Cardiff: King of a capital

Phillip Tang visited Welsh capital Cardiff and had a great time exploring the castle, which dominates the city centre. With a mish-mash of styles and eras, at the entrance of the 2000-year-old estate, the masonry joins clearly show where Roman and Norman styles butted heads.

We laugh out loud at the interior when we step inside, as it is dripping in Victorian bling. The rooms are heavily decorated with marble, polished wood, chandeliers and the astrological whirl of black and gold.

The many rooms eventually lead out to the castle grounds, where peacocks wander around, and we feel like we are in Alice’s Wonderland.  

Getting younger by the day
The gaudiness is ‘so bad it’s good’, but it makes my head spin, so we head to the city centre. Cardiff is undergoing a facelift to look younger and more party-ready, yet the streets remain spacious and empty. There is a buzz, though it feels elusive.

Spillers Records – the oldest record store in the world, established in 1894 by Henry Spiller – calls us in. In Cardiff Castle, a harp would have provided the perfect soundtrack; now the record player is spinning out Manic Street Preachers – who started out busking in Cardiff.

Centre of the action
According to those in the know, Cardiff Bay is at the centre of the action, so we stroll along to the sparkling waters. Wales Millennium Centre, squatting like a giant beetle, is a slate, iron and glass building that signals a monumental future for the city. No wonder it’s a regular backdrop for TV series Doctor Who.

If there is a time vortex in Cardiff Bay, the Norwegian Church has definitely slipped through it. The ghostly white and black church ponders the new builds across the bay, but for the moment, it’s an arts centre. Our guide insists it’s a perfect place to try a pint of the über-Welsh SA Gold (Skull Attack to locals), and he is right.

Wild times
Cardiff is surrounded by wild Welsh countryside, so we rent bikes and ride along the flat Taff Trail; I’m surprised by how quickly we’re alongside a bubbling brook. We find Castell Coch, a fairytale building from the 1870s that was built for love, and even has a drawbridge.

Night buzz
At night in Cardiff, that buzz is back. We pass over the tacky city centre, go through gay Charles Street and head back to the bay. Here the pubs and bars feel Welsh and the cocktails are coloured with local charm. Clwb ifor bach (Welsh Club) is strongly Welsh, feels like a cave and is superbly cool, with something for everyone on different nights, from electro to goth.

Cardiff’s identity is as mixed as the music – city among the trees, castle among the city. As we dance, we feel like we could be in a London club, but with drinks this cheap, the mish-mash of haircuts around us, plus the sing-song of Welsh, we can only be in Cardiff.

Fossil collecting in Penarth
The best souvenir to take home is a piece of ancient Wales itself. Wander the foreshore in Penarth, a seaside resort 8km from Cardiff, searching for fossils that have been shed from the immense curtain of eroding cliff face.

You don’t need tools to pick up gastropods, brachiopods, stone shells and red boulders from the Triassic period, or Jurassic rocks, and you are free to take home whatever you find.

Overturn a stone and you might discover the imprint of a worm that wriggled across its surface millions of years ago. If you’re feeling active, bring a hammer and chisel to hack into boulders and reveal a world frozen in time, then compare your prizes over fish and chips on the pier.

The Penarth Esplanade is also worth checking out, as is the nearby Penarth village, which is old-fashioned and charming with its Victorian terraces and peaceful parks, giving it the name ‘garden by the sea’.

When to go: The best time to visit is May and September when it’s warm, but you avoid the school crowd. October to January is wet.

Getting there: National Express runs a frequent coach service to Cardiff from London (three hours), which costs from £14 return.

Getting around: Cardiff is well served by buses, local rail and taxis.

Accommodation: A bed in a dorm costs from £19, a double room in a hotel costs from £50.