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13 Top-Rated Day Trips from Cardiff

Written by Bryan Dearsley

Located on the southern coast of Wales, Cardiff makes an excellent base from which to explore the magnificent Welsh countryside. From here, you can access the country's two most important national parks, Snowdonia and the Brecon Beacons, the latter less than an hour's drive through stunning scenery (while Snowdonia takes a little longer to access, it's also a must-visit). Other great day trips from Cardiff include exploring the beautiful Pembrokeshire coastline and its many pleasant towns, including Carmarthen, the legendary birthplace of Merlin, along with Swansea, one of the busiest cultural centers in the country.

Also worth checking out are the many museums dedicated to Wales' industrial past, including the massive Rhondda coal works and the Museum of the Welsh Woolen Industry in Cardigan (and yes, Wales does have a lot of sheep!). Best of all, Wales is such a small country, it's easy to double-up on your day trips, hitting more than one great attraction each time you venture out. Learn about the best places to visit with our list of the top day trips from Cardiff.

1. Brecon Beacons National Park

Brecon Beacons National Park

Brecon Beacons National Park

One of the most visited national parks in Wales - and certainly the easiest to get to from Cardiff - Brecon Beacons National Park lies just 37 kilometers north of the Welsh capital. The best place to begin exploring this area of outstanding natural beauty is the town of Merthyr Tydfil. Part of the National Cycle Route, it's a good place to either pick up a bike rental or lace up the old hiking boots and head off along one of the many trails leading into the surrounding hills and mountains (alternatively, you could take the Brecon Mountain Railway eight kilometers into the park and either cycle or walk back). For a truly unforgettable Brecon Beacons experience, sign up for a fun gorge walking adventure. This half-day excursion involves exploring some of the park's best waterfalls and rivers, including plenty of swimming, jumping, climbing, and traversing along the way, all under the watchful eye of an experienced and fully qualified instructor (equipment and safety gear included).

Whatever you choose to do when you get here, you'll be rewarded by superb mountain views, numerous waterfalls (including spectacular Henrhyd Falls, at 27 meters high the tallest in Wales), along with an abundance of flora and fauna to enjoy, including the park's famous wild horses. For stargazers, Brecon Beacons has the distinction of being one of only five Dark Sy Reserves worldwide for its unique nocturnal environment and the high number of starry nights that can be enjoyed without light pollution. There are also a number of top-rated accommodation options available within the park, ranging from lovely lodges and boutique hotels to campsites and hostels.

Address: Visitor Centre, Libanus, Brecon

2. Snowdonia National Park

Snowdonia National Park

Snowdonia National Park

Although a 2.5-hour drive north of Cardiff, Snowdonia National Park is well worth the journey. Encompassing a total of 14 peaks more than 914 meters high, Snowdonia can be easily accessed from the pretty town of Llanberis at the base of the park's tallest mountain, the 1,085-meter-high Mount Snowdon. From here, a variety of trails wind up Snowdon, but it's a long climb; unless you're prepared to spend a full day making the trek, you might want to consider taking the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Chugging slowly but steadily all the way to the top, letting this superb narrow-gauge railway do all the work, is a great idea as all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the view. (Hot Tips: Be sure to check the railway's website for weather-related cancellations, and try to book your tickets in advance. Also, try to visit mid-week.) Other park highlights include its rich flora and fauna, its more than 50 lakes, and a rich history that dates as far back as Roman times.

Address: National Park Office, Penrhyndeudraeth, Gwynedd, LL48 6LF

3. Pembroke Castle and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Pembroke Castle and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park

Pembroke Castle

Another beautiful driving tour from Cardiff is the two-hour journey westward along the coast to Pembroke (it's also a pleasant, though longer, train ride). The Pembrokeshire coastline is considered one of the most beautiful in Britain - so beautiful, in fact, that much of it has been placed under the protection of the Pembrokeshire Coastal National Park. Covering some 362 square kilometers, the park is a delight to explore on foot thanks to its many remote beaches, steep cliffs, and rich flora and fauna.

No visit to this area of outstanding natural beauty would be complete without checking out the Pembroke's relatively intact Norman castle. Built in 1090 and the birthplace in 1457 of English King Henry VII, Pembroke Castle starred in the hit romantic movie, Me Before You and offers stunning views over the old town and coast from its main keep. Highlights of a tour include the Norman and North Halls, a huge natural cavern known as the Wogan, and displays focusing on life during medieval times. While the picturesque town of Pembroke is itself well worth exploring, be sure to also travel the three miles from here to the delightful town of Pembroke Dock. This fascinating seaside community grew from a tiny fishing village into an important Royal Navy dockyard in the early 19th century, and many of the original fortifications and buildings constructed at the time can be explored.

4. Carmarthen: Merlin's Birthplace

St. Peter's Church, Carmarthen /

St. Peter's Church, Carmarthen / Reading Tom / Photo modified

Along with King Arthur, the Welsh have long considered Merlin one of their own, with references to this mythical heritage seen everywhere from the lakes of Snowdonia to Carmarthen, the country's oldest town. It was here, just an hour west of Cardiff, that the famous Celtic magician was supposedly born, and the town has embraced the legend wholeheartedly, from a fragment of Merlin's Oak residing in the Carmarthenshire County Museum to Bryn Myrddin, a nearby hill that supposedly hides a cave used by the sorcerer as a refuge.

A fun outing here is to hop aboard the Gwili Railway, which offers excursions aboard vintage steam engines and rail cars from Carmarthen to Llanpumpsaint, a distance of nearly five miles. Be sure to also visit the 14th-century St. Peter's Church, Carmarthenshire County Museum, the old town wall and its gatehouse (also dating back to the 14th century), along with the ruins of Carmarthen Castle.

5. Dylan Thomas' Laugharne

Carmarthen and Laugharne

Laugharne

Located just a few miles west of Carmarthen is the lovely seaside town of Laugharne. As well as being famous for its seafood, it was here that acclaimed Welsh poet Dylan Thomas made his home from 1938 until he died in 1953. So important is the poet's legacy to the town that the slate-roofed boathouse - the Dylan Thomas Boathouse - above the bay in which he once lived and wrote is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. The museum also houses an excellent tea room, which offers traditional high teas with superb views over the Taf estuary. You can also visit Thomas' very modest gravesite in the town's cemetery. Another area attraction is Laugharne Castle, which dates back to medieval times and saw active service during the Civil War. (It has since fallen into ruin, although its quaint garden gazebo remains.)

Address: Dylan's Walk, Laugharne

Official Site: www.dylanthomasboathouse.com

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6. Rhondda and Blaenavon: Celebrating Wales' Industrial Heritage

Colliery Pit, Rhondda Heritage Park

Colliery Pit, Rhondda Heritage Park

Just 30 minutes drive northwest of Cardiff is the former coal mining town of Rhondda. Once one of Britain's largest collieries, the town's now redundant mine has been turned into Rhondda Heritage Park, an excellent attraction showcasing the tough life of the workers who toiled here right up to the 1980s. Highlights include a re-creation of the 1950s Lewis Merthyr Colliery, a chance to visit "pit bottom" as part of a fascinating underground tour led by former colliery workers, and a replica village street showcasing the everyday lives of those who depended on coal for their livelihoods.

Another former industrial site to visit is Blaenavon, a perfectly preserved traditional Welsh ironworks. Here, you'll find the "Big Pit," now part of the National Coal Museum, along with its old blast furnaces and foundries. After touring the workshops and old machinery, be sure to spend some time wandering the town to admire the well-preserved homes of those who once lived and worked here.

7. Carew and Tenby

Carew and Tenby

Picturesque Tenby Harbour

Although more than 90 minutes' drive west of Cardiff, the small town of Carew is well worth a visit if you're hankering for a glimpse of pre-industrial Wales (it's in the same direction as Pembroke, so it's easy to combine as part of a "go west from Cardiff" tour). Highlights include the ruins of 13th-century Carew Castle, idyllically perched overlooking a huge 23-acre millpond, and the nearby tidal mill, the only example of its kind still in use.

Next, head nine kilometers east to the delightful town of Tenby, one of the most picture-perfect coastal towns in Britain. Here, you'll not only have a chance to explore the town's historic town walls, but also the many attractive pastel-colored houses overlooking Carmarthen Bay. For those into water sports, Tenby's beautiful sandy beach is the perfect place to spend an afternoon swimming or simply kicking back and relaxing. And thanks to its popularity as a major Welsh tourism destination, there are no shortages of top-rated hotels, small inns, and quaint bed-and-breakfasts available for those wanting to extend their stay in this coastal paradise (if so, be sure to take the short drive over to the neighboring seaside village of Saundersfoot with its excellent beaches).

8. Swansea and the Gower Peninsula

Oystermouth Castle

Oystermouth Castle

Just an hour west of Cardiff by car or rail is Wales' second oldest (and one of its largest) towns, Swansea. Located on the Gower Peninsula, Swansea boasts one of the country's most vibrant cultural scenes, thanks in part to its university and the fact it was the birthplace of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Cultural highlights include a lively theatrical and artistic community, which is responsible for hosting excellent events such as the popular Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts, held each October and featuring concerts by international orchestras and operas, along with folk music, theater shows, and art exhibits. Also popular is the two-week-long Gower Festival, an extravaganza of choral and chamber music.

It's also a fun city to walk around and explore, particularly the attractions of the Swansea Bay Area, as well as its many splendid parks and gardens. Among the best are Clyne Gardens, a botanical garden spread across some 47 acres and home to more than 2,000 species of plants, and Singleton Park, which covers 250 acres and includes an ornamental and botanic garden. Other attractions to visit include the National Waterfront Museum, dedicated to the country's rich industrial heritage, and the Swansea Museum, the country's oldest museum. Be sure to spend a little time exploring the surrounding area, too, in particular the famous Mumbles. Part of the spectacular Gower Peninsula, the Mumbles consists of a limestone massif, which is easy to traverse thanks to a great trail network, and many of the trails lead to quiet, secluded beaches. You'll also find the well-preserved ruins of the 12th-century Oystermouth Castle here, too.

9. Into England: Bristol and the Cotswolds

Into England: Bristol and the Cotswolds

Pretty cottages in the Cotswolds

An easy train ride east of Cardiff alongside the Bristol Channel, and you're in England and just a stone's throw from that country's beautiful Cotswolds, an idyllic area stretching some 1,266 square kilometers across the counties of Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, Somerset, Worcestershire, and Warwickshire. As pretty as the countryside are the countless small towns and villages dotted among its hills and old forests, some of the most popular being Castle Combe and Chipping Norton.

Another easy-to-access place in England is Bristol, one of the country's oldest ports and famous as the gateway to the New World after explorer John Cabot departed here in 1497. Highlights include the Cabot Tower in Brandon Hill Park, the Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery, and the majestic SS Great Britain, built in 1838 and famous as the first steamship to make regular Atlantic crossings.

10. Dyffryn Gardens

Dyffryn Gardens

Dyffryn Gardens

Situated near the picturesque village after which it's named, Dyffrn Gardens is well worth visiting. Even if gardens and gardening aren't your thing, there's little doubt that this beautiful National Trust gardens will appeal, thanks to its unique collection of outdoor "garden rooms," a feature that was once quite common on the country estates of wealthy aristocrats. Now fully restored to their former glory, these attractive 100-year-old buildings are a delight to explore and provide an idyllic backdrop to the 55-acre estate's formal gardens and lawns, which were laid out by the famous designer Thomas Mawson in 1906.

Other features of note include a large arboretum, a rockery, a lovely arched walkway notable for its various specious of vines, a small canal, and a Chinese-inspired fountain. Also on the grounds are numerous interesting statues, along with exotic and foreign species of trees and plants, a pleasant tearoom, an outdoor adventure play area for kids, and a gift shop. Be sure to allow a little time to explore Dyffryn House, which is quite unique in its own right as visitors are encouraged to interact with the displays, whether it be to browse the books in the library or play a tune on the piano in the music room. Numerous seasonal events are also held here, including Christmas celebrations and Easter egg hunts.

Address: Dyffryn Cl, St. Nicholas, Cardiff

Official Website: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dyffryn-garden

11. Barry Island

Barry Island Beach Huts

Barry Island Beach Huts

Though no longer completely separated by water from the rest of Wales - it was forever joined to the mainland by the construction of a causeway and docks in the late 1800s - Barry Island has been a popular seaside destination for day-trippers since Victorian times. Today, as back then, the big draw to this pleasant seaside destination are the three long sandy beaches (two of them dog-friendly), notable for seeing the second highest tides in the world. Families flock here from far and wide for fun times splashing and swimming in the water, with some of the more savvy bathers renting one of the colorful beach huts that line the promenade, providing a little privacy, as well as serving as a sanctuary from the sun.

In addition to its pleasant waterfront walks, visitors can enjoy a variety of other attractions, too, from video and game arcades and climbing walls for the kids to the interesting Barry War Museum with its authentic simulation of life in the trenches of WWI and the blitz of WWII. Also fun is the Barry Tourist Railway, which whisks travelers from the island to the mainland in vintage carriages pulled by steam locomotives. There are also plenty of dining options, too, and to work off the pounds, the island is directly connected to the superb Wales Coast Path.

12. Flat Holm

Flat Holm Island

Flat Holm Island

For a rather different day trip experience - this one involves boat travel, rather than a car - consider venturing out to Flat Holm, a tiny island with one regular inhabitant, located just five miles from Cardiff in the middle of the Bristol Channel. Despite covering an area of less than a quarter of a square mile, the island has been home to humans for centuries, from Vikings and early Anglo Saxons to smugglers, silver miners, and, most recently, a group of monks who operated a sanctuary here (it was also here that Marconi received the world's first ever radio message). The island is accessible to curious travelers via fun boat rides provided by a number of operators out of Cardiff Bay, which allows a window of up to six hours to explore.

Surprisingly for such a small island, there's plenty to see, including Victorian-era and WWII fortifications, a well-preserved lighthouse (complete with a foghorn), and spectacular views towards England and Wales. Perhaps the biggest draw, however, is the array of wildlife that has led to it becoming popular with naturalists and birdwatchers, the latter drawn for the many species of gulls that nest here. And if you want to linger longer to enjoy the views, stays can be arranged at the island's restored farmhouse, something that's becoming increasingly popular among kayakers who make their own way to the island.

Official Site: http://flatholmsociety.org.uk

13. Cosmeston Lakes Country Park & Medieval Village

Cosmeston Lakes Country Park

Cosmeston Lakes Country Park

Although this is one of the easiest outings to make from Cardiff, it's not difficult spending the best part of a day at Cosmeston Lakes Country Park & Medieval Village. Just seven miles away and close to the towns of Sully and Penarth, this nature reserve has plenty of appeal. Start your exploration of this vast 247-acre site at the visitor center to get your bearings and a map (plus a drink and snack from the café) before venturing out. Depending on the season, you're likely to spot numerous species of wildlife and, in spring and summer, a wide variety of plant life. Highlights include circling (and crossing) the two lakes on the property, and enjoying a mix of wetland and woodland areas. Be sure to also check out the Cosmeston Medieval Village, a faithful replica of the 14th-century settlement that was only discovered during construction of the park. Other notable features include a small museum, an adventure playground for kids, a picnic area, and barbecue facilities.

Address: Lavernock Road, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan

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