Famous Landmarks In Cardiff
From three Castles to a Cathedral, from stunning city parks to one of the world’s best open air museums – and the world’s oldest record shop – discover 20 of the most famous landmarks in Cardiff in our guide here.
Many of the most famous landmarks in Cardiff are from a time when it had grown rich from being the biggest coal port in the world. This was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the Welsh capital’s roots go back much further, to a splendid Castle with Roman origins and a Cathedral dating back over 1,500 years.
Our Cardiff landmarks are a varied bunch, from the spectacular Gothic Revival additions to the Castle to the magnificent Park and Arboretum next door. Then there’s the bright white Baroque of the City Hall, the red-brick Renaissance of the Pierhead in Cardiff Bay, and in one of its chic Edwardian arcades, the oldest record shop in the world.
We begin our journey around the most famous Cardiff landmarks in the city centre, before heading a mile down the River Taff to Cardiff Bay, before spreading out into the Cardiff suburbs and fringes, where some of its best attractions can be found. One of them can even be found a few miles offshore, an island in the Bristol Channel.
20 Famous Landmarks In Cardiff – City Centre
Cardiff Castle, sitting right in the middle of the city, has always been one of the most popular Cardiff tourist attractions, and over the last decade or so has got better and better as more and more parts have been opened to the public.
It’s the most visited of the many castles in South Wales, and draws visitors in with its two millennia of history, its fine Norman (12th century keep) and its sumptuous 19th century Gothic Revival halls and apartments, the work of famous Victorian architect William Burges.
Climb the keep for a great rooftop view over the city, and explore the rich 19th century rooms, especially the Banqueting Hall and the Arab Room. In recent years, other corners of the Castle have been revealed to visitors, and you’ll need the best part of a full day to see them all.
Cardiff City Hall
Cardiff City Hall is one of the most famous Wales landmarks, an elegant Edwardian Baroque building with a dome and 194-foot clock tower. It was built at a time when Cardiff’s port and the South Wales coal industry were at their zenith, and the mine owners of South Wales were raking in extraordinary wealth.
The grand City Hall and surrounding buildings (see below) are an indication of how wealthy the newly-designated city was at the time. The interior is no less impressive – climb the stairs to the first floor to see the Marble Hall and its collection of statues of important Welsh figures. These include rebel prince Owain Glyndwr, Welsh patron saint David and King Henry VII of England, who was originally from Pembrokeshire in West Wales.
Cathays Park is the term used to describe both the gardens behind Cardiff City Hall, and the surrounding buildings, which were built with the same stone, giving the feel of a harmonious and highly impressive whole.
Two boulevards – King Edward VII Avenue and Museum Avenue – run either side of Alexandra Gardens, which are home to Cardiff’s War Memorial and are especially beautiful in springtime.
The buildings alongside the avenues include the Law Courts, several Cardiff University buildings and the Temple of Peace. The large building at the north end of the Gardens is the main office of the Welsh Government.
National Museum Cardiff
The elegant white Portland limestone building across the road from Cardiff City Hall is the National Museum, one of the best places to go in Cardiff and home to one of the best collections of Impressionist paintings outside France.
Cardiff’s Impressionist collection – including several Monets, a Renoir and one of the last paintings by van Gogh – was bequeathed by Gwendoline and Mary Davies to the Museum in 1952. They acquired these works due to the wealth accumulated by their father, industrialist David Davies of Llandinam.
The Museum also has an excellent collection of earlier historical paintings of Wales, and a fascinating permanent exhibition on The Evolution of Wales. This was always our son’s favourite part, especially coming face to face with an animatronic woolly mammoth.
Bute Park – named after the Third Marquess of Bute, the wealthy industrialist responsible for rebuilding Cardiff Castle sits between then Castle and the River Taff, and is one of the best parks in Cardiff – if not the best.
As you walk past the Castle Clock Tower towards the river, you pass the famous Bute Park Animal Wall on your right. It contains 15 fine stone sculptures of animals, nine of which are originals by Thomas Nicholls from 1891, with six later additions. A little further along, at the entrance to the Park, you’ll find Pettigrew Tea Rooms, which is our recommendation for the best afternoon tea in Cardiff.
The Millennium Stadium – on the left bank of the river Taff – was built to host the 1999 Rugby World Cup Final. Since then it has hosted hundreds of Wales rugby internationals, some Wales football internationals, six FA Cup Finals, a Champions League final, speedway grands prix and countless concerts.
It remains one of the most impressive stadia in Europe. It has a capacity of 74,900 seated spectators, and has a retractable roof, which is sometimes closed, partly to protect the playing surface, but also to dial the atmosphere up a notch or two. The cacophony in there gets so loud – especially when Wales are winning – that it feel like the roof is going to be lifted off regardless.
In recent years the Stadium has been renamed after a local building society as part of a sponsorship deal. Regular tours of the Stadium run, taking you down to the dressing rooms and players’ tunnel.
St John’s Church
St John’s, in the heart of Cardiff city centre, is the parish church of Cardiff and one of the two most impressive churches in the city.
Its golden-pinnacled 15th century tower is one of the most beautiful Cardiff buildings. You can climb it on the last Saturday of every month, where you get a great view over Cardiff Castle (just across the street).
The tower is very similar to the Jasper Tower on the west front of Llandaff Cathedral (see below) and to several Perpendicular Gothic church towers across the Bristol Channel in Somerset.
The church was rebuilt following destruction by Welsh prince Owain Glyndwr in 1404, and is the only medieval building other than the Castle in the city centre. The church is nearly always open during the daytime.
Castle Arcade is the most photogenic of the Edwardian arcades in Cardiff, with shops on two levels, and a lighter, loftier, airier feel than the others around the city centre. Like the other Cardiff arcades, it is home to a mixture of independent food shops, cafes and restaurants, a different world to the vast St Davids 2 on The Hayes.
It’s full of Cardiff mainstays like the Troutmark bookshop, Madame Fromage cheese shop, a party costume shop and, if you venture upstairs to the gallery, you’ll get great views over the arcades and will find the only wig shop in Cardiff, discreetly tucked away in a corner.
After a couple of moves over the last decade or so, Spillers, the oldest record shop in the world, is happily settled in lovely Morgan Arcade, a minute’s walk from its old site on The Hayes.
The shop was originally founded in 1894 by Henry Spiller, but has been in the Todd family for as long as I can remember. It has outlasted all the high street record chains, covering a very broad range of music with plenty in the ‘alternative’ vein, not that they distinguish.
Its premises are smaller than the old shop on The Hayes, and there’s a strong emphasis on vinyl, which has enjoyed a massive renaissance in recent years. One of the smallest – yet most famous – landmarks in Cardiff.
The New Theatre is a wonderful century-old theatre on the corner of Park Place, between the shops of Queen Street and the gardens of the Civic Centre.
Nowadays touring productions are mostly split between the Wales Millennium Centre, St David’s Hall and the New Theatre, but for many years the New Theatre was the main venue in Cardiff. It hosted everything and everyone from Shakespeare to Art Nouveau icon Sarah Bernhardt, and one of my relatives was fortunate to see Laurel and Hardy perform there in 1952.
Current productions are split between musicals, comedy and, around Christmas, pantomime.
Famous Landmarks In Cardiff – Cardiff Bay
Wales Millennium Centre
The Wales Millennium Centre, which opened in 2004, is one of the most famous landmarks in Cardiff because of its unusual design – its roof is cased in copper, and been compared variously to an armadillo and a computer mouse.
Its façade is another unique feature, with an inscription, part in Welsh and part in English in glass lettering, which is illuminated from the inside at night. The English phrase is, “In these stones, horizons sing, and the Welsh phrase is,”Creu gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen”, which translates as, “Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration.”
Since its opening it has been the best arts performance venue in Wales, with several venues including the excellent main auditorium, the Donald Gordon Theatre.
One of the most famous landmarks in Wales, the striking terracotta glazed red brick Pierhead building was built in 1897 to house the offices of the Bute Dock Company. It is the one Cardiff Bay landmark to remain from the port’s heyday in the early 20th century, and the finest building in the area that was regenerated from the 1990s onwards.
The Pierhead Building is fascinating architecturally, with Gothic-style gargoyles and chimneys, and intricately-carved friezes. It is now owned by the Welsh Government, and used as an exhibition centre focusing on local and Welsh history.
Norwegian Church Arts Centre
The distinctive black and white Norwegian Church is one of the best-known Cardiff landmarks. It’s now situated just above Cardiff Bay waterfront, opposite St David’s Hotel (see below).
It was originally located on the site of the Wales Millennium Centre, but rebuilt at its current location in 1992.
It was a Lutheran church which initially served Norwegian sailors, many of whom worked in Cardiff when it was the world’s foremost coal exporting port. The children’s author Roald Dahl was baptized there, and his family continued to worship there for years afterwards. He later played a major part in the preservation of the church after it had fallen into disrepair.
The church now serves as an arts centre, with a great café and tables outside in summer.
St David’s Hotel & Spa
The St David’s Hotel & Spa, presiding over the western side of Cardiff Bay, was the first new building in Cardiff Bay to be completed, back in the late 1990s. It was the first 5-star hotel in Cardiff, and always looked the part, with its distinctive bright white lightning bolt-like roof sculpture always catching the eye.
It still commands the best views of Cardiff, with many rooms looking across to the other Cardiff Bay landmarks. A couple of generations of Cardiff photographers have also spent many a winter’s evening capturing dramatic sunsets and twilights behind the Hotel.
The Senedd is the home of the Welsh Parliament, formerly called the Welsh Assembly, which came into being after Wales narrowly voted for devolution of some governmental powers in 1999.
The building, located next door to the Pierhead on the north-east side of Cardiff Bay waterfront, was designed by Richard Rogers (who also designed the Lloyds Building in London). It houses the circular ebating chamber, where the government and opposition parties discuss measures and policies.
The Senedd’s exterior walls are made of glass, signifying the intent of the organization to be transparent and, ultimately, accountable to the people of Wales.
Cardiff Landmarks – Cardiff Suburbs And Outskirts
St Fagans National Museum of History
St Fagans is a village on the northwestern edge of Cardiff, and the name given to one of the best museums in Europe, the St Fagans National Museum of History.
We rate it one of the four or five best places to visit in Wales. It’s a series of around 40 historic Welsh buildings, each taken down and meticulously reassembled around a country estate donated by the Earl of Plymouth in the 1940s. St Fagans Castle, the fine 17th century manorial residence with its restored gardens, is the largest historic building on the site.
The collection of buildings is staggering, even to someone like me who has visited 40 or 50 times. It includes a 15th-century half-timbered and thatched farmhouse from Mid Wales, a 13th century church, a tiny post office and a row of six tiny workers’ cottages from Merthyr Tydfil, each furnished and decorated in the style of a different period. In our view, the best attraction in Cardiff.
Llandaff Cathedral – in the riverside suburb two miles (3 km) north-west of the city centre – is the Anglican mother church of the city and much of South Wales. Its name comes from ‘llan ar Daf’ – ‘the church settlement on the Taff’, and the cathedral is a short walk up the hill from the river. It’s one of the less heralded, but most enjoyable, places to visit in Cardiff, with several village pubs and cafes close by.
There has been a church on the site since the 6th century AD, and the present church has features dating back over the last millennium. There are two beautiful Romanesque arches, an Early English Gothic west front and a gorgeous Decorated Gothic painted and vaulted Lady Chapel at the east end of the church.
A Luftwaffe bombing raid destroyed much of the church in 1941, and the new church that emerged in the aftermath of the War was significantly different. The nave is dominated by the Jacob Epstein’s statue of Christ in Majesty (Majestas), mounted on an arch with an organ case, which, after the entirely rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, is one of the main 20th century works of art to grace a British cathedral.
Roath Park Lighthouse
Roath Park is a huge favourite among Cardiffians, stretching over two miles from the suburbs of Roath and Penylan in the south to Cyncoed. The Roath Park lighthouse is near the northern end of the Park, at the southern end of Roath Park Lake. It was built in 1915 in memory of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, whose voyage to Antarctica – and fateful journey to the South Pole – which departed from Cardiff in June 1910.
The rest of Roath Park is strung out along the Roath Brook, and includes beautiful Rose Gardens and Flower Gardens, a vast Recreation Ground with rugby and football pitches, and the lovely Waterloo Gardens, our local park when we lived in Roath.
This fairytale castle – its name means ‘Red Castle’ – is one of the most popular day trips from Cardiff. It sits on a forested hillside on the outskirts of the city, overlooking the village of Tongwynlais and the main M4 and A470 roads.
Castell Coch was built over the ruins of a medieval Welsh castle in the 1860s by the Third Marquess of Bute as a summer retreat. Its location was important as it’s visible from Cardiff Castle – and vice versa – so that he and his lover could see each other if they were apart.
Getting there: Train to Taffs Well, then a 20-25 minute uphill walk, or the 26 and 132 bus from the city centre to Tongwynlais, followed by a 10-minute uphill walk.
Flat Holm Island
The largest of our landmarks of Cardiff is, paradoxically, its least visible. Flat Holm is one of two islands in the Bristol Channel – the other is England’s Steep Holm – and it belongs to Wales and, specifically, Cardiff.
Boat trips run from Cardiff Bay during the season, leaving you a few hours to explore the island. The island is home to many of Cardiff’s seagulls, and the southernmost pub in Wales, The Gull and Leek, is named after its feathered denizens.
There is also a lighthouse, clifftop walks and some Second World War fortifications. Flat Holm is also renowned as the place where the first radio signal was received, from nearby Lavernock Point, sent by Guglielmo Marconi in 1909. One of the least-known, yet most intriguing, Welsh islands.
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