Sheep grazing in Snowdonia National Park

- © Lilly Trott / Shutterstock

Tiny country with a big history

Wales in short

Croeso i Gymru. Wales is a tiny country with a big history: seized during the 11th-century colonial conquests of King Edward I and assimilated into the English Crown by King Henry VIII in the 16th century, Wales became the centre of the world during the Industrial Revolution when its rich natural reliquaries of coal, slate, and ore fed the development and urbanisation of the formidable British Empire. A tumultuous twentieth century marred by the sins of English exceptionalists and the Thatcher regime saw a Welsh political and cultural renaissance through which the nation slowly-but-surely clawed back stolen vestiges of political and cultural autonomy, leading to a contemporary culturescape and national identity that is proudly homemade, forged in the suffocated fires of its decayed industrial valleys and mines. Adjoined to this history is natural beauty in the phrase’s truest sense and the fruits of conscious national regeneration: chic surfers’ havens on world-beating coasts, bohemian student towns drunk on modern life, and Michelin-star meccas reaping the fertile seeds of these fecundant lands. Wales is a perennial placeholder on ‘hidden gem holiday destination’ lists that truly has it all, so beat the curb while you can and visit Britain’s mythical Land of Castles.

Conwy Castle in the medieval market town of Conwy, North Wales

- © Tomas Marek / Shutterstock

For city-breakers, metropolitan options are few and far between. Capital Cardiff is the obvious breakout option and remains an underexploited option by UK city travellers, while adjacent Swansea is the gateway to the breathtaking Gower Peninsula and has become a sort of living shrine to hometown poet Dylan Thomas. Outside the South, North Wales has a constellation of charming small towns each with singular quirks: Llandudno with its Victorian seafront, Conwy with its UNESCO-designated Norman castle and city walls, Menai Bridge with its bohemian chic and palatial hotels. And, in Mid Wales is the nation’s second capital of Aberystwyth, a vibrant student super-town at the nexus point of the idyllic Ceredigion Coast and the mythical Brannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) National Park.

Snowdonia National Park, North Wales

- © Alexey Fedorenko / Shutterstock

It is national parks like this that form the core of Wales’ painted appeal. There are three in Wales - Eryri (Snowdonia), Brannau Brycheiniog, and the Pembrokeshire Coast - that set the mood of the country’s North, Midlands, and South respectively. Eryri is most famously home to Yr Wyddfa, the nation’s tallest mountain, and is composed of monumental, slate-rich mountainscapes that elide with scenic coastline, ancient forests, and raging waterfalls along their slopes and valleys. Bannau Brycheiniog, meanwhile, is a network of less sheer, glacier-carved hills and peaks covered in mist-drenched, cairn-dotted moorland, while the Pembrokeshire Coast is a nearly Mediterranean ribbon of sheer cliffs, platinum sands, and crystalline blue seas.

Tenby, a seaside resort town in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

- © Lukasz Pajor / Shutterstock

Snuggled within each national park are tiny towns that welcome visitors into tourist’s embrace. In Eryri there’s Betws-y-Coed, whose grey dolerite and slate architecture rises almost naturally from its pixie-forest, mountain-slope surroundings; and Beddgelert, a riverside village steeped in folkloric myth. Brannau Brycheiniog has Abergavenny, a foodie haven home to four Michelin-guide restaurants; Hay-on-Wye, a world-renowned “booktown” that declared itself an independent kingdom in the 1970s; and Brecon, a medieval military town home to the Royal Welsh Regimental Museum. And finally, the Pembrokeshire Coast has a myriad coastal towns that invite escapism and indulgence: technicolour Tenby, sleepy St. David’s, arcadian Pembroke, and Nordic Solva.

Close-up on the Italianate village of Portmeirion, North Wales

- © Edward Haylan / Shutterstock

Elsewhere are the idiosyncratic interest points that give Wales much of its abiding charm. Portmeirion on the Glaslyn Estuary is the Italianate technicoloured toybox town founded by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis during the twentieth century as a form of aesthetic rebellion against the glum functionalism of British post-war architecture, the ‘folly to end all follies’. About an hour-and-a-half away, in the rolling Dee Valley (recently proposed to become Wales’ fourth national park) is the UNESCO-designated Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a canal route that soars 126ft (38m) above the ground and along eighteen mammoth stone-and-iron arches, poetically described by Sir Walter Scott as the “stream in the sky”. This joins the Norman castles of North Wales, the slate-mining quarries of Eryri, and the industrial landscapes of Blaenavon as one of Wales’ four UNESCO Heritage Sites, while Wales’ heritage railways - former arteries of its industrial development used to haul raw materials - have now become visitor favourites in their own right, traversing breathtaking countryside at a somnolent pace in a time-capsule setting. Stops along such lines include Bala Lake, Wales’ largest body of water, and the formidably named Devil’s Bridge Falls, while another novelty route includes the train to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, the second-longest one-name place name in the world (it roughly translates to meaning ‘St. Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel near to the Rapid Whirlpool of St. Tysilio of the Red Cave’).

UNESCO-designated Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, North Wales’ “stream in the sky”

- © travellight / Shutterstock
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The must-sees

All the must-sees

How to get there?

Wales is easily reached from the rest of the UK, both by road and by rail. The two main roads into the country are the M4 motorway in the south and the A55 expressway in the north. In North Wales, the two principal railway stations are Bangor and Llandudno Junction, which provide connections to various regional stops and have direct connections to major national destinations such as London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Cardiff. In South Wales, the largest railway stations are Cardiff Queen Street, Newport, and Swansea, which similarly connect to various regional stops as well as most major UK railway stations.

For those coming from abroad or otherwise travelling by air, Wales’ main airport is Cardiff International, which offers direct flights to and from cities such as Edinburgh, Belfast, Dublin, Paris, and Amsterdam. For those trying to access North Wales by air, Manchester Airport is likely a better option; trains run directly from Manchester Airport to various points in North Wales, including Llandudno Junction. Similarly, for those trying to access South Wales but unable to fly into Cardiff International, consider flying into London then taking a connecting train - Cardiff can be reached from London in under two hours by rail.

Where to stay?

Land of Princes, Wales is an ever-unwinding jewel box of things to discover, from the quasi-Mediterranean coasts of Pembrokeshire to the formidable wilds of Snowdonia National Park. So, while you’re exploring this breathtaking country, Land of Castles, why not make your trip a palatial one by staying in one of these regal locations that are guaranteed to make you feel like king for a day?

Practical information

When is the best time to visit Wales?

Welsh weather is warmest between April and October, with June and July typically being both the hottest and driest months (as well as the busiest!). For milder weather without the crowds, April and September are strong bets. There are also several notable events and national holidays around Wales that you may want to plan your visit around. St. David’s Day, the Welsh National Day, is held on March 1st every year and is typically celebrated with parades, the wearing of daffodils and leeks, and the eating of traditional Welsh food. The Guinness Rugby Six Nations, the biggest rugby tournament in the world, is held every year between February to March and is of genuinely massive importance in Wales as the national pastime and a national point of pride. Other notable events are the Royal Horticultural Society Flower Show (Cardiff) in April, International Dylan Thomas Day (Swansea) and the Hay Literary Festival (Hay-on-Wye) in May, and the National Eisteddfod and Green Man Festival (Bannau Brycheiniog) in August.

Packing your bags 

Welsh weather can be temperamental at the best of times, so it’s always best to prepare for colder, wetter weather and pack a waterproof coat and some layers. If you’re planning on going hiking, make sure you bring the essentials: proper boots, a hiking backpack, weather-appropriate clothing, and plenty of food and water. Otherwise, just bring anything you would bring on a typical trip, and remember essentials like plug adapters and sterling currency if you’re coming from outside the UK!

Getting around Wales

Wales’ rugged natural terrain can make it difficult to get around the country, although Wales’ railways are normally pretty well-connected, especially regionally, and can get you between most major cities with relative ease. For exploring more sparsely-populated and isolated parts of the country, renting a car might be the easiest option; we recommend going through Kayak. Otherwise, Transport for Wales offers a multi-day Explore Wales Pass valid for four days of travel within an eight-day window; it grants passage to anywhere in Wales by train and on selected bus operators.

What to eat in Wales

ales has a proud culinary heritage and there are various foods that are definitely worth trying during your visit for an authentic taste of the nation. Welsh rarebit is a national favourite, a fine strong cheddar cheese-on-toast that gives the French a run for their money. Cawl, or ‘lobscow’ in parts of North Wales, is a heartier savoury pick, a lamb, leek, and seasonal vegetable stew traditionally considered the national dish of Wales. Other savoury must-eats are laverbread, a ‘Welshman’s caviar’ made from boiled seaweed; Menai Strait mussels, prized for their succulence, prime size, and sweet flavour; Gower salt marsh lamb, a seasonal (and regionally-specific) meat with a complex flavour and meltingly tender texture; and Glamorgan sausage, a vegetarian sausage made from cheese, leeks, and breadcrumbs.On the sweeter side there’s Welsh cakes, small, circular cakes cooked on the traditional bakestone and often mixed with sultanas or chocolate chips; Bara brith, a rich fruit loaf made using tea leaves and typically served buttered; Aberffraw biscuits, buttery, scallop-shaped shortbreads; and Crempog, a thick, buttermilk pancake. And to wash it all down, Wales has a proud independent brewery culture, so be sure to sample the best of local beers and ciders.

What should you bring back from your trip to Wales?

The easy answer is Welsh-made anything, from a Welsh-brewed beer to a Welsh-born author’s anthology to a Welsh-knitted wool jumper. However, it’s perhaps best to attune your souvenir selection to where-about in Wales you’ve gone. Cardiff is famous as the rugby capital of the rugby nation, so why not go with a rugby shirt or other sporting memorabilia. Swansea, meanwhile, is most famous for hometown prodigy Dylan Thomas, so a tome of his writing and poetry is a must. Similarly, Hay-on-Wye is the bookselling capital of the UK, so go delving in one of its twenty-odd bookshops and find yourself a rare vintage edition of your favourite book. And Portmeirion is synonymous with the bespoke earthenware brand of the same name, founded by the daughter of the village’s founder; Portmeirion Pottery goods are sold at discounted prices at the specialty shop in the town. Lastly, seaside towns like Tenby, Aberystwyth, and Llandudno will all boast typical seaside finds, from chic bohemian wall hangings to delightfully kitschy magnets and knick-knacks. The choice is yours!

lightbulb_outline Editor's tip

Wales is a country both fiercely protective and fiercely proud of its national language, so learn a few key phrases before you go to surprise and delight any friendly locals you meet:- Os Gwelwch Yn Dda - Please
- Diolch – Thank You
- Iechyd Da – Cheers
- Hwyl Fawr – Goodbye
- Bore Da – Good Morning
- Prynhawn Da – Good Afternoon
- Nos Da – Good Night

If you need help practising  pronunciations, there are plenty of helpful guides on YouTube and other video sharing platforms!

by Jude JONES
Useful links
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Transport for Wales

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