Land of Dragons: The Best Ways to Experience Wales

Land of Dragons: The Best Ways to Experience Wales

Wales is an underrated country and definitely not England! It is a land of its own—characterized by rolling hills and daring coastlines, quaint and colorful towns, oodles of cute sheep, and a rich history dating back to Ancient Rome. Read below for scenic places to hike, charming towns, and historical sites.

Why Wales?

I will admit my bias before presenting you with this question. I studied abroad in Wales for a semester a few years ago. You could say I am one of those people who studied abroad and never stopped talking about it. Wales had never been on the map for me. It just happened to be one of the schools that partnered with my International Program. However, (warning: cliché ahead) Wales quickly became home for me. Lampeter, Wales has a population of less than 3,000 people including the University of Wales campus. I didn’t mind the size and became accustomed to the smell of sheep, nights at the Student Union (specifically the pub on campus), and exploring the shops along the narrow streets. Most of my bias for writing about Wales stems from the fact that I met two of my best friends there. I shared more in common with Sam and Lauren than just being in a new country. They both expressed a hunger for seeing new places and getting the most out of our time there. It’s four years later and we are still best friends who meet up once a year to travel together.

So, you ask yourself ‘Why Wales?’ For me Wales stands as the place that sparked my desire for traveling and as the place where I met my lifelong traveling companions. Now I am faced with the difficulty of properly sharing my love for this country with you all. By the end I hope that the answer to your question will be ‘Why NOT Wales?’

Study abroad friends four years later in Canada

Hiking the Welsh Coastline and Countryside

Whitesands Bay

This location is perfect for anyone who desires a scenic view of the Welsh coastline but doesn’t desire a strenuous hike (or a hike at all). It is a wide sandy beach on the Pembrokeshire Coast located only 15 minutes away from the historical town St. Davids. A small peninsula juts out from the beach where you can get an amazing view of the craggy rocks and Carn Llidi, a rocky hill overlooking the bay. The great thing about this beach is the convenient parking lot nearby. You don’t have to be in the best shape of your life or carve hours out of your day to enjoy this view and a nice day at the beach! Whitesands Bay is also known for having the best surfing beaches in Wales and being a great place to play with your dog!

Accommodations and Hiking in the Brecon Beacons

If you are looking for a cozy getaway in the Welsh countryside, then you can’t miss out on the Brecon Beacons National Park. In the Central Beacons lies a 19th century farmhouse called YHA Brecon Beacons less than 15 minutes away from the town Brecon. The hostel is situated off a main road and looks up at Pen y Fan—the highest mountain peak in South Wales (2,907 ft). The bus-line passes this hostel on the way to Brecon, but make sure to tell your bus driver ahead of time because it is not a major stop! And don’t worry, when you need to leave the hostel the bus will stop for you. The hostel has a cozy fireplace, comfortable rooms, and home-cooked meals (including a yummy Full Welsh Breakfast).

As for the mountains themselves, this peak get steep! This is a perfect hike for those who want more of a challenge. However, you do not have to go up all the way to enjoy beautiful views. The open landscape allows you to see in all directions, so the entire hike up is breathtaking.

Accommodations and Hiking the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Pembrokeshire—home of the Welsh Corgi and of course stunning coastal paths. The National Park is 612 square miles on the Western peninsula of Wales stretching from St Dogmaels to Amroth and was voted the 2nd best coastal destination by National Geographic. My friends and I started from the Northern trailhead in a small town called Poppit Sands and hiked to Newport. The YHA Poppit Sands offers comfortable and cheap accommodations and is right alongside the coastal path. You will walk straight up the hill and go through what seems like a blocked off farm, but is actually the entrance—don’t worry, there are signs!

The trail from Poppit Sands (or St Dogmaels) to Newport is the most challenging part of the coastal path. My friends and I were not prepared for the roughly 15-mile hike including many steep up and down hills. However, if you do your research unlike us then you will be more than prepared for the hike of a lifetime! This part of the coastal path provides remote and rugged scenery straight out of a postcard. Along the way you may even meet some grazing horses and sheep. Just make sure to pack plenty of food, water, and motivation, because there are no services between these two towns. If you still want to venture on this hike but need two days, then you can still book ahead at one of two small B&Bs in Molygrove—about .8 miles inland and halfway from Poppit Sands to Newport.

Part of the Pembrokeshire Coast; see also the featured image for this article

Picturesque Welsh Towns

Tenby

This is the perfect example of a Welsh harbor town. Tenby is characterized by its long beaches, colorful buildings, and surprisingly rich history. Take a walk through the cobbled streets, enjoy views of St. Catherine’s Island from the beach with ice cream in hand, or discover the various historical sites. Tenby is home to 13th century stone walls, a Merchant’s House from the Tudor period, 15th century St. Mary’s Church, and more. You can also take a small boat out to Caldey Island, where excavations discovered artifacts and remains from the Upper Paleolithic, Middle Stone Age, and Roman periods. Later a 6th century C.E. Celtic monastery was built, and the island continued to be used throughout the Medieval Ages. Of course, there are other of seaside towns that are worth visiting—Aberaeron, Aberystwyth, and Cardigan are a few amazing locations!

Castles, Cathedrals, and Colonizing Romans

Llansteffan (Clan-steffen)

Wales is home to some of the best castles in the U.K. Llansteffan is one of those castles that receives less traffic but is no less worthy. On the way up to the summit our guide told us to watch for slippery rocks and “horse apples” (yes, that does mean horse dung). Once you successfully avoid those obstacles, you have reached the beautiful ruins of Llansteffan Castle. The remote location overlooking River Tywi estuary in Carmarthen Bay adds to the eerie feeling you get when entering a medieval setting like this. The outer walls and some inner rooms of this 12th century fortress remain, but the castle was already described as ruins by the 14th century. I loved this castle for the simplicity of its remains and for the location, which allows you to truly imagine how grand it must have once been without the distraction of modern buildings.

Cardiff

Cardiff is the capital of Wales and a city you must visit for numerous reasons! As the largest city in Wales there are a ton of things to do like shopping and site seeing. I will be telling you about Cardiff castle, but you should follow the link below to discover more about this great city! The occupation of this area span from the Roman period all the way to 1947. Roman walls from the 1st c. C.E can still be seen today, but the major attractions are the Norman Keep, Castle Apartments, and the Clock Tower. The Keep was built in 1091 and sits on a tall mound of earth, easily standing out and providing a great view of Cardiff. The Castle Apartments were built in the late 1800s by the genius architect William Burges. The interior of the palace is truly the most stunning. Murals, intricately carved and gilded wood, and elaborate ceilings gives the feeling of walking through a medieval fantasy. The Clock Tower was also designed by William Burges and stands as a recognizable landmark in Cardiff. Just as elaborate as the Apartments, the clock tower features gilded statues on the outside and bedrooms within. There are fees to get into the castle, but the cost is worth it and fairly cheap!

https://www.visitwales.com/explore/south-wales/cardiff

Ceiling in the Arab Room at Cardiff Castle

St. David’s Cathedral

Think back a few paragraphs to Whitesands Bay. Only 15 minutes away from the coast is a town called St Davids, named after the Welsh bishop and patron saint of Wales, Saint David. According to legend Saint David was born around 500 C.E. and was one of the most influential clergymen in all of Wales during that period. The cathedral was dedicated and built in the latter part of the 6th century, remaining a testament to his accomplishments and to the beauty of monastic architecture. Today you can visit the cathedral itself and the ruins of the Bishop’s palace nearby.

Caerleon: Roman Ruins and Roman Legionary Museum

The Roman Empire in the 1st century C.E. extended from Spain to Syria and from Northern Africa to England. The Ancient Romans and their tyrannical rule are long gone now, but their ruins across Europe and the East will never let us forget how present they once were. Even in Wales you can find such reminders. In Caerleon survive the considerable remains of an amphitheater (much like the Colosseum in Rome, but smaller), baths, and barracks once occupied by the Roman legion. You can weave in and around these ancient buildings and also read the signs which provide information on the various archaeological sites. The signs are comic, being geared toward children and perfect for a school field trip! In fact, we happened upon a young school group running around and doing a scavenger hunt. I figured this would be the equivalent of my elementary school field trips to Monticello in Virginia, and the thought of school trips to an ancient Roman site was certainly amusing as an American who lives in a country much younger.

Once you have explored the archaeological sites, don’t forget to visit the Roman Legionary Museum! This is a one-story museum, which makes the visit less overwhelming in my opinion. The artifacts on display are also quite impressive, including the oldest writing in Wales in Latin, Roman armor, and mosaic floors. Fun fact: when conservationists transport mosaic floors they use animal glue and a thin sheet material in order to keep each individual tile together. Then they scrape the floor up and roll it up like a rug. They finally take it to where they want to house it, roll it back out, and pour hot water on it to take off the glue and sheet. This keeps the entire mosaic floor intact, allows people to see them in museums, and keeps them safe from the elements.

If you didn’t want to visit Wales or had never even heard of it before this article, I hope that now you have a few reasons to visit! The Welsh people are welcoming, kind, and have a great sense of humor. So, between the breathtaking places and the great company a trip to Wales will be one for the books. I would like to leave off with this humorous tea towel that I found it Tenby. I think this also sums up the country nicely. Please message me for anymore questions about Wales!

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