The fortress town of Conwy in Wales is one of the most beautiful towns in the UK. It’s a small town tucked in near the estuary of the Conwy river, barely a mile from the North Wales coast and on the edge of the stunning Snowdonia National Park.
Its magnificent Castle and town walls were built by English king Edward I to keep the Welsh in check, and they’re part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with his other castles in Caernarfon, Beaumaris and Harlech.
There are so many things to do in Conwy besides the Castle. The town has a wealth of historic treasures and it’s on the edge of some of the most beautiful scenery in the UK, with the mountains of Snowdonia and the greener, gentler contours of the Conwy Valley close by.
You could probably see Conwy in a day but this is somewhere to savour for at least two nights. It’s wonderful exploring it after the crowds have gone for the day, when it’s at its most atmospheric.
Conwy Castle is one of the most majestic castles you will ever see, its eight towers proudly guarding the river below. It was designed and built by the master military architect, James of St George, from 1283 to 1287, for Edward I. Conwy was part of his Iron Ring of castles intended to subjugate the native Welsh, whom he had fought over much of the previous decade.
Visiting Conwy Castle is an unforgettable experience, especially the wall walk, which takes you around the perimeter wall, with access to all the towers and turrets via spiral stone staircases. You also get amazing views down the river, where you can see the Great Orme headland a few miles away. From the top of the towers, you can also make out some of the walls of Deganwy Castle, which was an important Welsh castle before Edward I intervened.
Conwy Castle prices are very reasonable, with adult entry less than £10. You can also buy a combined ticket, including the Elizabethan Plas Mawr townhouse.
Conwy Town Walls
Conwy has the most complete set of town walls in Wales – indeed, one of the best in Europe – and they are as compelling to visit as the Castle.
They are connected to the south-west side of the castle, and form a circuit over 1 km (3/4 mile) in length. There are over twenty towers in total, and you can walk along the top of some of the walls for great views over the town, castle and estuary.
Plas Mawr – the Welsh for ‘large mansion’ – is a magnificent 16th century townhouse on Conwy High Street.
It’s one of the best-preserved houses from the Elizabethan era in the UK, imposing from the outside and beautiful within. Inside, the plasterwork is stunning, especially in the hall. The interior is decorated to appear as it would have looked around 1665, and the Renaissance period gardens have also been restored.
Aberconwy House, on the bottom corner of the High Street, is around 200 years older than Plas Mawr. It’s a beautifully preserved 14th century half-timbered house on the corner of High Street, and it’s under the care of the National Trust.
It’s now run as a small museum with rooms decorated in different period styles, with a large gift shop downstairs.
If you approach Conwy from across the river, you’ll notice at the last moment that there are not one, but three bridges linking the town with the other side.
The middle of the three is the Conwy Suspension Bridge, built by the “Colossus of Roads”, Thomas Telford. It’s a beautiful bridge with castellated towers added so that it was sympathetic to Conwy Castle behind. It was built between 1822 and 1826, around the same time as his Menai Suspension Bridge which linked mainland Wales to the island of Anglesey.
The Suspension Bridge is one of the loveliest Conwy attractions, and is also run by the National Trust. You can visit on a combined ticket with Aberconwy House for just £5.70. It’s now just a footbridge, and it’s amazing to think that this small bridge once carried the main road from Chester to Bangor: the road bridge to the right was only added in the 1950s.
Conwy’s other bridge is Robert Stephenson’s Conwy Railway Bridge, which was built between 1846 and 1849. Again, the castellated towers help it blend in beautifully with the Castle.
Conwy Quay is the town hub, where everyone comes to chill out for a while, especially on summer evenings.
The jetties are full of activity, from boat trips up and down the river to fishermen bringing in their catch. You can also visit Conwy Mussels, who also sell other fresh fish, on the quayside. They only collect the mussels between September and April, allowing them to breed and grow through spring and summer.
There’s also the Liverpool Arms, one of the most popular Conwy pubs, and the Quay is a great place to sit outside on a warm summer’s evening with a drink. There are also a couple of fish and chip shops around the corner. Add in the fantastic view of the Castle, and it’s a wonderful place to spend an evening.
Smallest House in Great Britain
Conwy Quay is also home to one of the most unusual places to visit in UK – the Smallest House in Great Britain.
This is capsule living, 400 years before the Japanese invented it. It would probably be called a microhome nowadays: it is 3.05 by 1.8 metres in area, with a downstairs living room (a chair and a fire), and a tiny upstairs bedroom.
It only takes a few minutes to see it, and don’t forget to duck.
The Conwy Valley is one of the most beautiful areas of Wales, with a patchwork of rolling green hills most of the way down to the popular tourist village of Betws-y-Coed. Beyond this, the scenery becomes noticeably more rugged.
The east side of the Conwy Valley is the gentler one, and is home to one of the most popular attractions in North Wales, Bodnant Garden. It’s owned and run by the National Trust, and is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful gardens in Wales. We’ve only visited in autumn, when the woodland turns stunning shades of gold, red and brown.
However, the best time to visit Bodnant is towards the end of spring, in late May and early June, when the bright yellow laburnum arch is in full flower. At the same time, the garden walks are ablaze with gorgeous rich reds and pinks from the camellias and rhododendrons in full bloom.
If you’d like to try something a little more strenuous, you can go try out the waves at Surf Snowdonia. It’s an inland artificial lagoon, with mechanically generated waves. I have several friends in the area who would regularly make the trek from the English border to Hell’s Mouth beach, two hours away near the western tip of the Llŷn Peninsula, for good wave action. Now they don’t have to drive anywhere near as far, and they love it.
The west side of the valley reveals more and more as you go off the beaten path. Caerhun, once a remote Roman outpost, has a lovely medieval church. The tiny village of Rowen has the wonderful Groes Inn, which has for many years been one of the best places to eat in North Wales, and nearby there’s a great walk to the ancient burial chamber known as Maen y Bardd, which translates as ‘the Stone of the Poet’.
There are also several other medieval churches in the area, far from any potential congregation. One of our favourites is Llangelynnin Old Church, a few miles up in the hills from Conwy. The sign above the doorway is one of the more unusual ones we’ve encountered on our travels.
You can also explore the valley by train. The Conwy Valley line runs from Llandudno down to the slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, high up in the mountains, and is one of the most scenic rail journeys in Britain. The train runs every three hours in each direction, giving outstanding views of the mountains much of the way. Watch out for the glimpse of Dolwyddelan Castle, in the shadow of the mighty Moel Siabod mountain, on the right between Dolwyddelan and Roman Bridge stations as you travel south.
It seems inconceivable now, but the tiny, narrow Sychnant Pass road above Conwy was once part of the main Holyhead to London route. Now it’s almost a forgotten secret: it’s only a few miles long, but it’s one of the most scenic drives in Wales. The minor road gradually climbs out of Conwy towards Conwy Mountain, before descending towards the village of Dwygyfylchi and the coast.
The best time of year to do this drive is in the second half of summer, between mid-July and early September, when the heather is in bloom. You can park near the top of the Pass and walk towards Conwy Mountain, where you can enjoy wonderful views across Conwy Bay towards Anglesey in one direction and Llandudno in the other.
Snowdonia National Park
Conwy is right on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park (Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri). It’s very close to the Carneddau range which stretch from there to Bangor, running parallel to the coast. This is among the quietest, least explored parts of the National Park.
The mountains rise gradually from the western side of the Conwy Valley, and there are many rewarding walks in the area, including some of the best hikes in Snowdonia.
The B5106 road runs south from Conwy, along the western side of the valley. At the village of Trefriw, best known for its traditional Woollen Mill, a precipitously steep minor road climbs into the mountains, taking you to two of the best hidden lakes in Snowdonia – Llyn Crafnant and Llyn Geirionnydd. One of our favourite things to do in Snowdonia is to drive up to Crafnant with a picnic and then head off on a walk.
If you’re looking to explore the heart of Snowdonia, including Snowdon and the other most popular mountains, Conwy is about an hour’s drive away. Betws-y-Coed and Capel Curig are both better places to stay in Snowdonia, within easy reach of the mountains.
Llandudno is one of the best seaside resorts in the UK. It’s only 4 miles (6 km) from Conwy, has two long beaches and sits in the shadow of the Great Orme headland.
The town grew rapidly in the 19th century, and has many reminders of its Victorian heyday. It’s by far the most elegant town on the North Wales coast, with a fine sweep of beautiful hotels along the North Shore seafront.
One of the best things to do in Llandudno is to visit the Victorian pier, a lovely ornate structure with shops, cafes and an amusement arcade. The Great Orme is well worth a visit as well – the headland has the best views of Llandudno, and you can get up there on foot, by cable car or vintage tram.
Hotels in Conwy
There is some wonderful accommodation in Conwy and the surrounding area, from 5-star luxury to a great youth hostel on the hill just outside the town walls.
The Castle Hotel Conwy is the pick of the places to stay in Conwy town centre. It’s a third of the way up the High Street, with several cafes and restaurants, the Quay and the Castle all very close by. It’s a former coaching inn dating from the 1830s, and some of the rooms have period details while others have more modern décor.
The Castlebank Hotel is a small hotel just outside the Conwy town walls, so not much more than a five-minute walk from anywhere within the town. It’s a beautiful Victorian townhouse with nine rooms. I know people who have returned time after time, going back something like fifteen years, which is a pretty strong recommendation.
The 5-star Groes Inn in the nearby village of Rowen has some wonderful rooms with views of the fields and countryside, and they’ve just added a few extra rooms in a recent revamp. It’s a wonderful cosy country inn dating back to 1573 – so it’s one of the oldest licensed pubs in Wales.
The Sychnant Pass Country House is high above Conwy, close to the beautiful Sychnant Pass. It’s a small, intimate 5-star hotel with just twelve bedrooms, each named after a Welsh hymn tune. It’s only a few minutes’ drive from Conwy but feels right out in the country and makes for a wonderful get-away-from-it-all bolthole in the mountains.
The hotel with the best view of Conwy is across the river in the village of Deganwy. The Quay Hotel & Spa is a 4-star hotel on the riverfront with an in-house restaurant. We haven’t stayed there ourselves but know many who have. The one thing they’ve all said is that the rooms with views of the river or Conwy Castle are the best.
The YHA’s Conwy youth hostel is a brilliant budget option, just up the hill from the town just off Sychnant Pass Road – about a ten-minute walk from Conwy Castle. Dorm beds start at a bargain £15, and private rooms are a steal at £35 and upwards.
Places to Eat in Conwy
The Castle Hotel is also one of the best places to eat in Conwy. Its restaurant is the Shakespeare Room, and you can order from the starter, main or ‘grazing’ menus. The latter is a selection of tapas, and last time I ate there I ended up exceeding my quota of three somewhat.
Alfredo’s is an Italian restaurant that has been run by the same family for 60 years. I’ve eaten there three or four times over the years, and mostly the food has been very good, especially the pasta and steak.
The Groes Inn is known across North Wales as one of the best Conwy restaurants. It’s a few miles south of Conwy in the lovely village of Rowen. The inn has been open since 1573, and it’s a great cosy, traditional Welsh pub with a good, varied British pub menu. It’s very popular, so book ahead.
Another restaurant worth driving from Conwy to find is the Austrian Restaurant in the village of Dwygyfylchi, at the bottom of the Sychnant Pass. They serve the Austrian classics including various schnitzels, goulash and schweinsbraten, pork loin seasoned with caraway and garlic. Booking is advisable.
How to Get to Conwy
Getting to Conwy is so much easier than in days gone by, when it was a terrible traffic bottleneck, The A55 tunnel underneath the Conwy river, laid in the late 1980s, sorted all that out.
By car, you’ll be approaching from either the A55 or A470. The A55 North Wales Expressway runs from the English border, parallel to the coast and up to Holyhead. You can turn off at Llandudno Junction, across the river from Conwy, on the A546, then take the A547 to Conwy, the first exit at the next roundabout. Alternatively, you can take the exit on the west side of the tunnel.
By train, Conwy has a station, but you should be aware that not all services stop there. The faster services tend to miss Conwy out, running straight through, whereas the slower, ‘all stations’ trains do tend to stop there. I’ve never quite worked that one out, especially as the station is right in the middle of the town, but anyway…..
All trains do stop at Llandudno Junction, the mainline station and hub a mile or so across the river. It’s easy enough to get to Conwy from there, with the #5 and X5 buses regularly stopping outside the station. These run from Llandudno to Bangor and on to Caernarfon, and are one of the most useful bus services in North Wales.
David Angel is a British writer and photographer who has been travelling and photographing the world for over 25 years. His work is regularly featured in worldwide media including the BBC, the Guardian, the Times and the Sunday Times.