One of the best things to do in North Wales is visit at least a handful of the 600 Welsh castles. The country has more castles per square mile than any other place in the world, and some of the most spectacular are in North Wales. Touring these historic treasures is a great way to get acquainted with Welsh history and culture, which are inextricably linked to the country’s location and its geography. North Wales happens to have stunning scenery, with a spectacular Welsh coastline and its mountainous interior. Connecting with the cultural heritage of North Wales is an exhilarating and uplifting adventure!
One of the places where the Welsh landscape and history intersect in Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. If you love physical activity, scenic train rides, or charming villages nestled in idyllic spots, this iconic Welsh landmark has enough attractions to keep you blissfully busy for days. We offer up just a few of the many ways to enjoy the magnificent splendor of Snowdonia’s cultural landscape.
Cultural Lay of the Land
Wales is the smallest of the four countries that make up the U.K. About 170 miles in length north to south and roughly 60 miles wide, Wales is about the size of the U.S. state of Massachusetts and has three regions: North Wales, Mid Wales, and West Wales. This guide covers highlights of North Wales, which is not a formal territory but generally considered to mean six areas: Isle of Anglesey, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Gwynedd, and Wrexham.
Historically, North Wales and "Gwynedd" are often interchangeable. The name Gwynedd carries powerful cultural significance, even though the ancient political history is complex. After almost four centuries of Roman rule that began in 48 A.D., the Romans withdrew from Wales in the 5th century. Power was transferred to the local chieftains of the indigenous Celtic Britons, who, by this time, had Roman blood. In fact, according to one Welsh legend, Roman Emperor Magnus Maximus married a Briton woman and his wedding gift to her was naming her father king of the Britons.
For the next eight centuries, Gwynedd/Wales remained independent, despite its kings and princes continuously fighting among themselves and with a series of invading Irish, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. That autonomy ended in 1282 with the death of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who had been the Prince of Wales for 24 years. The kingdom of Gwynedd was then conquered by Edward I, bringing Wales under the dominion of England in 1284. Since then, Wales has been part of the United Kingdom. That said, Wales has its own distinct identity, and North Wales in particular has a special character.
Where to Stay in North Wales
Here are some highly-rated hotels that cater to all budgets.
Caernarfon Castle is located in Gwynedd county in north-west Wales, erected strategically on the banks of the River Seiont and the Menai Strait for protection against enemies. The site had previously been home to both a Roman fort and a Norman castle. The castle you see today was built by Edward I after he conquered Wales. Construction on the castle and the massive surrounding town walls took place from about 1283 - 1330 and is said to have cost about £25,000--which is roughly £9 million today.
Caernarfon Castle is one of an “iron ring” of Edwardian fortresses across Wales, an enduring architectural legacy born out of conflict. Other castles and walled towns that were part of Edward I's campaign to impose English rule on Wales include Conwy, Beaumaris, and Harlech. In total, the amount he spent on subduing the Welsh with architecture is estimated at what would be about £33 million today.
While at the castle, make sure to admire the innovative figure-8 design of the architecture, with the middle walls narrowing into one another and creating two separate courtyards. The courtyard is protected by12 different shaped towers reaching an astonishing 98 feet! Up on the parapets, you can look over the village of Caernarfon, the Menai Strait, and River Seiont, with the water reflecting beautifully off the water at high tide.
- Address: Castle Ditch, Caernarfon LL55 2AY, United Kingdom
- Opening hours: 10 am to 5 pm, Monday through Wednesday. 10 am to 5 pm, Saturday and Sunday.
- Admission fees:£5.20 for adults, £3.10 for children between 5 and 17, and £14.70 for family tickets.
Just a half hour from Caernarfon is the market town of Conwy, perched on the northern coast of Wales. It is enclosed by timeworn walls of a massive castle that dates back more than 700 years. Conwy Castle stands tall against the chiseled Snowdonia mountain range behind it. It overlooks an estuary where the mouth of the River Conwy meets the tide of the ocean. With walls that stand at almost 30 feet tall, it’s one of many defensive structures erected around the perimeter of Wales during the 13th century.
King Edward I enlisted his trusted architect James of St. George to build him a castle in Conwy. Although James of St. George had built multiple castles for King Edward I already, this was different. It took an astonishing six years to complete, from 1283 to 1289. Up to 1,500 laborers worked on its construction. It was protected by four 70-foot towers, the same height as the tallest point of the White House.
Made with a generous mix of limestone, grey sandstone, iron, and other resources, the eight 30-foot towers of the castle used to be a stunning white color. After hundreds of years, it now shows the classic signs of aging.
At night, the castle towers are illuminated by spotlights and is quite a sight to behold from afar. During the day, visitors can walk through the castle exploring the private chambers, including an atmospheric chapel. The castle was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and has been carefully preserved since.
- Address: Rose Hill St, Conwy LL32 8AY, United Kingdom
- Opening hours: Closed during the month of October. From November 1 to February 28, 10am to 4pm on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
- Admission fees: From August to March 2021, £8.80 for adults, £5.40 for children 5 to 17, £25.10 for family tickets, with children under 5 receiving free admission. Make sure to purchase tickets 24 hours in advance!
Best Things To Do In North Wales | Plas Mawr
Another must-see in Conwy is one of Wales' only preserved Elizabethan town houses from the 16th century. Just a five-minute walk from the Castle via Church St. is Plas Mawr, or “Great Hall”. Tucked neatly behind a steep narrow lane, there is more to it than what first meets the eye. Despite its humble exterior, the interior boasts 17 rooms intended to impress!
Plas Mawr is the creation of wealthy merchant Robert Wynn, who served in the royal court, fought for Wales in Scotland, and conducted merchant trade with Flanders. Once he had acquired enough wealth, he began construction of his dream townhouse. Between 1576 and 1585, Plas Mawr was completed in three phases, costing Wynn about £800. His initials “R.W.” can be seen engraved into the plasterwork, along with family crests and coats of arms, with more than 27 different emblazoned throughout the house. With a passion for entertaining and advertising his prosperity, Wynn treated himself and his guests to fresh food and products from his own property, including its own brewery, bakery and dairy facilities.
Plas Mawr still features original furniture, and a fireplace painted to look like marble. The most notable decoration within the property is the extensive and embellished plasterwork. This original plasterwork can still be seen today in seven rooms of the house. With bright colors and authentic carvings, this was again a monument displaying Wynn’s great wealth.
- Address: High St, Conwy LL32 8DE, United Kingdom
- Opening hours: Closed October 1 to February 28. Hours will be updated for the spring later on. Typically open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday.
- Admission fees: £6.50 for adults, £3.90 for children 5 to 17, £5.20 for seniors (65+), with children under 5 receiving free admission. Make sure to purchase your tickets 24 hours in advance!
Just four miles north of Conwy is Llandudno, a completely different experience that offers a window into another epoch of Welsh history. Llandudno is situated on the small peninsula of Creuddyn that protrudes into the Irish Sea. The town lies between two headlands known as the Great Orme and Little Orme, names derived from Norse for "sea serpent". Spanning the two summits is a two-mile shingle beach, which is the basis for the town's identity as the largest seaside resort in Wales.
That claim to fame was the brainstorm of Liverpool architect Owen Williams, who in 1848 presented the local landed gentry Lord Mostyn with plans to convert Llandudno Bay into a holiday destination. Mostyn embraced the idea and the rest is history. During the mid-19th century and amidst the Industrial Revolution, there was a rise in popularity of daytripping to the shore by working class tradesmen and their families. Llandudno is the epitome of Victorian architecture and infrastructure that emerged from the era's burgeoning tourism industry.
One of those features is a promenade along the beach known as "The Parade". This sweeping esplanade is lined with elegant hotels and guest houses graced with distinctive Victorian features: turrets; bay windows; decorative glasswork; cast iron lacework, balustrades and columns. Scattered around The Parade are sculptures of various figures from Lewis Carroll's works. Llandudno was the holiday home of Alice Liddell, the girl who inspired Carroll to create "Alice in Wonderland". The characters the Walrus and the Carpenter "Through the Looking Glass" are said to be based on two big rocks off Llandudno’s West Shore.
One of the iconic features of a Victorian seaside resort is “pleasure piers”, built to receive passengers arriving on steam ships. First designed solely for disembarkment, many of these piers evolved into destinations in their own right, featuring elaborate pavilions, penny arcades and bars. The advent of iron pilings made it possible to bear the weight of these venues and to extend piers far off the beach. Llandudno Pier is 2295 feet in length, earning it the designation as the longest pier in Wales.
Plas Cadnant Hidden Gardens in Menai Bridge
About halfway between Caernarfon and Llandudno is the small town of Menai Bridge, which is on the eastern coast of the Isle of Anglesey, which lies off the northwest corner of Wales. The town is presumably named after a suspension bridge that spans the Menai Strait, a narrow estuary. The bridge was designed in 1826 by renowned Scottish engineer Thomas Telford.
A must-see gem in Menai Bridge is Plas Cadnant Hidden Gardens, which are indeed tucked away off Cadnant Road. The Plas Cadnant Gardens are an ongoing restoration project undertaken by the present owner, who bought the 200-acre estate in 1996. The gardens had laid dormant for almost 70 years. Today, nearly ten acres of horticulture has been brought back to life. Three distinct gardens have been discovered and revived: a walled garden with a pool; a garden featuring three waterfalls and a river; and an upper woodland garden with the ruins of a 19th-century folly.
Snowdonia National Park
Established in 1951, Snowdonia National Park covers 823 square miles of vast and unique landscape. It is commonly known as “one of Britain’s breathing places,” and is also considered the Adventure Capital of Europe. It has the highest mountain in both the country and England at 3,560 feet, with the largest natural lake in all of Wales.
Unlike most national parks which are uninhabited, Snowdonia is home to six towns and 26,000 people. Included within the park is the seaside village of Aberdyfi, the quarry town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the historic market town of Dolgellau. We will give you a snapshot of perhaps the most popular tourist towns in Snowdonia like Beddgelert and Betws-y-Coed, as well as a glimpse of what to expect from a train ride up to the top of Yr Wyddfa.
Address: Penrhyndeudraeth, Gwynedd LL48 6LF, United Kingdom
Opening hours: 9.30 am to 5 pm, daily.
Hike in Snowdonia
Snowdonia National Park offers an ample amount of walking trails, with different options for people of all abilities. Experienced hikers can choose from eleven “hard strenuous walks” ranging from 3.5 to 10 miles long. Intermediate hikers can choose from sixteen different “moderate paths,” including the famous four-mile Panorama Walk in Barmouth. For those who just want a relaxing stroll through the scenery, visitors also have the option to take “leisurely walks.” People with disabilities or who wish to take it slow and easy can choose from seven different “access for all walks.” Snowdonia has made it easier with the “Snowdon Walks” app which gives detailed directions and tracks your progress. Other outdoor activities available include cycling, climbing, water sports, fishing, and horse riding.
Summit Snowdonia By Train
For those who want to appreciate the thrill of summiting Snowdonia without actually straining life and limb, do it by train! From Clogwyn Station in the picturesque village of Llanberis, make a two-hour round-trip journey to the summit of Snowdonia. The mountain's name in Welsh is Yr Wyddfa, which means tumulus, or burial mounds. Welsh folklore is full of giants, and legend says that Snowdonia was the home to giant Rhitta Gawr. Rhitta had a feud with King Arthur, and the two had a duel, with Arthur fiercely smiting Rhitta. A cairn was erected over Rhitta's grave; over the ages, Gwyddfa Rhudda or "Rhitta's cairn" became simply Wyddfa.
On your journey up the mountain, keep an eye out for the multiple attractions you are sure to see on your way to the summit. After leaving from Llanberis Station, the train passes by both the Ceunant Mawr waterfall and the Waterfall Halt, and then the summit is soon in sight. The train continues past Hebron Station, an uninhabited chapel built in 1833 by the poor families of the valley. At the halfway station, the steam engines refill their water tanks and then it’s off through Rocky Valley, the stunning rocky landscape high in the mountains. Finally, at the summit, an unbelievable panoramic view of the country stretches far and wide.
Once at the summit, you’ll have a 30-minute stop at the station to view the park from its highest point.
- Address: Llanberis, Caernarfon LL55 4TU, United Kingdom.
- Opening hours: Hours for the 2021 year will be updated in November 2020.
- Admission Fees: varies, typically £31.00 for adults (16+), £21.00 for children 3 to 15. Parking at the park-and-pay is £4.00 for four-hour parking, £8.00 for 8-hour parking, and £12.00 for 12-hour parking.
The small village of Bewts-y-Coed (pronounced BET-uhss uh COYD) may be worthy of a day-trip in itself with plenty of attractions and sites to explore. Meaning “prayer house in the wood,” Bewts-y-Coed has a meager population of 564. Centuries of history tell it’s story after being founded around a monastery in the 6th century.
Enjoy a picnic on the village green used by the local football team. Be surrounded by exquisite 19th century buildings, tourist shops, and hotels while you eat. Just a short stroll away is the famous church of St. Michael’s. Built between the 14th and 15th century, this church has a stunning and ancient beauty. One of its most notable features is the stone effigy of Gruffydd ap Dafydd Goch. As the brother of the last native Prince of Wales, he is depicted in armour from the 14th century. On the grounds is an ancient graveyard, where headstones stand amidst giant ferns and wildflowers.
Of the many sites to see, Swallow Falls in the Snowdonia National Park may be first on your itinerary. You can enjoy a quick 15 to 20-minute walk to start your day. The drive from Betws-y-Coed is 5 minutes away by car along the A5. For those who may prefer public transportation, there’s a bus that runs every two hours at the Betws-y-Coed Post Office for a 7-minute ride to the Falls.
View the boisterous, foaming waters as the stream collides with a rock, separating it in two to create the illusion of a swallow’s tail. Afterwards, choose from 59 unique restaurants within 5 miles of the Falls to replenish some energy!
- Address: Snowdonia National Park, Swallow Falls, Betws-y-Coed LL24 0DW, United Kingdom
- Opening hours: open 24/7.
- Admission fees: £2.00 for adults, £1 for visitors 14 and younger
Lastly, stop by the Dolwyddelan Castle, another fortress built by Llwelyn the Great between 1210 and 1240. It’s a 14 minute drive away from the village of Betws-y-Coed via A470. This castle is not only beautiful but has a significant historical background. As part of his conquest to vanquish all of Wales, King Edward I captured the castle in 1283. He quickly began further construction to fortify his new possession. Using English architectural influence, Edward I constructed an additional tower and acquired stone cannon balls for further defense.
- Address: A470, Dolwyddelan LL25 0JD, United Kingdom
- Opening hours: 10 am to 5 pm, Monday through Saturday. 11.30 am to 4 pm on Sundays.
- Admission fees: £3.00 for tickets. £8.10 for families (two adults, up to three children under the age of 16).
Also in Snowdonia is the wonderful village of Beddgelert which covers 86 square miles of pure beauty and fun. The River Glaslyn and River Colwyn merge together to cascade below the famous 17th century arched stone bridge, rightly called Beddgelert Bridge.
Legend has it the town was named after the faithful hound “Gelert'' who was slain by Llywelyn the Great. He thought Gelert had killed his baby, but the courageous hound had just killed a wolf to protect the baby. Llywelyn supposedly never smiled again, and to this day remains a raised mound in Beddgelert called “Gelert’s Grave.” However, it was discovered that the landlord of the Goat Hotel likely created the grave to increase tourism in the late 18th century. Today, we know it was most likely named after a Christian missionary named “Celert” during the 8th century. Still, Gelert’s Grave remains a major tourism attraction and is definitely worth seeing.
Folk legends aside, the village of Beddgelert is in close proximity to countless activities and sceneries, like the Moel Hebog. Meaning “Bare Hill of the Hawk,” a pointed summit rests at the top of the mountain. With easy access to a car park next to the mountain, the hike leads to a view of the western side of Beddgelert. For a less strenuous activity, visit the Sygun Copper Mine located one mile from Beddgelert. What was once the main source of minerals for Wales, can now be experienced through audio-visual tours of the underground mine.
Afterwards, get back out into nature and visit the world’s fastest zipline at Zip World Velocity! Other available activities for the adventurous include visiting the U.K.’s best downhill mountain bike tracks at Antur Stiniog; fishing at the Glan Morfa trout fishery packed with rainbow trout; or renting modern mountain bikes from Beddgelert Bikes. This village is definitely worthy of a visit; with plenty of activities, it might take you a few days to get through it all!
Less than a half hour south of Beddgelert, the village of Portmeirion offers an entirely different ambiance from Snowdonia. Portmeirion was built far more recently–between 1925 and 1975–by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. He modeled Portmeirion after the style of Italian villages. The preface “Port” refers to its location on the coast and “meirion” alludes to the county of Merioneth. This village is only one mile away from the Minfford railway station.
Williams-Ellis created an architectural bricolage, using various types of materials in the buildings. These include parts of demolished structures and works by other architects. This subsequently made him a main influencer of postmodern architecture in the late 20th century. In 1964, famous architecture critic Lewis Mumford commented on William-Ellis’ Portmeirion. He called it “an artful and playful little modern village” that brings a “happy relief” from the “rigid irrationalities” of the modern world.
This quaint little village is filled with hotel rooms, self-catering cottages, shops, a cafe, tea-room, and a restaurant. Visitors can get a whole tourist experience without even leaving the premises. Portmeirion has been popular with celebrities too, Beatles manager Brian Epstein enjoyed staying in the hotels quite often. Beatle George Harrison enjoyed his 50th birthday there in 1993 and was interviewed for The Beatles Anthology documentary at the village. Band member Paul McCartney is also on the lengthy list of famous visitors to Portmeirion. Musician Jools Holland also made a visit to the village and became infatuated with it. He had his studio and buildings at his home modeled after the design of Portmeirion.
Portmeirion is delicately placed on the inlet of River Dwyryd, which is a tranquil counterpoint to the whimsical sherbert colors of Williams-Ellis' vision. However, take caution if you decide to stroll across the sands, as the incoming tide can be dangerous. The high tides are printed on Portmeirion's tickets, so plan your beach time accordingly.
- Address: Portmeirion, Penrhyndeudraeth, UK
- Opening hours: 9.30 am to 5.30 pm, daily.
- Admission fees: £13.00 for adults, £9.00 for kids, with children under 5 receiving free entry. There are multiple family discounts available, ranging from £25.00 to £53.00. There are plenty of ticket options for all types of families!
We hope you enjoy your own visit experiencing the best things to do in North Wales! If you happen to be a fan of built heritage, you will revel in the architecture that spans dramatic castles, a colorful 16th townhouse, and fanciful villages! And if you particularly relish soaking up a destination’s natural landscape, the rugged yet magical scenery of North Wales will reinvigorate your love of the outdoors!
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