March 1st is St. David’s Day in Wales. The holiday honours the country’s patron saint, who is also the only one of the British patron saints (the others being St. Andrew, St. George, and St. Patrick) said to have been a native Briton.
The day is rich with Welsh symbolism, from daffodils and leeks to the easily-recognisable red Welsh dragon. School-children dress up in the traditional costumes of Wales, and many villages and towns put on parades or have other festivities during the day. It is also, of course, a great reason to have a drink at the local pub.
Wales is a small but fiercely proud country, and its people are passionate about their traditions and history. I fell in love with the country (and a Welsh boy) when I first visited six years ago, and with each trip back, that love and affection only deepens.
The landscape and geography of Wales is diverse, encompassing beaches, mountains, valleys, and forests. It has been irrevocably shaped by the hand of man, as Iron Age forts, Roman amphitheater ruins, medieval castles, Tudor manor houses, 17th century estates, and 19th century mining towns can attest to. It is impossible to pick a favourite spot in this beautiful country, but here are ten that I love, in no particular order:
1. St. Davids, Pembrokeshire
Named for Wales’s patron saint, St. Davids is the UK’s smallest city, afforded its grand status due to the presence of Saint Davids Cathedral. The nearby Bishop de Gower’s Palace, dating from the 12th century, is hauntingly beautiful in a deep mist, especially when the crows call and swoop overhead. People often remark on the strangely emotive atmosphere of this place, which perhaps is not so surprising given its role as a spiritual centre in early Welsh Christianity.
2. Pen y Fan, Brecon Beacons
Pen y Fan is the highest mountain located in the Brecon Beacons National Park. A short but steep and direct hike up a well-trod path takes you to the mountain’s peak. If its a clear day, you can take in the bare, desolate, but breathtaking slopes of the surrounding countryside. In heavy fog, don’t get too close to the edge!
3. Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire
Once a Cistercian monastery, Tintern Abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s violent dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. The abbey’s ruins are eerie and evocative, inviting quiet contemplation as you imagine the lives of the people who toiled here centuries ago.
4. Rhossili Bay, Gower Peninsula
Wales’s Gower Peninsula is designated as an Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and its picturesque Rhossili Bay Beach is often called one of the United Kingdom’s best beaches. The cliffs of the bay provide a sweeping view of the coastline, beloved by visitors and locals alike.
5. Betwys-y-Coed, Snowdonia
A favourite among hikers and outdoorsmen, Betwys-y-Coed glows in the autumn. Tucked away in the forest, this charming town is the perfect base from which to set out for a day on the trails in Snowdonia National Park.
6. Hay-on-Wye, Powys
Wales’s famous town of books is a haven for literary lovers, with its bespoke shops, lively market, and renowned annual literary festival. It is also home to the Old Black Lion, an historic 13th century inn said to be haunted by a ghost.
7. Tenby, Pembrokeshire
Tenby is the picture-perfect definition of a Victorian British seaside town. It boasts beaches in three of the four cardinal directions, a glut of Tudor history, and the best crab sandwich I have ever had at The Plantaganet House.
8. Saint Fagans Museum of Welsh Life, Cardiff
A must for any first-time visitor to Wales. This open-air “museum” traces Welsh history from its earliest days to the present and includes recreations of aspects of day-to-day life for the Welsh people. You can explore a miner’s cottage, a 12th century church, an Iron Age roundhouse, and an 18th century wool mill, to name just a few. To understand Wales in an historical context, Saint Fagans is the place to start.
9. Glamorgan Heritage Coast, Vale of Glamorgan
The drive along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast passes by picturesque towns and magnificent stretches of the Welsh coastline. It is quiet, peaceful, and contemplative- the perfect getaway to the countryside.
10. Llanberis, Snowdonia
The north Wales town of Llanberis sits at the foot of Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in the country. Walkers can set out to summit the peak from the Llanberis Path, situated right in town. For history lovers, there is Dolbadarn Castle, overlooking the imposing Llanberis Pass. This 13th century fortification and example of native Welsh architecture was constructed to repel King Edward I’s forces, and, while in ruin, remains a stark symbol of Welsh pride and defiance in the face of the English.