Cardiff city guide: Where to stay, eat, drink and shop in the Welsh capital

Cardiff Bay has changed remarkably over recent decades (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Cardiff Bay has changed remarkably over recent decades (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

What a difference a couple of decades has made to Cardiff. The millennium ushered in a period of radical transformation: the smelly mudflats and industrial wasteland of the coal-shipping docks were born again as Cardiff Bay, winging the city into the 21st century with eco-friendly architecture, public art, concert halls, cafés and waterfront trails, all with broad views across the Bristol Channel.

And the city’s star keeps rising. Go today and you’ll find the dinky capital of Wales is cultured, food-loving, outdoorsy, worldly, and as warm as a Welsh cwtch (hug). You can gawp at fine art and dinosaurs, shop in graceful Victorian arcades, brush up on 2,000 years of history in an insanely eccentric castle, wander for miles in parks unfurling to wild meadows, go white-water rafting, dine on Keralan curry for lunch and pintxos for dinner, then wind out the day over brilliantly mixed cocktails in a 1920s-style speakeasy. This is a city that’s gone from coal to cool, historic to trendsetting.

Best things to do

Historic heart

A Welsh flag atop the 11th-century Norman keep at Cardiff Castle (Getty/iStock)
A Welsh flag atop the 11th-century Norman keep at Cardiff Castle (Getty/iStock)

Start where Cardiff did, with a whopping great castle, which rewinds 2,000 years to when Romans built the first fort here. The Normans gave it a 12-sided keep, medieval lords added the Black Tower and the wealthy Bute family, coal-shipping masterminds, put their own eccentric Gothic revival touch on its interior. To see its staggeringly ornate library, frescoed banquet hall and gold-kissed Arab room, join a tour.

Read more on Wales travel:

From the castle, Bute Park unspools north along the banks of the River Taff for miles, through gardens bristling with ancient trees, fields perfect for summer-day picnics and rewilded meadows. If you’re up for a proper walk, stroll all the way to Llandaff, where Roald Dahl was born, schooled and got up to mischief at Mrs Pratchett’s sweetshop.

Afterwards, you might be ready for a romp of the National Museum Cardiff, where you’ll be wowed by a repository of natural history in the Evolution of Wales exhibits – from the Big Bang to dinosaurs and woolly mammoths – and 500 years of art (including a sensational impressionist collection) under a gorgeous Edwardian dome. Best of all, it’s free.

Bay watch

The Wales Millennium Centre is a mesmerising wave of bronze (Getty/iStock)
The Wales Millennium Centre is a mesmerising wave of bronze (Getty/iStock)

Hop on the Aquabus in Bute Park for a scenic boat ride to Mermaid Quay in Cardiff Bay, with views of the River Taff, wetlands nature reserve and the Principality Stadium that keep you glued to the windows. There are departures hourly from 10am to 5pm.

As the face of modern-day Cardiff, the Bay is a cracking spot for a walk on days when the rain holds off, with a promenade hugging the waterfront and eye-catching architecture. You’ll be drawn to the gleaming slate-and-bronze wave of the Millennium Centre, where the Welsh National Opera perform. On the façade, the words “In These Stones Horizons Sing” by poet Gwyneth Lewis is picked out in giant letters. Other attention grabbers include the Victorian Pierhead building, a vision in romantic red brick, and its sustainable sister, the Senedd (Welsh Parliament) with its floating steel roof.

Kids in tow? Take them to Techniquest, a hands-on temple of scientific wizardry, on the ferris wheel, or walk (or pedal) the length of Cardiff Bay to the Barrage. En route you’ll find an adventure playground, the summertime Aqua Park, with whizzy floats and slides, and Roald Dahl’s Enormous Crocodile in the form of a giant bench; rent bikes at Pedal Power. To ramp up the action further still, check out Cardiff International White Water, where pros take you kayaking, white-water rafting and stand-up paddleboarding – some activities are specifically geared towards families.

Best time to visit Cardiff

Summer brings out the party-loving spirit in Cardiff, with outdoor fairgrounds, street entertainers, festivals and warmer weather (highs of around 20C), but you’ll score cheaper rooms in quieter spring and autumn. Winters can be drab, wet and chilly, but rates hit rock bottom – apart from at Christmas, when the city twinkles at Winter Wonderland.

Best hotels in Cardiff

Parador 44

Boho-chic Parador 44 is a little ray of sunshine in the Castle Quarter, with nine Andalusia-inspired rooms, with intricately carved shutters repurposed as headboards and photos of Spain hanging on pristine white walls. After a day zipping around town, grab a vino or beer from the honesty bar and rest up on the terrace.

Voco St. Davids

For glittering Cardiff Bay views, check into Voco St. Davids, a sail-topped, glass-fronted, five-star pad, with a colour scheme that sings of the sea, a spa with a hydrotherapy pool, and a fantastic season-driven Welsh restaurant, Tir a Môr.

The Coal Exchange Hotel

Also in the Bay is The Coal Exchange, once the nerve centre of Cardiff’s coal-trading industry. Now the handsome Renaissance revival building has been reborn as a smart hotel, its flamboyant rooms scattered with antiques.

Best cafés and restaurants in Cardiff

Brunch? If the sun’s out, wander Bute Park to the delightfully green Secret Garden Café, where you’ll find a walled garden for speciality coffees plus the likes of homemade granola or waffles topped with fried egg, seasonal greens and avocado. Or for a slice of Danish hygge, nip into BRØD in Pontcanna for freshly baked sourdough and spelt loaves, amazing pastries (especially the cinnamon swirls), juices and locally roasted coffee. Just a few minutes’ toddle away, the Ground Bakery puts interesting riffs on brunch classics (their full Welsh, for instance, comes with overnight bacon and house beans), while Milkwood trots the globe with its breakfast bhaji bun and huevos rancheros.

Pontcanna and Canton are peppered with world flavours, with knockouts like the Purple Poppadom for new-wave Indian cuisine that punches higher than your average curry house, and cute Mattancherry, with a tiny courtyard for digging into authentic thalis.

Back in the centre, book a table at field-to-fork Pasture, where in-house butchers prepare the most incredible steaks using native suckling breeds and beef is dry-aged for 35 days. Down the road, metro-tiled, bottle-lined Curado has the buzz of a backstreet bodega, pairing excellent pintxos with carefully sourced vermouths.

For special occasions, book Michelin-starred Home by James Sommerin in the nearby seaside town of Penarth. It’s a dark, intimate space, headed up by James and his daughter, Georgia (of Great British Menu fame). The exact menu is kept under wraps until you arrive, but expect fireworks.

Best bars in Cardiff

Cardiff is spoilt for choice when it comes watering holes (Getty/iStock)
Cardiff is spoilt for choice when it comes watering holes (Getty/iStock)

For a morning espresso in the Bay, stop by Academy@Platform in the revamped platform offices at Cardiff Bay railway station, or for locally roasted, small-batch brews, mellow beats and relaxed vibes, swing over to Hard Lines in Canton.

Cardiff’s bar scene has gone through the roof recently, fizzing with cocktail bars and speakeasies. For a pinch of 1920s glamour, pop into The Dead Canary, where you can sip cocktails inspired by Welsh folklore and superstitions, such as Llyn Y Fan Fach (the Lady of the Lake), with calvados, plum brandy, ginger, sage, honey and lemon. The cocktails are equally sensational at Victorian-era, apothecary-themed speakeasy Pennyroyal and cool, science-inspired Lab 22. When the Welsh weather behaves, head up to the leafy oasis of Jacob’s Roof Garden for DJs, drinks, high-rise views and occasional live jazz.

Where to shop

The traditional Victorian design of Cardiff’s indoor market has been preserved – and it’s still a bustling place to shop (Getty/iStock)
The traditional Victorian design of Cardiff’s indoor market has been preserved – and it’s still a bustling place to shop (Getty/iStock)

Cockles and laverbread, freshly made Welsh cakes, fruit, veg and flowers – you’ll find the lot under the soaring glass roof of Cardiff Market, which has been doing a brisk trade since Victorian times. The spilt-level covered market is a great place to browse and buy while tapping into the spirit of the city. Seek out Hatts Emporium for old-school service and vintage clobber (they are particularly strong on trilbies and tweed) and Kellys Records for rare vinyl.

The city’s beautifully restored arcades are where Cardiff’s indie beat goes on. The oldest is the Royal Arcade (1858), with its mix of antiques, crafts, jewellers, vintage, artsy deli café Wally’s and hip coffee roastery Uncommon Ground. This sidles up to the Morgan Arcade, home to Spillers Records, the world’s oldest record shop (1894).

The Castle Quarter brings together a trio of Edwardian and Victorian arcades. Top billing goes to Castle Arcade, where you’ll find everything from violins to loose-leaf teas as well as the fabulous Troutmark Books, for second-hand books, comics and rare tomes.

Some of Cardiff’s finest shops are found within the warren of arcades (Getty/iStock)
Some of Cardiff’s finest shops are found within the warren of arcades (Getty/iStock)

In Cardiff Bay, the Makers Guild in Wales is behind Craft in the Bay, shining the spotlight on one-of-a-kind pieces by local blacksmiths, jewellers, basket makers, leather workers, ceramicists and paper, print and glass artists.

How to travel around Cardiff

Driving in Cardiff can be a nightmare and parking expensive. Thankfully, public transport is pretty good, with trains, boats and buses linking the Bay and city centre. The PlusBus ticket yields discounts on buses in and around Cardiff. Plan your journey ahead with the Traveline Cymru website or app.

Read more on the best Wales hotels