I always thought of Cardiff – or Caerdydd as they say in Welsh – as a ‘transfer city’ : the necessary stop in between two destinations that you never truly spend any time in. Until I had to catch a plane in Cardiff and had a few hours to kill to go out and explore… I found myself absolutely loving the city! Cardiff is historic and modern all at once, highly cosmopolitan and very much alive. Here’s what you can do in one afternoon.
Who has Cardiff on their Bucket List? No one, if you ask me… I imagined it to be a rather dull, grey and industrial capital city but boy was I mistaken! The compact city centre that you can easily explore on foot, the quality shopping and food everywhere, the green parklands that I only caught a glimpse of and the innovative architecture alongside buildings of historic value, it all truly amazed me. I spent a very fun afternoon visiting Cardiff Castle and stepping back in time, capturing some memorable views of the city, strolling around the versatile shopping district and thoroughly enjoying Welsh food.
1. Visit Cardiff Castle
You can’t miss Cardiff Castle. It’s right there in the city centre, looking lordly and magnificent. The castle was rebuilt about four times in 2.000 years, from a Roman fort to a Welsh Victorian Camelot. Many powerful families inhabited the castle over the centuries. It even belonged to the richest man in the world for a while, John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute… The castle is now owned by the city. I didn’t have the time to have a look inside the castle mansion but from what I’ve heard the opulent interiors with marble touches, delicate murals and elaborate wood carvings are definitely worth the visit…
2. Stroll around Queen Street and the Victorian Arcades
From the Castle quarter, it’s only a short walk to the main Cardiff shopping area with impressive shopping streets like High Street, Duke Street and St. Mary Street. Queen Street is the city’s main shopping boulevard and great for a stroll since it’s car-free. Many musicians and street artists perform here. Also, Cardiff is nicknamed ‘city of Arcades’: it has the highest concentration of indoor shopping arcades in any British city! The shopping streets are linked via these curly arcades in different architectural styles, like the three storey Castle Arcade, High Street Arcade and Duke Street Arcade. They all have a charming village appeal with multicolored shop facades, classic or trendy boutiques and cool cafés, restaurants and delicacy stores, some more exclusive than others. The oldest arcade is the Royal Arcade, built in 1858. Pretty impressive if you think about it: some of the shops have been around for over 100 years like Spillers Records, Cardiff’s most famous shop. More recently, empty store spaces are sometimes converted into art galleries and even cinemas. Funny anecdote: our guide said it used to be prohibited to whistle in the arcades. Criminals used to be on the lookout on both sides of the arcade and they would whistle if they spotted any police entering the arcades, to warn their accomplice inside to get the hell away!
3. Discover Welsh specialties at Cardiff Market
And then there’s Cardiff Market, a two story high Victorian market place with a glass roof. Ignore the touristy shops with the cheap souvenirs and go straight to the culinary stands: this is the place to be if you want to try out some local products like fish, cheese, bread, Welsh cakes or fruits. People have been trading here since the 1700’s!
4. Have lunch at Madame Fromage
Looking for an afternoon lunch spot? Here’s a place I highly recommend: Madame Fromage in the Castle Arcade. The specialist shop/restaurant is great to enjoy cheese platters (they have over 150 different cheeses) and traditional Welsh and Breton homemade food. The food is delicious (try the Welsh rarebit: melted cheese on toasted bread ‘the Madame Fromage way’) and the setting makes it all the worthwhile.
One afternoon isn’t nearly enough to experience Cardiff… I never got to the bay area, the Millennium Centre art venue, the glass Welsh Parliament Building, the Castle parklands, the Millennium Rugby Stadium…. You need a full two days at least to explore most of the city. Cardiff, I’ll be back!