When you think of countries to visit in Europe, Wales may not be one that comes to mind. However, it recently became one of my favorites after spending time there as part of a European getaway I took with my husband.
This small country, part of the United Kingdom, is just a 3-hour drive west of London. Despite its size, there is still plenty to see and do. Wales has more than 1,680 miles of coastline covered in panoramic views of cliffs and beaches. Inland you can enjoy snowy mountains, rolling hills, secret waterfalls, and of course, sheep. Lots of sheep!
London Heathrow Airport, located in the western suburbs of London, is a perfect hub to begin your journey to Wales. Train, bus, self-drive or private car and driver are a few ways to get you out into the countryside. Driving on the opposite side of the road has its challenges, but for us it was worth it to control our own stops and agenda throughout the trip. We were pleasantly surprised to experience a beautiful, scenic drive to Wales with many castles, quaint English villages and churches to view along the way.
Our first stop just over the border of Wales was at Tintern Abbey. The Abbey, founded in 1131, sits on the Welsh bank of the River Wye. The Abbey fell into decay in the 16th century when King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church to create the Church of England. The monks that had been living in the Abbey for over 400 years were sent away and the relics and treasures were seized by the King. The building’s roof was sold and the rest of the site abandoned until becoming the tourist site we see today. We walked through the old rooms and passageways that the past monks lived among in their daily life. The contrast of the bright green grass and sunny blue sky against the aging stone pillars and arches made for stunning photos.
Our next stop was Cardiff, the Welsh capital. Cardiff can be a perfect central hub to see and experience Wales. We stayed there three nights and went out on strategic day trips to see everything Wales has to offer.
Our first full day we were very excited to travel down the coast. We drove west from Cardiff heading towards our first stop Pembroke Castle, about a 2-hour drive. Pembroke Castle is the largest castle in Wales and is open to the public offering self and guided tours. We stopped at a charming pub for tea and some bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) before entering the castle grounds. Once inside, the beauty and size were overwhelming. The first castle on this site was built in 1093 and was the birthplace of King Henry the VII (the father of the famous King Henry the VIII). One of the highlights of exploring there was the immense cavern located below the castle – a small winding staircase led to this natural cold storage. This castle is one of the best we have seen in the world because of its open grounds format that really makes exploring it a must-see in Wales.
A trip to Wales wouldn’t be complete without a view from the famous Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. This National Park preserves the spectacular coastline with its rugged cliffs, sandy beaches and wooded inlands. One of the most fantastic places to visit is the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. This path is 186 miles long, running on top of the cliffs with paths through the fields and down to the many hidden beaches. We journeyed to a small portion of this trail on the south coast of Wales that led us to an amazingly beautiful place – Barafundle Bay. An old stone staircase led us down to the beach. We removed our shoes and let the warm
sand run between our toes as we explored. Dogs ran and swam within the dark blue water, some brave people swam in the cold water, and most like us sat and enjoyed the views and the sunshine. This National Park was worth much more than the two pounds we had to pay to park there!
From Barafundle Bay we drove along the coast through small villages and tiny roads until we reached the village of Tenby. Tenby is a walled seaside fishing town with beaches and castles to explore. This was a perfect spot to grab a fresh seafood dinner and walk the tangled, narrow streets with endless shops and restaurants. We also spent time at the harbor to admire the fishing boats tied and waiting for the tide to come back in.
We weren’t sure what to do on our last day besides exploring Cardiff itself, until a local told us about a sight worth seeing that was just a short one-hour drive away. That place was Henrhyd Falls. This waterfall, located within Brecon Beacons National Park, is the tallest in southern Wales at 90 feet. The falls were in a beautiful hidden canyon with bright green trees and plants growing right out of the dark stone. The thundering of the water falling to the ground led us down a short path until we could see the high falls. It was extremely beautiful to see and hear. Thankfully there were only two other people there when we arrived so we were able to get many great pictures and videos of us at the falls. The most amazing part of it was the path that allowed you to walk behind the waterfall! Once behind the falls we stuck our hands out to feel the fall of cool water and the mist all around us. A fun fact about this falls that we discovered is that it was used to film the entrance to the Batcave in the Batman trilogy filmed by Christopher Nolan.
That afternoon we explored the capital city of Cardiff. It’s filled with many shops and restaurants, and it is known for its nightlife. If you’re lucky enough to be there during a rugby game, they have a huge stadium and I would trust it would not be a disappointment with how popular rugby is in this country. What makes Cardiff unique is that it has a castle right in the middle of the city. This medieval castle was built in the late 11th century by Norman invaders on top of a 3rd century Roman fort. Just behind Cardiff Castle is the beautiful Roath Park. This park opened in 1894 and contains a 30-acre lake popular for fishing and boating, a botanic garden, a tennis and basketball court, soccer and rugby fields, a playground, as well as plenty of trails for walking, running or biking.
We left Wales wishing we had many more days to spend in this beautiful country.
Here are a few other highlights that should considered for any itinerary to Wales:
Snowdonia: Snowdonia is an 823 square mile National Park. It holds Mount Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak at 3,560 feet. From the top of the mountain you can take the world’s fastest zip line back to the bottom! Hike this beautiful park to see glaciers and glittering bodies of water. You can even surf in the world’s biggest artificial wave pool.
Anglesey: Anglesey is the largest island in Wales known for its beaches and ancient sites. On this island is the medieval town of Beaumaris. This town holds a castle, Victorian punishment cells, and an original tread wheel. This island is also great for golfing, biking, or just a lazy day on the beach.
Conwy and Llangollen Tour: Conway is a medieval walled seaside castle town. Take a tour to learn more about Conway Castle and the town walls. About an hour away, driving through part of Snowdonia, is the town of Lllangollen. This town offers aqueduct tours, kayaking, white water rafting and tubing.
Want to learn more about travel to Wales or other places within the UK? Email Jenny Schultz at JennyS@PiqueTravel.com to start the discussion.