Croeso i Caerdydd. As the Welsh capital makes headway towards this year’s Mardi Gras, we thought we’d take some time to look at Cardiff as a UK travel destination beyond the Wales’ biggest LGBT event. A little over two hours from London and three hours from Manchester by train, it’s in easy reach for a short break and has plenty to offer.
The city was first settled by the Romans in approximately AD55 who established a fort on the site of where the castle now stands. A direct translation of the city’s Welsh name, Caerdydd literally means ‘fort on the river Taff’ (according to one theory). Later, a Norman settlement and castle established itself where the fort once stoof.
But it’s during the Victorian era that Cardiff came into its own. It was the centre of coal trade for the whole of Great Britain with the cast majority of the fossil fuel passing through its docks for trade. The trade was so successful that the first £1 million cheque in the world was signed there. The Third Marquees of Bute, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, on the back of his family’s accumulated coal wealth, converted the ruined Norman Cardiff Castle into a lavish and opulent summer home. It is a must see attraction in itself. It is also well worth the extra cost to take a guided tour of the family rooms. We should also point out that if you’re planning an extra-special party or Civil Partnership, the lavish banqueting hall is available to hire for only £500 per hour.
The make-up of the rest of the city’s architecture is very much of the early 1900s – glass roofed arcades, and intricate stonemasonry. But with the recent regeneration of the city there are also flashes of modern inspiration throughout.
At one point, Cardiff had more theatres and music halls per square mile than London, but as the coal left the city, so did much of the culture. However, Cardiff has really undergone resurgence in the arts, especially when it comes to music and opera. The Wales Millennium Centre, an awesome behemoth of architectural brilliance, dominates the recently redeveloped Cardiff Bay area. With multiple performance spaces, it hosts many of the touring West End productions, but more importantly it is the home to the Welsh National Opera. The technically advance space boasts an enormous stage (second largest in the UK next to the Royal Opera House) where the company perform productions of opera that rival those of the London companies. Indeed, this year the Cape Town Opera have chosen the venue to premiere their only performances of new opera The Mandela Trilogy in the UK, alongside their tour of their acclaimed production of George & Ira Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess. With tickets starting at a paltry £5, The Wales Millennium Centre is a real find for opera fans, but means that advance booking is most certainly recommended.
Futher more for theatre lovers there’s the New Theatre in the city centre which hosts a standard programme. But a little way out in Canton stands Chapter Arts Centre, which hosts an array of fringe theatre productions for those who like their performance a little more off the cuff. It also has its own art gallery and cinema which screens more art house fare than the mainstream multiplexes back in the city centre. Indeed, the Iris Prize Festival use Chapter Arts Centre as their base for the festival, with many of the screenings shown here.
The St. David’s Hall also offers an array of classical music concerts from the renowned BBC Welsh National Orchestra, as well as being a pit-stop for many touring big name comedians and many other touring shows. The Cardiff International Arena also hosts nearly every major band that is touring the UK, so if you’ve missed and/or can’t afford to see your favourite act in London, Cardiff is your next best bet.
The city also has plenty of sports going on as well. Many sporting events, including Olympic football, are held in the massive more than 80,000 capacity Millennium Stadium, which of course is also to home to Welsh rugby. And then there’s the Cardiff Devils, one of Britain’s most revered ice hockey teams, which also plays games regularly in the city.
Sci-fi fans will also know Cardiff as the filming location for the new Doctor Who series, and also the location for Torchwood. The Doctor Who Experience is soon set to take up a residency in Cardiff Bay near the BBC’s studios there.
Cardiff has a small yet thriving LGBT scene. What’s more is that it’s also incredibly friendly and vibrant. Drag shows are a regular occurrence across almost all venues too, mostly concentrated on Charles Street and Churchill Way. Definitely check out Pulse, one of the city’s biggest clubs, with club nights on a Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Also, Pulse is one of the official UK clubs that hosts X-Factor rejects on a farewell tour. Across the road there’s Wow Bar, a relaxed and trendy bar which always has something going on whatever night. For those who like a bit of rough and tumble, there’s also The Eagle which spiritually takes after its New York namesake. There's also Fusion, a lesbian-run mixed crowd bar, which is as chilled and chic as its clientèle.
Cardiff is so compact and small that it’s very easy to traverse the city centre by foot. But if you fancy making it out to Cardiff Bay, or St Fagans: National History Museum, this can be easily achieved by a short and inexpensive bus journey. At £1.70 a single fare, getting about couldn’t be easier, or you can get yourself a Day to Go for £3.40 or a Week to Go pass for £15.00, depending on how long you plan to stick around.
Shopping & Eating Out
Cardiff is a shopper’s paradise, and being so compact you don’t have to venture too far. The St David’s Shopping Centre is the sixth largest mall in Europe, boasting both high street and designer shops. But those into a more independent venture will find plenty of boutiques in the many Victorian arcades that meander between streets. Those who fancy mingling amongst the salt of the earth can do so at the rough-around-the-edges but none the less charming undercover market, especially great for bargain finds and souvenirs.
Like many cities, there are plenty of dinning venues to choose from. But for a memorable experience we recommend heading down to Mermaid Quay in Cardiff Bay to try one of the myriad restaurants there overlooking the bay. It is just perfect if you can get a table on the balcony overlooking the bay at twilight. It’s certainly worth checking out Bellini’s at Mermaid Quay, or elsewhere around the city. This is a local chain of Italian fusion restaurants which offer traditional Italian cuisine with subtle twists, at a price that is far from unreasonable.
There is only one officially gay-run hotel, the Ty Rosa out in Grangetown, which is perfectly situated on bus routes to and from the city centre and Cardiff Bay. However, many of the main hotels are gay friendly. The Park Inn, the official hotel for the Iris Prize Festival, offers reasonable and comfortable rooms. Those wanting something a bit more extravagant can find many boutique hotels on architecturally stunning Cathedral Road or Park Place. However, the Park Plaza, partner hotel for Mardi Gras, offers sumptuous luxury at London Travelodge prices. Those on a budget will certainly be pleased with The Big Sleep or Sleeperz, both situated next to Cardiff Central Station, offering cheap accommodation that’s not without a complete lack of finesse.
Trains are the quickest, easiest, and value for money way to travel to Cardiff, providing you can plan in advance. Direct off-peak trains from London can cost as little as £11.50 each way from First Great Western (advance single) and from Manchester £13.00 each way (advance single) from Arriva Trains Wales.
For more information about Cardiff, please visit Visit Cardiff. For more information about Mardi Gras, which takes place on 1 September 2012, visit www.cardiffmardigras.co.uk. For more information about the Iris Prize Festival 2012, which takes place between 10 - 14 October 2012, please visit www.irisprize.org.
Featured image: Cardiff Castle Norman keep. Photograph: Property of the author.