Perched on the rocky fringe of western Europe, Wales packs a lot of physical beauty into its small mass of land: its mountain ranges, lush valleys, ragged coastline, old-fashioned market towns and ancient castles all invite long and repeated visits.
The culture is compelling, whether in its Welsh- or English-language manifestations, its Celtic or its industrial traditions, its ancient cornerstones of belief or its contemporary chutzpah. Wales often gets short shrift in comparison to its Celtic cousins of Ireland and Scotland. Neither so internationally renowned nor so 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 and, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ten railways (including all those listed here) operate as The Great Little Trains of Wales (GLT: greatlittletrainsofwales.co.uk) and offer a Discount Card (£10; valid 1 year), giving you 20 percent off the cost of the return journey on each of the GLT railways.
The railways below are listed north to south:
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.
Recent years have seen a huge and dizzying upsurge in Welsh self-confidence, a commodity no longer so dependent upon comparison with its big and powerful neighbour of England. Popular culture – especially music and film – has contributed much to this revival, as has the arrival of a National Assembly in 1999, the first all-Wales tier of government for six hundred years. After centuries of enforced 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 in Wales, is waking up from what seems like a very long slumber.
As soon as you cross the border from England into Wales, the differences in appearance, attitude and culture between the two countries are immediately obvious. Wales shares many physical and emotional similarities with the other Celtic lands – Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, and even Asturias and Galicia in northwest Spain. A rocky and mountainous landscape, whose colours are 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.
To visitors, it is the Welsh language, the strongest survivor of the Celtic tongues, that most obviously marks out the country with tongue-twisting village names and vast bilingual signposts. Everyone in Wales speaks English, but a quarter of the population also speaks Welsh: TV and radio stations broadcast in it, all children learn it at school, restaurant menus are increasingly bilingual and visitors too are encouraged to try speaking at least a fragment of the rich, earthy tones of one of Europe’s oldest living languages.
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).
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.
“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.
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.
Whether trudging through a dew-soaked field to some mysteriously inscribed standing stone, or catching the afternoon sun as it illumines the entrance to a cliff-top burial chamber, exploring Wales’ prehistoric sites is thoroughly rewarding. 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.
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, while 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. 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.
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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