Europe's Castle Mecca Hides on This Popular Isle
The names of villages are like secret passwords—if you can pronounce them.
A country with a village called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is bound to be a fascinating destination. Wales may feel like a tucked away place, but those in the know have long broadcasted the country’s seemingly hidden idyllic landscapes. The Dark Knight Rises placed Batman’s fictional cave behind the very real Henrhyd Falls. The Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood was so popular that even eleven years after going off air, you can still find a shrine to secondary character Ianto Jones in Cardiff’s Mermaid Quay. And Netflix hit Sex Education films in the village of Chepstow. (Yes, you can go visit the corner store, or the bridge where Adam and Eric broke up.)
And yet, Wales still feels like a secret. Roughly the size of New Jersey, the country sits like a tiny, almost-forgotten corner of a well-visited island. A mere two-hour train ride from London, Wales sees only 3% of all visitors to the UK—and hey, that’s the loss of the other 97% tourists.
These narrow country lanes—where cars have to pull over to let an oncoming neighbor pass—are quite literally less traveled. Not to mention Wales has more castles than any other country in the world. Whether you’re looking to hunt for medieval ghosts, challenge your adrenal system with guided adventures, try a cheesy toast dish called Welsh rarebit (which contains exactly zero rabbit), or just sit and sip while gazing out at incredible sea cliffs, have we got the destination for you. Hoist your dragon flag and read on to start planning your Welsh vacation.
Stroll the castle grounds
There’s a reason the Castle often tops lists of things to do in Cardiff. Namely—it’s gorgeous. Located in the city center (or via a £5 boat ride from Cardiff Bay), it’s a low-commitment trip that takes you back 2,000 years in time. (Pro-tip: grab a pastry from the nearby Friends in Kneed bakeshop to snack on while you explore.) The grounds and surrounding park—which have been used as a set for Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Torchwood—are free to visit and make for stunning photos during cherry blossom season in early spring. Play your own Easter egg hunt by walking along the park walls, which are populated by an ark’s worth of animals by sculptor Thomas Nicholls.
For next level-castle hunters, there are plenty more to explore. You could almost literally just throw a pin in the map and start driving, but for the ultimate Edwardian history lesson, visit the UNESCO-listed quartet of castles: Conwy, Harlech, Caernarfon, and Beaumaris. Built by Edward the First during his invasion, there’s enough here to fuel all your Lord of the Rings fantasies.
Jump off a cliff
Seriously—go jump off a cliff. Wales’ 870 miles of rugged coastline is tailor-made for thrill seekers. Just keep in mind, this is an activity best done with an experienced guide and proper equipment. Regardless of whether you’re taking the plunge in Pembrokeshire or Tenby, be sure to go with a group, lest you hit a rock along these bouldery shores without the guidance of someone who knows where those underwater mines rest. Popular guides include Adventure in Wales, Tenby Adventure, and Bearded Men Adventures.
Falling from great heights not your bag? Wales offers plenty of other options for getting in touch with nature. Get wet in Llangollen, a region in North Wales known for its white-water rafting. Hit up BikePark Wales, a facility in Merthyr Tydfil that has positioned itself as the ultimate ski resort-like facility for mountain bike fans. Or give your adrenaline a rest, lace up your hiking boots, and walk the six mile (10 kilometer) Sgwd Isaf Clun-Gwyn loop to see four fairy-tale-worthy waterfalls.
Sip pints and gin
Sure, gin might not be the first thing that comes to mind if you’re after a Welsh tipple. Rest assured, pints-in-the-pub culture is alive and well, and along with breweries like Kingstone, you’ll never run out of Wales’ favorite drink. But for the latest trending experience, try out the country’s growing craft spirit scene.
Since launching in 2019, Silver Circle Distillery, has helped redefine the country’s liquor reputation, with its herb-inspired gins and award-winning Aquavit. Join them at their Monmouthshire-based distillery (right up the street from several Sex Education filming locations) to pick up a bottle, tour the distillery, or have a sip while enjoying the area’s cartoonishly-green hills. If you’re ready to take your gin fascination to the next level, they also offer “Make Your Own Gin” classes at their Chepstow-located tasting room.
Sleep like royalty
Obviously, you don’t need an excuse to book a nice hotel room, but when we’re talking estates and castles as the places to stay, the history in Wales makes it almost obligatory to just go that extra level when booking lodging. Sleep in history at Roch Castle, a 12th century castle turned five star hotel and spa located in Roch, Haverfordwest. Live your country estate fantasies (which—bonus—come with a free Welsh breakfast) at Penally Abbey in Tenby, Pembrokeshire. Or enjoy city life in Cardiff’s Parkgate Hotel, a former post office that now houses an upscale spa and hotel with rooms designed to reflect the area’s architecture.
If you’re looking to spend less, the good news is you don’t have to sacrifice culture for affordability. No matter where you are in the country, if you’re looking for a more budget-friendly option, consider a pub room. Located in the back or side of pubs, these low-key hotel rooms tend to be cheaper and cozier than their hotel equivalent. They’re legit taverns, like for travelers in the old days, to rest your weary head after a day of magical journeying.