Wales Travel Guide

Wales, a small country on the rocky fringe of western Europe, punches well above its weight when it comes to looks, attractions and visitor appeal. Barack Obama praised its “extraordinary beauty, wonderful people and great hospitality”, while National Geographic magazine named Pembrokeshire the world’s second-best coastal destination, and its coastal path second among the world’s top ten long-distance paths.

This is a country that remains utterly authentic, and while it’s happy to keep up with the best new trends – you can witness an ever more sophisticated hotel scene and a raft of gourmet restaurants displaying real culinary creativity – Wales always stays true to itself. Discover this beautiful country with our travel guide to Wales.

And, if you're looking to travel more responsibly, discover five eco-friendly holiday ideas in Wales and where to go green off-the-beaten-track in Wales. It's a nation that has a sustainable trip for every season.

The mountains and lakes of Snowdonia National Park, looking from Mount Snowdon from the Llanberis Pass

The mountains and lakes of Snowdonia National Park, looking from Mount Snowdon from the Llanberis Pass © Shutterstock

    Fun facts about Wales

  1. With an area of 8000 square miles (20,800 square km), Wales is less than a sixth the size of England and a little larger than New Jersey.
  2. Wales is part of the United Kingdom, but it also has its own devolved Welsh Government which is responsible for certain local affairs.
  3. The population of Wales totals just over three million, 60% of whom live in the southeastern corner of the country. One quarter of the population was born outside the country, the vast majority being migrants from England. Cardiff, the capital city, has a population of 358,000.
  4. Wales is officially a bilingual nation. Everyone speaks English and almost a quarter of the population also speak Welsh, the strongest survivor of the Celtic languages. The second-longest place name in the world, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogery­chwy­rndrobwllllantysi­liogogogoch was used in the cult 1968 sci-fi movie Barbarella starring Jane Fonda – it’s the password to enter a secret resistance headquarters.
  5. Lawn tennis has its roots in Wales. Apparently, one Major Walter Clopton Wingfield was playing with a new-fangled India rubber ball in the gardens of Nantclwyd Hall near Ruthin in 1873. It bounced on grass, the major had a lightbulb moment and in 1874 patented the rules of a game he called “sphairistrike”, ancient Greek for “the art of playing ball”.

Where to go - What are the best places to visit in Wales?

Only 160 miles from north to south and 50 miles from east to west, Wales is smaller than Massachusetts and only half the size of the Netherlands. Most of its inhabitants are packed into the southern quarter of the country. This will largely dictate where you travel and what you do. Discover the best places to go with our Wales travel guide.

Best cities in Wales

Like all capital cities, Cardiff is atypical of the rest of the country. Most national institutions are based here, not least the infant National Assembly, housed in brand-new splendour amid the massive regeneration projects of Cardiff Bay. The city is also home to the National Museum and St Fagans National History Museum – both excellent introductions to the character of the rest of Wales – and the superb Millennium Stadium, the home of huge sporting events and blockbuster gigs.

The only other centres of appreciable size are loud-and-lairy Newport and breezy, resurgent Swansea, lying respectively to the east and west of the capital. All three cities grew as ports, mainly exporting millions of tons of coal and iron from the Valleys, where fiercely proud industrial communities were built up in the thin strips of land between the mountains.

Best countryside and castles in Wales

Much of Wales’ appeal lies outside the larger towns, where there is ample evidence of the warmongering which has shaped the country’s development. Castles are everywhere, from the hard little stone keeps of the early Welsh princes to Edward I’s incomparable series of thirteenth-century fortresses at Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon and Harlech, and grandiose Victorian piles where grouse were the only enemy.

Fortified residences served as the foundation for a number of the stately homes that dot the country, but many castles were deserted and remain dramatically isolated on rocky knolls, most likely on spots previously occupied by prehistoric communities. Passage graves and stone circles offer a more tangible link to the pre-Roman era when the priestly order of Druids ruled over early Celtic peoples, and later religious monuments such as the great ruined abbey of Tintern lends a gaunt grandeur to their surroundings.


Discover the most beautiful places in Wales like the rugged Pembrokeshire Coast with our Wales Travel Guide - shutterstock

Best landscape and hiking in Wales

Whether you’re admiring castles, megaliths or Dylan Thomas’ home at Laugharne, almost everything in Wales is enhanced by the beauty of the countryside, from the lowland greenery of meadows and river valleys to the inhospitable heights of the moors and mountains.

The rigid backbone of the Cambrian Mountains terminates in the soaring peaks of Snowdonia and the angular ridges of the Brecon Beacons, both superb walking country and both national parks. A third national park follows the Pembrokeshire Coast, where golden strands are separated by rocky bluffs overlooking offshore bird colonies.

Much of the rest of the coast remains unspoilt, though seldom visited, with long sweeps of sand often backed by traditional British seaside resorts: the north Wales coast, the Cambrian coast and the Gower peninsula have a notable abundance. The entire coast is now linked by the 860-mile All-Wales Coast Path: be sure to spend some time along its length.

Best prehistoric and legendary sites in Wales

Exploring the prehistoric sites in Wales is thoroughly rewarding. Prehistoric sites litter Wales. Hut circles defensively set atop windswept hills attest to a rugged hand-to-mouth pre-Celtic existence dating back four or five thousand years. Stone circles, intricately carved monoliths and finely balanced capstones set at crucial points on ancient pathways suggest the more spiritual life led by the priestly druids. And at all but a few of the most popular, the bleating of sheep will be the only sound to break the contemplative silence of these spiritual places.

Britain’s greatest druidic centre was Anglesey, and the island is still home to many of Wales’ best prehistoric sites, including the splendid chambers of Barclodiad y Gawres and Bryn Celli Ddu. Elsewhere, numerous standing stones and circles can be found on the mysterious slopes of the Mynydd Preseli in Pembrokeshire and in the area around Harlech in north Wales. Many sites take their names from great figures in Celtic history and folklore, such as Arthur and Merlin (Myrddin in Welsh); legends abound to connect much of the landscape with ancient tales.

Seeking more inspiration for an immersive trip? Read up on sustainable Wales for all types of traveller, from foodies, to hikers, to histroy buffs.

What is Wales famous for?

Wales often gets short shrift in comparison to its Celtic cousins of Ireland and Scotland. Neither as internationally renowned nor as romantically perceived, the country is usually defined by its male voice choirs and tightly packed pit villages.

But there’s far more to the place than the hackneyed stereotypes. At its best, Wales is the most beguiling part of the British Isles. When you travel to Wales you will see that even its comparative anonymity serves it well. Where the tourist pound has swept away some of the more gritty aspects of local life in parts of Ireland and Scotland, reducing ancient cultures to misty Celtic pastiche, Wales remains brittle and brutal enough to be real, and diverse enough to remain endlessly fascinating.

The solid little market towns and ancient castles reward repeated visits as much as the stirring mountains, gorgeous valleys and rugged coastline. It’s not all about the landscapes, either: The culture is compelling, too - no matter if whether Welsh- or English-language, Celtic or industrial, ancient or coolly contemporary. Even its low-key profile serves it well: while the tourist pound has reduced parts of Ireland and Scotland to Celtic pastiche, Wales remains gritty enough to be authentic, and diverse enough to remain endlessly fascinating.

How is Wales different from England?

As soon as you cross the border from England, the differences in appearance, attitude and culture between the two countries are obvious. Wales shares many physical and emotional similarities with the other Celtic lands – Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany in France, and Asturias and Galicia in northwest Spain.

A rocky and mountainous landscape in hues of predominantly grey and green, a thinly scattered, largely rural population, a culture rooted deeply in folklore and legend, and the survival of a distinct, ancient language are all hallmarks of Wales and its sister countries.

Recent years have seen a huge and dizzying upsurge in Welsh self-confidence, a commodity no longer so dependent on comparison with its big and powerful neighbour England. Popular culture – especially music and film – has contributed to this, as did the creation of the National Assembly in 1999, the first all-Wales tier of government for six hundred years. After centuries of subjugation, the national spirit is undergoing a remarkable renaissance. The ancient symbol of the country, y ddraig goch or the red dragon, seen fluttering on flags everywhere you go, is waking up from what seems like a very long slumber.

Which language is spoken in Wales?

The Welsh language is spoken fluently by 20% of the population, as a 2016 government survey found. That number rises to 25% for 16- to 25-year-olds. TV and radio stations broadcast in Welsh, the language is taught in schools and restaurant menus are increasingly bilingual. But also, everyone in Wales speaks English.

To visitors the Welsh language, the strongest survivor of the Celtic tongues, most obviously marks out the country with its signature tongue-twisting village names and bilingual signposts making a strong cultural statement. As a visitor, any attempts to speak at least a fragment of the rich, earthy tones of one of Europe’s oldest living languages will be warmly received.

After Wales’ seven-hundred-year subjugation at the hands of its far larger and more powerful neighbour, many Welsh nationalists call for, if not outright divorce from England, at least a trial separation. The mutual antipathy is almost all good-natured, but often the greatest offence to Welsh people is when those very obvious differences are blatantly disregarded or patronized. Avoid referring to England when you really mean Britain or the United Kingdom, and don’t say English when you mean Welsh: it is like calling a Kiwi an Aussie or a Canadian an American (probably worse).

Which are the best road trips and drives in Wales?

You can’t go far in Wales without experiencing great views, but if you’re set on seeking out some of the very finest scenery, try these drives.

  • Wye Valley: Savour the wooded gorge of the River Wye on a journey from Monmouth past Tintern Abbey to Chepstow.
  • Gospel Pass: Take the narrow road over the roof of the Black Mountains from Abergavenny past Llanthony Priory to Hay-on-Wye.
  • Elan Valley and Cwmystwyth: From Rhayader take the mountain road up past the reservoirs of the Elan Valley up to the blasted landscapes around Cwmystwyth and down past Devil’s Bridge into the Vale of Rheidol.
  • Abergwesyn Pass: Follow the ancient drovers’ road over the spectacularly remote moorland of the Cambrian Mountains from Llanwrtyd Wells to Tregaron.
  • Marine Drive: A short but wonderfully scenic loop around the Great Orme.

Looking to get around more responsibly? Read up on practical ways to travel better in Wales.

How many steam trains operate in Wales?

Currently twelve steam trains also known as heritage trains, operate in Wales together as the The Great Little Trains of Wales.

Historically with the rising demand for quarried stone in the nineteenth century, quarry and mine owners had to find more economical ways than packhorses to get their products to market, but in the steep, tortuous valleys of Snowdonia, standard-gauge train tracks proved too unwieldy.

The solution was rails, usually about 2ft apart, plied by steam engines and dinky rolling stock. The charm of these railways was recognized by train enthusiasts, and long after the decline of the quarries, they banded together to restore abandoned lines and locos. Most lines are still largely run by volunteers, who have also started up new services along unused sections of standard-gauge bed.

Tickets are generally sold separately, but The Great Little Trains of Wales offers a Discount Card giving you 20 percent off the cost of the journey on all of the Great Little trains of Wales steam train railways.

Here is our pick of the best steam trains in Wales to include in your travel, listed north to south:

  1. Snowdon Mountain Railway Llanberis.
  2. Welsh Highland Railway Porthmadog.
  3. Ffestiniog Railway Porthmadog.
  4. Llangollen Railway Llangollen.
  5. Talyllyn Railway Tywyn.
  6. Vale of Rheidol Railway Aberystwyth.

Alternative, New Age and green Wales

Possibly more than any other part of Britain, Wales – the mid and west in particular – has become something of a haven for those searching for alternative lifestyles. Permanent testimonials to this include the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), near Machynlleth, now one of the area’s most visited attractions, and Tipi Valley, near Talley, a permanent community living in Native American tepees who run a regular public sweat lodge.

Both institutions were founded in the idealistic mid-1970s and have prospered through less happy times. For the most part, it’s been a fairly smooth process, although antagonism between New Agers and local, established families does break out on occasion, usually stoked by the sometimes liberal smugness of some incomers.

For visitors, the legacy of this “green” influx is evident throughout Wales. Even in some of the smallest rural towns, you’ll often find a health-food shop, wholefood café, somewhere flogging esoteric ephemera or an alternative resource centre. Any of these will give you further ideas and contacts for local happenings, places, groups and individuals.

There’s also a plethora of good festivals from spring to autumn, ranging from big folk and blues bashes to smaller gatherings in remote fields, with little more than a couple of banging sound systems. Information travels best by word of mouth, so keep your eyes and ears peeled for information and don’t hesitate to ask around. For more organized and larger events, you’ll see adverts and fliers months in advance.

For ecologically minded tourists, there are now numerous package deals that include walking, cycling, dancing and healing holidays and retreats in remote centres, usually with vegetarian and vegan food as part of the deal. Some of these are static, many are in temporary sites, while others keep you on the move.

    Retreats and holidays in Wales

  • Buckland Hall Bwlch, near Brecon t01874 730330, Beautiful hall and gardens hosting holistic lifestyle courses and workshops.
  • Cae Mabon near Llanberis, Gwynedd t01286 871542, Stunning Snowdonia setting for residential courses, storytelling and arts events, with accommodation in roundhouses, a hogan and benders.
  • Centre for Alternative Technology Llwyngwern, near Machynlleth, Powys t01654 705950, Residential courses on green themes such as self-build homes and organic gardening.
  • Dance Camp Wales Pembrokeshire Ten-day participatory dance festival held in July or August in a beautiful location, with about 500 participants.
  • Healing Tao Britain Conwy t01492 515776, Residential weekend workshops on meditation and Chi Kung.
  • Heartspring Llansteffan, Carmarthenshire t0845 652 2536, Three- or five-day retreats in a beautiful house, with holistic therapies and great veggie food.
  • Spirit Horse Camp Powys Camps to celebrate ancient ceremonial and cultural traditions in a stunning, secluded setting.
  • Vajraloka Buddhist Meditation Centre Corwen, Denbighshire t01490 460406, Regular retreats, either men-only or mixed.

Wondering where to stay to enjoy a more rewarding, responsible break? Discover 10 places to stay in Wales for a sustainable trip.

What is typical for the culture in Wales?

Although it is the wealth of places to visit - prehistoric sites, crumbling castles and wild landscapes - that brings tourists to visit Wales in the first place, they often leave championing the contemporary element. The cities and university towns throughout the country are buzzing with an understated youthful confidence and sense of cultural optimism, while a generation or two of “New Age” migrants has brought a curious cosmopolitanism to the small market towns of mid-Wales and the west.

Although conservative and traditional forces still sporadically clash with these more liberal and anarchic strands of thought, there’s an unquestionable feeling that Wales is big enough, both physically and emotionally, to embrace such diverse influences.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Welsh culture is underpinned by an iconoclastic democracy that contrasts starkly with the establishment-obsessed class divisions of England. The Welsh character is famously endowed with a musicality, lyricism, introspection and sentimentality that produces far better bards and singers than it does lords and masters. And Welsh culture is undeniably inclusive: anything from a sing-song in the pub to the grandiose theatricality of an eisteddfod involves everyone – including any visitor eager to learn and join in.

Wales, the Land of song

“Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation,” intones the Rev. Eli Jenkins in Dylan Thomas’ masterpiece, Under Milk Wood. It’s a reputation of which the Welsh feel deservedly proud. Although plucky miners singing their way to the pithead was the dewy-eyed fabrication of Hollywood (How Green Was My Valley), Wales does make a great deal more noise, and make it a great deal more tunefully, than most other small countries.

The country’s male voice choirs, many struggling to survive in the aftermath of the decimation of the coal industry that spawned them, are the best-known exemplars of Welsh singing, but traditions go much further back, to the bards and minstrels of the Celtic age. Wales continues to nurture big voices and big talent: from the hip-swivelling Sir Tom Jones and show-stopping Dame Shirley Bassey to anarchistic rockers the Manic Street Preachers and young divas like Charlotte Church, Katherine Jenkins and Duffy.

Male voice choirs

Fiercely protective of its reputation as a land of song, Wales demonstrates its fine voice most affectingly in its ranks of male voice choirs. Although found all over the country, it is in the southern, industrial heartland that they are loudest and strongest. Their roots lie in the Nonconformist religious traditions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Methodism in particular swept the country, and singing was a free and potent way of cherishing the often persecuted faith.

Classic hymns like Cwm Rhondda and the Welsh national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of My Fathers), are synonymous with the choirs. Each Valleys town still has its own choir, most of whom welcome visitors to sit in on rehearsals. Ask at the local tourist office or library, and take the chance to hear one of the world’s most distinctive choral traditions in full, roof-raising splendour.

For more information and inspiration for travelling in Wales and the The Brecon Beacons National Park, check out the Rough Guides to Wales, as well as the best travel experiences in Wales, the best beaches in Wales, full guide to Snowdonia National Park, these beautiful pictures of North Wales and the best walks and hikes.

Top image © Oliver Hoffmann/Shutterstock

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written by
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updated 19.07.2021

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