One of Europe’s youngest and most dynamic cities, Cardiff is unrecognisable from the Welsh city of 20 years ago, having reinvented itself in a way few other capitals have managed, or dared, to do in the intervening period.
It was the opening of the Millennium (now Principality) Stadium in time for the 1999 Rugby World Cup that ushered in a monumental rebuilding programme for the city, which centred on Cardiff Bay, once a byword for squalor and decay.
The stimulus for the bay’s metamorphosis into a bona fide visitor attraction was a new barrage, alongside which new and now iconic buildings were raised, such as the Wales Millennium Centre and the Senedd.
What to see and do in Cardiff
Tucked into the southeastern corner of Bute Park and hemmed in by two of the city’s busiest roads, the spacious grounds of Cardiff Castle make for some welcome relief from all the outside noise. A Gothic Victorian fantasy of the most ostentatious kind, the main castle building as you see it today was the work of the coal-rich Third Marquess of Bute and maverick architect William Burges.
Within the castle it’s possible to view a selection of rooms on a self-guided tour but you’ll get to see more areas if you take a guided tour, for which there is a small additional fee.
The most impressive rooms are the church-like Banqueting Hall, featuring a gloriously kitsch chimneypiece, the well-stocked library, complete with Burges’s original bookcases and tables, and another superb fireplace, above which are carvings signifying the five ancient languages: Greek, Hebrew, Assyrian, Hieroglyphics and Runic.
More compact and restrained than neighbouring City Hall, the National Museum was inaugurated in 1927 by King George V, a statue of whom stands opposite. The museum is a two-parter: the Evolution of Wales Gallery on the ground floor is a whistle-stop tour through the geology of the nation, though, oddly, much of what is on show comes from other continents, even the moon; a chunk of basaltic rock from the 1969 Apollo moon landing has somehow found its way to Cardiff.
The museum’s strongest suit is its art collection. Though by no means as vast as national collections found elsewhere in Britain, its coverage of Welsh art is unrivalled, while it also includes a clutch of exquisite Old Masters and some superb Impressionist works.
Cathays Park and the Civic Centre
Beyond the grand ceremonial avenue that is Boulevard de Nantes (named after the city twinned with Cardiff), Cathays Park is an area of neatly proportioned Edwardian buildings. Together these comprise the Civic Centre, front and centre of which is City Hall, an Edwardian-Baroque extravagance dating from 1906.
The hall is actually the fifth building in Cardiff to have served as the seat of local government, though none of the previous four town halls survive. The building is usually open to the general public during office hours, so if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, it’s worth having a nose around those areas that are accessible.
When it opened in 1999 just in time for the Rugby World Cup, the Millennium Stadium, as it was then known, was widely acknowledged as one of the most state-of-the-art stadiums in the world, and while it may have been superseded by other stadiums in the intervening 20 or so years, it remains a brilliant architectural achievement and one of the most atmospheric stadiums in world sport.
If you can’t get tickets for a match at the Principality (and you probably won’t), then the next best thing is a stadium tour, which takes in the changing rooms, pressroom, hospitality boxes and then a walk down the players’ tunnel to pitchside. Either way, there’s not much that beats Cardiff on match day, especially when hordes of beer-guzzling Scots or Irish roll into town swelling the already packed pubs and bars to bursting point.
Extending north from Castle Street up to Blackweir Woods, with the River Taff bordering one side and the A470 the other, Bute Park is one of Cardiff’s greatest assets. You could quite easily spend a day exploring its outstanding collection of trees, ancient ruins and modern sculptures, or simply ambling alongside the riverbank.
Bute Park is home to more than 3,000 catalogued trees, among them 41 Champion Trees (those deemed to be the tallest or broadest examples of their kind within Britain), a number unrivalled among municipal parks in Britain and Ireland.
Among the most important species here are Siberian Elm and Chinese Ginkgo Biloba, and if you want to seek them out, there are two Champion Tree trails (north and south), in addition to another trail mapping out a dozen or so of the park’s signature species.
Wales Millennium Centre
An architectural triumph of the first order, the monumental Wales Millennium Centre is a suitably fitting home for the Welsh National Opera. Constructed solely from native Welsh materials, its most impressive aspect is the sweeping copper portico emblazoned with words composed by Wales’s first national poet Gwyneth Lewis: ‘In these stones horizons sing’, and ‘Creu gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen’, the Welsh translating as ‘Creating truth, like glass, from the furnace of inspiration.’
The interior is just as dramatic: steel-clad walls, timber-lined stairs and polished wooden balconies. The main auditorium, the Donald Gordon Theatre, is a stunning space boasting sensuous curves, superb acoustics and perfect sightlines. Even if you aren’t here for a performance, do have a nose around.
No other building in the bay embodies better the wealth of the once all-powerful coal industry than the splendid neo-Gothic terracotta red-brick Pierhead. The one constant amid the flush of modern architecture, the Pierhead (1897) was commissioned by the Third Marquess of Bute and designed by William Frame to replace the Bute Dock Company offices that had burnt down five years earlier.
The interior is a riot of ornate plasterwork, walnut panelling and glazed tiles decorated with images of birds and fish, a theme its architect, Lord Bute, returned to time and again – as you’ll have seen if you’ve visited Cardiff Castle. Three rooms have been given over to an exhibition on the history of the building, the docks, and the neighbouring Senedd which owns the Pierhead.
The main anchor among all this waterside development is the stunning Senedd, designed by Sir Richard Rogers as a permanent home for the Welsh Assembly, now called the Welsh Parliament. Looking as fresh and modern as it did when it was inaugurated in 2006, it’s an adventurous, beautifully executed building that, like the Millennium Centre, makes astute use of native materials.
Two of the building’s three levels are open to the public who are welcome to watch over a plenary session in the circular debating chamber, which was deliberately designed that way to advocate a more consensual style of politics – it’s worth noting then that Wales is one of the few countries in the world where women are in the majority in the cabinet.
Travel to Cardiff
Travelling along the M4 from the east, leave at junction 32 and join the A470, from where the city centre is clearly signposted. Travelling from the west, leave the M4 at junction 33 and join the A4232 following signs for the centre; staying on the A4232 will take you all the way to Cardiff Bay.
There are several NCP car parks in the city centre, the most convenient of which is in the St David’s Centre, which also permits overnight parking.
Your most likely point of arrival if coming by train is Brunel’s Cardiff Central station on Central Square, from where it’s a hop, skip and a very short walk to the main shopping streets.
The station is served by hourly trains from London and Bristol (which continue to Swansea), as well as the major routes into the Valleys, such as those going to Merthyr, Pontypridd and Ebbw Vale. Cardiff’s second station is Queen Street, with trains principally serving Barry Island and some of the Valleys as well as Cardiff Bay.
Since the main bus station was bulldozed in 2015 to make way for the regeneration of Central Square, including the new headquarters of BBC Wales, Cardiff has been without a dedicated bus station. However, a new station is finally being constructed on Westgate Street, slated to open in summer 2023.
Until then – unhelpfully and confusingly – buses leave from different parts of the city for different places, so your best bet is to consult cardiffbus.com.