Could you imagine a city able to bring together castle lovers, rugby fans, enthusiasts of big green spaces and liveable and enjoyable cities, admirers of Victorian designs, ultra-modern and super-efficient buildings freaks and the BBC series Doctor Who buffs?
That city not only exists but it also quite easily reachable on the south coast of Wales. That city is Cardiff!
We decided to go to Wales and visit Cardiff at the beginning of 2020 when COVID-19 was not a problem yet. We went there for a weekend but, to be honest, one day was more than enough to have a general understanding of the city and see the most relevant monuments and highlights. So that we decided to go to Caerphilly Castle the successive day, following the advice of Danilo, a charming compatriot we met the first day at Cafe Nero (as someone may already know from my article about London, it is our favourite place to have breakfast when we are in Ireland or the UK) in St Mary Street.
But let’s dive in and see how to get the most of Cardiff in one entertaining day, without any further ado.
As usual, I will first answer some FAQs, and then I will tell you everything about that wonderful day we had in Cardiff!
What is Cardiff famous for?
Cardiff is known for:
- Being the “Castle Capital”, with 15 castles within an-hour-drive of it (Wales is known as the “Land of Castles”);
- Its world-famous Principality Stadium, home to Welsh rugby and football and a regular venue for the British Speedway Grand Prix;
- Its graceful Victorian, Edwardian and contemporary indoor shopping arcades, full of independent shops and cafes;
- Being the home base for the popular long-running BBC series Doctor Who.
What food is Cardiff famous for?
Cardiff is known for dishes such as the lamb cawl, the Welsh rarebit, the laverbread, the Welsh cakes, the bara brith and the Glamorgan sausage. But let’s see what each one of them is.
The Lamb Cawl (being “cawl” the Welsh for “soup”) is a slow-cooked broth made with potatoes, swedes, carrots, lamb, and leeks. It is a Walsh national dish.
Even though it is also known as “Welsh Rabbit”, no bunnies were harmed in the making of this dish. Funny enough, it is just melted cheese (usually cheddar) on a grilled toast and plenty of seasoning.
But, why then the name “Welsh Rabbit”?
After doing some research on the internet, I discovered that the adjective “Welsh” was most likely used as a pejorative dysphemism and a synonym for “substandard” or “vulgar,” meaning that only people as poor and dumb as the Welsh would eat cheese and call it “rabbit,” or that the closest thing to rabbit the Welsh could afford was melted cheese on toast. In any case, it is not a compliment to the Welsh!
Either known as “Welshman’s caviar”, Laverbread is a slow-cooked Porphrya seaweed dish often served with oatmeal or cockles and bacon as a breakfast dish, or fried into small patties.
Bara Brith (Welsh for “speckled bread“) is a fruit loaf with a unique flavour of fresh sweet spices, usually served sliced with butter during the afternoon tea. It is often known as Welsh tea bread.
Welsh Cakes (also known as “cakes on the stone” or “pice ar y maen“) are small round spiced cakes, traditionally baked on a bakestone but now more frequently cooked on a griddle. Once baked, they can be eaten hot or cold, on their own or topped with sugar or butter.
Keeping with the trend of curiously incorrect names, the Glamorgan Sausage is a banger that contains no sign of meat at all. It is a vegetarian sausage made with the excellent Caerphilly cheese and the ever-present leek. It became popular during World War II when meat was scarce.
As the Glamorgan cheese that gave the sausages their name no longer exists, the intense and crumbly Caerphilly cheese replaced it.
How far is it from London to Cardiff?
Cardiff is just over 2 hours west of London by train.
Is Cardiff expensive?
Cardiff is one of the cheaper cities in the UK, light-years far from London.
What can you do in Cardiff for one day?
How to get the most of Cardiff in one entertaining day
Here some tips on how to get the most of Cardiff in one day!
As usual, I recommend arriving in Cardiff the night before so that you could wake up early and devote the whole day to visit and enjoy the city to the fullest.
Our hotel was near the Cardiff central railway station, so we started our day from there.
Heading towards the Castle, we took Saint Mary Street, one of the two major commercial streets in the Castle Quarter, along with High Street.
At numbers 29, 30 and 32 of Saint Mary Street, you can find the Royal Arcade accessible through an arch in a pink-painted building.
1. Royal Arcade
The Royal Arcade is a small Victorian arcade linking St Mary Street and The Hayes (St Mary Street parallel). Built in 1858, this is the city’s first indoor shopping arcade and the first full-scale shopping centre.
Nowadays, it still has an array of alternative coffee shops, cafés and delicatessens, alongside several quirky independent clothes stores, jewellers and photography shops, which have been in the arcade for several decades.
From there, exit the Royal Arcade taking The Hayes and continue walking toward the Castle. Continue onto Trinity street, and you will find St John the Baptist Church on your right.
2. St John The Baptist Church
St John the Baptist is the only church dating to pre-Medieval times in Cardiff city centre, and the only medieval building other than Cardiff Castle.
It dates back to the 12th century when it was built as a Benedictine priory church. In the 15th century, it was severely damaged and rebuilt adding the present nave and the striking Perpendicular Gothic style west tower, rising 130 feet high with a peal of ten bells. In the late-Victorian period, it was heavily restored, north and south aisles were added to the nave, and stained glass windows to the north chapel and the north inner aisle. The old aisle windows were re-set, and all the new building was re-surfaced with Sweldon limestone.
The “Father Willis” organ, built in 1894, is one of the finest in Wales, and there is excellent Victorian stained glass throughout.
From there, take Church Street and then turn right onto High Street. You can find the entrance of the High Street Arcade on your right.
3. High Street and Duke Street Arcade
High Street Arcade along with Duke Street Arcade, added some decades later, are the only adjoining arcades in Cardiff.
At the time of its construction in 1885, Hight Street Arcade had 34 shops and a sea of apothecaries and fortune-tellers. Today, instead, it has 23 retail units on its ground floor and a far more contemporary feel with sophisticated cafés, restaurants, sandwich shops, as well as barbers, skate shops and vintage clothes stores, and offices and other businesses on the first floor.
Finished in 1902 and designed in Gothic style, Duke Street Arcade retains many quirky details, including a stunning painted floor. It is home to cafes, as well as hairdressers, barbers and art dealers.
Exit Duke Street Arcade from Castle street to enjoy an astonishing view over the Castle, and then cross the road to visit it.
4. Cardiff Castle
Cardiff Castle (“Castell Caerdydd” in Welsh) is one of Welsh leading heritage attractions with 2000 years of history.
The original motte and bailey castle was built in the late 11th century by Norman invaders on top of a 3rd-century Roman fort. In the 12th century, the castle began to be rebuilt in stone, and a shell keep and substantial defensive walls were added to the main building. Further work was conducted over the centuries.
In 1766, it passed by marriage to the Bute family and thus began the Castle transformation into the ultimate Victorian medieval dream building. Within gothic towers, lavish and opulent interiors appeared, rich with murals, stained glass, marble, gilding and elaborate wood carvings. Each room has its unique theme, including Mediterranean gardens and Italian and Arabian decoration.
During the Second World War, the Castle underground tunnels were used as an air-raid shelter for Cardiff residents against aerial bombardments by the Nazi’s Luftwaffe.
After the end of the war, the Butes decided to give the Castle and much of its parkland to the city of Cardiff. So since 1974, it has become one of the Welsh most popular visitor attractions.
House tour: it lasts around 50 minutes and shows you the Victorian living quarters of the Bute family for an additional fee.
Clock Tower Tour: it runs on weekends and shows the visitors the Clock Tower and Summer Smoking Room.
Castle: 14.50£ (16.78€/20.20$)
House Tour: 4.00£ (4.63€/5.57$)
Clock Tower Tour: 5.00£ (5.78€/6.97$)
From there, exit the castle and turn right on Caste street, you will find your next stop walking a couple of minutes.
5. Animal Wall
One of the most charming and photographed historic features in Cardiff is the Animal Wall (“Wal yr Anifeiliaid”), next to Cardiff Castle.
It is a sculptured wall depicting 15 animals standing to the west of the entrance to Cardiff Castle fronting Bute Park, having been moved from its original position in front of the castle in 1923. On that occasion, they also added 6 more animals to the originals 11 (discernible for their glass eyes).
Original animals included: a pair of lions bearing shields, a lioness, a lynx, a bear, a sea lion, a wolf, a pair of apes and a hyena. Additional animals are the vulture, beaver, leopard, a couple of raccoons, a pelican and an anteater.
Fun facts: It was the inspiration for many literary works, the most notable of which was a story by Dorothy Howard Rowlands, which was serialized in the South Wales Echo and Express from 1933 to 1933 and was hugely popular with a generation of children.
From there, a couple of metres ahead (heading toward Cardiff Bridge) you can find the West Lodge, the entrance to Bute Park, our next stop.
6. Bute Park
Created in the late 18th century, Bute Park comprises 130 acres (52 ha) of landscaped gardens and parkland that once formed the grounds of Cardiff Castle. The 5th Marquess of Bute donated it to the city along with the castle in 1947,
The park, which is located along the east bank of the River Taff and adjacent to Cardiff Castle, includes an arboretum, flower gardens, and picnic grounds. It is also home to a diverse range of wildlife, including woodpeckers, jays, treecreepers, otters, leaping salmon, waders, herons, damselflies, and a range of fungi.
Within the park, you can find the Gorsedd Standing Stones representing the country’s Druidic heritage, the picturesque Mill Leat castle moat and the remains of the Blackfriars Friary, one of only two friaries established by the Dominican religious order in Wales.
From there, head to the North Road exit and turn right. Then, passed over the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, turn left onto College Road. You will enter a civic centre area called Cathays Park or Cardiff Civic Centre. There you will find plenty of monuments, early 20th-century remarkable buildings, such as the Temple of Peace, the Bute Library, the Welsh Government building, buildings belonging to Cardiff University campus and Cardiff municipality, and a central park area, Queen Alexandra Gardens.
7. Queen Alexandra Gardens and Welsh National War Memorial
Named after Alexandra of Denmark, the queen consort of Edward VII, Alexandra Gardens consists of 6 acres (2.5 ha) of beautifully maintained flower beds and grass, with the Welsh National War Memorial standing at its centre.
The Welsh National War Memorial (“Cofeb ryfel Cenedlaethol Cymru”), unveiled in 1928 by the Prince of Wales, commemorates the servicemen who died during the First World War and has a commemorative plaque for those who died during the Second World War, added in 1949.
It consists of a circular structure of Portland stone columns with three projecting rectangular porticos, four bronze figures representing the army, navy and air force and, in the centre, Victory, standing on a three-sided podium surrounded by three leaping dolphins.
From there, head to the south part of the park and take King Edward VII Ave. You will find the City Hall on your left.
8. City Hall
City Hall (“Neuadd y ddinas”), built of Portland stone in 1906, is an important early example of the Edwardian Baroque style.
It has a distinctive 59m/194 ft-tall clock tower, and, just in front of the entrance, a portico and a rectangular pool with fountains, created upon the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in July 1969.
Its highly decorative Edwardian interiors include the magnificent Marble Hall lined by columns of Sienna marble, mounted in bronze and the Council Chamber, a place of many passionate debates over the years.
Besides, the City Hall houses an extensive art collection on display for visitors to see and enjoy.
The entry is free.
On the southern side of the building are two memorials: the one on the right is the South Africa War Memorial, the one on the left is the Polish War Memorial.
From there, catch a taxi to the Wales Millennium Centre, our next stop.
9. Wales Millennium Centre
Wales Millennium Centre (“Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru”) is an arts centre located in the Cardiff Bay area that comprises one large theatre and two smaller halls with shops, bars and restaurants.
It houses the national orchestra and opera, dance, theatre and literature companies, a total of eight arts organisations in residence. The centre has hosted performances of opera, ballet, contemporary dance, theatre comedy, and musicals.
The main theatre, the Donald Gordon Theatre, has 2,497 seats, the BBC Hoddinott Hall 350 and the Weston Studio Theatre 250.
Fun facts: WMC has made seven appearances in film and television including Doctor Who and the BBC TV show Gavin & Stacey, where it was supposed to be an airport.
From there, heading to the seaside you will find Roald Dahl Plass.
10. Roald Dahl Plass
Named after Cardiff-born author Roald Dahl, it is an oval-shaped open space located on the southern coast of Cardiff city centre. It is home to the Senedd (Welsh Assembly Building) and the Wales Millennium Centre, Welsh premier performing arts centre.
Its bowl-like shape makes it a well-known amphitheatre for hosting open-air concerts.
At the northern end, you can see the Water Tower. It stands at approximately 70 feet (21 metres) high and has a constant stream of water running down.
Fun fact 1: The term “plass” (Norwegian for “place”) gives a nod to Roald Dahl’s root, whose parents were both from Norway, and to the Norwegian church just around the corner.
Fun fact 2: It was formerly named the “Oval Basin” and known as “the Bowl“, as there was a Victorian basin on the site, infilled during the 1960s.
Fun fact 3: The Water Tower is well known to viewers of the Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood, whose headquarters are located below it.
11. The Welsh Parliament Building
The Welsh Parliament Building (“Senedd“) is a 5,308-square-metre (57,100 sq ft) construction, situated in a prime position on the waterfront. Opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 as part of the Senedd estate that includes Tŷ Hywel (the red-brick building behind it) and the Pierhead Building (the red-brick building in front of it, close to the carousel), it houses the debating chamber (“Wales’ Siambr“) and three committee rooms for Senedd Cymru (“Welsh Parliament”).
It was designed to be sustainable and using renewable technologies, such as geothermal heating to keep the building heated in the colder months, local materials, including Llan Ffestiniog slate, Pembrokeshire oak and Port Talbot steel, and energy-efficient.
It has a glass façade around the entire building, a steel roof and a wood ceiling. It has three floors; the first and second floors are accessible to the public, and the ground floor is a private area for officials.
From there, go to the waterfront and enjoy a stroll along Mermaid Quay.
12. Mermaid Quay
In a maritime location steeped in history and rich in heritage, Mermaid Quay and its distinctive architecture, with decks, towers, balconies, terraces, colonnades and bridges, house more than 30 restaurants.
That makes it the perfect place for dining out, grabbing a snack or relaxing over a drink while taking in views out over the waters of Cardiff Bay and the Norwegian Church at the western end of the bay. Formerly a Norwegian Sailors Church, the latter is an iconic little building and a renowned cultural venue.
Fun facts: in case you are wondering what a Norwegian Church is doing in Cardiff bay, consider that in the 19th century, Cardiff was one of Britain major port and the Norwegian merchant fleet was one of the largest in the world so that Cardiff became one of the major centres of the Norwegian merchant fleet operations. Consequently, many Norwegian sailors started hanging around these docks so that the Sjømannskirken (the Norwegian Church Abroad organisation) decided to build a church to serve the spiritual needs of Norwegian sailors and expatriates.
With this fascinating view over Cardiff Bay and the Mermaid Quay, our day in Cardiff came to an end.
Cardiff seemed to us as the perfect middle ground between vast capital and a habitable city. A city on a human scale where there is no shortage of history, entertainment or places to chill out. It is close to the seaside where you can have long strolls and has so many beautiful parks where you can have a family picnic in complete peace one day, while on the other you can enjoy a concert or go to the opera. And it is so close to London that you can ever consider dropping by at the last minute.
Go to Cardiff and enjoy a pleasant day walking around its alluring history and fascinating present!
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