The 12 Best Things to Do in Wales

Phil Dolby via Flickr

The least-visited country of the British Isles, Wales will open your eyes to a whole new side of the region. It doesn't have an iconic monument like Big Ben in England or an Instagram star location like the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, but that means travelers will get a much more unique and less overrun experience. Wales has stunning natural vistas, friendly locals, and a fascinating history. From the Cardiff Castle near the English border to the tip of Snowdonia in the north, here are 12 of the best things to do on your next trip to Wales. 

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1. Go surfing.

Surf Snowdonia/Stephanie Riddell via Flickr

Wales is one of the best surfing spots in Europe, offering plenty of swells for newbies and pros. Thanks to an epic coastline, Pembrokeshire has 52 beaches and a variety of breaks to choose from. If open water isn't your thing, look to Wales' alternative surfing spots. For example, the man-made lagoon at Surf Snowdonia offers a safe, but thrilling, experience. You can also go stand-up paddleboarding, surf kayaking, or bodyboarding. If the weather isn't surf-friendly, head to the simulated surf machine at the Cardiff International White Water center. Beyond catching waves, travelers can enjoy coasteering, horseback riding, and wildlife watching, too. 

2. Perfect your pronuncation.

Elocution experts don't stand a chance in Wales. The Welsh language, Cymraeg, is infamous for its lack of vowels. Everyone speaks English, but more than 20 percent of the population also uses Welsh. You can see the oldest set of Welsh tales at the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, which is also home to the first private Welsh language school. Tune into Radio Cymru or change the dial to S4C to get used to the sounds. The road signs are written in both Welsh and English. Prepare for tongue twisters like Bwlchgwyn, Rhydymwyn, and Rhosllanerchrugog. For the ultimate challenge, head to the village of Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch -- the second-longest one-word place name in the world. Fun fact: Dating back 4,000 years, Cymraeg is the oldest living language in Britain. 

3. Pretend to be royal.

Mario Sánchez Prada via Flickr

Move over, England. Wales is home to more castles per square mile (600 total) than anywhere else in the world. The capital of Cardiff has three alone: Cardiff Castle, right in the town center, Castell Coch (the Red Castle), and Caerphilly Castle, which is Britain's second-largest castle. Edward I's Conwy Castle is one of the most well-preserved medieval fortifications in the U.K., and the opulent Penrhyn Castle features a one-ton slate bed made for Queen Victoria. Harlech Castle, with views of Cardigan Bay, is also worth seeing. All the moats, turrets, and barbicans will have you feeling like royalty -- even if you haven't caught up on "The Crown."

4. Sample some local brews.

The pubs of England, Ireland, and Scotland don't have anything on the beer experts in Wales. Welsh brewing history dates back to the days of the Druids, over 1,500 years ago. In addition to checking out the pubs, you'll want to visit a brewery during your trip. Head to Brains, the U.K.'s biggest family-owned, independent brewery. Fan-favorite Otley is another good pick. Of course, most towns have their own boutique breweries. If they aren't making beer, they're probably serving fresh cider. It's just what you need to wash down the country's must-try dish, laverbread. To see another side of Wales' ales, visit during the The Real Ale Wobble mountain bike ride or the train-bound Rail Ale Festival. 

5. Take a hike.

Conor_John via Flickr

If you're a walker, Wales is the place for you. Each of the country's three national parks has a variety of incredible hiking routes. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park is located along the country's coast, Brecon Beacons National Park offers some inland delight, and Snowdonia has the best of both worlds. The 870-mile Wales Coast Path circles the country's coastline, while Offa's Dyke Path along the Wales-England border is a popular countryside choice. The peaks of Snowdonia present the biggest challenges, but come with stunning rewards. For something more leisurely, consider the Cardiff Bay Trail or Rhossili village walk. To meet some like-minded folks, head to Wales in September for the annual Walkabout, which navigates 75 of the nation's best paths. If you want to get off your feet, opt for the country's many mountain biking trails. 

6. Follow in the footsteps of a literary legend.

Swansea-born poet and author Dylan Thomas famously wrote "Do not go gentle into that good night" and the play, Under Milk Wood. Step into the world that inspired his work with a trip to western Wales. You can see his childhood home in Cwmdonkin Park and snap a photo of his statue in the nearby Maritime Quarter before heading to Laugharne, where he spent most of his life. Nearly every pub in town claims they hosted the writer at one time or another (believable considering his penchant for drinking), but the Brown's Hotel on King Street was a true favorite. To learn more, head to the Dylan Thomas Centre, which houses the "Man and Myth" exhibit honoring his life and art, or the Boathouse on the Taf Estuary, which shelters an extensive collection of memorabilia. 

7. Head underground.

Gareth Lovering Photography via Flickr

Between ancient dwellings and modern mining, a lot of Welsh life has been spent below the dirt. Dan Yr Ogof, also known as the National Showcaves Centre for Wales, is a great place to start. The cave system includes incredible formations, cascading waterfalls, and even human remains. For another underground adventure, head 500 feet below to the Llechwedd Slate Caverns. Depending on your taste, you can take an augmented-reality Deep Mine Tour or join an off-roading tour in a four-by-four Quarry Explorer. For more mining history, try the Big Pit National Coal Museum, Dolaucothi Gold Mines, or the Victorian copper mine in Sygun. Alternatively, you can learn about hydroelectricity in the labyrinthine tunnels of the Electric Mountain Visitor Centre, or step back to the Dark Ages with the King Arthur boat tour in Corris. 

8. Catch a rugby match.

In a country of tradition, Principality (formerly Millennium) Stadium stands out for its modernity. With state-of-the-art technology and a fully retractable roof, the home of the Welsh Rugby Union is one of the most impressive sports venues in the world. It was built to host the 1999 Rugby World Cup finals and has been stunning visitors every since. If you can't catch a match, be sure to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the grounds, which covers all levels of the stadium, from the Ray Gravell Press Room to the team dressing room. You can even walk down the player's tunnel toward the field, or as the Welsh say, pitch. Then, check out the prime viewing spots in the VIP hospitality suite and President's Box, which is normally reserved for royalty. 

9. Ride the rails.

Airwolfhound via Flickr

Train travel is the best way to see rural Wales, as is the case with many of Europe's iconic countrysides. Instead of the high-speed destination-focused options run by the national transport service, opt for a ride on one of The Great Little Trains of Wales. These narrow gauge steam trains show you the country's natural wonders in an old-timey way. They were originally built to carry slate from the quarries in the middle of the country to the ports along the sea. Now, you can chug your way through the picturesque lakes, enchanting forests, and charming villages. If you're thinking about riding more than one, consider purchasing the discount card to receive a reduced fare on each line. 

10. Shop for crafts.

You won't want to leave Wales without picking up a traditional souvenir. The craft stores are brimming with incredible gifts and knickknacks. From Celtic jewelry and glass sculptures to pottery and textiles, you'll be spoiled for choice. Perhaps most iconic is the Welsh lovespoon, which symbolizes love, luck, and faith. These trinkets date back to the 17th century, when suitors would present a young woman with a handcrafted wooden lovespoon. To see craftsmen at work and snag an original, head to the Corris Craft Centre or Craft in the Bay in Cardiff.

11. Make some new friends.

jayhem via Flickr

Sure, Wales is known for its friendly locals, but the country also has plenty of animals worth getting to know. The large number of sheep stand out, but you'd be remiss to not spend some time with the country's aquatic life. In the summer, you have the greatest chance of seeing whales, and between September and December, the seal pups are born. Dolphins and porpoises await you all year long. It isn't unusual to see a pod of 500 alongside your boat on the Dolphin Coast.

12. Go off the grid.

For many visitors, the far-flung, isolated towns are more exciting than the cities. Wales is a great place to connect with nature. It's also a great place to try a digital detox, leaving your devices by the wayside as you live completely in the moment.  There are eco campsites and lodges throughout the country, but Elan Valley is probably your best bet. One of the country's best-kept secrets, it doesn't receive the fanfare of Brecon Beacons or Snowdonia despite its beautiful rolling hills, approachable wildlife, and treasure trove of activities.  

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