Capital of Wales since 1955, Cardiff is unrecognisable even from just a few years ago. With an exhilarating mix of heavyweight cultural sights, exciting regeneration projects – not least the revitalized Cardiff Bay – world-class sport, a prolific music scene and some seriously banging nightlife, it’s easy to see why Cardiff now ranks alongside London and Edinburgh as one of the UK’s most compelling destinations. So if you were in any doubt, here are ten great reasons to visit…
1. Cardiff cuisine is on the up
Although it’s hardly renowned as a gourmet paradise, Cardiff’s culinary landscape has improved markedly in recent times. Pick of the city centre restaurants is The Potted Pig, which occupies the vaults of an old bank, and where – yep, you guessed it – pork reigns supreme. It’s worth making the short trip out to well-heeled Pontcanna, where both The Smoke House and Fish at 85 are currently doing great things – at the latter, pick your fish from the counter and the chef will prepare it just as you like it.
2. It’s an unrivalled place to watch world-class sport
Quite simply, rugby is king here, and the natives love nothing more than shouting themselves hoarse at an international inside the magnificent Millennium stadium, and with the World Cup approaching, national hysteria will soon reach fever pitch. Welsh football is also undergoing something of a renaissance, with the national team on the verge of qualifying for the Euro 2016 tournament. But if you can’t get to a game (either rugby or football), take a Millennium Stadium tour. Cricket, too, is becoming increasingly high profile, with matches taking place at the Swalec Stadium, which recently staged the first match of the Ashes series between England and Australia.
3. Cardiff Bay is one of Europe’s best regeneration projects
Once one of the world’s busiest docks – when it was rather more romantically known as Tiger Bay – Cardiff Bay has been utterly transformed over the past decade, and the results are dazzling. From the spectacular, super-sized Wales Millennium Centre and the Welsh Assembly, to more venerable buildings like the Neo-Gothic Pierhead and the sublime little Norwegian church – which is where Roald Dahl was christened – this sparkling waterside area is an unmissable part of any Cardiff itinerary.
4. Great bands were born here
Any city that spawns such great bands as the Super Furry Animals and the Manic Street Preachers (ok, technically the latter are from Blackwood just up the road in the Valleys) commands respect – and Cardiff certainly takes its music seriously. For live music, the Moon Club is currently the venue of choice amongst more discerning gig-goers, while Clwb Ifor Bach has a firmly Welsh orientation. Jazz-heads, meanwhile, should make an appointment with Café Jazz. If you’re looking to buy, make a pilgrimage to Spiller’s Records, which is generally acknowledged to be the oldest record shop in the UK; there’s not much you won’t find here.
5. It has nightlife to rival – if not beat – any city in the UK
Whether you’re out for a few beers before a big game at the Millennium Stadium, or gearing up for a more full-on Friday night experience, an evening out in Cardiff is not for the feint-hearted. Cardiffians have a reputation – fully justified – for partying hard. Away from the ubiquitous chain pubs, try Buffalo, which takes on a clubby feel as the evening wears on. For a more local experience, make for Y Mochyn Du – a former gatekeeper’s lodge popular with Welsh speakers – or Gwdihw (“Owl”), a delightful, retro-style café-cum-bar offering a rich programme of alternative happenings.
6. Cardiff Castle is fascinating
Plonked right in the heart of the city centre, Cardiff Castle’s most sustained period of development coincided with the arrival of the Bute family, who ruled the roost (and indeed most of Cardiff) during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are various aspects to visiting the castle, first and foremost the apartments, occasionally kitsch but always fascinating. On a warm summer’s day, however, a stroll along the battlements and around the beautifully manicured lawns is reason enough to visit. But what really makes this place cool are the various concerts and festivals held within its grounds.
7. It is one of the UK’s most exciting TV and film locations
Unbeknown to many, Cardiff is one of the UK’s most important locations for television and film shoots, as the recent openings of the BBC Drama Village and Pinewood Studios would testify. The big-hitter is Doctor Who, hence the entertaining Doctor Who Experience, where visitors immerse themselves in a “journey through time” before encountering some of the Doctor’s many adversaries, which include, of course, the brilliant Daleks.
8. You can shop in some of the UK’s most beautiful arcades
No, not the slot machine variety, but a series of beautifully renovated Edwardian-era arcades that you’ll rarely find anywhere in the UK. Each arcade – and there are half a dozen – variously conceals a host of wonderfully diverse emporia, including clothes shops, art galleries, and antique and second-hand bookshops. These are also great places to refuel, with two establishments in particular worth seeking out: The Plan (for the best coffee in town) and Madame Fromage (the best deli in town).
9. It has one of the world’s largest Transporter Bridges, and you can climb it…
Ok, it’s not exactly in Cardiff (it’s actually fifteen miles down the road in Newport), but the splendid Transporter Bridge – built in 1906 and one of just six such bridges in the world still in operation – is a must-see. From a practical point of view, the suspended gondola transports cars and passengers across the Usk River in just two minutes. Better still, and assuming that you don’t suffer vertigo, you can clamber to the top of the 177ft (that’ll be 270 steps) walkway for head-spinning views of the Severn Estuary.
10. There’s a great beach on the doorstep
Just a short train ride from the city centre, Barry Island is often much maligned, yet this is a tad unfair. Sure, it has it’s tacky amusement arcades and obligatory funfair with rickety rides – but it also boasts a neat promenade and a lovely Blue Flag beach in Whitmore Bay. And if you’re a fan of Gavin & Stacey, then you can hunt down some of the locations used during the filming of the series, including the arcade that the endearingly formidable Nessie worked in.