Historic Cardiff

The British Isles are so packed with rich historical and cultural gems that it’s often difficult to know where to begin exploring. Instead of being overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of London, you could try starting a visit to the UK in a smaller and more manageable city such as Cardiff and just take things from there. Smaller metropolitan centres such as Cardiff should not be seen as backwaters, however, as they include some of the greatest cities in Europe. The ready availability of cheap tickets to Cardiff Airport means that you can book a city break or something longer with minimal fuss and be there in a matter of hours.

Cardiff has had an eventful past since its foundation by the Romans, who constructed a fort here as a part of their drive to suppress the wild inhabitants and introduce them to the delights of toga parties and circuses. The settlement was given a royal charter in the 13th century, and its vast castle bears witness to its importance as a fortress protecting England from incursions from the west. Cardiff Port dates from the early 19th century. By 1913 it had become the busiest coal-exporting port in the world, its supplies provided by the famous Welsh valleys with their deep traditions and unique mining culture and heritage. Much of the grandiose architecture you can see in Cardiff today was built on the wealth generated by the coal industry. Cardiff became the first capital of Wales as recently as 1955, and although its coal industry is largely gone it is still a vibrant centre for administration and commerce, and there is plenty of interest here for visitors.

There are essentially two focal points to the city. The centre is dominated by Victorian and Edwardian streets laid out in the usual neat grid and interspersed with attractive formal parks and gardens. You’ll also find a busy covered market as well as Neo-Classical civic buildings and the magnificent Neo-Gothic castle here. The Royal Arcade is a symbol of the city, built in 1856 and lined with boutique outlets.

The second area which is now being rapidly developed, as in so many former maritime cities, is the docklands stretch. With the development of a marina and waterfront, this area which was formerly dominated by heavy industry has become an alternative leisure centre for Cardiff and is packed with attractive cafe-bars, clubs and restaurants.

Attractions you should try not to miss include the Welsh Industrial Maritime Museum which has exhibits exploring the links between industry and transport in Wales. Backed up with interactive features and a wealth of contemporary memorabilia, this is not as dull as it sounds.

The nearby National Museum of Wales was opened in 1927 and has a great collection of paintings, especially of the impressionists from Renoir to Van Gogh, with an attractive coloured portico and cafe – very handy for a quick lunch.

The centrepiece of Cardiff is however its fabulous castle. Several powerful families have occupied it over a period of more than seven centuries and they’ve all made their own additions to its architecture. The result is a palimpsest of styles superimposed on one another, making it one of the most stunning fortresses in Europe, packed with treasures from all periods of its history.

Include Cardiff in a UK break and you’re assured of a warm welcome and a fascinating experience to get your holiday off to a tremendous start.

David Elliott is a freelance writer who loves to travel, especially in Europe and Turkey. He’s spent most of his adult life in a state of restless excitement but recently decided to settle in North London. He gets away whenever he can to immerse himself in foreign cultures and lap up the history of great cities.

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