With its dramatic scenery, charming villages, and surprisingly creative food scene, it's a mystery why visitors to Great Britain still often overlook Wales for its cousins Scotland and England. Many who do choose to experience the Welsh lifestyle stick to southern cities like Cardiff and Swansea, but the smart traveler will head north to explore the fierce beauty and delicious natural bounty there, all while avoiding the crowds found elsewhere in Britain (you're on your own navigating around all those sheep, though). Here are five reasons to make North Wales the top spot on your next European itinerary.
Bodnant Welsh Food Centre
If you're still struggling with the idea of Britain being a premier foodie destination, it only takes a few hours at this working farm/dairy/winery/gourmet restaurant to realize that Wales might be leading this unexpected culinary renaissance. Next to the gorgeous Bodnant Garden in the heart of Conwy Valley, you'll find the perfect starting point of a Welsh food tour at Bodnant Welsh Food Centre, a farm shop selling locally produced meat, bread, produce, cakes, pies, and more. There's a dairy on-site churning out traditional handmade cheese and ice cream, as well as a bee-keeping center producing honey and lotions. Aspiring oenophiles will want to check out the wine shop, which sells both local wines as well as bottles from the world's largest wine regions; classes are available to learn about wine tasting and food pairing. The cooking school offers a variety of courses throughout the year on everything from how to cook fresh local fish to making pastries. Enjoy lunch or dinner in the Hayloft Restaurant; you can even stay the night at the adorable Furance Farmhouse.
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Prepare to step back in time when you enter the quaint Victorian seaside town of Llandudno, just north of Conwy. The brightly colored architecture alone is enough to conjure up visions of an old-fashioned summer holiday, relaxing on the beach (yes, even here temperatures in the summer warrant some sun-bathing) and strolling on the elegant promenade along the water and the pier filled with shops, food stands, and amusement park rides. Rising up behind the town is Great Orme Country Park, where tramways and cable cars can take you to the summit for stunning views, hiking trails let you encounter sheep and goats, and copper mines teach you about the history of the area.
Snowdonia National Park
North Wales' dramatic beauty is most evident at Snowdonia, with its 840 square miles of mountains, valleys, lakes, and rivers stretching from the Welsh midlands to the northern coast. Visitors can base themselves in the rustic village of Betws-y-Coed, and stock up on any necessary hiking or camping gear. Once you venture into Snowdonia, prepare for gorgeous scenery and striking views of nearby mountains, villages, and castles. At 3,559 feet, Mt. Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales (and England), and many adventurous travelers choose to make the trek to its summit. The less active can experience the park's beauty by taking one of several railways that transport you from one end of the park to the other.
Insider's Tip: Especially adventurous travelers should check out the Llechwedd Slate Caverns, located in the heart of Snowdonia. The caves themselves are gorgeous and haunting, as is the story of the region's mining history, which you can discover through exhibits and tours. But the real must-do is taking the zip line through the mines and surrounding mountains; you can also bounce around on the world's first subterranean trampoline inside the mines.
The lovely island of Anglesey is just off the coast of Northwest Wales, connected to the mainland by two bridges. On the picturesque island, you'll find several delightful villages filled with friendly B&Bs, lively pubs, and quaint restaurants offering more locally produced Welsh cuisine; two highlights include Beaumaris (along with its medieval castle) and the village with the longest name in all of Britain: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch—seriously. Almost 70% of the islanders here speak Welsh, so it's also a great place to work on the complicated but charming language. Around the coast, you can explore dozens of hiking trails and paths; a highlight is the coastal walk to Llanddwyn Island, named for the patron saint of Welsh lovers (or the Welsh St. Valentine), where you can wander among the downright magical sand dunes and rocky cliffs. Anglesey is so romantic, in fact, that Prince William and Kate Middleton made it their home while they were engaged and for the first few years of their marriage.
Wales is home to approximately 641 castles, and there are plenty to appease history and architecture buffs in the north. Not too far from Snowdonia National Park, there's Caernarfon, one of the most imposing medieval castles in the country, and a strong contender for most Winterfell-esque. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was built in 1283 by British King Edward I in a bid to gain control over the Welsh. Today, visitors can explore the grounds and the well-intact towers, picturing the deception and bloodshed that came with the eventual cessation of Welsh forces to the British. Maneuver through the dark passageways up to the open-air towers where you'll find fantastic views of the town and the River Seiont.