Wales’ best bits are often the ones hiding in plain sight – the castles, valleys and towns which many tourists might not be familiar with, but which are definitely worthy of a place on any visitor’s itinerary.
And exploring these lesser-known gems won’t just help tourists avoid the crowds – it will lighten the tourism-related footprint at key sites, and provide exciting new perspectives on Wales’ most beautiful regions. Feeling inspired?
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For an eco-friendly escape, we suggest a visit to an often overlooked Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty - the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley.
It’s a wonderfully rugged region encompassing historic towns and heather-blanketed hills scattered with reminders of Wales’ industrial heritage. It’s a fantastic option for anyone keen to explore Wales while having minimal impact on the environment, thanks to an extensive network of hiking and cycling trails.
The AONB’s southern section has some of the most breathtaking views, courtesy of the Llandegla Moors, the Eglwyseg escarpment’s limestone cliffs and Ruabon Mountain. This is where visitors will find some of Wales’ most historic highlights, including Castle Dinas Bran, Valle Crucis Abbey and Chirk Castle.
One of the most striking spots is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – a feat of engineering and one of Wales’ grandest tributes to its industrial heritage. There are plenty of sustainable accommodation options, too - we recommend Caban Dan Ser, a beautiful glampsite run by eco-experts Nia and Steven.
But it’s not just for visitors seeking enlightenment – the beautiful landscapes it passes through, and the ease with which it can be broken down into chunks, makes it a popular walking trail for a wide range of visitors.
The route is dotted with reminders of its past, including mysterious stone circles in the Conwy Valley and tiny stone churches where pilgrims would seek shelter en-route to Bardsey Island. One of the most memorable sections is the one which snakes past the Yr Eifl – on a clear day the spectacular views from the highest summit reach as far as the Isle of Man and Wicklow Mountains in Ireland.
Visitors with a head for heights should consider tackling Pumlumon Fawr – the highest point in Mid Wales’ Cambrian mountains. In reality, it’s not that hard, and definitely worth it. The views from the top are gorgeous, taking in Snowdonia to the north and the Brecon Beacons to the south.
Its name stems from the fact that Pumlumon is the starting point of the River Severn, which isn’t just the longest river in Great Britain, but a source of the Wye and Rheidol rivers.
There are five routes to the summit, with options for hikers of all abilities. Climbing Pumlumon Fawr isn’t just about the fantastic views, either – visitors who come here will avoid the crowds which flock to Wales’ most popular hiking spots, and will be taking the pressure off the more popular routes and summits of Snowdon and Pen-y-Fan.
The best bit? There’s significantly less chance of a selfie-stick ruining those all-important photo opportunities, too.
The Cotswold Way will look rather plain after a hike through central Wales’ Dylife Gorge, which has far fewer crowds than the famous UK walking route. Carved out during the last ice age, the gorge is the starting point for the Afon (River) Twymyn, which continues to shape this jagged valley.
There are plenty of clearly marked footpaths for visitors keen to soak up the spectacular views, including one which meanders past the Ffrwd Fawr waterfall, where water thunders over a 40-metre drop.
An essential stop off for nature lovers is Glaslyn Nature Reserve, with its rolling expanses of moorland and enormous, cottongrass-fringed lake. For something a little more modern, there’s Llyn Clywedog, where you’ll find the tallest concrete dam in Britain - a spectacular feat of engineering which is 236 ft (72m) high.
For a low-impact adventure, head to the banks of the Tywi – the longest river in Wales. It’s 75 miles long, and twists from the slopes of the Cambrian Mountains, high above the Llyn Brianne reservoir, to Carmarthen Bay on the Welsh coastline.
It’s a river valley filled with nature reserves and gardens, including the 600-acre, RSPB-managed Gwenffrwd Dinas (its winged residents include grey wagtails and common sandpipers), the nature reserve located in the grounds of Dinefwr Park and Castle, famous for its bluebell-covered lawns and resident deer, and Aberglasney Gardens. One of Wales’ finest gardens dating back to the 1400s, its fully restored Elizabethan Cloister Garden is the only surviving example of its kind in the UK today.
The region’s historic sites include Carreg Cennen Castle in Carmarthenshire. This hilltop castle dates back to the thirteenth century, and is a brilliant tribute to King Edward I’s knack for castle-building.
There’s also Llansteffan Castle. It’s one of Wales’ least-visited ruined castles, but it’s absolutely worth the effort, and not just because visitors who come here are highly likely to have the ruins to themselves. Head to the sprawling remains of this clifftop fortress, built by Norman invaders, for unbeatable views over the Tywi Estuary and Carmarthen Bay.
Dryslwyn Castle, a ruined hilltop fortress which dates back to the thirteenth century, is well worth a visit too. Its position, atop a rocky promontory between Llandeilo and Carmarthen, makes it a fantastic place to soak up the view of the surrounding countryside. The foundations of the original keep and of the original great hall are still clearly visible.
The valley has plenty of places to rest and refuel too, including Llandeilo, where foodies can shop (sustainably) at places like the Gin Haus Deli - don’t leave without a jar of Mel Cilgwenyn Honey). We also love Wright's, a shop and cafe serving homemade and local produce.
It’s regarded as one of Wales’ most beautiful regions, with gorgeous waterfalls (Cenarth Falls is one of our favourites), the twelfth-century Cilgerran Castle and wildlife-filled havens such as the Welsh Wildlife Centre (where the more unusual creatures include buffalo).
The large number of nature reserves has made this region popular with travellers passionate about sustainability, which is the reason it’s one of the best places for some eco-friendly retail therapy.
There are countless brilliant places to pick up some local produce, including St Dogmaels Local Producers Market, which recently bagged the Best Market Award at the BBC’s Food and Farming Awards.
For a culture fix, head to Cardigan’s Theatr Mwldan, known for its packed calendar of world music performances and indie films. When it comes to exploring the area, hop on one of the wallet-friendly coastal buses, which cover most of the region.
Abergavenny is often referred to as the Gateway to Wales, although it’s a fantastic destination in its own right, and one surrounded by historical sites.
Llanthony Priory is a gothic priory huddling in the foothills of the Black Mountains, and despite being built 900 years ago, the finer aspects of its ornate stonework can still clearly be seen. Some of the best examples are the pointed archways, carved from local stone
There’s no such thing as too many castles (especially in Abergavenny), so we’re adding a few more to the list: nearby Grosmont Castle, which is one of the so-called Three Castles of Gwent, along with White Castle and Skenfrith. A historical hat trick of castles built by the Normans, the highlight is White Castle, Monmouthshire’s best preserved fortress and the most imposing of the three.
You’ll also be just a short walk from Crickhowell, which is a great option for visitors keen to explore beyond the tourist trail, and has an annual hiking festival which attracts ramblers from around the world.
Seeking out these undiscovered routes doesn’t just mean fewer crowds, either – it minimises environmental impact by lessening the load on Wales’ most popular trails. Llyn Brenig is a good example – a 2,500-acre chunk of lakeside land threaded with bike routes for all abilities.
Trails are clearly marked, and there are dozens to choose from, whether it’s the short-and-sweet Dam Cycling Trail, which is perfect for kids and loops around the Brenig Dam, or the Elorgarreg Trail, which involves steep downhill stretches which plunge through thick forests.
The eco-friendly visitor centre is an essential stop-off – ospreys have thrived at Llyn Brenig since 2013, and visitors can learn all about how a sustainable approach to landscape management and wildlife protection have benefited Llyn Brenig’s wildlife. Budding twitchers can maximise their chances of a red kite sighting by heading to the RSPB-managed hide.
Inspired? Download your free ebook, The Rough Guide to Responsible Wales, to find out how to explore the country in the most sustainable way possible.
You might also want to read up on sustainable Wales for all types of traveller, and discover ten places to stay in Wales for a sustainable trip.
Top image: Llyn Clywedog, Mid Wales © Crown Copyright 2022 Visit Wales