- Candace Ahlfinger
An Itinerary for Seven Days in Wales
Updated: Mar 20, 2020
Wales—Day 1--Chester, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Ruthin, and Conwy
We left Chester and headed into Wales, a beautiful country of beaches, mountains, and lots of castles…600 to be exact! We drove to Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, one of the World Heritage Sites in Wales. Parking was easy to find; we just followed signs once we got near the aqueduct. The aqueduct is a feat of engineering, especially considering that it was built between 1795 and 1808. The 12 feet wide and 5 feet deep canal carries water 127 feet above the Dee Valley. Because of timing, we walked across, waving at the boating passengers. The walking path is narrow, and you could see the hesitancy of the people we passed going the opposite direction. (To be honest, we went around them hesitantly also. That thin rail doesn’t look as though it will stop a body from falling the 127 feet!) After hiking the aqueduct trail, we walked below and along the river to get photos of the impressive structure.
We continued our drive to Ruthin via the scenic route, aka a mountainous, curvy road that we quickly learned was typical for Wales. Again, finding parking was easy; we followed the signs and walked to the center of town. Ruthin is a quaint village and a great place for a lunch break. We visited St. Peter’s Church and Square before having paninis at Gail’s for lunch. One of the most interesting sites was Myddelton Arms which has an unusual arrangement of windows leading to the nickname, “the eyes of Ruthin.”
While in Ruthin we visited the Ruthin Gaol, which was built in 1775 in the Pentonville architectural style, very similar to the Kilmainham Old County Gaol in Dublin. The self-guided tour of the gaol is extremely well done. We were given a map and audio guide. The map has many tongue-in-cheek directions such as, “And now you want to escape? Retrace your steps to the shop and exit.” The displays are interesting and actually fun. Children would have enjoyed peering into the various cells that do a great job of telling the story of the gaol and life within it. The docents were fun and very helpful. We did escape, found our car, and headed to Conwy.
The last part of the drive into Conwy on narrow medieval streets and through very narrow gates in the town walls was probably the most harrowing part of the day. We had reservations at Bryn Guesthouse which is built on the walls of the town. Our hosts, Neil and Anne, were wonderful. They sent us recommendations before we arrived and continued to provide us with ideas on a daily basis. They have printed information about historical sites as well as personal insight into the best ways to see them. Their restaurant and pub recommendations were perfect, including the need to make reservations whenever possible. Neil's mushrooms, served with breakfast, were some of the best I have ever tasted, and Anne's homemade jams and jellies put a perfect finishing touch on every breakfast. They also featured many Welsh specialties—a big plus for those of us who always want to try traditional foods in the places we visit.
We couldn’t sit still when we were in view of such stunning city walls, so we climbed the stairs to the very top of the city walls and walked around the city as much as possible. The Conwy Castle and the Town walls were built by Edward I, the English king, between 1283 and 1289 to control the Welsh. From atop the walls, we were able to find beautiful views of the surrounding countryside and the Conwy River. We climbed down from the heights near the river so we could see Quay (pronounced kee) House, the smallest house in Great Britain, or at least some records report that it holds this record. We also admired the Mussel Statue set on Long Street honoring the importance that mussels have had in the economy of Conwy.
We found Erskine Arms Restaurant and were thankful that our hosts had suggested reservations. The atmosphere was friendly and quiet even though every table was full. Our dinner was wonderful. Their menu changes daily, but we were able to get our first taste of Welsh rarebit, an excellent choice. We walked back to our B&B after dinner, a leisurely stroll through the twisting streets of this old town. Because our hotel was just outside the walls, we risked our lives walking through the car gates that are barely wide enough for one car but are used by two-way vehicle traffic and pedestrians! We finally realized that there is a pedestrian gate next to the vehicle gate, a realization that saved me from worrying and possible death!
Wales—Day 2--Conwy and Llandudno
We used Conwy as our base for exploring North Wales. Every morning we started the day exploring some part of Conwy and then drove to nearby areas to explore them. On our first morning we visited Conwy Castle and bought the 7-day CaDW pass, which saved us a significant amount of money for the time we spent in Wales. (CaDW is the historic preservation organization for Wales. The CaDW website is very helpful in planning historical visits. https://cadw.gov.wales/)
Conwy Castle was built in four short years, a monstrous fortress looming over the city. The English felt secure in their seemingly impregnable castle; however, in 1401, Welsh brains overcame English brawn. While the English military attended services for Good Friday, the Welsh disguised themselves as carpenters and entered the castle to begin a 15-week siege.
Unfortunately, at the end of that time, the English regained the castle, but rebellion had been sparked throughout the country. From the castle ramparts we enjoyed breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside and the Conwy Suspension Bridge which was designed by Thomas Telford, the same person who designed the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. And, not that we’re counting, but Conwy Castle was our first Welsh castle of our tour.
We drove to Llandudno, a brief 15-minute jaunt, in time for lunch at one of its picturesque Victorian-styled cafes, The Loaf Coffee and Sandwich Bar, which served excellent food and provided great service in an unpretentious atmosphere. We headed back up the hill to take the Great Orme Tramway to the summit of Great Orme, a limestone mountain rising 670 feet over the city. The tram is one of only three cable-hauled street tramways in the world. (We have ridden the other two in San Francisco and Lisbon so we couldn’t pass up this opportunity.) The ride up was fun and, thankfully, when we arrived at the summit the rain had stopped, the sun came out, and the wind died down, at least a little.
After taking pictures and spending a few minutes in the small museum, we took the tram down to the halfway point where we disembarked for a short walk to the Great Orme Mine. We began our foray in the Visitors’ Center with an informative video about the building of this 4,000-year-old copper mine, the largest prehistoric mine in the world. Workers built over 5 miles of tunnels using tools they had available, stone hammers and tools made from animal bones. Tunnels are so narrow in places that archaeologists believe 5-year-olds were used to create it. We exited the Visitors’ Center into the mine area. Everyone is given a hard hat, and we needed it for our self-guided tour. The tunnels are very narrow in places, but the mines are astounding. It is so amazing that people carved out these tunnels with primitive tools thousands of years ago. This stop was one of our favorites of the trip. (I wouldn’t advise anyone with difficulty walking trying to navigate the mines.)
After the mine visit, we caught the tram and returned to Llandudno to walk out the pier of this Victorian seaside resort before driving back to Conwy for dinner of Indian food at The Raj. The day came to a perfect end when, upon Neil and Anne’s recommendation, we had a drink at the Albion where we were befriended by locals who gave us tips for the next day’s itinerary, including a tip for Randy to avoid Bodnant Gardens and join them at the pub instead! They made us feel at home and part of this wonderful community.
Wales—Day 3--More Conwy, Bodnant Gardens, and Betws-y-Coed
After another great Welsh breakfast, we visited Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan home that has been largely restored. We met several of the docents who shared stories about the history of the house, the town, and the country. We missed the Tudor traditional dancing because of our to-do list, but we were able to meet Phyllis, who teaches the dances and is the granddaughter of the people who built the guest house in which we stayed.
A quick drive led us to Bodnant Gardens, 80 acres of winding paths through beautiful landscaping. We were sorry we missed the yellow blooms of the Laburnum Arch, but we enjoyed wandering around the gardens and over bridges, discovering hidden nooks, and seeing all the multi-colored hydrangeas. We pulled ourselves away after two hours, but we could have easily spent more time.
During our stay at the pub the night before, the locals had recommended we stop at the Tu Hwnt i’r Bont Tearoom in Llanrwst. (If you haven’t realized it by now, Welsh is a difficult language for those of us who are natives; however, never fear, signs are in English as well as Welsh and everyone we met spoke English. This tearoom was built as a residence in 1480 but later served as a courthouse. This red vine-covered building presents a quaint façade and the interior maintains the feel of an old building, including very low ceilings so be careful if you are tall. We shared a table with other travelers while we had tea, cappuccino, and scones. Tu Hwnt i’r Bont serves lunch which looked good at nearby tables. The tearoom is located on the other side of the narrow one-lane bridge and has parking next to it. (Drivers were very courteous as we tried to decide who was going to back up and let the other person cross.)
We were probably too ambitious, but we headed to Betws-y-Coed where we entered Snowdonia National Park. The town has a river running through it and is the beginning for many well-marked trails. After hiking two weeks in Ireland, we were a little over-confident, so we took the 4 ½ Pen-yr-Allt trail with an incline of 850 feet and a suggested time of 2-3 hours. We had great faith we could complete it in 2 hours, but we didn’t count on slogging through mud, climbing over stiles, and coming down increasingly steep slopes. Before we got back, we were both getting a little worried that we would be those lost hikers you hear about and think it will never be you! We did make it back to the car as dusk hit so we drove back on the winding, narrow road in the dark. Anne was checking the driveway for us because she was getting worried.
We hurriedly changed from our muddy clothes and made it to Watson’s Bistro for another wonderful meal in Conwy.
Wales—Day 4--Caernarfon Castle, Blaenau Ffestiniog, and Portmeirion
We left early the next morning for Caernarfon Castle. We would have liked to have spend at least one more night in Conwy and Bryn Guesthouse to make a day trip to Beaumaris Castle, Penrhyn Castle, and the town with the longest name, but maybe another trip!
Caernarfon Castle is an imposing structure that towers over the town. Parking here, like in all of Wales, was well-marked and easy to get to. From the parking lot we chose, however, we couldn’t see an entrance, so we asked the parking lot attendant how to get in the castle. His answer was priceless. “If you are Welsh, you have to climb over the walls. If you’re not, the entrance is on the other side.” So perhaps a small amount of animosity still exists between the English and Welsh still exists…or this gentleman just has a great sense of humor!
Caernarfon Castle and the other King Edward I’s castles in the Iron Ring in Northern Wales, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. (Beaumaris, Harlech, and Conwy) Edward I felt so threatened by the Welsh that he built the strongest and largest castles ever seen in medieval Great Britain. Caernarfon especially was built for greatness and was chosen by Edward I as the site of his son’s, the first English Prince of Wales, born in 1284. Since 1911, the castle is the site where the oldest son of the reigning British monarch is crowned or invested as Prince of Wales. Prince Charles was named Prince of Wales here in 1969.
The huge castle has many interesting features. One that intrigued me and brought history to life is the giant chess set depicting the war between Edward I and Welsh leaders. The castle also houses the Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers which explains why goats are able to hold rank in the military. (Legend says that a wild goat happened into a battlefield during the American Revolutionary War and led the Welsh regiment to victory.) We checked off Castle #2 as we left Caernarfon Castle on our way to Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Full disclosure…I did not experience the fastest zipline in the world at Slate Mountain and, worse, I used my husband, who hates ziplines, as my excuse. Next time…maybe! However, we had a fantastic and moving time at Slate Mountain. (www.SlateMountain.co.uk )
Along with Jeff, our guide, we donned hard hats and rode Britain’s steepest cable railway into the historic slate mine. (Don’t worry. It didn’t seem that steep!) As he walked backwards down the slippery slope with only the light from his hard hat to guide us, Jeff explained and demonstrated how slate was mined and worked, a very labor-intensive job. Often, the miners couldn’t see others who were working so they began singing which, over time, gave rise to the famous men’s Welsh singing groups. Our group of four fell silent when Jeff played the recording of the men’s choir while lights played a show on the cavernous walls. Silence reigned even after the music stopped; we were awed by the sheer beauty of the music. I wanted to take home slate boards for the table from the gift store, but the weight of the slate prevented me! (Just a note… The tour would probably not pass US safety standards, but it was excellent.)
Back in the car and ready for our next stop…Portmeirion, a highly rated Welsh tourist destination. Between 1925-1939 and 1954-1976, Clough Williams-Ellis, a Welsh architect, imported some endangered buildings and created others to make his dream of an Italian village in the Welsh mountains come true. If we hadn’t looked at GPS, we would certainly have believed we were in the hills of Italy. Unfortunately, many of the stores were closed, but we enjoyed strolling through the gardens and taking advantage of the numerous photo ops. We also made a beautiful discovery in our wanderings near the hotel. The property sits on the Morfa Harlech National Nature Reserve, which is part of a sand dune system along the Meirionnydd coast. This unadvertised area provides a home for rare plants and animals and stunning scenery of cloud reflections as the tide goes out.
We enjoyed dinner at the hotel where we stayed, the Hotel Portmeirion. By staying at the hotel on site, we were able to walk around the village after hours and be ready to leave first thing in the morning—a great way to get some exercise and see the “city” in different lights. (Officially, we saw Castle #3 here with Castell Deudraeth that we drove by; however, most of the castle fell into ruin and has now been rebuilt as a hotel. Who cares?!? I’m counting it anyway!)
Wales—Day 5--Portmeirion, Harlech Castle, St. David’s
Portmeirion is only a 15-minute drive to Harlech Castle, our first stop of the day. (Most days we drove fewer than 3 hours total with multiple stops. This day would hold almost 4 hours of driving, which is my limit if I have a choice!)
We stopped for a quick ham and blue cheese panini and cappuccinos on the patio of the Visitors’ Center at the foot of the castle walls. After all, we needed to be fortified for our attack! Thankfully, entrance didn’t require arrows or scaling the wall, only our CaDW pass.
Harlech Castle is another of Edward I’s castles in his Ring of Iron built to control the Welsh. The castle, built from 1283-1289, is another World Heritage Site, and features a walls-within-walls design for strength. Each castle we visited was a little different and worth experiencing. (This was Castle #4.)
The next part of the drive, to St. David’s, was the longest, and rainiest, uninterrupted drive, with only a brief stop for lunch at the Black Lion in Llanrhystod. St. David’s is the smallest city in the UK and can be spelled with or without an apostrophe. We arrived at St. David’s Cross Hotel in time to get to Evensong at the Cathedral. As we walked through the cathedral gates and over the ridge, the magnificent cathedral appeared in the valley below us leaving us awestruck. We entered the service when it was almost over, but the quiet and music were beautiful. We had dinner at St. David’s Gin and Kitchen before slogging back through the rain to our hotel. Thankfully, it was just around the corner!
Wales—Day 6--St. David’s and Cardiff
The next morning was somewhat drier as we began our St. David’s Bishop’s Palace. In the 12th century a pope had decreed that two trips to St. David’s was equal to one pilgrimage to Rome so religious tourism escalated. In the 1300’s, Henry de Gower, the bishop, decided to change his residence into an astounding palace in which he could entertain. The exhibits are good at explaining all that bishops were required to do and the large amount of travel necessary.
We cancelled our plans to visit St. Non’s Chapel and walk the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path because of the continuing rain and cold. (I would visit Wales earlier in the year, not at the end of September as we did.)
Instead, we drove to Carreg Cennen Castle, considered the most romantic castle in the country, which is located inside Brecon Beacons National Park. It was painted by Turner in the 1800s when it was already in a state of disrepair, thus encouraging the idea of romanticism. Driving to the castle down a winding one-lane road, we caught our first glimpse of the ruins on the cliff overlooking the luscious green countryside. We stopped at the rustic Visitors’ Center for cawl (vegetable soup) before taking the steep path through the cow patty-strewn pasture. The uphill path was covered with water flowing downhill, but the roughness of the rocks prevented us from slipping. The castle offers beautiful views and is fun to explore. It amazes me that in almost all the castles, very little is roped off which left us to explore everywhere we wanted. We took our time exploring, but it still took only 1-hour round trip from the café. (Castle #5) Our luck held out again with the rain; it started just as we finished our castle visit.
We arrived in Cardiff in more rain, but the rain didn’t deter us from exploring the area. We discovered that the Hilton Hotel Cardiff is only a 4-minute walk from Primark, one of our daughter’s favorite stores, so we bought clothes as souvenirs for her and our granddaughter. The people at the hotel were so friendly and helpful. One gentleman suggested Madeira Restaurant for dinner since he like the food and he was from Madeira. Madeira is one of our favorite places to visit so we took his suggestion and were treated to a fabulous dinner of fish, calamari, prawns, mussels, sardines, and the requisite olives.
Wales—Day 7--Cardiff and Bath
On our way to Cardiff Castle we stumbled upon various arcades, glass-roofed alleys that run between buildings. These arcades lend a charming touch to the area surrounding the castle and are fun to wander through. We came back and ate a bloomer in one of the coffee and tea shops. (A bloomer is an open-face sandwich.)
Cardiff Castle was the site of Roman and Norman forts before it was renovated and restored by the British. The castle, unlike the other castles we saw in Wales, exemplifies the different ideas of restoration over the centuries. It was interesting to see the various architectural styles that reflect the time periods in which restoration occurred. Even the walls have undergone change. We were able to see parts of the original Roman walls as well as later walls that were fortified and used as an air raid shelter for 1,800 people during WWII. The self-guided tour has an audio guide that gives many interesting stories. (Castle #6)
We took the House Tour, an hour-long escorted tour of the castle apartments that were renovated in the Victorian Gothic style into an elaborate home full of beautiful details that give a fairy-tale atmosphere. Our guide was wonderful. Cardiff Castle does not take the CaDW card, because the site is owned by Cardiff citizens, a gift from the family during times that looked upon royalty and the rich with great suspicion.
After lunch in the arcade, we drove to Tintern Abbey. (One of our original ideas had been to go to Hay-on-wye to see the bookstores, but after a month of traveling we were getting tired and chose to skip it.) Even though I had read that the site was impressive, I was unprepared by the elegance, beauty, and atmosphere of this place that was made built in 1269 by Cistercian monks and gained fame in Wordsworth poetry. We enjoyed walking through the ruins in relative solitude as we luxuriated in the beauty and history of this place.
And then…on to Bath, Avebury, and London before flying home. In our short time in Wales we toured only 6 castles, but we saw 7 others from a distance. Hmmm…13 out of an approximate 600. I’m glad we left a few to discover on our next trip to this beautiful country.