The smallest of mainland Britain’s component countries, Wales offers many wonderful reasons to visit. The south includes cosmopolitan Cardiff, famous for its magnificent castle and a good base from which to begin exploring the rest of the country. With its splendid shopping arcades and many well-reserved historic buildings, it’s a city with plenty of places to visit and things to do.When you’re ready to venture further afield, you’ll find an abundance of attractions and sightseeing opportunities, including more than 400 castles and fortifications, countless gardens, breathtaking scenery, and a network of heritage railways that connects much of the country. However you decide to spend your time in Wales, rest assured you’re in good hands; the Welsh are some of the most interesting, easygoing people you’ll find anywhere. To learn more about the top things to do in this lovely country, be sure to review our list of the top tourist attractions in Wales.
1. Snowdonia National Park
Think of Wales, and you’ll likely think of Snowdonia (Eryri), the beautiful range of mountains and hills located in the county of Gwynedd. Consisting of 14 majestic peaks over 3,000 feet high-the most famous being the 3,546-foot Snowdon, the summit of which is accessible by train-Snowdonia can be seen as far away as Porthmadog on the west coast. The region remains one of the most popular vacation destinations in the UK, attracting some four million visitors a year.
When you’re here, it’s easy to see why the area has featured so heavily in local legends, including those based around King Arthur, who locals will insist was Welsh.
Snowdonia National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri) is also one of the most popular hiking destinations in Britain, boasting more than 1,479 miles of market trails. Climbing is also popular here, as are mountain biking and horse riding.
However you get here, the views from the summit are incredible, and extend from the coast all the way to Bala Lake.
2. Brecon Beacons National Park
Brecon Beacons National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Bannau Brycheiniog) encompasses one of the most beautiful parts of Wales. This hiker’s paradise is bordered by two quite different sets of Black Mountains. The first, to the west, is the source of the River Usk, while to the east is the range that’s famous for its wild ponies.
Most of the mountains in this 520-square-mile park are higher than 1,000 feet-with many in excess of 2,000 feet-and are named after the red sandstone that causes them to resemble the beacons of light once used to warn of invaders.
Be sure to explore the park’s many caves and waterfalls, especially Henrhyd Fallsat Coelbren. Just outside the park, near Abergavenny, you can tour a coal mine at Big Pit National Coal Museum.
Other popular activities and things to do in the Brecon Beacons include mountain biking, horse riding, canoeing, sailing, fishing, climbing, and camping.
3. Cardiff Castle & National Museum Cardiff
Perhaps the most photographic of Wales’ many castles, Cardiff Castle is a must-visit. Boasting still-intact sections constructed more than 1,000 years ago this splendidly preserved castle can take a few hours to explore. Be sure to allow plenty of time to do so in your Cardiff sightseeing itinerary.
Highlights include the State Apartments, notable for its informative displays relating to life in the castle over the ages, as well as the attractive old chapel. Other notable features include the well-preserved Banqueting Hall with its medieval murals and elaborate fireplace. A variety of guided tour options are available, along with an informative audio guide that can be picked up from the visitor center.
If there’s still time after your castle adventure, try to squeeze in a visit to the National Museum Cardiff. Undoubtedly topping the list of the best things to do for free in Cardiff, this major attraction houses impressive collections focusing on archeology, zoology, and botany, as well as the arts.
The National Museum of Art is housed in the same building, and features a number of works by some of the world’s most important artists, including Old Masters and Welsh painters.
4. Devil's Bridge and the Hafod Estate
Located 12 miles from the seaside town of Aberystwyth, Devil’s Bridge is actually three bridges spectacularly stacked atop each other, with the oldest dating from the 11th century and the newest built in 1901. They span the Rheidol Gorge, where the River Mynach plunges 300 feet into the valley far below.
Be sure to follow the Falls Nature Trail to the bottom. It’s a bit of a climb back up-especially those steep, slippery steps of Jacob’s Ladder, the segment leading to the oldest bridge-but the views are incredible.
Afterward, visit Hafod Estate, 200 acres of lovingly restored woodlands and 18th-century gardens once considered the finest in Britain. While the manor house is long gone, visitors can enjoy pleasant hikes along well-marked trails past waterfalls, ancient trees, and the estate’s old, walled formal gardens. And if you’re looking for an idyllic cottage vacation, the wonderful old Hawthorn Cottage allows guests an unforgettable experience.
5. Wales by Rail
Wales was once famous for its mining operations, in particular the mining of slate used for the roofing still so common here. While the majority of these mines and quarries have closed, many of the narrow-gauge railways used to shift goods (and later, Victorian-era tourists) around the country have been restored and now provide scenic excursions.
Today, more than 10 heritage railway lines reach some of the country’s most popular landmarks, including mountains, seaside towns, and castles. Many of the bigger lines, such as the 14 mile-long Ffestiniog Railway running through Snowdonia National Park, offer unique train driving courses and volunteer opportunities to add to the experience.
6. Caernarfon Castle
Built by King Edward I in the 13th century as a seat for the first Prince of Wales, Caernarfon Castle (Castell Caernarfon) is one of the largest such fortifications in the country. With its 13 towers and two gates, this massive castle is recognized as one of the most impressive-and the best-preserved-medieval fortresses in Europe. Occupying the site of an even older Norman castle, Caernarfon Castle dominates the waters of the River Seiont and the Menai Strait on one side, and is protected by a moat on the other.
The castle’s royal heritage continues to this day, and in 1969 it was the scene of Prince Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales.
Also of interest is the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Museum (admission included), notable for the 14 Victoria Crosses on display.
7. Conwy & Conwy Castle
Located on the north coast of Wales, just a short distance from Manchester, the small town of Conwy offers something for everyone: a stunning castle, medieval architecture, and plenty of great shopping.
The best views of Conwy Castle (Castell Conwy) and River Conwy, with its suspension bridge designed by Thomas Telford, are from the 13th-century town walls built by King Edward I to keep the Welsh at bay. If visiting in June (and with kids in tow), check ahead for news of the castle’s annual Pirate Weekend.
The National Trust’s Aberconwy House is Conwy’s only surviving 14th-century merchant’s house and one of the first buildings constructed inside the town walls. Other interesting homes are the Elizabethan Plas Mawr, and the Smallest House in Great Britain.
8. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park
Surrounded by water on three sides, Wales has more than its fair share of dramatic coastline. Some of the most imposing are found along the coast of the Pembrokeshire Peninsula, which juts out into the Irish Sea, much of it falling within the boundaries of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Arfordir Penfro).
You can best explore this magnificent scenery on foot along the dramatic Pembrokeshire Coast National Trail, finding villages like the picturesque little resort of Tenby, still partially enclosed by its medieval walls.
Other Pembrokeshire coast highlights are Pembroke Castle, St. David’s Cathedral(in the town of the same name), and idyllic fishing harbors such as Laugharne, where Welsh poet Dylan Thomas lived for much of his life. His boathouse home above the bay is now a museum.
As elsewhere in Wales, adventurous travelers can find unique places to stay, including classic old farm cottages, gypsy caravans, or vintage railcars.
Portmeirion is a beautiful hotel resort and visitor attraction on the coast of Snowdonia National Park in Gwynedd, North Wales. Built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975, Portmeirion was designed to resemble a quaint Italian fishing village. Visitors staying overnight get the whole place to themselves once the gates are closed, when they can explore its beautiful gardens, fountains, church, and the coastal paths of the lower village.
This stunning attraction has been the location for numerous films and TV programs, including the 1960s cult show, The Prisoner, and should definitely be included on your Wales sightseeing itinerary. Guided tours are available, and the resort’s restaurants come highly recommended. A variety of shops are also located here, some selling the famous Portmeirion pottery.
10. National Slate Museum & the Big Pit
Wales is a nation built in mining and, as such, has done a remarkable job of preserving its mining past. Of the many things to do related to this rich history, none can quite match the experience of visiting one of these mines in person.
Located in Caernarfon, the fascinating National Slate Museum offers an in-depth look at the workings of a 19th-century slate quarry, along with accompanying machinery and workshops, including a huge still-working waterwheel. A great deal of attention is also placed on the conditions for workers and their families, along with live demonstrations of the mining process.
Situated within Breacon Becons, the Big Pit National Coal Museum offers a glimpse into the nation’s other most-mined material, and the lives of those who worked here. Highlights of a visit include exploring the well-preserved old buildings and homes on the site.
Blaenavon is also home to an old ironworks that’s worth exploring, home to the “Big Pit” blast furnaces and foundries. Also worth a visit, Rhondda Heritage Park actually allows visitors to descend to “pit bottom” in an old miners’ elevator. These Black Gold Experience Underground Tours are even led by former coalminers, adding to the authenticity of the experience. There’s also a replica village to explore, portraying everyday life for mining families.
11. Bodnant Garden
A National Trust property, Bodnant Garden is one of the most beautiful gardens in Britain, created over many years by generations of the McLaren family and brought to its present heights by the 2nd Lord Aberconway.
Highlights of the spectacular gardens are the grand formal terraces, spectacular views across the River Conwy to Snowdonia, and the famous Laburnum Arch. This curved walk of about 50 yards is covered with laburnum, whose abundant, long blossoms cover it in cascades of yellow in late May and early June.
Spring is also when the Dell, a deep valley where trees tower above streams, is abloom with rhododendrons. But the wide variety of flowering plants assures that the gardens are filled with color throughout the whole season. Among the trees are 40 UK Champion Trees, judged the best examples of their kind in Britain. The elegant Georgian Pin Mill was moved here from Gloucestershire. A tearoom is located on-site, and comes highly recommended.
12. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Llangollen Canal
It took 10 years to design and build the aqueduct that carries the Llangollen Canal across the wide valley of the River Dee in north east Wales. Even today it’s considered a significant feat of civil engineering and is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The 18-arched bridge is built of stone and cast iron, its arches soaring 100 feet above the river, and is more than 1,000 feet in length. In 1801, when the aqueduct was built, canals were an important means of transport for manufactured goods and raw materials, and aqueducts were a more efficient means of carrying them across deep valleys than staircases of canal locks.
This one is the longest navigable aqueduct in Great Britain and the highest in the world. A narrow walkway with a railing allows pedestrians to cross the bridge, but it’s far more fun to cross it on a canal boat. It’s not for those with a fear of heights, however, as your boat sits high on the shallow canal, and it’s a long way down to the river.
For a less vertigo-inducing ride, horse-drawn canal boats take tourists on a tree-shaded stretch of the canal from nearby Llangollen Wharf. A fun alternative is to take a guided kayak tour across the aqueduct.
Separated from mainland Wales by the mile-wide Menai Strait-spanned by the Menai Suspension Bridge (1818)-the Isle of Anglesey is home to a number of quaint, small fishing villages sprinkled along its more than 100 miles of attractive coastline. Along with its sandy beaches and landmarks such as South Stack Lighthouse, the island’s mild climate makes it popular for day trippers and campers alike.
The smaller Holy Island, linked to Anglesey by bridge, is a popular holiday resort with two promenades (one of them 1.5 miles-long). Tiny Salt Island offers great views and a chance for some bird watching. Finally, one of the world’s most famous photo ops is on the railway platforms of the town with the world’s longest place name: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandysiliogogogoch.
Dubbed the “Queen of the Welsh Resorts,” Llandudno is the largest seaside resort town in Wales. Located on the north coast with views across the Irish Sea, this picture-perfect tourist destination lies between the Welsh mainland and the Great Orme, a peninsula inhabited since the Stone Age.
The town’s unique promenade is free of the usual seaside shops and cafés, which were wisely placed behind the seafront to ensure Victorian visitors a more peaceful experience.
The best views of the town and its surrounds are from the Great Orme, easily accessible by a heritage tramway. Well connected by rail and road, Llandudno is a good base for touring Wales’ spectacular North Coast.