LANDSCAPES IN WALES

It’s the landscapes in Wales that leave the strongest impression with visitors. We’ve travelled to every corner of the country, in some cases countless times over, and our guide to the many landscapes of Wales is a great introduction to the many places in Wales you should seek out.

The Wales landscape is hugely varied. Some are seduced by the Wales coast, from the rocks and sea stacks in the west of Wales to the stunning Gower beaches and the jaw-dropping beauty of Llanddwyn Island, the most beautiful of Welsh islands off Anglesey. Others are moved by the awe-inspiring Welsh mountains, from the Alpine peaks of Snowdonia to the high ridges of the Brecon Beacons.

Humankind has also changed some Welsh landscapes, in areas of Wales in some ways as compelling as the mountains of Wales. It’s also well worth seeking out some of these landscapes shaped by Welsh history, from the medieval Welsh castles to its World Heritage industrial sites.

We hope you enjoy our landscapes in Wales guide, and that it gives you a whole lot of ideas for things to do in Wales.

THE DEE VALLEY

The Dee Valley, one of the most beautiful places in North Wales, is the first Wales landscape many visitors see, as the A5, one of the main North Wales roads, passes along its most scenic stretch. There are enough things to do in Llangollen to warrant at least a couple of days’ stay, including its gentle Canal walks and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the third site in Wales to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The views from the long-distance Offa’s Dyke Path, which continues to the lovely Clwydian Range and north Wales coast, are unsurpassable. The conical hill with the scant ruins of Dinas Bran Castle dominates the surrounding landscape, looming high above the town. You also great views from Velvet Hill, or Coed Hyrddyn, just across the valley. Another way to enjoy this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is to relax on the Llangollen Steam Railway, which puffs its way ten miles (16 km ) westwards to Carrog and Corwen.   

LLANDDWYN ISLAND ANGLESEY

Next time we visit Wales the first place we’re heading for is Llanddwyn Island. This staggeringly beautiful corner of Wales is just about the only place on our Wales bucket list that Faye hasn’t seen, so another trip there is long overdue.

Llanddwyn Island is a small tidal island off the south-west coast of Anglesey. It’s possible to walk there along superlative Newborough Beach, another of ther best Anglesey beaches, with a view of the mountains of the Llŷn Peninsula off to the left. Persist with the 40-45 minute walk from Newborough beach car park and you’ll be rewarded with two of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, each with its own lighthouse. It’s one of the most romantic places in Wales, which just so happens to be named after St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers.

ANGLESEY NORTH COAST

The Anglesey coastline is among the most varied of any of the Welsh counties. The north Anglesey coast doesn’t pull in visitors like Rhosneigr or Newborough, but it has some of the best coast walks on the entire Wales Coast Path. It has long been used for industrial purposes, from copper mining in the Bronze Age to nuclear power generation until the 21st century. However, some parts of this northernmost section of Welsh coast are largely untouched by this, from the shingle bank and lagoon of Cemlyn Bay, a popular birdwatching destination, to the exhilarating coast path around the steep cliffs between the church at Llanbadrig to the atmospheric ruins of the china clay works next to the sea at Porth Llanlleiana. It’s quite a way off the beaten track, but it makes for one of the most satisfying days out in North Wales.

PARYS MOUNTAIN ANGLESEY

Many Wales history enthusiasts will tell you that Parys Mountain is one of the best places in Wales to visit. It’s an amazing industrial landscape, the site of what was, in the late 18th century, the largest copper mine in Europe. Copper ore could be found close to the surface, so the mine and the nearby town of Amlwch boomed for a while, before gradually retreating to relative quiet and obscurity.

There is a great walking trail around the Parys Mountain copper mine. It’s a remarkable sight, and one of the most unusual North Wales tourist attractions. The mountain has been excavated, scoured and scarred, its surface pitted with lakes, the strata of rocks and minerals exposed to reveal bright, vivid hues of copper, pink, black and more. It’s worth combining this walk (2 hours should be ample) with the Copper Kingdom exhibition on the harbor in Amlwch.

LLŶN PENINSULA

The Llŷn, also spelt Lleyn Peninsula, is the finger of land pointing westwards from Snowdonia, its boundary roughly a line drawn between Caernarfon to the north and Porthmadog to the south. I’ve always considered it one of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe, a mixture of mountains, rocky coastline and some of the best beaches in North Wales, and further afield.  

The Llŷn Peninsula beaches vary from wide-open, long sandy beaches from wild Dinas Dinlle in the north to the gentler Abererch and Black Rock Sands to the south, while. There are many smaller beaches and coves, including stunning Porth Iago and Porth Oer – the latter also known as Whistling Sands beach – and with the mountainous hinterland, this is where you’ll discover some of the most beautiful Wales scenery of all. The tallest mountain is Yr Eifl (often anglicized to The Rivals) and one of its subsidiary summits is home to Tre’r Ceiri, an Iron Age hillfort whose name means the Town of Giants, an astonishing location that’s among our top ten places to visit in Wales.

OGWEN VALLEY AND CWM IDWAL

For one of the best journeys through the mountains of Wales, follow the A5 from Betws-y-Coed through Capel Curig, resisting the extremely tempting urge to turn left there for Llanberis and Snowdon. Continue up the hill on the A5 towards Bangor. Soon, the Ogwen Valley opens out before you, and you’re in the middle of some of the best scenery in Europe.

There are four landscapes in one here, among some of the toughest mountains in Wales to climb. Up close, you see Tryfan for what it is, a sheer wall of rock that will have you scrambling on all fours well before the top. Just beyond the serene Llyn Ogwen lake, a path of stone slabs winds its way to the hanging valley of Cwm Idwal, which Charles Darwin visited before publishing On the Origin of Species. He realized that this mountain valley was once at the bottom of the sea, having seen fossils of seashells  on rocks there. He also came to understand that Cwm Idwal was created by the movement of glaciers, gouging out this corrie or cirque over long, slow millennia.

The U-shaped valley below that leads towards the North Wales coast is Nant Ffrancon. It was also carved out by glaciers. It’s one of the best places to go in Wales to admire its scenery, and also where we learned a great deal about how the world was formed. If you’re fit enough, the ascent through Devil’s Kitchen takes you to Glyder Fawr and Glyder Fach, the summit area a mass of rocks shattered by ice.

CONWY VALLEY

The Conwy Valley is the green, verdant heart of North Wales, which definitely has something to do with the rainfall that builds up from Snowdonia to the west. This lush valley is the natural boundary between north-east Wales and north-west Wales – the rolling green hills to the east give way to the much higher ridges of the Carneddau range of Snowdonia to the west.

It’s not just one of the most beautiful valleys in Wales, it’s also crammed with much of the best of Wales. Two places within 20 miles (30 km) of each other make it on to our Wales bucket list, and there are enough things to do in Betws-y-Coed, the gateway to Snowdonia, or the magnificent town of Conwy, to warrant a long stay. In between these two bases you’ll also find Bodnant, one of the best gardens in Wales, and Surf Snowdonia, an artificial lagoon with waves on tap.

SNOWDON

Image of the Snowdon massif in Snowdonia North Wales UK
Snowdon and its sister peaks above a cloud inversion

Mount Snowdon – Yr Wyddfa in Welsh – is the highest peak in Wales, and higher than any mountain in England as well. It’s also one of the most popular mountains in the UK, with summiters aided and abetted by the Snowdon Mountain Railway for over half the year. It’s one of the best days out in Wales, and if you pick a good day you may well see Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Lancashire coast and down to Mid Wales from this astounding vantage point. If you pick a not-so-good day, you’ll be able to see the person next to you – but conditions can change in an instant.

Snowdon is the highest point of a cluster of ridges and summits just to the south of Llanberis village. It can get crowded in summer, but it’s one of the outstanding things to see in Wales. I’ve always preferred to forsake the train, and there are six routes to the summit. The Llanberis Path runs parallel to the Railway and is the easiest but longest. The Miners Track starts from Pen-y-Pass car park, at the top of Llanberis Pass, starting out easy and steepening significantly in the second half of the climb. The option for most experienced walkers and climbers is the Snowdon Horseshoe, which includes the traverse of the knife-edge arête of Crib Goch.

BLAENAU FFESTINIOG

The slate quarrying town of Bleanau Ffestiniog could have been one of the most beautiful places in Wales, had it not been for the fact the mountains held vast reserves of prime Welsh slate. Two sets of mountains now surround the town – the steep Moelwyn range and the precarious-looking heaps of slate spoil that loom threateningly behind rows of traditional terraced houses. Yet there is a beauty to this place – bleak, stark, forbidding even. I’ll never forget seeing it the first time, the sun finding a gap in the clouds to illuminate the grey grimness for a few moments. The town has changed a lot over the last decade or so, the slate landscape now home to precipitous mountain-biking routes, with a network of zip wire routes overhead. It’s also the terminus of one of the best narrow-gaauge railways in Wales, the Ffestiniog Railway, and is one of the most fascinating places to visit in North Wales.

MAWDDACH ESTUARY

Of the many things to do in Barmouth, exploring the Mawddach estuary wins out for us. The Mawddach river runs just a few miles down from the forests of southern Snowdonia, finishing its short journey to the sea in some of the most captivating Wales scenery you’ll find.

The estuary is one of the best landscapes in Europe, with the rugged Rhinog mountains on one side and the massif of Cadair Idris on the other. The best places to appreciate it are from the Panorama Walk above Barmouth and the hill behind the car park at Llynnau Cregennen, which are among the most beautiful lakes in Europe.

YNYSLAS DUNES

The Welsh coast is home to some amazing dune systems, and Ynyslas is possibly the most impressive. ±It’s one of the most beautiful places to visit in Mid Wales, a vast dune system at the end of Borth beach, a few miles north of Aberystwyth.  We rate Ynyslas as one of the best places to go in Wales. It’s a wild place, giving tantalizing hints of what to expect as you travel north through Wales, with Aberdovey and the foothills of southern Snowdonia just across the Dovey estuary.

Ynyslas is also a National Nature Reserve, with a range of wonderful plants and wildlife to discover, including bee orchids, lizards, ringed plovers, butterflies and moths all flourish.

ELAN VALLEY

The Elan Valley has been one of the top Wales attractions ever since its creation to provide water for the city of Birmingham, across the border in England. A ten-mile (16 km) section of the River Elan, in the Cambrian Mountains just to the west of the Mid Wales town of Rhayader, was dammed, creating four lakes. The landscapes of the lakes vary from the steep amphitheatre of hills around Garreg-ddu Reservoir to the open hills behind Craig-Goch, the highest of the reservoirs. Although it’s partly a man-made landscape, the lakes, hills and stone dams and blend together seamlessly, far better than the concrete dam at nearby Claerwen Reservoir. It’s one of the best sights to see in Wales, and the 20-mile (30 km ) circuit from Rhayader is an easy drive around the roof of Wales.

CAMBRIAN MOUNTAINS

image of the Elan river in the remote CAmbriaN MOUNTAINS OF WALES UK
The Elan river is in the heart of the Cambrian Mountains

The Cambrian Mountains are the spine of Wales, the roof of Wales and the green desert of Wales all in one. They range roughly from Llyn Brianne reservoir ion the south to Lake Vyrnwy in the north. They are formed from sandstone and mudstone, so the mountains tend to be more rounded and grassy than Snowdonia, whose rocks are of volcanic origin.

The Cambrian Mountains includes the aforementioned Elan Valley, and some of the most scenic uplands in Wales, including the Abergwesyn Pass, Cwmystwyth valley, Llyn Clywedog reservoir and Plynlimon, one of the three traditional great mountains of Wales, from which the rivers Severn and Wye both rise. Most of the Cambrian Mountains are way off the beaten path, and nowhere near as popular with walkers as Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons.

SOUTH WALES VALLEYS

The Welsh Valleys – concentrated in south-east Wales – are one of the most intriguing regions of Great Britain. This is a very distinctive, even uniquely, Welsh landscape. Deep-sided valleys are lined with ribbons and rows of terraced housing, running for miles on end along the hillsides and close to the valley floor.

This urban landscape dates from the 19th and early 20th centuries when once-rural valleys were transformed because of the rich seams of coal that lay beneath them. The Blaenavon World Heritage Site and Rhondda Heritage Park both give an informative introduction to the time when coal dominated the Welsh economy. The Rhondda Fach valley, a few miles to the north of the Heritage Park, is one of the best places to see the Valleys landscape, especially around Tylorstown and Stanleytown. One of the easiest day trips from Cardiff by car, train or bus.

TYWI VALLEY

The Tywi or Towy Valley in the western county of Carmarthenshirehas long been one of my favourite places to go in Wales. The river begins its journey in the reservoir of Llyn Brianne, carving a route between steep hills before levelling out on its floodplain after the market town of Llandovery.

Its most picturesque stretch is between the towns of Llandeilo and Carmarthen, where it gently meanders below gentle rolling green hills and medieval Welsh castles at Dinefwr and Dryslwyn. It’s a sumptuous, verdant landscape, best seen from the vantage point at Paxton’s Tower, high above Dryslwyn and the nearby National Botanic Garden of Wales. It’s an area of gentle contours that is home to some of the beautiful Welsh scenery there is.  

ST DAVIDS PENINSULA

St Davids Wales is the smallest city in the UK, and it’s in one of the least likely settings for a city, far from anywhere of any size. This secluded corner of Wales is where its patron saint, St David, was born and where he set up a monastery in the 6th century AD. This later grew into St David’s Cathedral, the spiritual nexus of Welsh Christianity, and by far the country’s most impressive church.

Most things to do in St Davids Wales revolve around the coast, which is between 2 and 3 kilometres from the city centre. St Non’s Bay, just to the south of the city, is the place to start. It’s the supposed birthplace of St David, and named after his mother, St Non. It’s a place of extraordinary peace, with two chapels dedicated to her (one medieval and ruined, and one modern) above a stunning stretch of cliffs. Nearby, there are some of the best beaches in Pembrokeshire, including Whitesands Bay and Caerfai Bay. Solva, 3 miles (5 km) to the east, is one of the prettiest villages in Wales with a sublime estuary setting. The area is full of some of the best things to do Wales has, so forget the distance and get out there.

GOWER PENINSULA

The Gower peninsula, just to the west of the city of Swansea, was the first part of the UK to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1956. It is one of the best places to visit in Wales, and has been one of the most popular Wales holiday destinations for decades.

Most visitors are drawn there by the varied multitude of Gower beaches, including sublime Rhossili Bay and Three Cliffs Bay. It’s one of the most beautiful regions of Wales, the Gower coast packed with majestic cliffs, heathland and saltmarsh with ancient burial chambers, medieval churches and castles to entice you. It’s one of the most amazing places to see in Wales, absolutely unmissable.   

BLACK MOUNTAIN

Many of you will recognise the Black Mountain area of Wales, even if the name might be unfamiliar. It is the location of the famous Top Gear Road, the A4069, which climbs out of the town of Brynaman and crosses the remote moorland of this westernmost part of the Brecon Beacons National Park. It’s a seemingly barren, empty, desolate place, but explore off the road and you’ll also discover one of the most dramatic castles in Wales, Carreg Cennen Castle, and one of its most beautiful lakes, Llyn y Fan Fach, in the shadow of the Carmarthen Fans.

BRECON BEACONS

The central Brecon Beacons are a distinct landscape from the Black Mountain and, confusingly, the Black Mountains to the east. They are a series of sandstone ridges culminating in the highest mountain in southern Britain, Pen y Fan, at 886 metres (2,907 feet). If you approach from the south, along the main A470 road, the rise is almost imperceptible – it’s only from the north that Pen y Fan appears what it is, a tall, glowering peak that towers above the surrounding landscape. The walk up from the ever-popular Pont ar Daf car park is fairly easy – if you want a big workout, approach it from Upper Neuadd reservoir instead, and enjoy the much longer haul to the summit via Cribyn instead.

USK VALLEY

image of the Usk valley in South Wales UK
An aerial view of the Usk Valley from near Pen y Fan

The gorgeous Usk Valley is one of the most beautiful places to visit in South Wales, particularly the section between Brecon and Abergavenny. The river begins its journey on the ±Black Mountain, flowing eastwards below the northern escarpment of the Brecon Beacons. The Brecon to Abergavenny stretch is a delight, a bucolic landscape of steep hills and green patchwork fields.

Crickhowell, with its medieval stone bridge, is one of the best places to see the river. It’s also worth visiting the Blorenge mountain above Abergavenny, which backs onto the Blaenavon industrial landscape. From here, you can appreciate the contrast between industrialised and rural south Wales, with the recognizable outline of Sugar Loaf across the valley.

LOWER WYE VALLEY

The Lower Wye Valley – the section between Monmouth and Chepstow – is where Wales sightseeing – and indeed British tourism – began in the 18th century. It started with boat trips from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow, taking visitors through the gorgeous wooded valley, passing the romantic ruin of 13th century Tintern Abbey church towards the end of the journey. This coincided with a growth in appreciation of the Picturesque, and visitors would sketch or paint scenes along the river.

It’s still one of the best Wales places to visit, and apart from Tintern there are plenty of other things to see along the way, including formidable Chepstow Castle. Don’t limit your exploration of the Wye Valley – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – to the Welsh side. The spectacular viewpoint of Symonds Yat is a few miles upstream from Monmouth, and there are plenty of things to do in Hereford and the surrounding county, Herefordshire,  to warrant a few days there. It’s beautiful when the trees are in full bloom n spring and summer, and it’s one of the best places to visit in Wales in autumn when the forests go golden and brown in October and early November and morning mists linger along the river.

CARDIFF BAY

At the height of the coal boom, Cardiff Bay – then known as Tiger Bay – was the biggest coal exporting port in the world. Much of Cardiff, the capital of Wales, was built on coal, but by the 1950s the industry was in decline, and the port followed suit. Development started in the 1980s and continued for around 20 years. The biggest change was the construction of the Barrage, turning the tidal mudflats into a huge lake at a stroke.

Some Cardiff landmarks like the red brick Pierhead building remain, but most of what is now there is relatively new. The Senedd is home to the Welsh Government, and you can normally visit the atrium area. The most impressive addition is the Wales Millennium Centre, by far the largest cultural centre in Wales and one of the top attractions in Wales. The Bay is a bit of a hotch-potch but if you visit Cardiff there’s no way I would contemplate skipping it. Get a table outside one of the restaurants on Mermaid Quay on a summer evening – it’s a lovely spot to end the day.

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