Meet Ms Catherine Lutken, our dear friend from Wales who is a Blue Badge Guide, a professional tourist guide of the UK. Following the first day of sightseeing in Cardiff on our own, it was great to have Catherine sharing her vast knowledge of Wales’ history and culture and showing us the beauty of the capital city.
One of the best ways to catch a glimpse into the daily lives of the locals is to visit the market. While the city centre contains a modern network of shopping complexes and watering holes, there lies a Victorian indoor market in the heart of its lively social scene. Located along St Mary’s Street, Cardiff Market is a one-stop shop for groceries such as meat and fresh produce, household items, clothings, Welsh gifts, craftworks among others. For the rumbling stomachs, there is a variety of mouth-watering snacks and bakery products. Freshly baked crusty finger rolls only cost 25 pence each and a good serving of Chicken Curry & Chips is well worth the £3.
Prominently perched next to Cardiff Market, St John the Baptist Church is the oldest parish church and the second oldest building after the Castle in the city centre. The medieval church from the 12th century has a distinctive bell tower with a crown of open battlements and the interior is intricately decorated with beautiful stained glass windows depicting biblical scenes. The tearoom within the precinct operates from Mondays to Saturdays, 10am to 2.30pm.
How to travel around the city?
Like most cities, the taxis are metered and can be found at Cardiff Rail Station and St Mary’s Street.
As Cardiff is relatively flat, a pleasurable alternative to exploring the city centre on foot is to rent a bicycle and pedal along the Taff Trail cycle path that leads to the famous Cardiff Bay. Open 7 days a week, Pedal Power provides a selection of bicycles from its two branches at Cardiff Bay Barrage and Pontcanna Park behind the Castle. An adult bike costs from £5 an hour to £15 for a full day.
If walking or cycling around the city seems daunting, hop on to the sight-seeing red double-decker buses with commentary that leave every half an hour from the front of the Castle. At £9 for an adult and reductions for students, families, etc., the tour takes 50 minutes and you can hop off where you like including most of Cardiff City and Bay sights.
Cardiff Bus is the capital transport operator that runs from 0600hr to 2300hr. Cardiff is split into 4 zones and zone 1 is the city centre. Most bus routes follow an anti-clockwise route around the city centre. An adult ticket in zone 1 costs £1.50 and £3.00 for a day of unlimited travel.
Note: Pay exact fare to the driver as no change will be given.
The day was marked by a morning jaunt to Cardiff Bay. Bus No. 6 runs from the city centre to the Bay every 10 minutes and the 20 minutes bus journey brought us to the former docks area of the city, notably the world’s largest coal export port known as Tiger Bay almost a century ago. The docks owner – the 3rd Marquess of Bute – became the world’s richest man at that time during the industrial age. However, sometime after World War II, coal exports ceased and Tiger Bay was rebranded as Cardiff Bay.
Today, Cardiff Bay is centred around the huge barrage and the freshwater lake, brimming with a wealth of restaurants, cafes, shops and state-of-art showpieces such as the Welsh Senedd building and the Wales Millennium Centre that the locals say resembles an armadillo.
I guess first-time visitors like us have the tendency to stand at some distance away from the entrance, trying to figure out the large inscription adorning the facade of the Millennium Centre. The two poetic lines are in Welsh and English, both of different meanings. The line in Welsh literally means “creating truth like glass from the furnace of creation”, while the English line reads “In these stones, horizons sing”.
Home to the Welsh national opera and other Wales’ major cultural institutions, the Millennium Centre was opened by the Queen in 2004. Drop in for a free performance that can be jazz, classical, choir or even hip hop at the Glanfa Stage.
Further down, you would come across an intriguing building with a wave-like roof and see-through glass walls overlooking the bay. It’s the Welsh Senedd (Parliament) Building. Through the glass walls, everyone can see a clear view of the debating chamber and this reflects the encouragement of the involvement of public participation. The eco-friendly building incorporates natural ventilation and interestingly, when the locals express that it allows hot air to be drawn out of the debating chamber, you know it can be synonymous with heated debates!
Back in the olden days, seafarers and immigrants from across the world settled near the bay and the population grew. The bustling scenes of port activities were long gone and replaced by holiday-makers relaxing around the bay. Nonetheless, the modern Cardiff Bay still retains the old charm that speaks of its glorious past as a major coal exporter to the world in the 19th century. Established in 1897, the Pierhead still stands elegantly at the waterfront. Originally the headquarters of the Cardiff Railway, the red terracotta building of French-Gothic Renaissance theme is now a Welsh history museum and exhibition centre. It’s affectionately known as the “Baby Big Ben” of Wales. In the foreground, the sculpture of a face combines with a ship hull is the Merchant Seafarers War Memorial that commemorates the seamen of Cardiff who perished during World War II.
Did you know that the world famous author Roald Dahl was born in Cardiff? He was christened in the former Norwegian Sailors Church, presently known as the Norwegian Church Arts Centre that holds exhibitions, concerts and events. To try some Norwegian flavours, dine in the centre’s coffee shop that offers a range of food and drinks.
The old lightship Helwick LV14 is a floating chapel for worship and doubles as a tourist attraction where visitors can tour the vessel and enjoy refreshments with a bay view.
To get tourist information, souvenirs and understand more about Cardiff through videos, exhibitions and interactive displays, look for the “squashed toilet roll” structure. Locally known as “the Tube”, the design of the visitor centre is so “unconventional” that I nearly missed it!
There are plenty of shops, restaurants, bars and cafes at the Mermaid Quay. Stroll along the boardwalk and greet the People Like Us. The bronze sculptures reflect the diverse culture and attributes of the world major coal exporting port in the olden days.
The Celtic Ring on the boardwalk with tidal charts, maritime instruments and docks indicated on its bronze surface.
If time permits, drop by Doctor Who permanent exhibition at the Red Dragon Centre in Cardiff Bay where you can find props, costumes and monsters featured in the latest series. Cardiff is home to Doctor Who, a science fiction TV series filmed in the city. Open 7 days a week till 6.30pm. An adult’s ticket costs £6.50; a child’s ticket costs £5.00.
We travelled to Cardiff Bay by the bendy bus and decided to take a different route to Cardiff Castle at the city centre by Aquabus, Cardiff’s water transport service. The designated waterbus departs hourly from Mermaid Quay to Cardiff Castle and a single adult trip costs £3 and £5 for a return trip. Kick back and enjoy the smooth sail along River Taff with a whiteness of swans swimming graciously in the waters.
Cardiff Castle sits in the heart of the cosmopolitan city. Very deep in history, it’s the leading heritage attraction in the centre and you shouldn’t miss it. Well, you can’t miss it too! Remember I mentioned in my previous post that it’s just right across the road of Hilton Hotel where we stayed? The medieval Castle was originally constructed as a Roman fort and evolved into a variety of architectures over a period of 2000 years. It was refashioned into a neo-Gothic castle in the 19th century by the 3rd Marquess of Bute and the renowned Victorian art-architect, William Burges. In 1947, the 5th Marquess of Bute presented Cardiff Castle to the city.
Admission fee to enter the castle is £10.50 for an adult and £7.95 for a child. This includes an audio guide (with several language options) of Castle grounds, Norman Keep and Battlement walk; entry to some Castle apartments; Cardiff Castle Museum of the Welsh soldier; the Interpretation Centre with exhibition and film show.
Note: If you wish to join the 45-minute guided tour, arrive at the Castle before the tour starts at 1.40pm. The premium tour adult ticket costs £13.50 and £10.00 for a child. The premium tour will include additional Castle apartments with a guide.
Make an easy climb up to the Norman Keep for a panoramic spectacle of the ancient Castle grounds and buildings in juxtaposition with the urbanized city. The 12th century Keep used to serve as a secure residence for the lord and his household as well as a prison and armoury. Look out for the iconic Millennium Stadium with four huge masts. Featuring a 72,000-seater capacity with a fully retractable roof, the famous sporting arena will host football competition in the London 2012 Olympics.
Adjourn to the Castle apartments to appreciate the opulent interiors and be awestruck. Highlights include the Library with a red and gold canvas adorning the walls and intricately carved furniture produced by Lord Bute’s own workshops, as well as the Arab Room with a stunning interior of Egyptian-inspired stained glass windows and Italian marble walls and floor. The medieval-themed Banqueting hall decorated with murals is the impressive centerpiece of the castle built to accommodate Lord Bute’s guests.
The Banqueting Hall
The Arab room
Thanks to our Cardiff guide, Catherine, for touring us around the lovely city. We wish we could have more time to explore Wales but there is always a chance to revisit this tourist-friendly destination again. We were bound for London to continue the second leg of our 11-day UK trip.