The six cities in Wales are a wonderful mixed bag, some quite unlike anywhere you’ve ever seen. they range from the bustling multicultural capital Cardiff to the tiny cathedral city of St David’s in the far west of Wales, with four other fascinating cities in all corners of the country to discover.
Our guide to the six Wales cities tells you the basic facts and figures about each city, and we also look at what there is to see in each city and the surrounding area. We suggest how much time you need to see the essential sights in each Welsh city, and offer ideas for day trips from them. We hope you enjoy our complete Welsh cities guide.
1. Cardiff – Capital City of Wales
Cardiff quick facts & tips:
Population – 362, 750
Welsh name: Caerdydd
Must see: St Fagans, Bute Park, Cardiff Castle, National Museum
Nice to see: Victorian arcades & Cardiff market, Roath Park, Llandaff Cathedral
How many days do you need – 2-3 days
Best Day trips from Cardiff – Castell Coch, Caerphilly Castle, Brecon Beacons, Gower Peninsula
Cardiff, capital of Wales since 1955, is also far and away the largest city in Wales. It’s very much the cultural and sporting hub of the country, and it’s packed with many of the top Wales attractions, as is the surrounding area.
Cardiff was our home city for many years, but we have no bias in suggesting that, of the 6 cities of Wales, it has the most to offer visitors. The centre is dominated by Cardiff Castle, its partly Roman walls concealing a 12th century castle keep and the ostentatious Apartments and Banqueting Hall are among the finest examples of Victorian Gothic ever built.
The adjacent Bute Park is one of the most beautiful city parks in Wales, with one of the most famous rivers in Wales, the Taff, running alongside it.
Close by, the bright white Edwardian civic centre and National Museum Cardiff make a striking ensemble, and the latter is worth the trip to see the Impressionist Gallery, with one of the finest collections from this era of art history outside Paris. This, and other parts of the Museum’s collection, were bequeathed by the Davies sisters, heirs to the fortune of a staggeringly wealthy Welsh industrialist.
Cardiff city centre is enormously popular with shoppers, with the massive St Davids 2 mall the busiest. We’ve always been drawn more to the city’s Victorian and Edwardian arcades, which link several of the main streets and have many of the most interesting cafes and shops.
Unusually for European cities, its main sports venue, the Principality Stadium, is right next to the centre. It holds 74,000 spectators and the city becomes packed on rugby international days. It also hosts concerts and other sport events including the UK Speedway Grand Prix.
There is a vast range of day trips from Cardiff, with two on the edge of the city which stand out. Cardiff Bay was transformed from a run-down docks area to the city’s waterfront, with a Barrage creating a permanent lake around which some of the most famous buildings in Wales are congregated, ranging from the red-brick Pierhead to the glass-fronted Senedd (Welsh Assembly) next door.
The waterfront is lined with mostly chain bars and restaurants, which doesn’t really do it any favours. For us the highlight is the Wales Millennium Centre, a superb cultural and concert venue just back from the waterfront.
We believe that the best attraction in the Welsh capital is the St Fagans National Museum of History, in an estate next to a village on the fringe of the city. Over 40 historic buildings from all over Wales have been dismantled and meticulously reconstructed around the 100 acre site, from medieval farmhouses and a church to traditional shops, a bakery and (in the works) one of the great old Cardiff pubs, the Vulcan.
Throw in some outstanding parks, the melting pot of restaurants from around the world that is City Road in Roath and its proximity to some of the finest Welsh castles, including Caerphilly Castle and fairytale Castell Coch, and you may well come around to our way of thinking, that Cardiff isn’t just the biggest city in Wales, but also the best.
2. St David’s – the Smallest City in Wales
St David’s quick facts & tips
Population – 1840
Welsh name – Tyddewi
Must See Sites – Cathedral, coast – Skomer Island, Ramsey Island , Pembrokeshire National Park
Nice to see – Cardigan Castle, Preseli Hills
How many days do you need – two, allowing time for at least one Coast Path walk and seeing some of the St Davids beaches
St David’s is the smallest city in the UK – essentially a village with one of the best cathedrals in the UK in its midst – yet is one of the most captivating of the six cities in Wales.
It’s the second smallest city in Europe, after the Vatican City in Rome, it has a grand total of two pubs, and yet there are enough things to do in St Davids to keep you there for several days. If not more.
St David’s Cathedral was built on the site of a 6th century monastery founded by Dewi Sant (St David), the patron saint of Wales. It is by far the most impressive of the six Anglican cathedrals in Wales, with a magnificent late medieval wooden nave ceiling and awesome central tower vault. It sits in a hollow across the Alun stream from the splendid 13th century Bishops Palace.
The St Davids peninsula is a spectacular rugged landscape with hills formed from volcanic outcrops of rock, serene sandy beaches and some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in Wales. The most popular beach is Whitesands Bay, one of the best beaches in Pembrokeshire, which nestles next to the cliffs, coves and ancient burial chambers of St David’s Head (Penmaen Dewi).
Just south of the city, Caerfai Bay is a small, beautiful, sheltered beach ideal for families. From there it’s a short walk around the headland to St Non’s Bay, named after the mother of St David. The house and chapel host regular spiritual retreats, and it’s a wonderful place to come for peace and solitude. The only sounds you’ll usually hear are the waves crashing into the base of the cliffs below. Yet this is the birthplace of coasteering, an activity that entails clambering around cliffs and jumping into the sea.
There’s so much more to see within a few miles of the smallest of Welsh cities. North Pembrokeshire has always had a reputation of being wilder than the southern half of the county, but in terms of coastal scenery there’s not much difference. The coast between St David’s and the ferry port of Fishguard is spectacular, particularly between the villages of Abereiddi and Porthgain, and around Strumble Head, the official starting point of Cardigan Bay.
It’s just as awe-inspiring to the south. Head along the A487 back towards Haverfordwest and you’ll pass through the picture-perfect harbour village of Solva, then the panoramic perfection of Newgale beach with the line of cliffs extending back towards Solva, the first sign that you’ve reached the wild west of Wales. Once you’re past the county town of Haverfordwest, it’s only a short drive to possibly the most beautiful seaside town in the UK, Tenby. Check out our Wales bucket list article for more information.
Swansea quick facts & tips
Population – 245, 480
Welsh name – Abertawe
Must see – National Waterfront Museum, Mumbles, Dylan Thomas birth place; Gower Peninsula – Rhossili, Three Cliffs Bay, Gower Beaches
Nice to see if you have more time – Carreg Cennen Castle, Laugharne
How many days do you need – one for Swansea itself, and easily another two days exploring Gower
Swansea is the second largest of the three cities in South Wales, and is located around 40 miles (63 km) west of Cardiff.
Few cities in the UK have as spectacular a setting as Swansea – looking out over four miles of fine beach – and even less have a landscape as stunning as the Gower Peninsula on its doorstep.
For many, Swansea is known as the ‘ugly lovely town’ where Welsh writer Dylan Thomas was born, and the house where he was born – 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, in the Uplands suburb – is a small museum kept much as it was during his childhood there.
Much of Swansea city centre was obliterated by Luftwaffe bombing raids during World War two, and it has never really been brought back to its former glory. However it’s worth stopping by just to visit the excellent National Waterfront Museum which tells the story of Welsh ports and industry.
Many visitors to Swansea head four miles along the coast road to Mumbles, exploring the seafront, Oystermouth Castle and the traditional Mumbles Pier before climbing onto the main road to Bracelet Bay beach, which is a wondrous place for kids to explore with rockpools at low tide, and a great view of the Mumbles Head lighthouse as well.
Many locals also head for the other Swansea beaches two or three miles west, including Langland and Caswell, which are great family beaches.
You could easily run out of superlatives for Oxwich Bay, a vast sweep of golden sand just to the west of three Cliffs. But the best of all is saved until last – Rhossili Bay, a gorgeous beach below 80-metre cliffs with views of the dramatic Worm’s Head tidal island. We both rate it one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe – indeed it’s in my top three and it is one of the must see natural landmarks in Wales.
Beyond Gower, Swansea is also a base for forays into the rural county of Carmarthenshire, immediately to the north, the western South Wales Valleys and the remote western part of the Brecon Beacons National Park. If I had one day spare in Swansea after seeing Gower I’d head north to Carreg Cennen Castle, probably the most dramatic of all castles in South Wales. It’s situated atop a cliff high above the Cennen valley in the shadow of the Black Mountain escarpment, and it’s a unique experience all round – you enter through a farmyard and climb the hill to this amazing castle, with wonderful views in all directions.
Population – 151 500
Welsh name – Casnewydd
Must See – Tredegar House, Transporter Bridge, Caerleon Roman Amphitheatre
Nice to see – St Woolos Cathedral, Tintern Abbey, Chepstow, Wye Valley
How many days do you need – you’d expect to cover most of it in a day if you’re driving – otherwise allow a second day
Day trips – Cardiff, Wye Valley, Hay on Wye, Bristol, Bath, Gloucester, Hereford
Newport isn’t the most attractive Welsh city by any means, but it does have pockets of beauty worth seeking out. Despite its name it’s an old port city, something underlined by the discovery of a medieval trading ship in the muddy banks of the River Usk in 2002.
Most things to do in Newport South Wales (as opposed to Newport Pembrokeshire, a hundred miles west are around the outskirts of the city. Its most famous landmark is the Newport Transporter Bridge, one of only six left in the world, over a mile south of the city centre, spanning the river Usk. Just to the north of the city of Newport – but still within the county of the same name – it’s well worth seeking out the area’s Roman heritage, with Caerleon Amphitheatre and Caerleon Roman Baths within walking distance of each other.
Tredegar House, owned and operated by the National Trust, is a fine stately home on the western fringe of Newport. The red-brick mansion you now see dates from the 17th century, and the adjacent walled garden was added around a century later. The surrounding Park and lake is very popular with locals throughout the year.
There’s little to see of it now, but Newport has quite a bit of rock’n’roll history. In the late 1980s and 1990s it was home to the Legendary TJ’s, one of the best small music venues in the UK at the time. I was lucky to witness a great many incredible gigs there, and with a few local bands coming through, it was referred to as ‘the new Seattle’. TJ’s is sadly long gone, but the legacy remains. It used to be on Clarence Place, which runs onto Newport Bridge.
Population – 18 000
English meaning – Wattle fence
Must See – Bangor Pier, Bangor Cathedral, Menai Suspension Bridge, Anglesey beaches, Llanddwyn Island, Conwy, Caernarfon, Snowdonia
Nice to see if you have more time – villages, Llyn Peninsula, slate museum
How many days do you need – A few hours for Bangor, but a lifetime of exploration lies on its doorstep
Bangor Wales (not to be confused with its namesakes in Northern Ireland and Maine) was the first city in North Wales, and is home to the UK’s earliest cathedral, founded in 525 by local saint Deiniol. It’s also home to one of the best universities in Wales, whose main building dominates the Bangor skyline. Many visitors mistake it for the Cathedral, which is of more modest proportions and is down the hill at the end of Bangor High Street.
Bangor is very close to the Menai Strait, the body of water separating the Isle of Anglesey from mainland North Wales. It is spanned by the picturesque Menai Suspension Bridge, built by Thomas Telford in 1826 – it’s one of the best-known landmarks in Wales and on of the most beautiful bridges in Europe. One of the most popular things to do in Anglesey is to stop by at Llanfair PG, better known as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which has the longest place name in Britain.
Bangor happens to be surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe, with the rugged peaks of the Snowdonia National Park a couple of miles away and some of the best beaches in North Wales to choose from, with Llanddwyn Island and Newborough, one of the best Anglesey beaches, a half-hour drive away. You can also enjoy plenty of amazing Anglesey walks, with breathtaking views back to the mountains of Snowdonia.
I only tended to stay in Bangor on overnight stopovers so haven’t used it as a base for exploring North Wales, but it’s location is ideal for this. Three of the four Castles in the Castles and Walled towns of Gwynedd World Heritage Site – Conwy, Caernarfon and Beaumaris – are short bus trips from Bangor, each a great day trip, while the fourth, Harlech Castle, is only an hour’s drive to the south. There is also a Castle on the outskirts of Bangor – the neo-Romanesque Penrhyn Castle was home to wealthy slate quarry owners.
One of the best things to do in Bangor Wales is to venture into the mountains of the Snowdonia National Park. The closest point of entry is the A5 road via Bethesda, which climbs the U-shaped Nant Ffrancon valley before passing the forbidding Glyderau and Tryfan en route to Betws-y-Coed. Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales and England, can also be reached this way, turning off onto the A4086 at Capel Curig.
Some places in and around Bangor have recently become parts of the UK’s newest World Heritage Site. The Welsh Slate Landscape UNESCO Site is spread around six areas of the county of Gwynedd, and the vast Penrhyn Quarry is only three miles (5 km) from Bangor city centre. Nearby, Llanberis, at the foot of Snowdon, is home to the National Slate Museum. Bangor University (partly founded by quarry workers), the harbour at Porth Penrhyn and Penrhyn Castle are also incorporated into the Site.
If you head to Caernarfon from Bangor, try to make time to see some of the extraordinary Llŷn Peninsula beaches, which you can find on both coasts of this remote, dramatic landscape. Dinas Dinlle, just south of Caernarfon, is one of the best beaches in North Wales, and if you venture half an hour further down the coast you’ll be rewarded by the sight of Porth Dinllaen, one of the most picturesque villages in North Wales.
6. St Asaph
Population – 3,500
Welsh name – Llanelwy
Must See – Cathedral, the Parish Church, Marble Church, Rhuddlan Castle
How many days do you need – Literally a couple of hours to see St Asaph Cathedral and the Parish Church down the hill – you could also see the nearby Marble Church and Rhuddlan Castle in another two hours or so
Day trips – Along the coast to Llandudno or Conwy, towards Snowdonia or Anglesey; Ruthin or Llangollen to the south and Chester
St Asaph is the newest city in Wales, having been granted this status by the Queen on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in 2012. St Asaph became a city on account of its Cathedral, which happens to be one of the smallest Cathedrals in the UK. It’s like a grand parish church with a central tower and transepts, and is home the first Bible to be translated into Welsh, completed in 1588 by its Bishop, William Morgan.
It’s a fairly small town located right next to the A55 North Wales Expressway, with two other historic attractions close by. Bodelwyddan Marble Church is two miles to the west along the main road, an extravagant white marble edifice built in the 1850s, and mighty Rhuddlan Castle – one of the most impressive castles in North Wales – is two miles north. It’s a little further to the seaside town of Rhyl, which has a fantastic beach but the same cannot be said of the town, sadly.
The second city in North Wales is also close to some of the most beautiful towns in Wales, with Ruthin and Llangollen both within a short drive. On a clear day it’s also within sight of the peaks of Snowdonia, which are a little over an hour away.
As you head west along the A55 and North Wales coast, you pass the mock-Gothic Gwrych Castle, which has become renowned recently as the setting for the I’m A Celebrity….Get Me Out Of Here reality tv series. Continue to the lovely Victorian seaside resort of Llandudno, or perhaps the most wonderful of all Welsh towns, Conwy.
The A55 road is handy for making trips across the border to North West England. The lovely city of Chester is just over the border, and the fascinating city of Liverpool is less than 90 minutes away from St Asaph.