9 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in South Wales
South Wales incorporates the Welsh capital, Cardiff, along with some of the country's loveliest scenery. Easily accessible from England and Bristol, the region is best known for the spectacular Brecon Beacons, home to Pen y Fan, the highest mountain south of Snowdonia.
The area also consists of the South Wales Valleys (once famous for its coal), the Wye Valley and the Vale of Usk, as well as the beautiful Glamorgan Heritage Coast. If you only have a day or two in Wales, you couldn't do much better than spending it exploring the picturesque valleys and small old mining communities here, many of them home to unique accommodations, inns, museums and shops.
1 Brecon Beacons National Park
The Brecon Beacons is widely considered one of the most beautiful parts of Wales (if not Britain), and boasts an extremely diverse landscape that features native deciduous trees, North American conifers and broad swaths of moorland. Founded in 1957 and famous for its wild ponies, the 519 sq mi Brecon Beacons National Park borders the Black Mountains to the west, and to the east another mountain range, also called the Black Mountains. Most of the park's peaks are more than 1,000 ft high, while many reach in excess of 2,000 ft, and are formed from red sandstone. It's said they look like beacons, hence their name (though it may also derive from the fires lit on the peaks as warning signals during the Middle Ages).
Location: King's Rd, Llandovery, Dyfed
2 Brecon's Spectacular Waterfalls
Brecon Beacons National Park contains many lovely waterfalls, the most famous of which are the 90 ft high Henryd Falls at Coelbren, the highest in Wales. An easy trail spans the stream leading to the pool at the bottom of the falls and makes for a fun hike. Another waterfalls worth visiting in 'Waterfall Country' is Blaen-y-Glyn, fed by the River Caerfanell and Nant Bwrefwr, and accessible by a number of hiking trails.
3 Dan yr Ogof and the Showcase Caves
The caves in this area are also of interest, and include Dan yr Ogof in the upper part of the Tawe Valley. This spectacular cave is full of stalagmites and stalactites, as well as many magnificent passages and chambers. All told, the cave network stretches 10 mi, with some of the most accessible areas now floodlit. Part of a major tourist attraction called the National Showcaves Centre for Wales, the site also includes the Bone Cave, Cathedral Cave, a replica Iron Age village, stone circles and fun dinosaur park for kids.
Hours: Daily 10am-5pm (Apr-Oct); Last admission, 3pm
Admission: Adults, £13.75; Children, £9
Location: Abercrave, Swansea
4 Carreg Cennen Castle
After visiting spectacular Carreg Cennen Castle, it's easy to see why the site was chosen for a fortress - it towers on a great crag almost 300 ft above the River Cennen. Consequently, the castle offers outstanding sightseeing views of Brecon Beacons National Park and the surrounding countryside. One of only a handful of privately owned castles in Wales (a fascinating story tells how the current owners mistakenly paid the paltry sum of only £100 for it as part of the farmland they purchased), the ruins of Carreg Cennen are fun to explore, as are the property's cave and hiking trails. Afterwards, enjoy refreshments in the tearoom.
Hours: Daily, 9:30am-5:30pm
Admission: Adults, £4; Children (5-16), £3.50; Families, £12
Address: Trapp, Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire
5 The Vale of Neath
The River Neath, which enters the Bristol Channel at Swansea, has carved itself into the exposed carbon layers at a depth of about 1,313 ft, and in doing so cut off the coal seams which in the 18th and 19th century lead to the development of heavy industry here. These days, it's all about tourism in this picturesque area. Highlights include Aberdulais Falls, an impressive example of how water can provide the energy needed for industrial purposes and which allows visitors a close-up look at Europe's largest electricity generating waterwheel. Also nearby is Neath Abbey, a Cistercian abbey founded by Richard de Granville in 1130 and later converted into an Elizabethan mansion.
6 Rhondda Heritage Park
Rhondda's surviving colliery buildings have been converted into a fascinating heritage center where visitors can travel through time in an elevator to 'Pit Bottom' down one of the original mine shafts. There's also a recreation of the working Lewis Merthyr Colliery of the 1950s, and a multi-media exhibit about the history of coal mining in the area. Underground Experience Tours are led by former colliery workers (the mine closed in 1983, as did most of the over 53 working collieries in the area). Above ground, a replica village street showcases the lifestyles of area residents who depended upon coal extraction for their livelihoods.
Hours: Daily, 9am-4:30pm
Admission: Adults, £3.50; Children, £2.50; Families, £10
Address: Lewis Merthyr, Coed Cae Rd, Trehafod, Rhondda
7 Merthyr Tydfil
Just 23 mi north of Cardiff, the town of Merthyr Tydfil is a great place from which to begin exploring the Brecon Beacons National Park. Not only is it on the National Cycle Route, it's also where you'll find the Brecon Mountain Railway, a narrow-gauge heritage railway that travels 5 mi into the Brecon Beacons. Due to its ability to reach remote corners of the region inaccessible to cars, it's as popular with hikers as it is with steam enthusiasts. Another area attraction worth visiting is Cyfarthfa Castle Museum and Art Gallery located in an impressive Industrial Age mansion built for William Crawshay II, the local iron magnate.
8 The Big Pit National Coal Museum
Blaenavon is one of the best-preserved examples of a traditional South Wales iron and coal town. Although part of the town dates from the late 1780s, most of its buildings are representative of an early to mid-Victorian Welsh industrial community, with much of it built before 1870. The town is famous for the "Big Pit" ("Pwll Mawr"), Blaenavon's ironworks, the old blast furnaces and foundries of which are now part of the fascinating National Coal Museum. Even the tower of the hydraulic lift, used to raise the ore-laden iron wagons, has survived. As well as touring the workshops, winding engines and workers' residential areas, entry to the 328 ft-deep shaft gives visitors a first-hand impression of the tough life of a miner (tours below ground, sometimes led by former miners, require warm clothing).
Hours: Daily, 9:30am-5pm
Location: Blaenafon, Torfaen
9 Llancaiach Fawr Manor
North of Cardiff is the award-winning Llancaiach Fawr living history museum. Colorfully costumed guides show visitors around this wonderfully restored 16th century manor house overlooking the Glamorgan Uplands. (If available, be sure to join one of the fun evening ghost tours.) Also worth a visit are the home's historic gardens, which contain many of the original plant species grown here in the 1550s.
Hours: Tues-Sun, 10am-5pm
Admission: Adults, £7.50; Children, £6; Families, £22
Location: Nelson, Treharris