A sparkling bay, imposing castle and bustling city centre are among the highlights of Cardiff, Wales–not to mention all of the fantastic day trips on its doorstep.
The Welsh capital is extremely walkable, making it easy to experience most of the fun things to do in Cardiff in one day before heading out to see more of the compact country.
Cardiff (home to less than 400,000 people) is a great base for exploring: I stayed here for four nights during my first trip to Wales, and spent the first day sightseeing in the city. The rest of the time I headed out on day trips from Cardiff like castle hopping, relaxing on Tenby’s sandy, sunny shores and hiking in Brecon Beacons National Park.
Since most of these sites are only about an hour away there was still time to see more of the city when I’d get back in the late afternoon, and check out spots like Castell Coch and Caerphilly Castle (more on those below). You’ll definitely want to rent a car to pull this off though, since surprisingly there aren’t a lot of organized tours or easy public transit options outside the city.
Cardiff is also a quick train ride away from Bristol and Bath (hello, Bridgerton fans!) and only three hours from London, making it a great add-on to any UK trip.
From scenic boat rides to sampling local sweets, here are the best things to do in Cardiff in a day.
Morning: Visit Cardiff Castle
Kick off your day of sightseeing in Cardiff at Cardiff Castle, which boasts a rich history dating back an astounding 2000 years.
Conveniently located right in the heart of the city, it welcomes half a million visitors each year and serves as the starting point for many walking tours, so try and visit first thing in the morning or late in the day to beat the crowds.
There are several areas to explore once crossing through its grand main gate, starting with the Public Square which is free to enter. Tickets are required for guided tours or to explore its interior spaces, like the opulent Castle Apartments which were decorated and furnished with large murals, elaborate wood carvings, stained glass and marble.
Be sure to head up the spiral staircase to see the iconic Clock Tower, and The Norman Keep for great views of the courtyard, manicured parks, city skyline and rolling hillsides in the distance.
See the Animal Wall
The Animal Wall is found just outside the castle’s entrance along the wall linking the West Gate Lodge and Clock Tower. It features fifteen animals, which were carved in the late 1880s under the supervision of architect William Frame and the order of the 3rd Marquess of Bute.
Originally, the wall was right outside the castle. However, it was moved to the west end in 1923 when the road it was on (Duke Street) had to be widened. The animals include a lynx, sea lion, hyena, lioness, vulture and even a pair of raccoons.
Eat a Welsh cake
Head across the road to one of the shops lining Castle Street to snack on a Welsh cake, a traditional treat that will satisfy your sweet tooth.
Falling somewhere between a biscuit and a scone, these delicious treats are extremely popular in Wales, and look like round, small bakes with a crinkled edge and are best eaten warm.
Typically, Welsh cakes are made with butter, flour, milk, caster sugar, eggs and some variation of raisins, sultanas, or currants. They are also known as bakestones or ‘picau ar y maen’ in rural Wales in reference to the cast iron griddle used to bake them.
There are lots of places to pick them up along Castle Street–Fabulous Welshcakes, as its name suggests, is among the best–and there are lots for sale inside the Cardiff Market.
Lunch: Wander around the city centre
When you only have one day in Cardiff, wandering around the downtown area is a must to see the shops, grab some lunch and marvel at the gorgeous architecture.
High Street and St Mary Street are great spots to start, and there’s a colourful display of 200 hanging umbrellas on Church Street as part of a project to raise awareness about neurodiversity in the UK.
Be sure to duck into the fabulous shopping arcades: there are seven in Cardiff which house funky boutiques, bookstores, galleries, vintage clothing stores, bars and eateries framed by a backdrop of Victorian architecture; my favourites are on High Street, and the Castle Arcade which has been around since the 1800s.
Afternoon: Take a boat ride through the city
Once you’ve properly explored downtown, see it from a different vantage point by hopping on a water taxi.
The Princess Katharine is a 90-passenger vessel which glides between Bute Park (beside the castle) and Cardiff Bay throughout the day. There’s audio commentary en route, explaining some of the sights along the way like the Principality Stadium, which is home to Wales’ national rugby and football teams.
The ride takes about an hour, and is a great way to give your feet a bit of a rest while still enjoying the Cardiff attractions.
Walk around Cardiff Bay
One of the most lively places to visit in Cardiff is Cardiff Bay, a massive freshwater lake at the confluence of the Ely and Taff rivers.
The ‘dockland district’ is a hub of activity, with soaring residential towers, a busy harbour and marina, and attractions like the Welsh Parliament (known locally as Senedd Cymru), Techniquest science centre which is great for families and the Makers Guild in Wales craft shop featuring handcrafted items from local artisans.
Mermaid Quay is at the heart of the action, where shops, bars, cafes and restaurants overlook the waterfront (a great spot for happy hour!). A number of boat tours and water taxis also operate from here, including Challenge Wales which offers tall ship tours which is one of the best things to do in Cardiff Bay.
For a more active outing, the 10 kilometre long Cardiff Bay Trail is ideal for scenic walks and cycling, while the Pont y Werin pedestrian bridge spans the River Ely between Cardiff Bay and Penarth.
More things to do in Cardiff, Wales
Making good time, or have more days to spend in Cardiff? Here some other ideas:
Visit Cardiff’s charming districts
To get more of a feel for Cardiff beyond the downtown core, head out into the surrounding neighbourhoods. Exclusive suburb Pontcanna has massive greenspaces and intimate restaurants, while Canton and Victoria Park are best for creative types (don’t miss The Bone Yard, a village made from shipping containers housing artisan stalls and eateries).
Over in Llandaff which is considered a city within a city, you’ll find lovely boutiques, lively pubs, a small medieval fortress called the Bishop’s Palace and the impressive Llandaff Cathedral which dates back to 1120 (and is also a stop on ghost tours!).
Fun fact: Llandaff was the birthplace of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl, and the home of Doctor Who.
Explore the incredible castles near Cardiff
Wales’ claim to fame is that it has more castles per square mile than any other country in Europe, with more than 400 of them still standing or in ruins. A few of them are found on the outskirts of Cardiff, making them an easy add-on to city sightseeing.
Castell Coch is just a 15 minute drive from the city centre, and a Victorian-style structure that was rebuilt in the Gothic style in the 19th century on the foundations of a 13th-century castle. The ‘Red Castle’ is surrounded by dense woods up on a hilltop, and its soaring towers and conical roofs have appeared in Merlin and Doctor Who.
Guided tours are the best way to view the interior of the castle, though you also get a fantastic perspective from it outside while strolling in the surrounding woods.
Caerphilly Castle is the country’s biggest castle, second in size only to England’s Windsor Castle. Its imposing facades are surrounded by watery islands and moats, and its unique claim to fame is a tower that leans even more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa!
This organized tour starts at Caerphilly Castle which is about 30 minutes from downtown, and also stops at Tintern Abbey and Chepstow Castle overlooking the River Wye.
Head out on a day trip from Cardiff
Explore beyond the capital to admire more castles, enjoy a scenic hike or check out the cute Welsh towns–whatever you fancy, you’ll likely find it within an hour or two.
My favourite is Brecon Beacons National Park which is surrounded by the Black Mountain Range, Fforest Fawr and Black Mountains, and has rolling hillsides with grazing sheep—a quintessential Welsh scene.
The region boasts quaint towns and nine castles, is a designated Dark Sky Preserve, and the only UNESCO Geopark in Wales thanks to its limestone, caves and tilted rock.
Start with an early morning hike up to Pen-y-Fan for jaw-dropping views, then cool off in the afternoon at one of the swimming holes found along the fantastic Four Waterfalls Trail which features–you guessed it–four sets of cascading falls (if you don’t have wheels, book this guided hike which includes transportation from Cardiff).
The walled, seaside town of Tenby is absolutely adorable, and feels like a taste of the Mediterranean thanks to the shimmering water, stretches of golden sand, al fresco dining and palm-fringed boardwalks.
I booked this guided tour to get to Tenby, which also includes stops at Pembroke Castle (birthplace of Henry the 7th) and Laugharne Castle where two giant medieval stone towers guard the remains of a magnificent Tudor mansion.
Book these Cardiff day tours:
Those looking to explore further into the UK can hop on a quick train to Bristol or Bath; Bristol was the first city in Britain to be named a European Green Capital, and features a picturesque harbour, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the fabulous Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.
Bath is an absolute stunner: this gorgeous city is known for its ancient Roman Baths and limestone facades, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Thermae Bath Spa is the only place in Britain where you can bathe in natural thermal hot springs, and fans of the TV series Bridgerton can join a walking tour of the filming locations.
Book a tour in Bath:
Where to stay in Cardiff
Parador44: Guests rave about this character-filled hotel located right beside Principality Stadium and a quick walk to Cardiff Castle. There’s a cozy restaurant and honesty bar, beautiful clean rooms and an excellent breakfast. See pricing on Expedia or Booking.com.
Staybridge Suites Cardiff: With an enviable locale overlooking the water and equal walking distance between the castle and Cardiff Bay, the bright, modern suites sleep up to four people and some include kitchens, making this a great option for families. See pricing on Expedia or Booking.com.
Hotel Indigo: With funky, boutique-style rooms, this eco-certified hotel is quiet despite being close to the popular Cardiff tourist attractions, and has an on-site restaurant, two bars and a rooftop terrace. See pricing on Expedia or Booking.com.
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