Cardiff: an insider’s guide

Cardiff Castle
Wales Millennium Centre. Credit: VisitBritain/David Angel

It’s Britain’s youngest capital city, yet Cardiff has a rich and inspiring history with its majestic Gothic-style castles and Victorian shopping arcades.

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Walking through the streets of modern-day Cardiff, it’s impossible to ignore the history surrounding you. Everywhere you go, the eclectic mix of buildings that originate from different eras reveal the true age of Europe’s youngest capital city.

The history of Cardiff actually reaches back almost 6,000 years. There is some conflict about the origin of the city’s name, some suggest it comes from ‘the Fort on the Taff’ – the Taff being the river that runs through Cardiff, while others claim it comes from Caer-Didi, meaning ‘The fort of Didius’ – the name of a nearby governor in medieval times. However its name came about, Cardiff has enjoyed an eventful history. In the middle ages, it was the biggest Welsh town, becoming a busy port under Henry II’s reign.

In 1404, the now legendary Owain Glyndwr burned Cardiff and took the castle, although as the town consisted mainly of wooden buildings, it was easy to rebuild and Cardiff flourished again. In 1536, England and Wales were brought together by the Act of Union. Cardiff was later granted its first royal charter by Queen Elizabeth I but by 1801, the size of Cardiff had dropped to the 25th largest in Wales. Just a few years earlier, in 1778, John Stuart, the 1st Marquess of Bute, began renovations on Cardiff Castle.

It would be the Bute family which would create the city of Cardiff as we see today. The 2nd Marquess of Bute, John Crichton-Stuart, turned the city’s fortunes around as  he oversaw the building of the Cardiff docks that allowed the town to thrive, with rapid expansion taking place from the 1830s onwards. By 1881, Cardiff had regained its spot as the biggest town in Wales, going on to become a city in 1905 and the capital of Wales in 1955.

Cardiff
Cardiff’s former docks have been redeveloped into a waterside destination. Credit: VisitBritain/Jason Hawkes

Dominating the city centre, Cardiff Castle is a historic collaboration between the Romans, Normans, Georgians and Victorians. A hotchpotch of history, you can still see parts of the Roman walls around which the original Caerdydd (Cardiff) was built. Inside, the imposing Norman Keep still stands. Surrounding Cardiff Castle is Bute Park, bequeathed to Cardiff along with the castle by the Bute family in 1947. A lush scene of greenery, Bute Park is flanked by the River Taff and the serene Sophia Gardens. It is also bordered by a famous wall depicting a menagerie of animals.

Architecturally juxtaposed to the historic castle is Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in the city centre. Built in 1999, the stadium has hosted important sporting events from international rugby matches to high-profile football games, including FA Cup finals. The 300-foot masts reaching up from the stadium can be seen peeping into view from several vantage points. A special view  from atop Cardiff Castle’s Norman Keep may even give the impression of an overgrown spider. Cardiff has long been known as one of Britain’s top shopping destinations, as can be seen in the large, indoor Cardiff Market and the Victorian and Edwardian arcades.

Winding through the city, the arcades are filled with independent shops and boutiques to explore.

Cardiff Castle
Wales Millennium Centre. Credit: VisitBritain/David Angel

Directly in front of the entrance to Cardiff Market lies the Old Library, a beautiful Victorian building flanked by a pretty garden. Gaze to the right and be greeted by the handsome new Cardiff Central Library, recently heralded as one of the six best libraries in the world by The Sunday Times Travel magazine. The library’s angular construction juts out into the skyline and the building is surrounded by idyllic cafes and restaurants.

Follow the Boulevard de Nantes until Park Place and find the civic buildings, National Museum and Cardiff University buildings. Housing one of Europe’s finest art collections, the  National Museum contains sculptures by Rodin and Degas as well as porcelain from nearby Swansea and Nantgarw.

The New Theatre can also be found just a few moments away. First opened in 1906 with a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the theatre has seen hundreds of greats appear on stage, including renowned actors such as Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave, singers Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones, plus comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

Cardiff University, the largest of the city’s three universities, dominates a large area of the city centre. It may only be 125 years old but many of its buildings bring to mind classical Greek and Roman architecture with their impressive columns and mythological statues. In the midst of this academia, the Temple of Peace and Cathays Park, with its war memorial, echo memories of the Second World War which saw nights of bombing during the Cardiff Blitz.

For those wishing to explore the history of ordinary people who have lived in the city, the ‘living museum’ of St Fagans is invaluable. Set in the grounds of St Fagans Castle, over 30 original Welsh buildings have been re-erected, including a Victorian school, ironworker’s cottages and a medieval church and traditional craftsmen work in workshops.  Cardiff Docks, the 2nd Marquess of Bute’s brainchild, were once the biggest coal exporting docks in the world. Historical reminders of the old industry can be glimpsed at the famous Coal Exchange, legend has it the scene of the world’s first million pound trading deal. After shipping exports fell into decline, the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was set up in the 1980s to improve the area.

Today, it has been completely transformed by the Cardiff Bay Barrage which creates a large freshwater lake around which the popular destination of Mermaid Quay is formed. Roald Dahl Plass, the central plaza of Mermaid Quay, honours the world-famous children’s author who was born and raised in the nearby area. The Norwegian Church which he attended as a child, first built in 1868 and now re-erected overlooking the water, also carries tributes to him inside.

It is fitting that Cardiff Bay has been the subject of such massive regeneration, as the poster-child for regeneration, Doctor Who, is produced and filmed in various locations around Cardiff by BBC Wales. The bay itself prominently featured in a number of storylines. A large Doctor Who exhibition, showcasing props, costumes, monsters and creatures can be found in the nearby Red Dragon Centre.

The Wales Millennium Centre, perhaps the most striking example of the city’s new architectural developments, is called ‘the Armadillo’ by locals due to its shape. Constructed entirely from locally-sourced materials, the interior has been designed for perfect acoustics. Welsh and English poetry adorns the outside of the building. It is illuminated at night to create a spectacular light show. Just around the corner stands the Senedd – the glass-fronted building which homes the National Assembly for Wales, a government body created in the late 1990s as part of the historic Welsh devolution that transferred some administrative power from London to Cardiff.

Looking at Cardiff now, it’s hard to believe that it has been the capital of Wales for just 55 years. The city’s fascinating history combined with its modern rejuvenation offers something for every visitor. No one could leave disappointed.

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