Cardiff has only been the capital of Wales since 1955, before which the country muddled by without one (for which read 'had been unduly subjugated by the English since the 16th century'). Cardiff has only been a city since 1905, its importance founded on being the port for the coal mines of the Welsh valleys. But it's been around a lot longer than that, with a Civil War battle on the outskirts and a castle dating back to Norman times, and now has almost half a million residents. Shamefully, this was my first visit, so naturally I zipped around and tried to see as much as possible.[Visit Cardiff]
Housed in an imposing classical building in Cathays Park, this museum looks like it's going to contain all things Welsh. Not so, it focuses very much on natural history and art, with the rocks and animals downstairs, and gallery after gallery of fine art upstairs. The rocks were my favourite part, with a lengthy geological trail weaving through stories of the landscape and various dinosaurs to a giant woolly mammoth watched over by wolves. Key treasures to hunt down elsewhere include a silver gilt toilet service (that's an 18th century dressing table set, before you wonder), a dazzling Venetian Monet and a nugget of Welsh gold. If you do only have an hour to look round, don't do what the visitor's map suggests and waste time on a coffee. [closed Mondays, free admission]
If you're wondering where all the history is, it's in the Old Library in the centre of the town. This was refitted in 2011 to tell the story of the city, which it does with big sweeping graphics, a focus on community and a low density of actual artefacts. One unexpected challenge in a bilingual museum is to work out which half of each information panel you can actually read, a necessity which also halves the amount of information each panel can contain. Although the single upstairs gallery was interesting, the 'City Lab' downstairs was targeted more at residents and/or children and didn't detain me long. Do make sure you find the ornate tiled corridor opposite the entrance desk. As for the history of Wales itself, if that does have a museum, it's not here. [free admission]
This is gorgeous, and huge, stretching for 130 acres along the River Taff from the edge of the city centre. It's gorgeous because it was once the garden of the richest man in the world, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, and public because the 5th Duke handed it over after the war. Bute Park's arboretum contains more of the UK's tallest types of tree than any other park, For the herbaceous borders you want to be here in summer, but the spring brings forth daffs, of course, and some quite magnificent pink droopy mega-magnolia-type blossoms. An hourly waterbusservice runs from here down to Cardiff Bay, which is otherwise a not insignificant hike. [free admission] [waterbus £4]
Unusually for a large castle, Cardiff's is bang in the middle of town, opposite the shops. It's also older than it looks, built by William the Conqueror on the site of a Roman fort, and with a 12th century shell keep at its heart. Anglo-Welsh battles kept the place busy in medieval times, after which it became more of a home than a fortress, and eventually passed into the hands of the Marquesses of Bute. An expensive transformation took place, with most of the older buildings within the walls demolished, and a large Georgian mansion grew within. The 3rd Duke - him again - oversaw further transformation in Gothic revival style, the interiors verging on fantastical, and heavy on opulent iconography. Like the neighbouring park the castle's now in public hands and is probably the city's top tourist attraction. I should have gone inside and been amazed, but time was tight, so I went everywhere else instead. [admission £12, plus £3 for a 50 minute tour of the house]
Unusually for a large stadium, Cardiff's is bang in the middle of town, opposite the station. This makes it ridiculously easy to get to, and also ridiculously easy to spill out of into the main shopping area and get pissed. Opened in 1999, one of its first jobs was to host the Rugby World Cup final, and the FA Cup Final was also held here for six years while Wembley was being rebuilt. From ground level the four spires are the stadium's most prominent feature, but it's the retractable roof that's properly defining - one of the world's biggest, and fully openable in 20 minutes. Unless you pay for a match or a tour all you'll see is the perimeter, specifically a boardwalk along the River Taff, along which a series of mosaic tiles represent each of the major rugby playing nations. Lurking beneath the northern stand is a much lower grandstand for Cardiff Arms Park, squashed up alongside, and the much less impressive former home of Welsh international rugby. [tours £12.50]
Cardiff has a lot of shops, obviously, particularly along Queen Street and a central thoroughfare called The Hayes. There's also a massive new shopping centre named after St David, on one wall of which is a London tube map with all the station names replaced by places around Cardiff. More picturesque are the Victorian arcades which thread off from the High Street, eight in total, housing livelier boutiques and the occasional tiny little business up at lantern level. In Morgan Arcade is Spillers, the world's oldest record shop (established 1894), where a lengthy screed of this week's latest new releases is still pinned up in the window, and keen millennial staff oversee racks of CDs and vinyl. But my favourite retail location was Cardiff Market, still trading in a glass-roofed Victorian hall. Most of the stalls are downstairs (including Bakestones where I purchased far too many off-griddle Welshcakes), whereas the rim of the upper balcony is considerably emptier and offers by far the best view.