Cardiff: rugby, history and Doctor Who

Venue: Cardiff, Wales
Date: 21 Nov 2015 - 22 Nov 2015

Rachel Bailey, along with a group of Group Leisure readers, explored Cardiff on this month’s Reader Club trip.

What springs to mind when you think of Cardiff? Rugby, perhaps? Shirley Bassey or Charlotte Church? Maybe you just think of it as another city in another country that may or may not be worth visiting depending on what other options you face when deciding where to go on holiday.

Well, let me tell you something, Group Leisure readers. Cardiff is not a city to be missed. It is not somewhere I have ever considered seriously visiting before – often I prioritise my holidays on what the ratio of sun to cloud cover is going to be – but I immediately found myself wishing I had made Cardiff one of my travel destinations long before our Reader Club trip.

My initial observation was this: the capital of Wales is compact, full of big-name visitor attractions, and has so many restaurants, bars and shops you can practically monkey-bar from one to the next. Our itinerary, a jam-packed two day bonanza of Welsh tourism highlights, left only one thing to be desired: more time to fully explore everything this ‘miniature London’ has to offer its guests. 

Behind-the-scenes at the Wales Millennium Centre

Our first taste of Cardiff came in the form of some delicious Welsh cakes, which put everyone in high spirits as we, led by See Wales Tours representative Paul Harris, took off for Cardiff Bay – not to be confused with Cardiff city centre.

The waterfront development, which is one of Wales' oldest multi-ethnic communities, is home to the Wales Millennium Centre where our groups took a condensed backstage tour. The venue is classed as a lyric theatre (an opera house), and even if you haven’t already been there, you might recognise the building for the carved words on its exterior. In Welsh, it says Creu gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen, which translates into English as creating truth like glass from inspiration's furnace, followed by a line of English which says: In these stones horizons sing.

Millennium Centre

Pictured: The exterior architecture of the Wales Millennium Centre.

The full tour is available for parties of 15 or more (booking required), lasts an hour, and gives a great behind-the-scenes insight into the theatre, from the dressing rooms to backstage. I think this tour would be of particular interest to theatre groups, although of course, GTOs can still book to simply see a show in the theatre and enjoy dinner in the ffresh bar and restaurant. I thoroughly recommend trying a fish dish.

Exploring Cardiff by water

From Cardiff Bay we enjoyed a half hour boat trip from Mermaid Quay to the city centre – one of several ways to travel easily between the two points. The enclosed boat, The Princess Katharine, is owned by Cardiff Bay Tours, can hold up to 90 people, and offers a regular river service to and from the centre of Cardiff.

On our boat trip we were accompanied by a knowledgeable tour guide whose lilting commentary fell gently on our ears as we meandered up the picturesque River Taff, observing plenty of river wildlife.

A word of advice: a short walk to the city centre is in order after departing from the Princess Katharine – so if there are people in your group who aren’t up for walking very far, it may well be worth ordering a taxi, or choosing an alternative method of transport to reach the centre.

Cardiff Bay

Pictured: The sun was shining as we explored Cardiff Bay.

The heart of Cardiff

Once in the real hub of the capital, we discovered that Cardiff Castle, the National Museum Cardiff, a vast collection of enticing shops and restaurants, and the Millennium Stadium are all around the corner from each other.

Visiting the city in late November allowed us the extra delight of seeing Cardiff all wrapped up in its Christmas attire, an enchanting sight as the sun went down behind the castle walls in the late afternoon.

Our first stop in the centre was the National Museum Cardiff, where we had a whistle-stop tour of the Impressionist art galleries. This gallery is big, airy, and doesn’t echo – ideal if you want to go around with a volunteer guide to tell you a little more about pieces by the likes of Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Vincent Van Gogh.

Parties of 30 or more are spilt into smaller groups for half an hour tours of the museum, which boasts displays of natural history and the evolution of Wales as well as the art exhibitions.

After being cajoled out of the museum, we continued on to Cardiff Castle. Our particular visit took us around the castle lodgings, which were designed by architect William Burges in 1866. Within the Gothic towers you can see a series of opulent rooms, each with a special theme, as well as the aesthetically superb Arab Room and many other nooks and crannies.

The castle offers a ticket for pre-booked groups of 20 or more that enables you to visit all the key parts of the site including the castle apartments, the Norman Keep, the wartime shelters, and the interpretation centre.

It’s not all about rugby at the Millennium Stadium

The first day of our Reader Club trip finished at the Millennium Stadium, the national stadium of Wales and home of the Wales national rugby union team.

Wales Millennium Stadium

Pictured: Watching a short film before a tour of the Millennium Stadium.

However, don’t be fooled into thinking it’s all about rugby here; the venue plays host to a number of events throughout the year including music concerts and extreme sports days. Sian, our Millennium Stadium guide, summed up the tour quite nicely when she said “It’s a tour that’s suitable for all ages, and you don’t have to be a sports lover to enjoy it. People come here expecting it to be all about rugby but actually there is so much more to it.”

Those opting for a tour in the future should expect an opening film about the variety of events held in the venue, a talk in the press conference room, and views from the seats at the top of the stadium (beware, anyone who is scared of heights – the stadium is breathtakingly huge). 

GTOs should be aware that parties of over 40 on a tour will be split into smaller groups, and discounts are available. Those who ever visit when it’s sunny should keep an eye out for the stadium’s resident bird of prey, which flies around the arena a couple of days a week to scare off pesky gulls and pigeons.

An appointment with the Doctor

Can I make a confession? I have never seen a Doctor Who episode. Some of the readers on the trip looked at me like I was an alien when I tentatively admitted that I’m no Whovian.

Doctor Who Experience

Pictured: Two of our readers outside the Doctor Who Experience.

However, being a big fan of visiting new places, I did enter the Doctor Who Experience with an open mind on the second day of the trip. Actually, I don’t think you need to be a fan of the television series to have a good time at the attraction; something the welcoming staff asserted as soon as we arrived.

A visit lasts between one and two hours, although you could certainly spend a lot longer here as the exhibition of set pieces, costumes and props has plenty on display. The interactive walk-through is the real highlight, but I won’t spoil it for you. Just prepare to be jiggled and joggled about a bit.

Fun fact: Daleks were created in Wales. Groups visiting the Doctor Who Experience can see plenty of these, and GTOs will receive one free ticket for every ten tickets booked.

A historical haven

We travelled to our concluding stop of day two with Edwards Coaches, a coach company which has 54 local boarding points in South Wales alone. We arrived at the St Fagans National History Museum, which immediately asserted itself as my favourite place in Cardiff by far.

Visualise this: you drive up a long road between green fields dotted with black woolly sheep and enter the St Fagans site, which sprawls over 100 acres of parkland. 40 reconstructed buildings from all over Wales and from different historical periods dating as far back as the 1100s are dotted amongst lofty trees. Robins and chaffinches hop from branch to branch, and wood smoke curls into the sky from chimneys in some of the cottages. It’s delightful, educational, and incredibly peaceful – perfect for outdoor, walking and history groups.

St Fagans

Pictured: Outside the church at St Fagans National History Museum.

Traditional cottages and houses, a chapel and a school, a post office, a tannery and a tollhouse; these are just some of the buildings that have been lovingly gathered from all over Wales and brought here to showcase the life of the Welsh people throughout history.

And guess what? It’s free to enter. St Fagan’s is part of the National Museum Wales collection; there are seven of them, including Big Pit and the National Roman Legion Museum, and you don’t have to pay to visit any.

My concluding question is this: why would you not want to visit Cardiff? The city seems almost like it’s been built with group travel in mind. I have every intention of heading to there for a longer holiday in the future, and my advice is that you should too.

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