Car-freeAdventures in South Waleswith Great Western Railway
Whether you're after blustery beach walks and spectacular coastal scenery, inspirational museums and local food, Roman ruins or state-of-the-art TV studios, or all of the above, South Wales has a lot to offer. The biggest cities in Wales and several colourful towns are strung along the railway like pearls on a necklace with some fabulous countryside in between: meadows full of orchids, waterfalls in wooded valleys or seabird-magnet estuaries between salt marshes and castle topped hills. Ride GWR trains to Newport, Cardiff, Swansea, Neath and Carmarthen and explore the areas around them by train, bus, bike and foot.
The first thing you see when you arrive in Newport by train are the ruins of the Norman castle, which are right next to the railway, overlooking the River Usk. Beyond the iconic Transporter Bridge, the Usk flows into the Severn, where there has been a port since medieval times. Here are some great things to see and do while you’re in the city.
- Visit Roman Caerleon: the huge legionary fort at Caerleon, just fifteen minutes from Newport by bus, was built in AD 75 on the edge of the Roman empire. In medieval times, the fortress remains were still so impressive that people began to insist that Caerleon was the seat of King Arthur’s legendary court.
- There is an imposing ruined amphitheatre, a Roman Legion Museum and Roman baths in a museum that atmospherically recreates them with lighting that looks like water and a soundtrack of singing and splashing. And don’t miss cobbled Ffwrwm nearby, with shops, cafes and a walled garden full of Arthurian sculptures, green men, folkloric creatures, and the world’s longest love spoon.
- How do I get to Caerleon by bus? Bus 27 and bus 29 and bus 29A all leave from stand 9 in Newport’s Friars Walk bus station and run to Caerleon. Between them, there are about four buses an hour. Enjoy 2for1 entry to Caerleon’s Roman baths when you show your train tickets.
- Admire the Transporter Bridge. Newport’s marvel of engineering is being renovated, but should reopen with a new visitor centre in 2024.
- There’s plenty more to explore, including the cathedral, which has beautiful Norman arches and a memorial to Chartists, killed in the uprising of 1839.
- Where can I stay? Newport has lots of options. One of the city’s newest hotels is the Mercure in Newport’s tallest building, the 1960s Chartist Tower. It’s seven minutes’ walk from the train station and right next to Friars Walk, where regular buses arrive from Caerleon. The hotel décor pays tribute to the Transporter Bridge using metalwork, carpet designs and construction photos.
As soon as you step outside Cardiff Central railway station, you will see the gleaming glass cliff and smart stone columns of the BBC’s newest, most up-to-the-minute broadcasting centre, BBC Cymru Wales. Entertaining 90-minute tours of the TV and radio studios began in July 2022.
- King Charles III, who was then still Prince of Wales, officially launched the tours and they have since won the Visit Wales gold award. Tours currently run every Thursday and Friday and at weekends. Visitors get a behind-the-scenes view of the broadcasting process, complete with remote-control cameras and state-of-the-art sound equipment. See inside an anechoic chamber where outdoor scenes for radio drama are recorded or sit in a newsreader’s chair.
- Look out for celebrities working in the building. Wynne Evans (aka the “Go Compare man”) has been known to pop out of his studio and say hello to tour groups – he’s quite recognisable even without the moustache! This building may be cutting edge, but broadcasting has a long history in Wales.
- The National Museum is easy to reach by bus or by train to Cathays station or it’s about twenty minutes’ walk from Central Station. If you’re heading there on foot, pop into Cardiff market to see Welsh cakes being expertly handmade and baked on the spot. You can find lots more suggestions for things to see and do in our Car-free guide to Cardiff.
- And for trips to Cardiff Bay, Cardiff Castle, Llandaff Cathedral or to St Fagans National Museum of History, see our guide to exploring Cardiff by bus. The cathedral’s graveyard is one of many local sites to appear as a location in an episode of Doctor Who (the one with Van Gogh, which also featured the National Museum!) Follow Good Journey’s directions.
- One beautiful and very central place to stay in Cardiff is Parador 44, which opened recently above the well-loved Spanish restaurant, Asador 44, five minutes stroll from Cardiff Central Station. There is an elegant lounge and roof terrace for visitors and lots of Mediterranean touches to the décor and menu.
From the train window around Cardiff, the spring woods are starred with celandines and white anemones around the winding River Ely with geese on its banks. Beyond that, there are rugged hills. Some trains stop at stations in between Cardiff and Swansea for buses to beautiful valleys (see 5 below). For now, let’s press on to Swansea, which the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas famously called an “ugly, lovely town”. With its miles of sandy beach, great pubs and restaurants, excellent museums and links to Dylan Thomas, Swansea is a delight. Stroll down the hill from the station to find hanging baskets and pavement cafes on pedestrianised Wind Street near the picturesque ruined castle and Swansea’s massive indoor market.
- Swansea Museum has all kinds of interesting treasures inside like a wassailing bowl for mulled wine, a wooden devil carved by an embittered architect or a still-sharp ancient spearhead found in Swansea Bay. Lots of finds, including a Viking pin, have been unearthed by local detectorists from the sands nearby.
- The beach itself is a few steps further, around the harbour. There are views across the bay to Mumbles, a quirky seaside village with lots of shops, galleries and cafés, a lighthouse on a grassy island and a Victorian pier. You can stroll along the sands, with a great a view of what Dylan Thomas called the “long and splendid curving shore”, and keep going (or hop on bus 2 or bus 3A) to find wilder sections of the beautiful Wales Coast Path. For more ideas about visiting Mumbles and the Gower peninsula beyond, see our guide to exploring Swansea by bus.
- Morgan’s Hotel, near the harbour, is an elegant place to stay. It’s a handsome Edwardian building that was once the offices of the Port Authority. The interior nods to Swansea’s maritime history with stained-glass boats, wave-form lamps or an anchor on the staircase.