CARDIFF — This handsome seat of Welsh power that rises on the banks of the River Taff truly is the Rodney Dangerfield of U.K. capitals. That’s because it gets no respect from overseas visitors. Believe it or not, Cardiff, which has more castles and historic sites than even London, gets fewer foreign tourists than England’s Bath or Oxford.
London, naturally, gets the bulk of foreign visitors — 21 million annually, pre-pandemic — among U.K. capital cities, while Scotland’s Edinburgh is a distant second with 2.2 million and Northern Ireland’s Belfast comes in third with 873,000. In 2019, Cardiff got just 382,000 overseas guests. That same year, 401,000 foreigners visited Oxford.
Sadly, those tourists who shun Cardiff don’t know what they’re missing.
Despite its compact size, Wales’ capital is crammed with many historic sites, including four Neolithic Period burial chambers that stand near Cardiff City Centre. And, because of its diminutive size, Cardiff is an easy city to explore on foot, which is why I meet up with a local guide named Nick in front of the town’s biggest tourist attraction, Cardiff Castle, for a short walking tour.
Above: Cardiff's City Hall is one of the most striking civic buildings in the world.
Nick, who bids me croeso (welcome) in his native tongue, is quick to point out that Wales has the most castles — over 600 — and thus has earned the right to be called the castle capital of the world.
“There’s 20 castles in Cardiff alone,” exclaims the young guide as we begin out tour.
Cardiff Castle is among the most famous in Wales — Beaumaris, Conwy, Harlech and Caernarfon, where the Prince of Wales is crowned, are the other Welsh castles that rank among Europe’s finest. Cardiff Castle is one of the oldest, though. It dates back to the 11th century and was built by the Normans on the same spot where a 3rd Century Roman fort once stood.
“We’re standing on over 2,000 years of history,” says Nick, who tells me the bold structure was commissioned by William the Conqueror and Robert Fitzhamon, the famous Norman feudal baron.
The castle’s most striking feature is its 12-sided keep, or fortified tower, which was built to protect smaller buildings within the castle grounds. The breathtaking panoramic views one gets of Cardiff from the keep is worth a visit alone.
As I peer out from the keep, and see neighbouring Castle Coch in the distance, Nick tells me the city’s name comes from the Welsh word “Caer-Taff" — “which means Fort on the River Taff.”
From the castle, Nick leads me through some narrow streets lined with striking Georgian townhomes until we come to the Central Market on St. Mary St.
Above: Beautiful Bute Park was designed by legendary Capability Brown in the 1700s.
“This site was where the city’s Medieval jail and gallows once stood,” says Nick. “In fact, one of our country’s greatest heroes was hung here in 1831.”
Nick was referring to Dic Penderyn, a Welsh coal miner who was wrongfully put to death for a crime he never committed. That injustice prompted a citizen revolt in 1831 and Penederyn was quickly elevated to martyr status by the Welsh.
Happily, the market that replaced the gruesome gallows in 1891 has become a lively gathering spot for today’s Cardiffians.
Cardiff was one of the first cities in Europe to introduce pedestrian shopping streets and Nick introduces me to The Hayes, an area bounded by Queen St. and St. Mary St., that is almost totally pedestrianized. One of the most famous shops in this area is the Hayes Island Snack Bar, which Nick says was once home to the city’s horse-pulled trams.
Above: The New Theater, left, has been restored as has many other buildings in Cardiff.
“The horse trams were used until 1903,” says Nick. The old tram building stood empty until 1948 when it opened again as a snack bar and “it’s now the oldest snack bar in Wales,” Nick proudly proclaims.
This area is also home to Cardiff’s Old Library, which dates back to 1882. It’s now a museum and stands in the shadow of the city’s new Central Library.
Victorian glass covered shopping arcades are another feature of Cardiff’s pedestrian shopping streets. Two of the finest, the Royal Arcade and the Morgan Arcade, can be found in The Hayes.
After all that shopping, Nick suggests we visit nearby Metropolitan Cathedral on St. David St. — the street’s named after the Patron Saint of Wales. The stately church was built by impoverished Irish immigrants who flooded into Cardiff looking for work in the 19th century. It was elevated to cathedral status in 1920 and its choir school is one of the most famous in the world.
The wonderful structure I’m looking at was almost totally destroyed by Nazi bombs and was painstakingly restored to its original glory in the 1950s.
The church's beam roof covers the seven bay nave, which has side chapels and confessionals. There are great arches and a two bay choir under a circular window.
A short walk away, we come upon the New Theatre, located on Park Place in the centre of town. It was first opened in 1906 and its striking Bath stone facade stands out from the other buildings surrounding it.
Above: Cardiff is a city of handsome neighbourhoods, shopping arcades and many pedestrian shopping streets.
The kings and queens of theatre, including Sara Bernhardt, Anna Pavlova, Laurel and Hardy, Tom Jones, Tommy Cooper and Shirley Bassey, have all performed at the legendary New Theatre.
Cardiff’s intriguing history is now safeguarded in the National Museum, which stands in lovely Cathays Park. The museum dates back to 1905 but the building that Nick leads me into actually opened in 1927. The museum's collection of impressionist paintings is among the best in Europe. Works by the likes of Turner, Monet, Rodin and Van Gogh adorn the walls and hang alongside more contemporary works of Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso.
Cardiff’s impressive City Hall also stands in Cathays Park and its Edwardian Baroque design and imposing clock tower make it one of the most striking civic buildings in the world. Fountains made to mark the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969 stand in front of the City Hall’s entrance portico.
Nick leads me into the Marble Hall where statues of famous Welsh figures - from Boudica and Saint David to Henry VII and Bishop Morgan - stand guard.
Finally, we end our intriguing walking tour of Cardiff in Bute Park, whose 53 acres of landscaped gardens were first created by legendary gardener Capability Brown in the 1700s. The park lies on the east bank of the River Taff, near Cardiff Castle.
While enjoying the park's perfumed scents, I quickly realize that Cardiff is living proof that good things do come in small packages.