Portmeirion is the ultimate fantasy and folly. It’s a small private village on the North Wales coast designed by architect Clough Williams Ellis. He designed some buildings and ‘rescued’ others from around the UK, and sought to create a place where people could take pleasure in architecture. The result is a gorgeous Italianate village overlooking a sublime estuary. So what are the best things to do in Portmeirion?
There’s so much to see around Portmeirion village, with amazing coastline and a vast tidal beach to explore. The wooded peninsula also harbours some wonderful wild gardens. You don’t have to settle for a day visit – you can also stay in Portmeirion, one of the most unique and unusual holiday destinations in Europe. It becomes even more magical when the crowds have left for the day and you have this amazing place to yourself.
Seeing Portmeirion is one of the best things to do in North Wales. It’s somewhere that has captured the imagination of people all over the world. It has been the setting for 1960s British TV series The Prisoner, and now hosts the annual Festival No 6, one of the best music festivals in Europe, each September.
So for all Portmeirion things to do, read on.
- 1 HISTORY OF PORTMEIRION
- 2 WHERE IS PORTMEIRION?
- 3 THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN PORTMEIRION? STAY AT PORTMEIRION!
- 4 ADMIRE THE PORTMEIRION ARCHITECTURE
- 5 THE PIAZZA
- 6 PORTMEIRION BEACH
- 7 THE GWYLLT
- 8 PORTMEIRION POTTERY
- 9 FESTIVAL No 6 PORTMEIRION
- 10 THE PRISONER TV SERIES AT PORTMEIRION
- 11 PORTMEIRION RESTAURANTS
- 12 VISIT PORTMEIRION IN DIFFERENT SEASONS
- 13 THE VIEW FROM LLANDECWYN AT SUNSET
- 14 GETTING TO PORTMEIRION
HISTORY OF PORTMEIRION
It was the lifelong dream of architect Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978) to assemble a group of buildings for his own pleasure. He knew that for it to be viable it would need to be for the pleasure of others too, possibly as a holiday retreat. He wanted his project to be on an island, but gave up on this idea after visiting over twenty without finding anywhere suitable.
He eventually found the present site of Portmeirion, then known as Aber Iâ (Welsh for ‘estuary of ice’). The main house – now the main Portmeirion hotel – was a dilapidated mansion, and the mock-castle on the hill was also neglected. He bought these and the surrounding land, and went to work.
Williams-Ellis was inspired by the Italian coastal village of Portofino. He renamed the site, with ‘Port’ signifying its coastal location and ‘Meirion’ signifying the local county, Meirionnydd or Merionethshire.
It was built in two phases. The first was from the time of acquisition in 1925 until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. This included the Italianate campanile, the most prominent landmark in Portmeirion.
The second phase was from 1954 until 1976. During this time Williams-Ellis rescued several buildings and parts of buildings which otherwise would have been demolished. These include the ceiling of the Town Hall and the Neoclassical Bristol Colonnade, a former bath-house façade which occupies a prominent position on the Piazza.
WHERE IS PORTMEIRION?
Portmeirion is situated in the county of Gwynedd, in North West Wales. The nearest villages are Penrhyndeudraeth and Minffordd, both around 2 km away. The nearest town is Porthmadog, 5 km (3 miles) away.
It’s also at the eastern end of the Llŷn Peninsula, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty with some of the best beaches and coastline in the UK.
Portmeirion is also on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. It’s only a half-hour drive from there to some of the paths to Snowdon itself. Betws-y-Coed, one of the most popular places to stay in Snowdonia, is a 40-45-minute drive away.
It’s also very close to the Cambrian Coast of northern Mid Wales. The main line at Minffordd is connected to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Harlech Castle and the lovely coastal resort of Barmouth. So if you’re staying in Portmeirion or nearby there are lots of opportunities for North Wales day trips.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN PORTMEIRION? STAY AT PORTMEIRION!
Although it’s one of the best places to visit in Wales, Portmeirion has never been overcrowded in all the times I’ve been there. That said, it’s wonderful to have a place almost to yourself. The one way to make this happen is to stay in Portmeirion village itself.
The riverside Hotel Portmeirion is the obvious place to stay, but that’s not the only accommodation in Portmeirion. Indeed, much of Portmeirion is given over to accommodation. Many of the houses and cottages in the village are self-catering places to stay. There is a great range of 4-star rooms and suites around the village, and several properties are given over to self-catering rentals.
Hotel Portmeirion is one of the best places to stay in North Wales, with an incomparable estuary setting. It has fourteen luxury rooms, including the spacious Peacock Suite with its four-poster bed.
The rooms at Castell Deudraeth are a touch more contemporary in styling. They’re wonderfully capacious and comfortable, and are decorated with fine artworks by the likes of Susan Williams-Ellis and famous welsh artist Sir Kyffin Williams.
ADMIRE THE PORTMEIRION ARCHITECTURE
Portmeirion is often referred to as an Italianate village. The Campanile, or Bell Tower, is the most obviously Italian-style building. Clough Williams-Ellis sought to evoke the Mediterranean, and the various pastel colours of the buildings contribute a lot towards this.
Portmeirion is also full of many other architectural elements. Castell Deudraeth is a Gothic Revival castle. The Town Hall ceiling is Jacobean (early 17th century, rescued from long-lost Emral Hall in North East Wales). Some of the houses are Georgian (late 18th and early 19th century) or Palladian in style. Similarly, the Bristol Colonnade and Gloriette are Neoclassical in design. Add in a Japanese pagoda and a sheltering Buddha statue and you have a wonderfully eclectic mix.
Portmeirion is also full of little tricks. When I stayed over, I went to visit someone who was staying in the Unicorn cottage. It looks very grand from the outside, but inside, it’s a tiny bungalow. The Amis Reunis boat moored outside the Hotel won’t be going anywhere anytime soon – it’s made of concrete.
The Piazza is a great place to relax and unwind for a while. It’s the central square of the village, and there are plenty of benches to sit on and rest, perhaps enjoying a takeaway coffee or a picnic. There’s also a small pool which is great for kids. They can have a paddle and splash, or cool off if the weather’s hot.
Portmeirion beach is tidal. At low tide a vast expanse of sand is revealed, and you can walk out a very long way. Ironically, its Welsh name is Traeth Bach, which means “Little Beach’.
One option is to walk along the Portmeirion coast, around the corner of the peninsula to reveal the view of Porthmadog town and Moel Y Gest mountain behind. Some also walk out towards the island across the estuary, Ynys Gifftan. I’ve never done this myself, and it’s one area you have to be very careful with the tides.
At high tide, it’s submerged completely. So there’s always something else to do – including stand-up paddleboarding along the river.
The Gwyllt – or Wilderness – is the wooded area above the village and along the peninsula. Paths lead from the village to viewpoints over the village including the Gazebo. They also continue through the woods, and in spring you can see the collection of rhododendrons and camellias in full flower. There’s also a small Japanese Garden with an ornate red bridge over its lake. In summer a tourist train takes visitors around parts of the Gwyllt.
Portmeirion Pottery was founded and designed by Susan Williams-Ellis, the daughter of architect Sir Clough. Some of the designs – especially the Portmeirion Botanic Garden range – were inspired by some of the flowers and plants growing in the Gwyllt.
The pottery is not actually made at Portmeirion, but there is a shop in the village, and you can also order Portmeirion products online.
FESTIVAL No 6 PORTMEIRION
Portmeirion has played host to the quirky Festival No 6 for the last seven years. This festival at Portmeirion has attracted up to 10,000 visitors each year, and it’s a wonderfully intimate setting for such an event.
It’s a music and arts festival, with bands playing, comedy gigs, poetry readings and talks. It has attracted many outstanding artists down the years, including New Order, My Bloody Valentine, Grace Jones and the Pet Shop Boys.
There are no plans for a Festival No 6 in 2019. The organisers have put it on hiatus for the time being, looking to make some changes before returning in the future. Keep an eye on the website for any announcements.
THE PRISONER TV SERIES AT PORTMEIRION
Portmeirion is also widely known as the setting for The Prisoner TV show from the 1960s. It’s a Kafka-esque spy and psychodrama, in which the main character (only referred to as Number 6) is captured and imprisoned in a seaside village. The house where Number 6 lived is now a shop selling The Prisoner memorabilia.
The series is still hugely influential fifty years after it was made, and each year the village still hosts a convention devoted to it.
There are three main restaurants in Portmeirion. The Dining Room at the Hotel is the place to go for fine dining, where you can opt for the tasting menu or the set table d’hôte menu. I’ve tried and can strongly recommend both. The setting is splendid – the Dining Room has fine Art Deco styling, and the views out over the Dwyryd estuary are unforgettable.
Whether you’re staying at Portmeirion or just visiting for the day, I also recommend the Brasserie restaurant at Castell Deudraeth. This is the 19th century mock castle you pass on the way into the village.
Back in the village, there’s also a 1950s style diner, an Italian restaurant, two cafes and an Italian gelateria. These are all open during visitor hours only.
VISIT PORTMEIRION IN DIFFERENT SEASONS
I’ve been lucky to have visited Portmeirion in all four seasons. Spring is my favourite time, as the daffodils sprout in the fresh sunny March weather. After these fade away, the rhododendrons and camellias bloom in the Gwyllt by late May, a magnificent sight.
During summer the village is resplendent with colour, and this is when it’s at its most popular. It’s one of the best things to do in Snowdonia and North Wales, and many make their way down on day trips to Portmeirion.
Autumn in Wales is often wet and windy, but if you chance upon a sunny day during the season, Portmeirion and its woodland is breathtaking.
Winter can be a great time to visit, especially on a crisp, cold day. There are very few visitors around, and it becomes more evocative and atmospheric.
The Portmeirion weather can sometimes be inclement (this is the UK, after all). But even in the greyest grim weather its brightness shines through. If anything the dark skies make the vivid colours seem even brighter, standing proudly against whatever the weather can muster.
THE VIEW FROM LLANDECWYN AT SUNSET
Portmeirion looks spectacular from every vantage point I know of. It’s on the Dwyryd estuary, which also happens to be one of the best sunset spots at Wales, especially at low tide when the water flows out through many shallow channels.
The place to go to see the sunset is the church at Llandecwyn, high above the estuary. The best way to get there is to take the local short cut. In the centre of Penrhyndeudraeth, take the right turn at the crossroads. Continue downhill and over the bridge. When you reach the junction with the A496, take the uphill road just off to the left in front of you. It’s a narrow, twisting single track road. Keep going until you reach the church. The image above gives you an idea of what to expect. It was shot in springtime.
GETTING TO PORTMEIRION
Portmeirion is 3 miles (5km) from the North Wales coastal town of Porthmadog.
If you’re driving and using sat nav, the postcode is LL48 6ER. You’ll need to be on the main A487 road at some point; this road has been re-routed in the last few years to bypass Porthmadog.
If travelling from the Bangor and Caernarfon direction, you need to turn right third exit) at the Minffordd roundabout. Portmeirion is signposted here. Continue past the two railway stations on your right. It’s the second left turn from here, with a 2 km drive down to the car park.
If you’re travelling from the opposite (Llandudno, Betws-y-Coed, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Dolgellau) direction, you’ll pass through the village of Penrhyndeudraeth. You’ll then reach the same Minffordd roundabout, and leave the A487, continuing straight ahead (second exit). Again, continue past the two stations and take the second left thereafter.
If you’re travelling by train to Portmeirion, you need to alight at one of the two Minffordd stations. One is a National Rail mainline station, the other is on the narrow gauge and heritage Ffestiniog Railway. Minffordd is the nearest train station to Portmeirion. Turn right out of either station onto the main road, and follow the same directions as for drivers. It’s a 25-minute walk from Minffordd to Portmeirion car park and entrance.
Visitors travelling by bus can catch a direct bus to the village from Porthmadog (the stop outside the Australia pub) between March and October. If you’re visiting over the winter months, you can catch the 3B, X3, 39 and T2 from the same stop. Alight at the Minffordd High Street stop.
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.