Christian Amodeo, founder of I Loves The ‘Diff, gives us his highlights of Cardiff
Friendly and young (literally – it’s only been capital for 60 years), Cardiff is a small city with a social calendar bursting at the seams. There’s a lot going on in sunny South Wales (we don’t call it Cardiffornia for nothing), and this brief guide will help you get the most from your stay.
One of the UK’s fastest growing cities, these days Cardiff has a population of just 350,000, having seen huge changes in fortune in the new millennium that has given the place a sense of momentum and, dare I say it, destiny.
The seat of Welsh government and the region’s economic engine, these days Cardiff is one of the UK’s fastest growing cities. It’s proud to be Welsh, but it’s not typically Welsh. While the language of Welsh has equal status to English in law, just 11 per cent of Cardiffians siarad Cymraeg (speak Welsh) and it’s one of 94 languages are spoken across the city.
Multiculturalism runs deep. Within a good stone’s throw of Wales Millennium Centre, was once hard-living, mythic Tiger Bay, one of Britain’s oldest melting-pot neighborhoods that housed 45 nationalities. While coal is no longer king and Cardiff’s vast sooty docklands have been transformed, the symbiotic relationship that Cardiff enjoyed with the coal-producing Valleys, increasingly labeled its city region, remains. These days though the city imports workers and shoppers, not coal.
Despite its industrial past, Cardiff has more green space per person than any other UK core city. As pleasant idylls go, Bute Park, nestled directly behind Cardiff Castle and rolling north beside the river Taff, offers a rare thing within a city: escape.
The Taff Trail, which allows walkers and cyclists to enjoy leafy, off-road urban transit between Cardiff Bay and the Valleys, runs alongside Bute Park. Another park beloved of locals and boasting a boating lake and even a memorial lighthouse dedicated to Captain Scott of the Antarctic is Roath Park, in the north of the city.
To experience Cardiff proper visit its indoor market and its Victorian shopping arcades, these days home to thriving independents, including great cafes. Speaking of food, one of the best dining experiences is the Clink restaurant at Cardiff Prison. Café Citta on Church Street, The Chapel on Churchill Way, and nearby stalwarts Madeira and Thai House offer excellent food and a welcome respite from the city’s influx of chains, while Roath’s City Road and Canton’s Cowbridge Road East each offer ‘the world on a street’.
For a glimpse into Cardiff’s social history stop by The Cardiff Story in the impressive Old Library building in The Hayes. The National Museum in the city’s grand civic centre offers the best art collection in Wales. For Welsh history and a hands-on experience at how life used to be here, visit St Fagans Natural History Museum. (It’s great for kids.)
No music-lover’s visit to Cardiff would be complete without seeking out legendary Spillers records. Not only is it the world’s oldest record shop (established 1894), but it was a trusted source of alternative, underground and hard-to-find music for generations of South Wales youth – a beacon of punk ethos and grungy, independent cool in the dark days before the internet and the vinyl revival. These days Spillers is to be found in beautiful Morgan Arcade. Not for nothing is Cardiff called the city of arcades – in these Victorian pedestrian thoroughfares you’ll find the city centre’s best independent retailers and cafes.
A beacon and symbol of the city’s vibrant creative community since 1971, Chapter Arts Centre in Canton offers theatre, art, cinema, gigs, and a relaxed and voluble bar/cafe. Which brings us onto drinking – the last time we measured, Chapter has the longest bar in Wales – something for which Cardiff has something of a reputation. Good city centre traditional pubs include the City Arms (great beer selection), The Old Arcade, and Goat Major. If you like your pale ales, then try Urban Tap House, Gravity Station, Brewdog, Cambrian Tap and Hopbunker. For dancing when merry, Womanby Street outside the Full Moon bar and legendary Clwb Ifor Bach is a street party on weekends among the young/edgy/leftfield/student/probably bearded set.
On Sunday mornings Riverside Farmers’ Market offers an opportunity to stroll fuzzy-headed along the west-side of the Taff embankment and enjoy a wide range of culinary delights. (For vintage shopping try St Mary Street stalls, Jacob’s Market, The Pumping Station, and Rose Street Flea Market.)
To gain a sense of place (and space) and a breath of fresh air, walk from Wales Millennium Centre to Cardiff Bay barrage. Whilst in the Bay, Whovians will want to visit the Doctor Who Experience, whilst those seeking adventure can take a speedboat out into the channel or get a soaking at Cardiff International White Water.
There is a huge amount to see near to Cardiff. Just around the headland from Cardiff Bay and offering a more mature and sedate tone is Penarth front, with its Victorian gardens offering great views, and the recently restored Penarth Pier pavilion.
Within an hour’s drive, up the A470, lies the spectacular upland beauty of Brecon Beacons National Park and the region’s highest peak, Pen-y- fan, a good walk for the fit and sturdy of foot. For sandy beaches, head west – Barry Island has a good one, but for a plethora of beautiful, world-class beaches, the Gower peninsular is just over an hour’s drive away down the M4.
You can’t visit Wales and not see a castle. It’s the law. Fortunately this isn’t a problem even if you don’t leave the city because you can’t miss Cardiff Castle, with its gothic extensions and Roman keep, it’s well worth a look. If castles are your thing (is your name Norman? Sorry.), don’t leave without visiting Castell Coch and Caerphilly Castle.
Welsh for red castle, Castell Coch is a gothic revical flight of fantasy built on the site of an old castle at the mouth of the Valleys in the 19th century by coal magnate the third Marquess of Bute. Somewhat older is nearby 13th century Caerphilly Castle’s sprawling ruins, which dominate the town’s centre and fire the imagination.
Well worth a visit too, if you have time, are National Trust-owned Edwardian Dyffryn Gardens and 17 th century Tredegar House. They lie within 20 minutes’ drive to the west and east of Cardiff respectively.
I could tell you that Cardiff is the best place to live in the UK (according to the 2014 European Commission-sponsored Urban Audit), but hey, you’re only visiting. You’ve no plans to move here – yet. In the meantime, croeso (welcome).