Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to 24 hours in Cardiff. When I informed people that I planned to spend 24 hours in Cardiff, some people told me I was making a poor decision. “The Welsh countryside is the best part of Wales,” they’d say. “There’s nothing to do in Cardiff.”
Well, it may be true that the heart of Wales is in its rural areas, not its cities. But it is demonstrably false that there is nothing to do in Cardiff. With 24 hours in Cardiff, you’ll find history, cakes, terrifying masks, and some of the best musicians in the world. Awn ni!
24 Hours in Cardiff
Where to Stay?
Hotels in Cardiff were surprisingly expensive. I mean, I’m not 100 percent sure what I was expecting the prices to be, but I didn’t expect Cardiff hotels to be pricier than Edinburgh or London. If you’re looking for a clean and affordable option, try the hostel chain YHA Cardiff Central. They have both private and shared rooms, depending on your budget.
The hotel also has breakfast in the morning, and you can order a satisfactory pizza in the evening if, like me, you are stuck on a train disaster coming from Cornwall and roll into town much later than you expected.
24 Hours in Cardiff
What to Pack?
The United Kingdom, as you may have heard, is on the rainy side. So the two most important things you’ll need to bring are an umbrella and some rain boots. My favorite travel umbrella is the Repel Teflon Waterproof Umbrella. It is strong enough to stand up to the sometimes-quite-strong winds of Wales.
For rain boots, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them to tea without feeling like some gauche American with gross feet.
Finally, if you’re not from the UK, you need a universal adapter if you’re going to plug in electronics. UK electrical outlets don’t work with either American or European plugs. I suggest the NEWVANGA travel adapter. It’s usable with any electrical outlet in the world, so you won’t need to keep buying new adapters. I always carry two with me, just in case something happens to one.
24 Hours in Cardiff
Morning: Cardiff Free Tour
When I arrive in an unfamiliar city like Cardiff, I like to start by having a local show me around. Obviously my preference would be to go around and just start shouting in locals’ faces, “HELLO LOCAL!” until someone agrees to give me a tour. Unfortunately, this strategy has never gotten me anything more than a light prison sentence. So the next best thing is to take a walking tour of a city.
I prefer to take paid walking tours rather than free walking tours because with a paid walking tour, it’s much more likely that the guides are being paid a fair wage. However, some cities like Cardiff don’t get enough tourists to support regular paid walking tours. So in this case, I recommend the Cardiff Free Tour. This tour runs Friday-Sunday at 11 AM. The guides are locals who will proudly teach you about the beautiful Welsh culture and language. (My guide happened to be the first native Welsh speaker I had ever met.)
24 Hour Tip
Here comes my usual disclaimer about free walking tours. They aren’t free! Most free tour companies require the guides to pay them a small fee for each person who takes the tour. So if you walk away without paying anything, you are actually taking money from the guide. I always give the equivalent of 20 US dollars, which is still a great price for a two hour tour. Please be a responsible tourist and pay what you can.
And now that the logistics are out of the way, I present…
approximately top 5: 24 hours in cardiff edition
1) Shopping and Violence
One of the most notable landmarks in Cardiff is the Victorian Cardiff Market pictured above. But did you know that this market used to be…a place of execution? (I assume you didn’t, or else you would already be such a Cardiff expert that you wouldn’t need to read my 24 Hours in Cardiff post.) The most notable man to be executed here was probably Dic Penderyn. (He was probably the most notable. He was definitely executed.)
Dic Penderyn was executed in 1831 for stabbing a British soldier with a bayonet during an uprising of coal miners protesting for higher wages. He is considered by most people, and all Welsh people, to have been innocent. This story pretty much hits the Welsh trifecta: coal mining, anger at the British army, and a sad story people can write mournful songs about.
On a lighter note, whether or not you are interested in shopping in Cardiff, don’t miss its gorgeous Victorian arcades. Arcades are a British invention that allowed the burgeoning bourgeoisie of the 19th century to go shopping in the perpetually raining British weather. Basically they are the Victorian granddaddy of the modern shopping mall. So technically I suppose we can thank Queen Victoria for the invention of the Orange Julius.
2) Clwb Ifor Bach
Do you know how to say Club in Welsh? Well, I do! And I bet you can figure it out from this photo. That’s right, the answer is clwb. For many years, the English tried to discourage the use of Welsh. (For political reasons, not because they were confused by all the lls and ws.) But modern Welsh is on the rise, and about 20 percent of Wales can speak the language. (Most native Welsh speakers, like my guide, come from the Northern part of the country.)
Our guide, whom I will call Ioan, even though that is not his name, taught us a few fun phrases in Welsh. I was surprised to hear that some words in Welsh, like “triste”, are the same in both Welsh and French. Ioan said that this is because the Romans were present in Wales for such a long time that some words in Welsh come from Latin. This impressed me because triste means sad. Does this mean the Welsh didn’t need a word for sad until the Romans came? That would explain a lot.
But Wales isn’t just famous for having more lls than you can shake a llama at. It is also famous for its musical traditions. Back in 2000, a little band named Coldplay jammed at Clwb Ifor Bach. (I assume Ifor Bach is the long-lost Welsh relation of JS Bach.) Now of course, Coldplay is too big for this venue, so they’ve consciously uncoupled with Clwb Ifor Bach, and they now play at the Millennium Centre.
3) Bute Park
My favorite place in Cardiff is the adorable Bute Park. Regular readers of this blog will easily guess why. It’s because of the magical stone animals that sit on top of the park’s stone walls. I think this nosy fellow above is an anteater. This surprised me because I thought the only animal native to Wales was the dragon.
Bute Park was named after the Major Family of Cardiff, the Marquesses of Bute. The man you see pictured above, the 2nd Marquis of Bute, was not native to Wales. But he made his fortune there in the coal and iron industries. I presume a lot of oppression of the Welsh miner was involved, but no one ever tried to stab the Marquis of Bute with a bayonet.
When the third Marquis of Bute, aka The Return of the Bute, was born, he was declared by the newspapers to be “the richest baby in the world”. Suddenly I feel a bit sad because no matter how hard I work, the title of World’s Richest Baby will always remain out of reach.
4) Welsh Cake
Respect to the Cardiff Free Walking Tour because this is the only pay-what-you-wish tour I have ever been on that includes a snack. Even better, that snack is the warm and toasty wonder known as the Welsh Cake. They are made with typical cake ingredients like flour and butter, but don’t forget to sprinkle in some small currants and top them with sugar. The cakes need to be served warm so that they will dissolve into sugary crumbles in your mouth.
Cardiff has a legendary sweet tradition that I had previously been unfamiliar with. Apparently the author Roald Dahl lived here when he was a child. His father was a Norwegian who was involved with the shipping industry in Cardiff. Ioan read aloud part of Dahl’s autobiography, Boy, in which he describes his favorite sweet shop in the city. It sounded an awful lot like the descriptions of the candy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So basically Willy Wonka is a Welshman is the moral of this story.
5) Cardiff Bay
Our tour ended at shimmering Cardiff Bay. Ioan explained that this area used to be quite rundown, but it has been restored in recent years. Some people are displeased with the gentrification of this area because the surrounding housing is inconvenient and unaffordable. I don’t know how people can say that humanity’s differences are insurmountable when gentrification is exactly the same in every city on the entire planet.
The most famous person from pre-gentrified Cardiff Bay is probably Welsh singer Shirley Bassey. (For those of you who have trouble placing Ms. Bassey, give her most famous song a listen. It’s “Goldfinger”, people! Take the time to get an earful. No one will judge you for lip syncing along into your hairbrush in the privacy of your home.)
24 Hour Treasure: Wales Millennium Centre
The Wales Millennium Centre is one of the biggest landmarks on Cardiff Bay. (Other notable landmarks include the Welsh Assembly House, aka the Senedd, and the Doctor Who Experience.)
The Millennium Centre hosts performances of everything from opera to Coldplay. It is also the home of the Cardiff Bay Vistor Centre, where I got some very cute silver earrings that are shaped like harps. (I asked for earrings shaped like the anteater from the Bute Park wall, but they thought I was joking. Reader, I was NOT joking.)
There are words written in both English and Welsh on the outside of the Millenium Centre, to show the influence of both cultures and languages on Cardiff. In Welsh, the words are:
O FFWRNAIS AWEN
Please do not continue reading this blog until you have figured out how to pronounce these words. There will be a quiz at the end. You’ve been warned.
24 Hours in Cardiff
Afternoon: Cardiff Castle
Now that we’ve gotten an overview of fair Cardiff City, it’s time to get up close and personal with my favorite landmark from my 24 hours in Cardiff. Cardiff Castle was home to the Marquis of Bute, the original Man with the Midas Touch. I strongly recommend paying the approximately four pounds extra for your ticket to get a guided tour of the interior of Cardiff Castle. You’ll learn charming fun facts in the company of a gregarious Welsh man or woman. But first, lunch!
24 Hour Treasure: Octavo’s Bookshop and Cafe
If there’s one type of business I want to support with this blog, it is the bookstore. As convenient as my Kindle is, there’s something so magical about being able to curl up with a special book in an armchair and turn the real pages with your actual hands.
It’s almost as magical as a stone anteater on a park wall. And even better than a regular bookstore is one that serves food. That’s why I suggest stopping at Octavo’s Bookshop and Cafe for some authentic Welsh cuisine.
Since I only had 24 hours in Cardiff, I wanted all my food to be Welsh with a capital LL. So I ordered a Glamorgan sausage. Glamorgan sausages are actually meatless. They are made with cheese, leeks, and breadcrumbs. Basically they are fried cheese sticks, which is something I’m sure almost no one could dislike. Thanks Wales!
These Glamorgan sausages were made with Caerphilly cheese, which is a white Welsh cheese. Like basically everything good in Wales, it was originally made for coal miners. In fact, during that coal miner riot I mentioned, the miners were apparently demanding “Cheese and Bread” from their bosses. Talk about a people who have their priorities straight!
24 Hour Treat: Bakewell Flapjack
For dessert, I consumed the incredibly British Bakewell flapjack. In the United Kingdom, a flapjack is a sweet oat bar. (In the United States, where I come from, it’s a pancake.) A Bakewell tart is a delectable jam and frangipane concoction that Mary Berry is always talking about on the Great British Bake Off. So put jam and frangipane on an oatbar, and voila! You have a Franken-dessert known as a Bakewell flapjack. Thanks Wales!
Now that you’ve finished your cheese and dessert like a good Welsh person, it’s time to head on to Cardiff Castle for…
three fun facts about cardiff castle
1) who owns the castle?
A lot of people say that the landmarks of their hometown “belong to the people”. I personally believe that The Metropolitan Museum belongs to me, so I don’t know why the guards won’t let me spend the night in one of the Elizabethan beds. But Cardiff Castle literally belongs to the people of Cardiff. Parts of the castle date back to the 9th century, though the newer parts of the castle were built as recently as the 20th century.
Like pretty much everything else in Cardiff, Cardiff Castle used to belong to the preposterously wealthy Marquessesses of Bute. But when the 4th Marquis of Bute died, the Butes decided to give the castle to the city. So that means if you live or work in Cardiff, you get a “Key” to the castle and you can visit the castle any time you want for free.
I was hoping the key would be shiny and gold and have an anteater carved on it. But sadly it’s just a plastic card with a picture of a key. Sometimes I don’t like modern technology.
2) is the guided tour worth it?
I can’t stress enough how much you should take the guided tour of the interior of the castle. There are so many fun facts and stories I can’t squeeze into this blog post. But one of my favorites concerns that freaky looking face in the ceiling. He is positioned outside of the gentlemen’s smoking room.
Apparently he was meant to frighten any ladies and discourage them from entering the Welsh Man Cave. (I think in Welsh you spell Man Cave “Mllywn Cywve”.) Welsh ladies seem pretty tough to me, given that they had to deal with rioting coal miners and dragons on a daily basis. So I doubt this mask frightened them much.
On the more feminist side, in wealthy Welsh homes, the men and women had separate bedrooms. But the lady was given the double bed in her room, so that she could invite her husband to join her whenever she wished. That’s how you know it’s enthusiastic consent, gents!
3) what about world war ii?
During World War II, the 4th Marquess of Bute was lord of the castle. He allowed the sturdy medieval walls of the castle to be used as shelters for the people of Cardiff. Lucky you, Internet Stranger, because you can visit the same walls and experience a reenactment of what it would have been like to live in Cardiff during the Blitz.
As I started walking in the walls, I heard the voice of George VI, King of England during WWII and star of The King’s Speech, proclaim that we were now at war with Germany. I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I forgot to correct King George that I am an American, so I wasn’t going to get into the war for two more years.
I continued to walk through the walls, the only sound to accompany the dim light being the sound of air raid sirens, German bombs, and the pitter-patter of the feet of a French family following my footsteps.
At the end of the exhibit, the sound of Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” came over the loudspeaker. The French family and I stood in silence until Ms. Lynn finished singing and then we all burst into applause and I burst into tears. If there’s one thing that I hope will always be able to unite the Americans, British, and French, it’s being glad that we defeated Hitler.
24 Hours in Cardiff
Evening: Music at St. David’s Hall
I think I’ve made it clear just how important music is to Welsh culture. Of course you can’t miss the chance to take in a show when you are spending 24 hours in Cardiff! I was lucky enough to be in Cardiff during the Welsh Proms, which is the national classical music festival in Wales.
It is hosted at St David’s Hall, which is smaller and cozier than the Millennium Centre. Also it doesn’t have the word center in the name, so I don’t have to keep reminding myself to spell center the British way.
I can think of few things that would be more boring than live-blogging a classical music concert, so I won’t even try. I’ll just share that my favorite memory of the concert was sitting next to a Welsh woman who had brought her two sons. The boys appeared to be near the age of ten.
When the orchestra played “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, the boys developed a peculiar dance of silent hand signals that they performed in perfect unison throughout the piece. Any country that produces adolescent boys who are that into classical music is A-OK by me!
That’s 24 Hours in Cardiff!
What would you do with 24 hours in Cardiff? Are you ready to start booking your hotel in Cardiff right now? Which is native to Wales, the dragon or the anteater? And is anteater in Welsh spelled “llawyntywtyr”? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours in Cardiff. If you have another 24 hours in Cardiff, try this itinerary!