To many, Wales is the most mysterious region of the United Kingdom, and perhaps even of western Europe. England has its supercity, Scotland has its highlands, and Northern Ireland has Games of Thrones. However, Wales is sometimes overlooked or undervalued compared to its neighbours despite containing a fascinating history of its own, an array of unbelievable historical figures, some wacky traditions and legends, and, of course, even its own unique national language.
Wales was the first industrial nation in the world, and has given the world such things as passenger rail travel, mail-order shopping and even the equals (=) sign in mathematics, we wouldn’t have the names for penguins, Kelloggs Corn Flakes or Mount Everest if it wasn’t for Wales either, and believe it or not, a Welshman even landed in the Americas 300 years before Columbus!
Saying that, what other people are missing out on might just be to your benefit. We boast unique landscapes, from snow-capped peaks to roaming valleys, from open green plains to crystal clear lakes, and that’s just the interior of the country. After all, the majority of the Welsh people live along its coastline, which boasts some of the finest beaches not just in the UK but all of Europe, making it one of Europe’s top surf-spots, as well as containing beautiful cliff walks and bicycle routes. To top it all off, one can visit this idyllic country in relative peace and quiet, and at an affordable cost.
The capital of this unspoilt paradise for adventurers is, of course, Cardiff. Despite its origins going back 2,000 to Roman times, it is today one of the youngest capitals, as well as one the fastest growing capital cities, in western Europe. The Welsh capital combines Roman ruins with Norman invasion, as well as medieval and Victorian expansion with a modern edge. It is a city with 2,000 years of history, defined by formidable industrial success, all blended together to create a trendy, modern, medium-sized capital with plenty to offer people of all ages and backgrounds, including plenty of free walking tours in Cardiff to show you around.
Some of the unique features of Cardiff include:
Originating as a Roman fort almost 2,000 years ago, Cardiff wouldn’t exist if it was not for its castle. The entirety of Cardiff history is represented in one building; containing Roman remains, a Norman keep, medieval architecture and Victorian opulence, as well as World War 2 bunkers. No visit to Cardiff is complete without visiting the city’s most iconic building, which is one of only 600 castles that Wales has to offer. The prominence of Cardiff Castle as the centrepiece of the city makes it the fulcrum of our Cardiff Free Walking Tour.
The City of Arcades
No, not those types of arcades, but rather galleries and shopping arcades. Boasting 800 metres of arcades today, Cardiff contains more of these Victorian and Edwardian covered-streets than any other part of the UK, and they are still full of independent businesses. A stroll through these beautiful streets, and visiting their many tea rooms, cafes, boutique shops and kooky vintage and cultural stores, is a must on any visit to Cardiff.
While not formerly an arcade, Cardiff Market is the centrepiece of old-age Cardiff shopping. Sitting in the centre of the city since 1891, it remains the heartbeat of city life and a nod to the pre-modernisation of the city in the late twentieth century. It contains everything you could possibly imagine, from umbrellas and jewellery to food from around the world, but Welsh cakes remain the main event.
It also once served as the county jail, where the inmates enjoyed horrific conditions as they awaited potential execution. It is a location of such fascinating history that it features prominently in both our Cardiff Free Walking Tour and Cardiff Dark Side Free Walking Tour.
While Cardiff might not exist without its castle, it would not be a city without its port. Cardiff has traditionally been a relatively small town historically, especially before 1800. An explosion in coal production and mass coal exports to every corner of the earth across the nineteenth century led to the rapid rise of Cardiff in size, population and wealth. As a result, it became one of the biggest ports in the UK, and even the world, and Cardiff turned into one of the most diverse parts of the UK during this time, which is still reflected in its population today.
Today, the old Tiger Bay neighbourhood has evolved into the modern, cosmopolitan waterfront that we call Cardiff Bay, combining nineteenth architecture with 21st century regeneration and it has become the entertainment, political and cultural capital of Wales. It contains so much individuality and character of its own that we even have a Cardiff Bay Free Walking Tour in which to cover the neighbourhood appropriately.
Cardiff is a greener city than one tends to realise, containing more green space per head of population than any other city in the UK today. Whether it is the Champion Trees of Bute Park, the colours of Sophia Gardens, the picturesque lake of Roath Park or the war memorials of Alexandra Gardens, there is enough nature around the Welsh capital to satisfy locals and visitors alike.
To some, what defines the country of Wales is not its language or its politics, but its rugby. Wales is the only country in Europe where rugby is the national sport; growing in popularity during industrial times as the pastime of the working classes, and cementing its position as an expression of nationalistic fervour during the golden generation of Welsh rugby in the 1970s. The cathedral of Welsh rugby is the Principality Stadium, a 74,000 seater arena which sits in the heart of Cardiff city centre; Europe’s biggest stadium with a retractable roof, and host of the 1999 Rugby World Cup final, as well as the 2017 Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Juventus. Despite being built just over 20 years ago, it is the most iconic structure in the country today, and a rugby match at the stadium is what brings the city of Cardiff to life.
So, whether you live across the border in England, or are even travelling from further afield, keep in mind that there is more to the UK than meets the eye, and that there is a land of castles and dragons, with a fascinating history and culture of its own, lying just across the border to the west, and we at Fogo’s Free Tours would be delighted to welcome you on any of our free walking tours in Cardiff.
Article by: Eugene, the founder & guide at Fogo's Free Tours Cardiff & Swansea