South Wales is defined by the valleys that etch its landscape, each with its own unique personality. The historic industrial valleys, green again with country parks and forests, form the centrepiece of this welcoming region. They’re flanked on one side by the leafy Wye Valley, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. On the other you’ll find the pristine farmlands of the Vale of Glamorgan, fringed by the spectacular cliff-backed Glamorgan Heritage Coast.
The south coast is home to two of Wales’s largest and most vibrant cities. In Cardiff, the nation’s capital, you can stop by the (free!) National Museum Cardiff to eyeball an eclectic range of exhibits, from masterful paintings by Van Gogh to a moon rock retrieved during the Apollo 12 mission in 1969. Afterwards, pull up a chair outside a café in one of the city’s historic covered arcades, where blankets are laid on laps and Welsh cakes are plated up fresh from the griddle.
Some 10 miles (16km) to the east, Newport’s newest star attraction is its recently-renovated, Victorian-era market, now home to a cluster of quirky-cool eateries and shops, set beneath a striking domed glass ceiling. Away from the bustling city centre, there’s Caerleon Roman Fortress and Baths, one of only three permanent Roman fortresses built in Britain, and, for a nightcap, the massive Tiny Rebel Brewery Bar – a beloved beer brand originally started by two local lads in their garage.
Iron, coal … and mountain biking
Merthyr Tydfil, once the “iron capital of the world”, has reinvented itself as a mountain biking mecca. Bike Park Wales, “built by riders for riders”, lays on the full downhill experience with uplifts, bike hire, tuition and a cool café. There’s more stellar cycling at Afan Forest Park a few valleys away, where six world-class trails have been carved out of hillsides once surrounded by coalmines.
Don’t forget your clubs
Climb aboard a canoe on the Usk or Wye, rivers which wind their way through idyllic, tree-lined valleys. Experienced paddlers can tackle white-water rapids, while those who prefer to stay dry can take it easy on long stretches of still, glassy water and drink in the views.
Once dominated by industry, the South Wales Valleys have returned to their natural colours. Take a stroll in Aberdare’s Dare Valley Country Park, where lakes, waterfalls and walking trails now occupy the site of former collieries.
Coast and country
It’s two for the price of one in the Vale of Glamorgan. Explore lush countryside dotted with pretty villages and country towns. Or taste fresh salty air with a walk on the breathtaking Glamorgan Heritage Coast, 14 miles/23km of rugged cliffs and secluded coves with long-range sea views.
A work of art
The Wye Valley’s riversides and prolific woodlands have been inspiring artists and poets for centuries (William Wordsworth and JWM Turner were both big fans). See what all the fuss is about with a walk up to Devil’s Pulpit, a towering outcrop that offers stirring views over the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey.
Made of stone
Castles are a Welsh speciality. In the south you’ll find Caerphilly, the second largest castle in the UK. There’s also elaborate Raglan Castle – built more for show than defence – and Chepstow Castle. Perched on a cliff above the River Wye, it’s the first of a breed, the oldest surviving masonry fortress in Wales.
The word is out
Wales at work
Explore our rich industrial heritage with a visit to Big Pit National Coal Museum, Blaenavon, a working mine turned interactive historic attraction and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Strap on a miner’s helmet and take a rattling lift to “pit bottom” 300ft/91m below the ground to experience life at the inky black coalface. Or stay on the surface at Merthyr Tydfil’s Cyfarthfa Castle, a grand mansion built by riches from the iron trade that now houses a museum and art gallery.
An insider’s guide
- The best fest. Abergavenny Food Festival, held every September, is reckoned to be the finest foodie celebration in the UK.
- Welsh whisky. Penderyn in the foothills of the Bannau Brycheiniog (Brecon Beacons) produces award-winning single malt whiskies. Taste it on a distillery tour.
- Catch the narrow-gauge Brecon Mountain Railway from Merthyr Tydfil for grandstand views of the Bannau Brycheiniog National Park.
- Relive ancient history at Caerleon near Newport, one of Britain’s largest and best-preserved Roman towns.
- Immerse yourself in Welsh life at St Fagans National Museum of History near Cardiff, an astonishing collection of historic buildings from across the country.
- Money makes the world go round. Find out how it’s made with a tour of the Royal Mint Experience at Llantrisant.