Wales, a small country in the United Kingdom (along with Scotland, England and Northern Ireland), offers a great diversity of surprising experiences. It feels comfortable, safe, and familiar — yet foreign enough to be exciting for Americans. While everyone speaks English, the ancient Welsh language is experiencing a resurgence. You’ll see bilingual signs everywhere and eavesdrop on plenty of casual conversations in this intriguing musical language.
With an epic coastline and snow-dusted mountains, Wales is worthy of a thousand postcards. Despite the abundance of natural beauty and a tourist-friendly infrastructure, Wales has managed to slip under the radar. Perhaps this has something to do with the modest nature of the Welsh people who, though full of national pride, are not ones to boast or brag.
A visit to this land of the legendary King Arthur and wizard Merlin brings these Celtic myths to life. With the new big-budget film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (filmed in Capel Curig and Snowdonia among other locations) opening in spring, 2017, Wales may soon be garnering some overdue attention. If you’re the sort of family who likes to be on the cutting edge of the next “it” vacation destination, Wales should top your list. Here are 10 things you may not have realized you can do when you get there.
Explore the Ring of Iron Castles
Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country on earth. The north is where King of England Edward I’s Ring of Iron Castles –- four medieval fortresses built to conquer the Welsh — are located.
Caernarfon Castle, situated in the town of the same name, is perhaps the best preserved of King Edward I’s quartet of castles. It is also known as the site of the investiture of a very young Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969.
Not far from Caernarfon is another of Edward I’s castles, Conwy Castle. The town of Conwy is a charmer, with lovely shops and a scenic harbor. The castle is a stunner but the perfectly intact fortified wall around the town is even more spectacular.
Examine the Tiniest House in the U.K.
Kids should get a kick out of seeing the smallest house in Great Britain, the Quay House, measuring in at just 72″ wide by 122″ high. It looks even tinier in the shadow of hulking Conwy Castle.
Zip Across North Wales
Mother Nature has gifted Wales with mountains, cliffs, forests and seascapes; man has added a dash of imagination to the mix. For families who crave an adrenaline rush, Zip World should satisfy. The multiple zip lines offer views of the spectacular coastline and quarry as you soar high above.
For a real splash, try surfing the manmade waves at Surf Snowdonia. This inland fresh-water lagoon is located on the site of what was once an aluminum factory. A Perfect 6-foot-high wave is released every minute. Lessons and surf camps are options. Wetsuits are available to protect you from the chilly air.
Hop a Scenic Train Ride in North Wales
Snowdon Mountain Railway takes you up into the magical mountains of Snowdonia National Park. This spectacular rail journey brings you to the summit of the highest mountain in Wales, Snowdon. It’s a rack-and-pinion railway that runs seasonally, weather permitting. With the exception of two World Wars, Snowdon Mountain Railway has run uninterrupted since 1896. Heaven for train buffs!
Get Outside in Mid-Wales
The Brecon Beacons National Park’s rolling hills, grassy moors and plentitude of waterfalls makes it a prime stomping ground for families who wish to spend time enjoying fresh-air pursuits.
Mid-Wales is packed with lively markets so try and time your visit to a village like Hay with market day, every Thursday. Vendors sell locally grown produce and fresh baked cakes, breads and savories, perfect for an al fresco lunch.
Be a Bookworm
For literary-minded families, a visit to Hay-On-Wye is a must. This little town is home to dozens of bookshops. You’ll find second-hand bookshops as well as specialty bookshops with themes such as cinema, poetry and children’s books.
Each May, the Hay Festival brings together writers from around the world to celebrate the power of the written word and great ideas. Bill Clinton appropriately called it “The Woodstock of the mind”.
Dig Deep in South Wales
The Big Pit National Coal Museum retains many features from its past incarnation as a coalmine. Former miners escort visitors 300 feet underground to experience what life was like for those who worked the mine. You’ll even wear the same equipment once used by the miners.
The retired miners are a wealth of knowledge and are eager to answer all questions during this one-hour tour. This is not for anyone suffering from even mild claustrophobia or for very young children who could be scared of the dark. It is cold down in the pit so pack an extra layer.
After you’ve ascended the mineshaft, walk over to the Pithead Baths and view the exhibits that delve into themes such as the history of child labor in the mines. It’s an important reminder of the complex impact the coal industry had in Wales. The museum is free of charge.
Time Travel to a Future Cardiff
Cardiff, the manageable-sized capital, is easy to navigate. It is a hotbed of television and film production with several studios in town. If your family enjoys the hit BBC sci-fi series Doctor Who, you’ve hit the jackpot. The show shoots in Cardiff and fans flock to The Doctor Who Experience. It’s an immersive journey inside a TV show that enjoys massive pop-culture success around the world.
Live History in Cardiff
St. Fagans National History Museum is a family-perfect, open-air attraction. The museum sits alongside a castle and magnificent gardens. Forty original buildings house workshops where craftsmen demonstrate their traditional skills. Watch a farmer feed the pigs, the blacksmith at work and the baker prepare sweet treats. Many of the crafts produced are for sale, so leave room in your suitcase to purchase high-quality souvenirs. The craftsmen and interpreters often converse among themselves in Welsh. It’s free of charge.
Getting to Wales and Exploring
It’s easy to reach most of Wales in just a few hours via high-speed train from London and Manchester. There’s a network of local buses as well.
To see this country with a local guide, you can’t do better than Celticos. Owned and operated by two highly intelligent native-born Welshmen, they customize small group tours to suit individual interests. They know every nook and cranny of this country and can help you make the most of your time in Wales.
For additional information to help you plan your trip, go to VisitWales.com.
Photo credits: The author, Big Pit Coal Museum, St Fagans National History Museum and Visit Wales
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.