With Scotland, England, and Ireland—and all the attending romance, grandeur, and media recognition (ahem, Outlander and Downton Abbey)—as neighbors, it’s often hard for Wales to get any attention. However, dozens of annual festivals in Wales are worth the trek for celebrations of literature, music, arts, food, and history. Start with these five and discover what makes locals so proud.
Festival No. 6
Few who attend this annual festival in the super quirky Portmeirion—dubbed “Britain’s most bizarre village” by the BBC—know its cult connection to the 1960s show The Prisoner, but all can agree it’s the ideal place to let loose. Cobbled together by eccentric architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis from the 1920s to the 1970s at the mouth of an estuary on the northwest coast, the seaside holiday village presents a true smorgasbord of architecture, combining fragments of demolished structures from around Britain with custom-built Italianate houses inspired by the Mediterranean Riviera. Not all is what it seems, however, with false fronts on some buildings and painted windows on others. Titled in homage to the lead character of The Prisoner, Festival No. 6 launched in 2012 and has quickly become one of Wales’s most popular annual music and arts fairs, bringing in close to 10,000 revelers for 4 days of frolicking in the village and surrounding forests, fields, and beaches. Headlining acts have included Beck, Pet Shop Boys, Grace Jones, Belle and Sebastian, and Echo & the Bunnymen.
In a digital world, one small Welsh village dedicates itself fully to the printed word. In fact, 30 or so bookshops of all types—antiquarian, poetry, theater, murder mystery, secondhand, and more—populate the streets of Hay-on-Wye along with freestanding shelves of books, called “honesty bookshops,” in parks, sidewalks, and various nooks. Together, they effectively turn Hay into one large library. It’s hard to ask for a better setting for quiet reading as well, with a ruined 13th-century castle on the hill, a moat, Tudor houses, Victorian churches and chapels, quiet cafés, all skirted by the burbling Wye River—the same that inspired William Wordsworth’s famous poem about Tintern Abbey. Every May, literary titans and up to 80,000 bibliophiles descend on the town for 10 days of readings, lectures, workshops, and fun. It’s no wonder former President Bill Clinton once described the festival as “Woodstock of the Mind.”
Wales’s largest annual festival, which translates as “session” or “sitting,” draws up to 160,000 people each year to celebrate Welsh literature, film, music, and art for 8 days with brass bands, folk singers, choirs, poets, actors, step dancers, and more—all with a druidic flavor. The goal is to promote the Welsh language, and so all performances are in the ancient Celtic tongue, but that doesn’t stop the 80% of the country that doesn’t speak Welsh from enjoying themselves. The policy is also a tip of the hat to the ancient roots of the festival, starting in the 12th century (and probably older) as a competition of bards. The tradition was resurrected in 1861 and has been celebrated nearly every year since. The highlight of each session is the “chairing” and “crowning” ceremonies of winners by the Archdruid. The festival moves, as well, setting up each year in a new place.
Abergavenny Food Festival
“Abergavenny is to food as Cannes is to film,” wrote the Guardian about this market town built on the site of a Roman fort in the southeast of Wales, just 8 miles west of the English border. Since 1999, the world’s top chefs, producers, makers, as well as writers and performers, journey to the town each September to show off their skills for one weekend to about 30,000 hungry revelers. That means a plethora of aromas emanating from the nearly 300 food stalls lining the streets of the town, from Korean barbecue to Spanish charcuterie to Southern smokehouse, to Polish fusion, and of course, British baked goods, all accompanied by cocktails from leading mixologists and music from local and national acts.
Green Man Festival
Wales’s pagan past gets a tongue-in-cheek tribute at this annual music festival celebrating “the lord of misrule” with a giant effigy of the green man made of shrubs and branches who gets put to the torch Burning Man–style (along with fireworks) at the culmination of the 4-day festival. Until then, the 20,000 attendees must content themselves with 1,500 acts perform across 17 stages—including A-list singers and bands like Robert Plant, Van Morrison, Bon Iver, Wilco, and Mumford & Sons—and sides shows of cinema, comedy, holistic therapy, and even science-based games at “Einstein’s Garden.” Part of the green also comes from the lush countryside location in Glanusk Park, inside Brecon Beacons National Park.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Wales Guide