeped in nearly 2000 years of history this castle was once a Roman fort, a Norman stronghold and Victorian Gothic fantasy palace. It is undoubtedly Cardiff’s jewel in the crown and an absolute must-see for all visitors.
It is hallmarked by the ornate Clock Tower, whilst the exterior of the castle has been greatly redesigned to fit the fantasies of two remarkable 19th-century medievalists: the 3rd Marquess of Bute, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, and his whimsical architect, William Burges. Burges created a medieval dream world for the 3rd Marquess of Bute who was one of the richness men in the world.
Beyond the fairy tale turrets, is a flamboyant and lavish interior with ornate guiding, intricate wood carvings, colourful stained glass, marble fireplaces, detailed murals, opulent bathrooms, bedroom and ceilings with the most magnificent elaborately paved roof terrace with flowing fountains.
During World War II the walls which surround the castle were used as air-raid shelters; a place of safety for up to 1,800 Cardiff citizens.
When the 4th Marquess of Bute died in 1947, the castle was given to the City of Cardiff and has since become a hugely popular tourist attraction. It houses the Firing Line regimental museum and interpretation centre and also serves as an events venue for festivals and musical performances.
They have recently opened a great new family attraction in the Clock Tower which I had the pleasure of seeing called ‘Black Tower Tales’ which provides a fun insight into a slice of history in an immersive setting that tells the story of a local Welsh hero Llywelyn Bren’s medieval struggle against the oppressive Sherriff of Glamorgan.
With my return train to London awaiting me my trip to Southern Wales was now complete. I am so delighted to have had the opportunity to explore this beautiful Welsh capital city and find out more about its extraordinary history.
The plan now is to make some Welshcakes at home!
For more information about Cardiff and South Wales check out the Southern Wales Tourism website
Want to explore more of Wales? check out our feature on food in Montgomery and Mid-Wales