South Wales is an area of Britain that is rich in history and has so many beautiful areas to explore. From beaches that stretch for miles, to stunning landscapes and a wealth of castles, you’re sure never to be bored in this part of the United Kingdom. In this post. I’m going to share with you what I believe are the top things to see and do in South Wales. You might even decide to visit after reading.
South Wales is roughly divided into two parts. The West is home to the boroughs of Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, while the East includes the areas of Newport, Cardiff and Bridgend, along with the valley counties and Monmouthshire. South Wales stretches for approximately 140 miles from the Second Severn Crossing in the east to St David’s in the west and this run will take you between two and a half and three hours, mostly along the M4. Each section of South Wales has its own natural beauty and wonders and I’ll touch on a few of them that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting myself.
Quaint Villages and Towns
There are many villages across South Wales that you can visit but the ones that stand out for me are Tenby, St David’s and Solva in West Wales, while the market town of Abergavenny in South Wales became one of my favourites.
Tenby is a walled seaside town in Pembrokeshire that is a popular tourist destination. This beautiful town has small winding streets housing high street shops beside craft shops filled with the most delightful homemade crafts and produce. If you wander through the town towards the shore, you’ll come across the sandy beach, harbour and St Catherine’s Island, a 19th century fort which is only accessible at low tide.
St David’s, a newly reinstated city in Wales, is the final resting place of the patron saint of Wales and was named after him. Although classed as a city, it is quite a small one and is one of the most westerly towns of South Wales. St David’s Cathedral is the most notable thing to visit in the city, along with Bishop’s Palace, a gothic ruin on the opposite side of the river to the cathedral. From St David’s you can take boat tours to the nearby islands of Skomer and Ramsey to see puffins.
Solva, just a few miles from St David’s, is a small fishing village where you’ll find craft shops and quaint tea rooms. We enjoyed the best Welsh lamb cawl in The Old Pharmacy tea room before enjoying a stroll through the town and admiring some of the boats in the small harbour.
As for Abergavenny, we had the pleasure of living just 20 minutes’ drive from this market town and it became our favourite place for a Saturday morning brunch and stroll. Abergavenny lies on the River Usk and has the Black Mountains for a backdrop. It can provide the perfect base for exploring the nearby Brecon Beacon National Park. It is a busy little town with a thriving indoor market. Our favourite place for brunch or a slice of cake with a cuppa was the Cwtch Café. Their eggs benedict was delicious. However, if you are going to be in town after lunchtime, I can highly recommend Afternoon Tea in the Angel Hotel.
South Wales has some of the most stunning beaches I’ve come across in the UK. In West Wales the beaches of Newgale and Barafundle Bay, both in Pembrokeshire, are worth a visit. They can both be reached from Tenby which can provide a great base for exploring both beaches and the surrounding area. Closer to Swansea you’ll find the ever-impressive Gower Peninsula with the Three Cliffs Bay, Rhossili and Worms Head all located within this area of nature outstanding beauty. Each one should be visited at least once to appreciate the beauty of the area as a whole.
In South East Wales you’ll want to visit Llantwit Major and Dunraven Bay at Southerndown, both beautiful beaches in their own right, although you should note, these are sandy beaches packed with rock and pebbles too. For a fully sandy beach, Aberavon Beach in Port Talbot is a popular destination on sunny days.
Areas of Natural Beauty
As already mentioned, the Gower Peninsula near Swansea is one area of South Wales not to be missed for its incredible coastline and beaches. Worm’s Head is only accessible at low tide and if you miss it, you can still enjoy the beauty of it from the top of Rhossili Bay Cliffs.
Another area of South Wales that was mentioned already is the Brecon Beacons. This mountain range is home to South Wales highest peak, Pen-y-Fan, and we were privileged to live on the very edge of during our last 4 years in Wales. It is also an area made famous by the fact the SAS use its rugged terrain as part of their selection process.
One area of South Wales we unfortunately didn’t get to visit, but one which should be mentioned, is the Aberdulais Falls. Located along the River Dulais in Aberdulais near Neath, these falls are some of the most beautiful in South Wales and are one of my only regrets during our time living in Wales.
South Wales is home to a plethora of history and also to some of the most impressive castles we have had the pleasure of visiting. From Pembroke Castle, Carreg Cennen and Weobley Castle in the west, to the famous Caerphilly Castle, Cardiff and Chepstow Castle in the east, there are some to be found in almost every county of South Wales. Some have quite a large area of the structure intact, while some such as Abergavenny Castle are mostly ruins. Did you know that the south east tower of Caerphilly Castle leans to a greater degree than the Leaning Tower of Pisa?
Continuing with history you’ll find the Big Pit National Coal Museum in Blaenavon fascinating, while St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff is not to be missed. The Bit Pit is the other regret I have of our time in Wales. Despite living within 15 minutes’ drive of it for four years, we are yet to pay this site a visit. I guess it’s a good excuse to go back for a holiday. Thankfully, we found time to visit St Fagans just a few weeks before we emigrated to Portugal and what an impressive place it is. With houses and structures dating back over one thousand years, telling the history of Wales, it is an amazing place to visit and somewhere you should plan on spending more than a few hours at.
If Roman history is your thing, then a visit to the National Roman Legion Museum at Caerleon is a must. With Roman baths, an amphitheatre and barracks to be viewed, it is worth the detour off the M4 motorway are a must. With a Roman history museum at the site as well, you can gain an insight into the Romans that made it all the way to Wales during the invasions almost 2000 years ago.
And if that’s not enough there are other museums in both Cardiff and Swansea such as the National Museum of Wales and National Waterfront Museums, respectively, to be enjoyed.
South Wales is an area that has something to suit all age ranges. Alongside the many castles and other historic sites to visit, there is an abundance of other places to visit that are family-friendly and suitable for kids.
In West Wales one of our favourite places that we took our son was to Folly Farm. Now, don’t let the name fool you, it is anything but a farm. Yes, you will find farm animals there, but you’ll also find so much more. Folly Farm Adventure Park and Zoo houses other animals such as giraffes, rhinos, lions and even cheeky penguins. There is a large play area with ride-along tractors, diggers kids can try out and a Ferris wheel. It’s an amazing day out and although we spent a full day there we didn’t cover everything. It’s the ideal place to take kids if you are staying in Tenby or the surrounding areas.
Near Folly Farm you’ll also find Oakwood Theme Park, located just a few minutes from the amazing Bluestone National Park Resort, our favourite UK family destination. However, we never got the chance to visit it and I have heard mixed reviews about it from both family and friends.
Not too far from Swansea you’ll also find the Wales Ape and Monkey Sanctuary, a rescue centre for monkeys of all sizes. We visited this site when our son was two and it was a nice small centre where you could view the monkeys in their enclosure. It is not a very big sanctuary but is somewhere you could spend an hour or two as part of a combined day out, perhaps on Swansea.
As you head east along the M4 motorway, you could visit Margam Country Park, another place in Wales we are yet to visit, but one I’ve always heard good things about. With things like Margam Castle, an Orangery (often hired out for weddings) and a herd of deer, it makes for a lovely day out particularly if the weather if nice. For families there is a farm trail, Fairytale village, Adventure play area and the Margam Park Train.
In and around Cardiff you are spoiled for choice. As well as Cardiff Castle, several museums and St Fagans, you can also enjoy days out at Barry Island and Penarth Pier. You could take the kids to Techniquest in Cardiff Bay to enjoy a bit of interactive play with a science-theme. They run special toddler days on certain Fridays throughout the year with the smaller members of the family in mind and my son thoroughly enjoyed his visit to Techniquest.
There are farm parks in and around Cardiff as well and our personal favourite was Cefn Mably Farm Park located nearer to Newport. This farm park has a large outdoor area with different types of farm animals, diggers for kids to try out and a large indoor soft play area beside which is the café, so parents can enjoy a cuppa while the kids let off steam.
And if you have a train fan in your family, then a visit to the Brecon Mountain Railway is a must. The steam train runs from the Pant station (just north of Merthyr Tydfil) along the Pontsticill Reservoir to Torpantau station in the Brecon Beacons National Park. The scenery is stunning and there are tearooms for refreshments as well.
There is no end of family-friendly things to do in South Wales.
City life and shopping
There are two main bustling cities in South Wales, Swansea and Cardiff, with another in Newport on the east. All have the usual high streets shops, hotels and cafes and restaurants associated with city life. Although I have visited all three, my personal favourite is Cardiff.
We were regular visitors to the capital when living in Wales and often popped in to Cardiff on a Saturday morning for some brunch before visiting the castle, stopping for lunch and then doing a spot of shopping in St David’s Shopping centre. This large shopping centre, extended in 2009, is the eleventh largest shopping centre in the United Kingdom. With shops like Debenhams, John Lewis, Boots and many more high streets names, this centre has all the shops you’ll ever need. There is ample parking, although it does get busy at weekends, and the food court has a wide choice of restaurants for meals.
Aside from St David’s, Cardiff has many arcades with smaller niche shops and cafes to enjoy. Much of the shopping area of the city is pedestrianised around the Hayes and also Queen Street. There is an abundance of hotels to choose from both within the city centre and further afield. And if you fancy a bit of the night life, there are many pubs and clubs to while away an evening.
In Swansea you have a large shopping centre called The Quadrant with many of the usual high street shops available. The main night life action of the city happens on Wind Street. I have never been on a night out in Swansea, but my husband has during his time working in the city. And I am told it’s not for the fainthearted.
South Wales is a rich and diverse area with everything from quaint villages to vibrant bustling cities. There is no much on offer for everyone, both couples and families alike, that where you base yourself and what you do is going to be a hard decision. We loved our time living in Wales, and although we didn’t get to see and do everything we wanted, we still covered a lot. It’s an area of the United Kingdom we will visit again in the future.
Cath is an Irish expat who now lives in Portugal with her husband and son. A former scientist, she gave up working when they emigrated south from the UK. She is a family travel and lifestyle blogger and hopes that, through her blog, they will inspire more families to travel, especially with the toddlers in tow. As a family they love travelling and have started working their way through their family travel bucket list. Cath writes about their family travels and experiences on her blog Passports and Adventures.