So what should be on your Wales bucket list? This small country, part of the UK and next-door neighbour to England, has a huge range of places packed into it. And we’ve narrowed it down to a top 40 best places to visit in Wales. For now.
We think many of the best things to see in Wales are around its magnificent coastline. Many of its beaches are outstanding, from the lively two beaches at New Quay to the vast expanses of sand at Rhossili and Harlech. And even after living in Australia and Greece, no seaside resort we’ve visited comes anywhere near topping lovely Tenby.
Many of the best things to do in Wales also revolve around its rich heritage, with a concentration of castles unequalled anywhere else in the world.
We can already feel a part two coming for this article, so tell us what youthink should be on a Welsh bucket list.
- 1 Rhossili Beach
- 2 Conwy Castle and Town Walls
- 3 Betws-y-Coed
- 4 Tryfan
- 5 Snowdon
- 6 St David’s Cathedral
- 7 Tenby
- 8 Sandtop Bay, Caldey Island
- 9 Llanddwyn Island
- 10 Bwa Gwyn and Rhoscolyn Coast walk
- 11 Parys Mountain
- 12 Harlech Castle
- 13 Menai Bridge
- 14 Cardiff
- 15 Cwmorthin
- 16 Castell Coch
- 17 Caernarfon Castle
- 18 Pennant Melangell
- 19 Tintern Abbey
- 20 Brecon Beacons
- 21 Llanthony Priory
- 22 Hay-on-Wye
- 23 North Pembrokeshire Coast
- 24 New Quay
- 25 Barmouth and Mawddach estuary
- 26 Offa’s Dyke
- 27 Portmeirion
- 28 Llangollen and the Dee Valley
- 29 Aberystwyth
- 30 Bardsey Island
- 31 Porth Dinllaen
- 32 Tre’r Ceiri
- 33 Cadair Idris
- 34 Llanbedrog
- 35 Caerphilly Castle
- 36 Partrishow Church
- 37 Nash Point and Vale of Glamorgan Heritage Coast
- 38 Aberdovey and the Dovey Estuary
- 39 Powis Castle
Rhossili beach isn’t just one of the best beaches on the Gower peninsula, or indeed Wales. It has repeatedly been voted one of the best in the UK, Europe and indeed the world. It has also been voted one of the top ten sunset spots on the planet for good measure.
This gorgeous three-mile (5 km) sweep of golden sand sits at the western end of Gower, the peninsula to the west of the city of Swansea. It’s also at the end of the Port Eynon to Rhossili walk, one of the most exhilarating coastal walks in the UK. Also look out for Worm’s Head, the long tidal island just offshore.
Conwy Castle and Town Walls
Four North Wales castles comprise Wales’ first UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of these, Conwy, is also one of the most beautiful towns in Wales.
Conwy Castle is formidable, an eight-towered masterpiece standing mighty above the river of the same name. The adjoining walls encircle the medieval town around it, and the walk around either gives spectacular views over the town and nearby estuary. You can also find one of the best late medieval townhouses in Britain on the High Street, at the magnificent Plas Mawr.
Betws-y-Coed is a lovely old village surrounded by forests and one of the main gateways to the Snowdonia National Park. It started out as home to an artists’ colony, inspired by the lovely sylvan scenery. Betws has its own local beauty spots, such as Swallow Falls and Fairy Glen, the later a narrow ravine through which the river Conwy flows.
Betws itself is a charming mix of beautiful old stone guest houses, twee Welsh tea rooms and souvenir shops, and some of the best outdoor gear shops in Wales. It’s around ten miles from there to Snowdon and the other main peaks of Snowdonia. While living in Australia for a few years, this was the place in Wales that I missed the most.
Tryfan is only a few miles from Snowdon by crow’s flight but deserves its own place in a Welsh bucket list because it’s the toughest mountain in Wales to climb. It’s a steep, in places almost vertical mass of rock rearing up out of the dramatic Ogwen Valley, and can only be conquered with a good deal of scrambling on all fours.
The summit is home to the legendary Adam and Eve, a pair of rocks a few feet apart. Some intrepid – or possibly insane – climbers leap from one to the other as a kind of rite of passage. I’ve seen the view down, and it’s a very long way to the bottom!
Snowdon, or Yr Wyddfa, is the highest mountain in Wales and England. It’s 1,085 metres above sea level, and unsurprisingly one of the busiest mountain summits in Britain. A café and information centre, Hafod Eryri (‘Snowdonia Summer House’) is open from April to October.
There are several paths up Snowdon, from the long, easy Llanberis Path to the hardcore arete of the Snowdon Horsehoe, which takes in several other summits. Try to time your visit for a day when it sheds its cloudy shroud. You could be rewarded with vistas extending to Mid Wales, the Isle of Man to the north and Ireland to the west.
St David’s Cathedral
You have to travel to the westernmost point in Wales to see its finest church. St David’s Cathedral is dedicated to the patron saint of Wales, who founded a church on the site in the 6th century AD. Because of this great church, this small village was restored to the status of a city in 1994. It’s the smallest city in Britain by population, with around 2,000 inhabitants.
The Cathedral itself is a mixture of architectural styles, with Romanesque and Gothic elements and a handsome later wooden roof in the nave. Don’t miss the view from the choir to the central tower, with its amazing stone vault. The city also has some of the best coastal walking in Europe on its doorstep. Take the Caerfai to Whitesands walk to see some of the best scenery.
The seaside doesn’t get much better than Tenby, an exquisite little town on the south Pembrokeshire coast. It’s one of the most picture-perfect places I’ve ever seen.
Tenby is blessed with three beaches (North, Castle and South), and a street of pastel-painted Georgian houses clustered around its gorgeous harbour. It’s also a great base to explore the rest of Pembrokeshire. It shouldn’t just be on your big Welsh bucket list. It should be in your top five too.
Sandtop Bay, Caldey Island
Caldey Island is one of the most popular day trips from Tenby. The island is just a twenty-minute boat ride away, but it’s like going aa long way back in time, to somewhere the pace of life is a whole lot slower.
The island is best known for its Cistercian monastery, but its coastline is just as compelling a draw. Several paths around the island have been opened in the last few years. One of these takes you to Sandtop Bay, one of the best beaches in Pembrokeshire, even Wales and the UK.
Nothing can quite prepare you for Llanddwyn Island, a tidal isle off the coast of Anglesey in North Wales. You have to drive through a pine forest and walk half an hour across splendid Newborough beach to reach it, but what a place.
I’d put this place in my top five places in Wales to visit. It’s a breathtaking location, with views along the incredible beach to Snowdonia in one direction, and the jagged peaks of the Llyn Peninsula in the other. The walk to the end of the island is rewarded by the sight of two beaches and two lighthouses, all with the outstanding backdrop. The island is named after St Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers, who lived there around the 5th century AD.
Bwa Gwyn and Rhoscolyn Coast walk
The Anglesey coast has more to it than long sandy beaches. It also has several dramatic cliff sections, and one of the best of these is around the tiny village of Rhoscolyn, on Holy Island, a few minutes from the port of Holyhead.
Here, the beaches suddenly give way to stunning cliffs and rock formations. The best of these is Bwa Gwyn, a bright, gleaming white rock arch jutting out into the sea.
Wales has one industrial UNESCO World Heritage Site in the south (Blaenavon) and another in the offing in the north (its slate industry). But the most visually striking remnants of its industrial past are tucked away in the far north of the country, near the north Anglesey coast.
Parys Mountain was once the world’s largest copper mine. It’s an amazing sight, the excavated earth streaked with multicoloured hues of gold, copper and reds. It looks like something from another planet, perhaps the nearest any of us will ever get to Mars!
Harlech Castle, like Conwy, is another of English King Edward I’s Iron Ring of castles that subjugated the Welsh. It’s one of the most evocative castles in Wales, atop what was once a sea cliff, and is now a crag almost a mile inland.
It looks its best from the small park near the end of the high street. On a clear day, the whole Snowdonia range makes for a tremendous backdrop, and the coast is pretty spectacular too. It also sits near the top of Ffordd Pen Llech, now officially the steepest street in the world.
Two bridges currently link Anglesey and the mainland – the modern Britannia road and rail bridge, and its predecessor, built by Thomas Telford in the early 19th century. It’s a stunning suspension bridge, nestling beautifully into the dramatic landscape. It still carries the A5 road linking Bangor with the town of Menai Bridge.
The Menai Strait is the body of water separating mainland north Wales from the Isle of Anglesey. It’s a wonderfully scenic stretch of water, with the mountains of Snowdonia dominating the view.
The capital of Wales simply had to be on our Welsh bucket list. Like all capitals, it’s quite different to the rest of its country, and it’s the most cosmopolitan, vibrant city in Wales by a long way.
There are so many things to do in Cardiff that it’s probably best if we just list the highlights. There’s Cardiff Castle, the adjacent Bute Park, the redeveloped Cardiff Bay, the lovely Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades, Roath Park, the Middle Eastern restaurants along City Road, the second best collection of Impressionist paintings in the UK, and in St Fagans, one of the best historic museums in Europe.
The next UK location to be put forward for World Heritage status is a collection of Welsh slate industry sites around North and Mid Wales. The overall list comprises many different sites, and some of them are among the most dramatic man-made landscapes anywhere in the world. One of them is at secluded Cwmorthin, hidden away in a valley close to the slate town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Blaenau itself is an eye-opener, with vast heaps of slate spoil looming high above the streets of the town. Cwmorthin is a quieter proposition, the ruins of a slate quarry, chapel and miners’ cottages sitting above a mountain lake. The valley, once thriving with industry, now lies eerily silent. It’s so quiet that the last time I was there I could hear the swoosh of small bird flying a hundred metres away from me across the lake. The ruins of Rhosydd quarry, even further up into the mountains, are equally impressive.
The growth of industry in Wales in the 19th century meant that a select few people became extremely rich. Once they attained a certain stratospheric level of wealth they would indulge in fantasies like Castell Coch, a fairytale castle overlooking the main Cardiff to North Wales road on the outskirts of the capital.
Castell Coch was built by William Burges for his patron, the Third Marquess of Bute, who made his fortune from coal. He also commissioned the building of much of nearby Cardiff Castle in the 19th century. The exterior is like a miniature version of the cite in Carcassonne in France, with its Gothic Revival turrets. Inside, Castell Coch is fantasy run riot, with elaborate murals, stained glass window and vaulted ceilings.
The castle at Caernarfon is one of the sights that most epitomises Wales for many. The sturdy castle sits next to a river, its solid angular towers impregnable to attack. Along with Conwy, Beaumaris and Harlech it’s part of the Gwynedd Castles World Heritage Site.
Caernarfon Castle is perhaps the most formidable of the four, and like Conwy, is augmented by a section of fortified town walls. It has a magnificent – not to mention strategic – setting, at the point where the river Seiont meets the sea and at the entrance to the Menai Strait.
It’s pretty hard to conceive of anything this humble, remote church might have in common with London’s Westminster Abbey. But you’d be surprised.
Pennant Melangell is named after St Melangell, the patron saint of hares, who lived and died in this blissfully isolated valley in northern Powys. It’s a beautiful small church which attracts modern pilgrims because it still contains her intact shrine. This is the only one in the UK apart from that of Edward the Confessor in Westminster.
The romantic ruined abbey church at Tintern, in the gorgeous Wye Valley, once inspired the poet William Wordsworth. It was one of the main stops on arguably the first tourist route in Britain, the Wye Tour, a two-day journey from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow.
The Gothic church looks splendid at any time of year, but looks its best in autumn, when the Wye Valley goes golden in the fall colours.
The Brecon Beacons National Park covers a huge swathe of rural South Wales, from Hay-on-Wye in the east to Carmarthenshire in the west. It’s made up of four distinct areas – the Black Mountains in the east, the main Brecon Beacons range, then the remote upland Fforest Fawr to the west. This in turn merges into the Black Mountain, an area of wild open moors, with a couple of stunning mountain lakes tucked away beneath the main escarpment.
The highest peak, Pen y Fan, is the biggest draw, and can get very busy with hikers if conditions are good. It doesn’t take you long to get off the beaten path in the Beacons, however. Many of the routes across the National Park are quiet, even in the best weather in peak season. Also expect to find everything from castles to canals, with waterfalls galore to boot.
Tintern Abbey has always attracted a stream of visitors, ever since the inception of modern tourism. Llanthony, another ruined monastery, requires a bit more seeking out, up a single-track road through one of the most remote valleys in Wales. And what a reward you get for your effort.
Hidden away off a country lane, behind an intact 12th century church, is Llanthony Priory. It also dates from the same period, and owes its ruined state to King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s. A tiny hotel is built into the ruins, and a bar serves drinks from the undercroft downstairs. An incomparable place.
Hay-on-Wye has, for decades, been the second-hand bookshop capital of the world. It’s a wonderfully quirky small country town close to the English border. It’s centred around an ancient castle which is currently undergoing restoration. There are around twenty bookshops that have weathered the internet storm, and some other great niche stores besides.
Hay sits below one of the most beautiful parts of Wales, the Black Mountains of the Brecon Beacons National Park. It also hosts the annual Hay Literary Festival, the biggest of its kind in the world.
North Pembrokeshire Coast
The North Pembrokeshire coast is one of the coastal connoisseurs’ favourite part of the Wales Coast Path. It runs from the beach at Newport to the pretty village of St Dogmaels, which sits across the Teifi river from its neighbour Cardigan.
This is hardcore coastal walking. Other than the start and finish points, there is only one road access point in around 15 miles. This is at Ceibwr Bay, halfway along near the village of Moylegrove. The cliffs along this stretch of coast path are staggering, folds of rocks contorted and buckled by millions of years facing the elements. There are so many big dipper ascents and descents along the way. It’s a tough walk, but utterly exhilarating.
New Quay isn’t to be confused with Newquay on the north Cornwall coast. The similar name and seaside location apart, it’s very different to its Cornish counterpart.
Cei Newydd sits between Aberaeron and Aberystwyth on the Ceredigion coast. It’s a lovely sea-salty village with a postcard-perfect harbour. It also has plenty of pubs and cafes to while away the summer days, not to mention more great coastal walking. Its two beaches are great, and the harbour is the departure point for dolphin watching boat trips along the coast.
Barmouth and Mawddach estuary
The Mid Wales seaside resort of Barmouth sits on the northern side of Cardigan Bay, with views of Snowdonia in one direction and across to the Llyn Peninsula in the other.
It’s a funny contradiction. In summer it’s a brash mini-version of the archetypal British seaside resort, with fish and chips, tooth-busting sticks of rock and ‘kiss me quick’ hats. Yet this small town also sits next to some of the most majestic scenery in the British Isles. The Mawddach estuary is stunning, with views across to Cadair Idris. The main beach is fantastic, and the walks up into the steep Rhinog mountains are rarely frequented but so worth discovering.
Offa’s Dyke is a vast earthwork built in the 8th century by an Anglo-Saxon king to keep the troublesome Welsh out. Offa was king of Mercia, which roughly corresponds with the modern English Midlands and Welsh border region.
The earthwork extends for 170 miles (270 km) from Chepstow in the south to Prestatyn in the north, through some glorious scenery either side of the border. It’s all very quiet and bucolic nowadays, and you’ll pass several Border castles along the way.
Portmeirion is a fantasy village put together by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis on a river estuary in North West Wales. It’s a sublime spot, surrounded by landscaped gardens and forest. Some of it is built in an Italianate style, including the Campanile (belltower) and Bristol Colonnade.
Most visit for the day but you can also stay overnight in one of two hotels or the many self-catering cottages and apartments in the village. If you ever get the chance to stay at Portmeirion and explore it with nobody around, don’t miss it.
Llangollen and the Dee Valley
Llangollen and the surrounding countryside is the jewel of North East Wales. The small town sits in an idyllic spot on the frothing rapids of the River Dee, beneath the ruins of an ancient Welsh castle, Dinas Bran. The Dee has carved out one of the most striking landscapes in Wales, a lovely wooded valley surrounded by mountains.
The town’s beds – and every square inch of floorspace – fills for the International Eisteddfod early July each year. It’s a great time to visit the town, but it’s a wonderful place to stay in any season. Highlights include a medieval stone arched bridge, a pub with a terrace above the rapids, a ruined medieval abbey (Valle Crucis), the lovely house and gardens at Plas Newydd, not to mention the Llangollen Canal and its crowning glory, the World Heritage-listed Pontcysyllte Aqueduct four miles (6 km) to the east. Well worth a few days of anyone’s time.
‘Aber’ is the cultural nexus of Mid Wales. It’s home to a University and the National Library of Wales, and is the most cosmopolitan place in Wales after the capital, Cardiff.
Aberystwyth is somehow something of a hidden gem though goodness knows how. It grew as a seaside resort in the 19th century, with two beaches, a pier, a cliff railway and a narrow-gauge railway (inland to Devils Bridge) to entice you. Not to mention a 13th century castle and one of the architectural wonders of Wales, the Old College building on the seafront. It also has some of the best restaurants, pubs and hotels in Mid Wales.
Bardsey Island – Ynys Enlli in Welsh – is the holiest of all Welsh islands. It’s situated off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula in North west Wales, and during the Middle Ages was one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in Britain. Three visits to Bardsey were said by Pope Callixtus II to bring the equivalent spiritual benefits of a single journey to Rome. It is also known as the Isle of 20,000 Saints, who were believed to be buried there.
Bardsey is separated from the mainland by Bardsey Sound, which is notorious for its choppiness and changeability in conditions. Little remains of the abbey founded by St Cadfan in the 6th century AD. It still attracts spiritual pilgrims seeking a retreat from the world. Bardsey is also a great place to watch wildlife, from Atlantic grey seals to migrating seabirds.
In an alternative universe, Porth Dinllaen could have been the departure point for ferries to Dun Laoighaire, Dublin’s port. Fortunately, that particular privilege went to Holyhead, which left Porth Dinllaen a tiny backwater by the sea.
This was the best thing that could possibly have happened to it. It’s a tiny hamlet of around ten houses, one of which happens to be a pub, the Ty Coch Inn (“Red House Inn”). It’s all of five metres from the beach to the bar, and you can then sit outside and sup on one of the most satisfying pints of beer you’ll ever enjoy. The view up the coast to the three peaks of Yr Eifl (‘The Rivals’ in English) is unforgettable.
The ‘Town of Giants’ is an Iron Age hillfort, believed to be around 2,000 years old, on a peak above the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula. It was built as a defensive site, and would have been a forbidding site to capture, high in the skyline of North Wales.
The hut circles of Tre’r Ceiri are very well preserved, and they look incredibly impressive against the astounding backdrop. From the summit walls you have an unrivalled panorama of North Wales, from the patchwork fields of the Llyn to the summits of Snowdonia and the coastline of Anglesey tapering off into the distance. The ‘car park’ on the road below only has space for around four vehicles, so it’s never busy up there.
The scenery all around is breathtaking, from the glacial lake of Llyn Cau on the southern approach to the sublime Mawddach estuary to the north. Two of the most beautiful lakes in Europe, Llynnau Cregennen, also nestle in its foothills. The lovely old town of Dolgellau is the best base from which you can tackle Cadair Idris.
It’s not the highest mountain in Wales, but Cadair Idris can claim to be the hardest slog in the country. Its proximity to the sea means that most routes start close to sea level, so it’s a five-hour hike to the summit whichever way you go.
The Llyn Peninsula of North West Wales has some astounding beaches, and Llanbedrog is one of the very best of them.
It’s a small village halfway between the larger resorts of Abersoch and Pwllheli. It feels like a secret enclave, hidden away at the bottom of a single-track lane. There you’ll find a gorgeous swathe of sand, sheltered by a headland, making the water much calmer than neighbouring beaches. A great café, a couple of houses in the trees, a row of brightly painted beach huts and jaw-dropping views of the mountains of Snowdonia complete the idyllic scene.
Caerphilly Castle is one of the largest castles in Europe. It’s surrounded by a system of lakes and a small park, an oasis in an otherwise unprepossessing small South Wales Valleys town. It’s well-known for its leaning tower, but there’s so much more to it than that.
Caerphilly is a classic concentric castle, with three layers of walls forming a strong defensive barrier. The visitor experience has greatly improved over the last few years. Areas that were off-limits have been opened up, and there’s also a Dragon’s Lair and a Maze for the kids.
A few miles from Llanthony, up improbably narrow country lanes, Partrishow church is secreted away yet still attracts visitors from all over the world.
This tiny church, dedicated to the obscure St Issui, is a unique survivor. It possesses a very rare, intricately carved wooden rood screen, which separates the two main parts of the church. It also has a number of wall paintings, including a gloomy memento mori. There’s also a holy well at the bottom of the hill. A beautiful place of blissful peace and quiet.
Nash Point and Vale of Glamorgan Heritage Coast
The Vale of Glamorgan Heritage Coast often gets overlooked by visitors heading west to Gower and Pembrokeshire. It’s mainly visited by locals, who are very familiar with its charms.
These vary from the vast sand dune system at Merthyr Mawr to the part rocky, part sandy Dunraven Bay at nearby Southerndown. The photographers’ favourite is undoubtedly Nash Point, five miles (8 km) to the south. At low tide, a series of wave-cut platforms is revealed, and the stratified cliffs make for a compelling combination.
Aberdovey and the Dovey Estuary
Aberdovey (Aberdyfi in Welsh) is a small coastal town on the Cardigan Bay coastline, at the edge of the Snowdonia National Park’s southern boundary. The beach is fantastic, stretching around the corner of the coast and continuing north to Tywyn five miles away.
The Dovey estuary is also pretty special. You can take the train along the northern shore to Aberdovey from Machynlleth, one of the most scenic stretches of the spectacular Cambrian Coast Line. The southern shore is remarkable too. The dunes of Ynyslas are among the best in the country, and Borth beach, which extends south from there, reveals the remains of a petrified forest at very low tides.
The Wales Coast Path section high above Aberdovey is also one of the most under-rated on the whole 870-mile route.
Powis Castle is the finest stately home in Wales, housed in a medieval red stone castle. It’s near the market town of Welshpool, which in turn is close to the English border.
The interior is as grand as any in Britain, with wonderfully ornate rooms decorated with several great historic paintings. The Gardens are also magnificent, with their unique yew hedges and terraces a joy to visit any time between spring and autumn.
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.