COSMOPOLITAN Cardiff might have been Wales’ capital city only since as recently as 1955, but it sits right up there with Europe’s best when it comes to packing a buzz. A vote of the nation’s local governments at the time decided that it was the obvious choice, much to the chagrin of Caernarfon and Aberystwyth. And it certainly has grown into the role, although it suffers every capital’s burden of being seen to be taking the cream of the nation’s resources.
Once it could pride itself on being Europe’s youngest capital, but that boast is now in the hands of Pristina in Kosovo. It is nonetheless the country’s top tourist destination, unsurprising in itself given that it’s by far the largest city, attracting upwards of 20m visitors annually. And while there’s oodles to enjoy in the city centre, plenty of people find themselves gravitating ever more to the former docklands area that became famous world-wide as Tiger Bay, now known as Cardiff Bay.
There are several means of getting there from the city centre. It is eminently walkable, buses go there regularly, or you can catch a train for the short hop from Queen Street station. But the most relaxing and enjoyable way without a doubt is by water-bus , a half-hour trip along the River Tâf which departs from a landing stage by the entrance to Bute Park right next to Cardiff Castle.
Although much dusted down, gentrified and re-named since it underwent a mass multi-billion pound re-development towards the latter end of the last century, the old docks area has maintained that electric and eclectic multi-cultural vibe.
It was always hugely cosmopolitan from the onset, when it began its development as the globe’s largest exporter of coal, and attracted people from throughout the world to work in the docks and on the ships. It was an outwardly friendly if gritty area, certainly not somewhere to make enemies, like many port quarters throughout the world. World renowned recording artiste Shirley Bassey is one of its better known daughters.
The re-development of the area’s waterfront was often a cantankerous affair. Environmentalists were aghast at the possible consequences for wildlife, and the mudflats on which it lived, of building a barrage and inundating the estuaries of the rivers Tâf and Ely. Far less concern was shown for the effects of the proposals on the habitats of the local species homo sapiens.
However, on the positive side, 1,100 hectares of derelict land were brought back into use, and new freshwater habitats created. Homo sapiens was also catered for, in the form of expensive housing and smart bars and restaurants. Nowadays it’s a very swish part of town where the aspiring young things that can actually afford it love to live.
It is also the heartbeat of a fledgling national democracy and freshly burnished civic pride. Taking centre stage is the stunning copper-topped Wales Millennium Centre, nicknamed the armadillo for its striking shape. Built completely of Welsh materials, it is the base to a host of national cultural organisations, including Welsh National Opera, the National Orchestra of Wales, and youth organisation Urdd Gobaith Cymru.
You might want to catch a show in one of its three auditoriums, including by visiting companies from around the world. Otherwise it offers a plethora of shops, bars and restaurants that make it well worthwhile popping in.
Right next to it is the ultra-modern Senedd, an environmentally sustainable building where the National Assembly deliberates. Visitors are encouraged to visit it, and to attend any of the plenary or committee sessions, but be prepared for security checks before you’re allowed in. And while political debate might not be the most scintillating part of any vacation, the building itself is certainly worthy of inspection. Made of traditional Welsh materials including slate and oak, the Senedd is also heated using a heat exchange system that utilises natural heat rising from the bottom of the old dock on which it stands.
The striking red-brick Pierhead Building , built in the French Gothic style in the late 19th century and formerly the headquarters of the docks company, includes a number of fascinating architectural features such as gargoyles, friezes, hexagonal chimneys and a distinctive clock tower. The museum inside explains all about the area’s colourful past, and an introduction to a number of national heroes.
Meanwhile the unusual little white church on the dockside is the Norwegian Church. Built of a wooden frame clad with iron sheets, it was physically lifted and moved a couple of hundred metres during the area’s re-development. It was formerly a Lutheran church, built by the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission and consecrated in 1868, which served the city’s strong Norwegian community. Cardiff-born author Roald Dahl and his family at one time worshipped here. Today it is a popular arts and performance centre, complete with cosy coffee shop and café.
The Bay area is awash with countless points of interest, including the Cardiff International Sports Village and the highly impressive Techniquest science discovery centre and planetarium, which the children in particular will be loath to leave.
But it also offers an array of drinking and eating venues to cater for all tastes and pockets, many of them sited on the Mermaid Quay waterfront development and its immediate vicinity. You could always go posh and pop into the 5-star luxury St David’s Hotel, with its attention-seeking architecture, in Havannah Street.
Or a considerably cheaper option, although we couldn’t advocate it as a suitable place for a romantic dinner for two, is the Global Buffet just yards from Mermaid Quay. It offers the opportunity to sample food from all four corners of the world, on the same plate if you’re so inclined, in a reasonably priced self-service restaurant that fizzes with lively cosmopolitanism.
But if you’re after a taste of what a traditional docks boozer used to be like before gentrification, albeit suitably tarted up these days, The Packet pub in nearby Bute Street is one of our favourites. You’re assured of a warm Tiger Bay welcome in one of the few remaining bars of its ilk in the area.