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The 5 Most Iconic Buildings in Cardiff

Article by: Fogo's Free Tours Cardiff

The Welsh capital may not be renowned for its architecture, yet perhaps it should be. Cardiff is full of beautiful structures from the medieval period, Victorian era and even the 21st century. 

The city has gained a reputation as an event hub, be it for rugby, football, concerts, festivals and even WWE in 2022. However, as a result, the wondrous landmarks of the city are overlooked by the visitors who flock to the city for these major occasions.  If one were to stop and look above the shop fronts, bars and restaurants, it would become clear quickly that central Cardiff and Cardiff Bay contain some architectural wonders. 

There are many buildings within the city that could have made this selection. Cardiff Castle, the most significant structure in the city, doesn't make the cut. Either does the Norwegian Church, Prince of Wales pub, Cardiff Market, the Temple of Peace or the old Queen St Chambers.

The Pierhead Building

The Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay

The historical centrepiece of Tiger Bay (now Cardiff Bay). The pierhead Building stands out from among the architectural splendour of the area due to its unique colour and style. 

Victorian gothic revival structures were a calling card of a man we refer to as the 3rd Marquess of Bute, the most influential personal in Cardiff history at least in terms of the appearance of the city today. 

The pierhead was built in 1897 after Lord Bute took a liking to the Terracotta Ruabon stone that was discovered in North Wales. It is a strong reflection of his personal tastes, featuring nature, animals, colour and plenty of interior grandeur. 

The tiled interior stairway of the Pierhead Building

This red building has dominated the waterfront of Cardiff for the last 125 years. It was initially an office building for the Bute Docks Company, or Cardiff Railway Company as it became known, that controlled Tiger Bay at the time. It later became the administrative office for the Port of Cardiff in 1947 and more recently has been a Welsh Government building before becoming a visitors centre. Now open again, the building is a joy to visit, containing visuals and artifacts about the history of Tiger Bay, the coal trade, Cardiff's docks and even the binnacle from Captain Robert Falcon Scott's Terra Nova ship. 

City Hall

Cardiff City Hall

From Cardiff Bay to Cardiff city centre, City Hall is the dominant structure of Cardiff’s renowned Civic Centre; a district of the city full of Edwardian Baroque buildings built from Portland stone in the early twentieth century. The National Museum, Temple of Peace and Cardiff University’s Main Building are also iconic, beautiful buildings in this part of town, but it is City Hall which serves as the centrepiece, that dominates the skyline of Cathays Park. 

While serving as the location where one would get a marriage license or birth certificate, City Hall is mostly associated with weddings and conferences these days. A perfect location for nuptials due to its stunning interior, exterior and abundance of nearby parks. 

The dominant features of the building include its marble hall on the first floor, with its Hall of Welsh Heroes featuring some of the country’s most famous historical figures like St. David and Owain Glyndwr. There is also the detailed friezes on the exterior detailing Poetry and Music, and Commerce and Industry, as well as the dramatic clock tower and dominant Welsh Dragon on its rooftop. 

The Exchange Hotel

The Exchange Hotel in Butetown

In the late nineteenth century Cardiff grew rapidly in size, population and wealth. As the docks grew and Cardiff became one of Britain’s foremost port cities more grand structures were required in order to conduct business. For the Welsh capital to be considered in the same bracket as the like of Liverpool and London, the Coal and Shipping Exchange was built in the 1880s. 

The building quickly became the world trade centre for coal, where the world’s price was set, where the world’s first ÂŁ1m business deal was supposedly made and it quickly became one of the busiest properties in the city, especially up to and during the First World War. 

The interior of The Exchange Hotel today

The building was built in the French Renaissance Revival style and its grand facade is imposing on first sight, dominating the smaller office buildings and former banks that line Mount Stuart Square around it. Otherwise the edifice is known for its grand hall, where wedding receptions take place today, which features a Wales flag painted on the ceiling between beautiful chandeliers, and its historic clock.

Today this old iconic creation is a hotel, called The Exchange. Despite being incomplete it is already one of the finest hotels in the city, capturing the integrity of the original structure.   

Principality Stadium

The Principality Stadium from the Taff River

Back to the city centre now, where we have the Principality Stadium, arguably the most famous building in Wales and the world’s foremost rugby venue as well. 

The arena was built in 1999 for the Rugby World Cup, of which the opening game and the final took place in the Welsh capital. Ever since then major sporting events have taken place in the stadium, from Six Nations and World Cup rugby matches, to English FA and League Cup finals in football, to most notably the Uefa Champions League Final in 2017. 

Even this summer, Ed Sheeran, Tom Jones, Stereophonics and Rammstein have visited the venue, Speedway and WWE attracted big crowds in the second half of the year. 

The Principality Stadium from Canton Bridge

Located between the Taff River and Westgate St, this part of the city has been the sporting hub of Cardiff since the nineteenth century, with stadiums evolving in the intervening period to reflect the times. While other sports have since moved on to the suburbs, the Principality, which is right in the heart of town, remains the home of rugby, Wales’ national sport. Whatever happens in the stadium tends to bring the capital of Wales to life like nothing else. People flock to the city and the streets heave with enthusiasm and anticipation due to either the high level sport or world famous act that is coming to town.

The stadium is marked by its size, central location, steep stands and their proximity to the pitch. It was modelled on the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam. It remains, at the time of writing, the biggest stadium in Europe with a retractable roof, and the second biggest of its kind in the world. 

Wales Millennium Centre

The Wales Millennium Centre during the Covid-19 pandemic

While the Pierhead may be the iconic historic centrepiece of Cardiff Bay, the Wales Millennium Centre is its modern architectural wonder. A reflection of the industrial heritage and natural landscape of Wales, the Millennium Centre combines Welsh slate and steel with copper colouring to reflect the slate mines and jagged cliff edges of Wales. 

Opened in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II, the Armadillo is already one of the most distinguished structures in Wales, as well as the country’s most visited building annually, with 1 million paying passing through the doors every year prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 in 2020. 

The Wales Millennium Centre from an angle

The original idea for the creation of a theatre came in the 1980s. That initial desire for an opera house with which to regenerate Cardiff Bay led to the creation of a multi-purpose venue. If ever a famous musical, ballet, play or opera comes to Wales it will inevitably end up in the Millennium Centre. The building contains three different theatres, including a 2,000 seater auditorium. Additionally there are music studios, dance halls and offices for numerous Welsh arts institutions. 

The Millennium Centre is also the most imposing building in Cardiff Bay, with its shell dominating the skyline and its letters lighting up the night sky. 

In conclusion, when visiting Cardiff, make sure to look up as you stroll around as the city contains a rich architectural past and present. Alternatively, join a tour with Fogo’s Free Tours in order to discover the history of Cardiff’s unique architectural wonders. 

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