The gorgeous town of Llangollen is the first many visitors see of Wales. And what an introduction. Llangollen is at the heart of the scenic Dee Valley, surrounded by dramatic Welsh mountains. There’s even the obligatory Welsh castle on top of one of them, overlooking the town.
There are so many great things to do in Llangollen and the surrounding area. It’s in the middle of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley) and there are some great outdoor Llangollen activities. These range from gentle Llangollen Canal boat trips to kayaking the rapids of the River Dee. There are also some historic Llangollen attractions in and around the town. Oh yes, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site four miles (6 km) down the valley.
I’ve loved Llangollen since the day I set foot there, and think it’s right up there with the best places to visit in Wales. It’s a great base for a few days’ stay in North Wales, with the peaks of the Snowdonia National Park an hour away to the west. We hope you enjoy our guide to what to do in Llangollen.
- 1 WHERE IS LLANGOLLEN?
- 2 GETTING TO LLANGOLLEN
- 3 LLANGOLLEN HISTORY
- 4 OUR FAVOURITE THINGS TO DO IN LLANGOLLEN – PLAS NEWYDD, LLANGOLLEN
- 5 CASTELL DINAS BRAN
- 6 VALLE CRUCIS ABBEY
- 7 VELVET HILL WALK
- 8 LLANGOLLEN BRIDGE
- 9 LLANGOLLEN RAILWAY
- 10 LLANGOLLEN CANAL
- 11 PONTCYSYLLTE AQUEDUCT
- 12 OFFA’S DYKE PATH
- 13 ONWARDS TO SNOWDONIA
- 14 LLANGOLLEN HOTELS
- 15 LLANGOLLEN RESTAURANTS
WHERE IS LLANGOLLEN?
Llangollen is in the north-east of Wales in the United Kingdom. It’s set in the beautiful Dee Valley, about seven miles (12 km) from the English border. The nearest English city is Chester, 24 miles (39 km) away. It’s also ten miles (16 km) from the town of Wrexham.
GETTING TO LLANGOLLEN
Llangollen is on the main A5 London to Holyhead road. If you’re approaching by car from the English Midlands or anywhere south of there, you’ll almost certainly travel along this road.
If you’re approaching from Liverpool, Manchester, Chester or the north of England the A539 which runs along the opposite (north) side of the Dee Valley may be a better option.
Llangollen isn’t on the national rail network, so if you’re relying on public transport, you’ll need to get a train to Wrexham General and walk to the nearby bus station from there. The number 5 service runs every half hour except Sundays, when it runs every two hours.
There is also a long-distance bus, the T3 Traws Cambria route, which runs from Barmouth via Dolgellau, Bala and Corwen.
Llangollen’s history goes back to at least the 6th century AD, when St Collen, a Celtic monk, founded a church there. The church in the town still bears his name.
In medieval times it was part of the Welsh kingdom of Powys, and its princes built a castle, Dinas Bran, in the 13th century.
The town is probably best known worldwide as the home of the Llangollen Eisteddfod. It started in 1947 and has been held in the second week of July ever since.
OUR FAVOURITE THINGS TO DO IN LLANGOLLEN – PLAS NEWYDD, LLANGOLLEN
Plas Newydd (Welsh for ‘new mansion’ or ‘new hall’ is a wonderful historic house just outside Llangollen town centre.
It’s best known as the home of two Irish women, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’. They eloped together, eventually settling in North Wales. They both wanted to avoid unwanted marriage, and their relationship has aroused great debate. Were they lovers? Or was this a ‘romantic friendship’? Their diaries possibly suggest the latter.
Their lifestyle choice was disapproved of by many in convention-bound 18th century society. However, in time they became more widely accepted, and received visits from the likes of lord Byron, Shelley, William Wordsworth, Sir Walter Scott and the Duke of Wellington.
They took over a cottage and gradually enlarged and modified it: the intricate wood-carved interior was their doing. The black and white exterior was the responsibility of a subsequent owner.
Plas Newydd is now a local museum with a focus on the Ladies and their life. It’s set in lovely gardens; go back far enough and you’ll see the romantic ruin of Dinas Bran Castle on the hill behind.
CASTELL DINAS BRAN
This ruined Llangollen castle is now a romantic hilltop ruin, and it’s hard to imagine it in its heyday. It sits on the top of a steep conical hill 30-40 minutes’ walk above the town. Alternatively, you can drive up the single-track road from the town and walk the last few minutes to the summit.
In spite of its ruined and plundered state, it’s a very prominent landmark which dominates views of the Dee Valley from the east. The climb to the top of the hill is one of the best Llangollen things to do, and the views form the remains of the castle are sublime.
The castle dates back to the 13th century, partly occupying the site of an Iron Age hillfort. This would have predated the castle by 1,500 years or more.
It was probably built in the 1260s by Gruffydd II ap Madog,a prince of the kingdom of Powys Fadog. It’s believed that it was abandoned around 1277 in the face of the threat of capture by English forces. It was partly burned by the Welsh occupiers, and it may never have been used for military purposes again. It has therefore been a romantic ruin for most of its existence.
VALLE CRUCIS ABBEY
Llangollen is home to more historic North Wales points of interest, with another romantic ruin just below Dinas Bran.
Valle Crucis Abbey is a ruined church and abbey complex just to the north of Llangollen town. It was founded in 1201, and was the last Cistercian monastery in Wales. Its name – the Vale of the Cross – comes from nearby 9th century Eliseg’s Pillar, which once supported a stone cross.
It fell into disrepair after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537.
If you’re driving, it’s off the A542 Horseshoe Pass road to Ruthin, on the right, a mile or so out of Llangollen.
VELVET HILL WALK
One of the best walks around Llangollen starts from Valle Crucis car park. Velvet hill, or Coed Hyrddyn, is the steep hill across the A542 from the Abbey. It’s a steep straight climb up the hill, which leads to a wonderful ridge walk with outstanding panoramic views, especially across to Llantysilio Mountain and the Dee Valley.
The fine 14th century stone arched Llangollen Bridge is one of the traditional Seven Wonders of Wales. It’s a venerable, sturdy old bridge, crossing the Dee at one of its most turbulent locations. The river rapids are a hugely impressive sight, especially if the river is in full spate after rainfall.
The Llangollen Steam Railway is a wonderful heritage attraction. It’s a great nostalgia trip for railway enthusiasts, and one of the best things to do in North Wales with kids.
Unusually for North wales, the trains run on standard gauge tracks – the others all operate on narrow gauge railways. There’s a great view of the station from the parapet of Llangollen Bridge, with passengers boarding steam trains.
The railway uses part of the discontinued Ruabon to Barmouth line, running ten miles (16 km) up the scenic Dee Valley from Llangollen to the town of Corwen, stopping at three stations en route. Carrog station has a lovely station café. And if you want to get the best shot of the steam trains, it’s from just outside Berwyn station, the first stop if you’re departing from Llangollen.
Variable timetables operate through the year, with reduced services over the winter months. One of the most popular services is the Llangollen Santa train, which runs in December.
Llangollen Canal trips are another way to enjoy the glorious North Wales countryside. It was part of the 18th century Ellesmere Canal, and later became part of the Shropshire Union Canal in 1846.
The Canal was used extensively until World War I, but fell into decline afterwards. Closure was considered at one point, but it was kept open because it could still be used as a means of water supply. This was collected from the pool formed by the weir at Horseshoe Falls, two miles (3km) to the west of Llangollen Wharf.
The Canal was partly built by Thomas Telford, the master civil engineer known as the ‘Colossus of Roads’. He was also responsible for the A5 which passes along the southern side of the Dee Valley and on to Holyhead. We’ll be returning to him in the following section.
Llangollen boat trips start from the Wharf to the north of the town. Cross Llangollen Bridge and then the A539 road and you’re there. Some of the Llangollen canal boats are exquisitely made, with some wonderfully ornate decorations.
One of the best ways to see the Canal is on one of the Llangollen horse drawn boats. You’re pulled along at a sedate 4 miles (6 km) per hour, the maximum speed limit on the water.
Otherwise, the Llangollen Canal Walk is also a delight.
The Llangollen Canal was the third site in Wales to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The focal point of the site is Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which carries the Canal across the Dee Valley.
Pontcysyllte means ‘bridge of Cysyllte’, an old township in the Llangollen area. It coincidentally translates as ‘connecting bridge’, and that’s it exactly what it does, joining two sections of canal across the valley from each other. It’s over 300 metres long, and stands 38 metres (126 feet) above the valley.
It was the work of Thomas Telford, and is a remarkable feat of engineering. It’s built from stone and a trough of cast iron, and was completed in 1805.
It’s always open, and an amazing experience. You can enjoy it on Pontcysyllte Aqueduct boat trips departing from the wharf at Trevor, on the northern side. If you don’t have a head for heights, stay on the towpath side of the boat. There’s a sheer drop on the other side. There’s always the option of Llangollen Canal boat hire, and you can navigate a boat across the famous Llangollen aqueduct yourself.
If you prefer to keep your feet on terra firma you can do the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct walk instead. The railing is well over a metre high.
The car park, facilities and most of the interpretation boards are on the Trevor side. The Telford Inn does good pub meals, and the Pontcysyllte Tea Room is across the road from there. However, you can also make your way across from Froncysyllte, on the southern side.
OFFA’S DYKE PATH
Offa’s Dyke is an 8th century earthwork marking the western border of the English kingdom of Mercia. The Offa’s Dyke National Trail is a long-distance footpath following its route from Chepstow in South Wales to Prestatyn on the North Wales coast.
One of the best sections of the walk – and indeed, one of the best walks in Wales – is the stretch above Llangollen. It climbs above Dinas Bran and along Trevor Rocks, the escarpment with awe-inspiring views west across the countryside. It continues past a lookout at World’s End, down to Llandegla before climbing to the Clwydian Range, a wonderful string of mountains and hillforts overlooking the Vale of Clwyd and its main town, Ruthin.
ONWARDS TO SNOWDONIA
Getting to Snowdonia from Llangollen is straightforward. The A5 continues to Betws-y-Coed, the unofficial gateway to Snowdonia. Betws is around an hour’s drive from Llangollen. Most of the Snowdonia mountains are around half an hour beyond Betws-y-Coed.
There are some excellent hotels in Llangollen and around, and as a frequent visitor to the area I’ve stayed in several.
One of the better places to stay in Llangollen is the Bryn Howel Hotel. It’s out in the countryside 3 miles (5km) from the town. It’s a 3-star hotel with a mixture of luxury and modern standard rooms. The setting is perfect, in extensive grounds overlooking the Canal and valley.
The Wild Pheasant Hotel is another great choice, a 19th century building with a contemporary luxury spa. Its location is very good, on Berwyn Road a short walk from the town centre.
I also strongly recommend Gales of Llangollen. They started out as a wine bar in the 1970s, and gone from a wine bar with a few rooms to a wine bar with a few rooms and nearby cottages as well. I’ve only stayed in the rooms in the Georgian townhouse, which are beautifully furnished and decorated. The location couldn’t be more central, very close to the Bridge and river.
The best Llangollen B&B I’ve stayed in is Hillcrest Guest House. The rooms are very comfortable, as is the lounge area, and the breakfast of a very high standard.
The Corn Mill (Y Felin Ŷd in Welsh) is located right above the swirling rapids of the River Dee. It has a varied gastropub-style menu and the food has always been very good. I keep saying things about the settings of places in Llangollen, but each one is true. You can dine in the old 18th century building or in the glass conservatory overlooking the river. You can also enjoy a drink on the open air terrace above the rapids, but don’t go out there for an intimate conversation, as you will almost certainly not be able to hear a single word.
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.