1. Where to Stay
Get boutique style without the London prices at Jolyon’s at No. 10 (from $98), a 21-room property (formerly an architect’s office) in the center of Cardiff, Wales’s newly revitalized capital. The cheapest “compact” rooms are tiny, even by European standards, but the Edwardian-mansion-meets-Soho-lounge décor is handsome: think gold-trimmed rococo chairs, plum-toned wallpaper contrasting with dark wood paneling, and color therapy Jacuzzis.
Have breakfast on your private balcony at the St. David’s Hotel & Spa (from $137), a seaside glass-and-steel tower that hosts celebrities like Lady Gaga and Catherine Zeta-Jones (who grew up in nearby Swansea) when they’re in town. All of the modern, light-filled rooms provide views of Cardiff Bay and the city’s rapidly rising skyline, and every booking includes a complimentary saltwater soak at the spa, best followed with a cup of one of the dozen loose-leaf options and house-made scones during afternoon high tea service ($29).
Leave city life behind for a night at Gliffaes Country House Hotel (from $167), a 23-bedroom Italianate 1888 mansion on a landscaped private estate within 330,000-acre Brecon Beacons National Park. The staff at the family-run property, less than an hour outside the capital, enthusiastically directs guests to an array of hiking and biking paths (bike rentals are $30 per day; arrange in advance) that wind through the surrounding hills and valleys, and also lead fly-fishing courses along the adjacent River Usk.
2. Where to Eat
Taste modern takes on traditional Welsh cooking at Park House in an 1870s French Gothic-style mansion overlooking the gardens of Cardiff’s National Wales Museum. The seven-course seasonal tasting menu ($90) features local meat, seafood, and produce—Cornish John Dory with freshly foraged hen-of-the-wood-mushrooms, scallops with black pudding and foie gras—but check the Twitter feed for dinner deals such as half-price meals on some weekends.
Settle in for refined gastropub cuisine at the Hardwick, a high-end farmhouse spot helmed by Welsh native Stephen Terry, who trained under Marco Pierre White in London. Unsurprisingly, the menu is dominated by a variety of meats and seafood from the surrounding region; splurge on “the taste of local beef,” an opulent spread for two that includes short ribs cooked for 72 hours, oxtail suet pudding, seasonal greens, and triple-cooked chips ($83).
Discover Michelin-starred cuisine on an unsuspecting country road at the Walnut Tree (reservations recommended), where the three-course lunch menu ($42) changes daily and features novel plates of local game like pheasant and hare. Take advantage of the diner-friendly wine list, with helpful categories of “essentials” (available by the carafe, from $15), “core” (solid values from $37); and “classics” (rare finds like a 1989 Gewurztraminer made from individually picked, overripe Alsace grapes; $120 for a half-bottle).
3. What to Do
Hike or bike the newly completed Wales Coast Path, a nearly 900-mile traffic-free route with far-ranging views of rugged highlands and cliff-hemmed coasts. Sixty miles outside Cardiff, the RSPB Rhossili Coastal Trail is perhaps the most dramatic section, offering a secluded six-mile hike winding along sandy beaches and past craggy sea cliffs. Halfway between there and Cardiff, Ogmore Farm Riding Centre offers horseback treks along the beach (from $38).
Trade your hiking boots for a wet suit and helmet to experience the relatively new adventure sport called coasteering, a blend of rock climbing, cliff jumping, and swimming into sea caves that was invented locally in order to explore the rocky coast at sea level. Head to Pembrokeshire on the southwest coast, where the sport was pioneered, for a beginner-friendly half-day adventure led by Celtic Quest Coasteering ($69).
Strap on a headlamp and head to the bottom of Big Pit (free admission), a coal mine turned museum that lowers visitors 300 feet underground for 50-minute tours led by ex-miners (free). Afterward, stop into Blaenafon Cheddar Company to sample Pwll Mawr (“Big Pit”) cheddar, a strong, farmhouse-style cheese that is matured at the bottom of the mine shaft.
Brave rapids without leaving the city at Cardiff International White Water (from $77), a man-made, fully contained rapids course set in Cardiff Bay. Here you can learn the basics without having to deal with dangerous rocks, then get right into the water and try river boarding, which is essentially white-water rafting on a body board. To raft under the illuminated skyline, sign up for Friday night, when the price drops to $58.
4. Insider’s Tip
High rental rates and exorbitant gas prices make cars a less-than-enticing option for visitors looking to explore the country. Fortunately, Cardiff is fully accessible by foot, and an integrated rail and bus system provides easy access to remote areas of southern Wales. One of the best transportation options is only available May–September: the Beacons Bus, which offers direct daytrip transport from Cardiff to spots throughout Brecon Beacons National Park ($14).
5. Oddball Day
Take a break from the outdoors to explore Cardiff’s rich history and young but growing art scene. Grab a latte ($3) and warm slice of bara brith (a currant-filled fruitcake; $3) at the industrial-chic Coffee Barker inside the Castle Street arcade, one of a series of Victorian-era covered galleries now lined with independent cafés and shops. Across the street, walk along the walls and tour the grounds of Cardiff Castle ($17), a Norman-era fortress that offers a glimpse of medieval Welsh life. Self-guided audio tours cover the Victorian-era interior, the hillside keep perched above a moat at the center of the complex, and a series of underground tunnels used as air raid shelters during World War II. Next, stroll a mile straight down Bute Street to the formerly industry-heavy Butetown neighborhood near the waterfront, where Bay Art collective (closed Sundays) is currently showing sixteen book art makers from Wales and beyond. A few blocks away, the waterfront Norwegian Church Arts Center is a former merchant ministry that’s now home to photography exhibitions from local artists (free), adult street dancing classes ($8), and the Norsk coffee shop, where you can break for Welsh rarebit (hot melted cheese poured over toast), served here on rosemary focaccia with caramelized-onion marmalade ($7). Afterward, step a few doors down and back in time inside the newly opened Doctor Who Experience ($20), a kitschy, light-and-laser-filled tribute to the cult BBC series filmed nearby, complete with costumes and set pieces from the show. Walk over to the Wales Millennium Center, a curving, copper-fronted behemoth of an arts complex that’s home to the Welsh National Opera—as well as free performances from local bands and theater companies on the Glanfa Stage most weekend afternoons. Hop back over to Center City for dinner at the Potted Pig, a former bank vault where you can now order modern British dishes like slow-roasted woodland pork belly ($14) alongside more than two dozen bespoke gins. Finish the night at nearby Gwdihw, a café and bar for indie disco or a “bad-ass bingo” session buoyed by locally made chocolate wheat-bock from Artisan Brewing Co. ($4).
Buzz is a culture-oriented glossy that publishes event listings and food reviews for all of South Wales.
Find practical information about bike rentals, routes, and cycle-tour companies at Cycle Brecon Beacons.
Wales Online lists the best beaches, walking paths, and outdoor activities around the country.
Read local restaurant reviews in and around Cardiff on Gourmet Gorro, the 2012 Wales Blog Award winner for best food blog.