Last updated on March 3, 2022
Planning your first trip to Wales? Join me as I chat with James and Lucy from the DK Eyewitness Where to Go Travel Podcast about my favourite places in this lilting verdant land.
Local boy Ben Holbrook guides James and Lucy through this beautiful country which is famed for its spectacular coastline and countryside. Listen out for a slice of the Amalfi coast reconstructed in Portmeirion and a trip to Dylan Thomas’ old house.
Wales is unique. True, it’s a Celtic land, much like Ireland and Scotland, but rest assured it’s a country all unto itself.
We have our own language – not merely a dialect but a complete and colourful language – and our own culture and writers and cuisine and saints and historical references. We have our own identity, and by God we’re proud of it.
This may seem obvious to those who already know, but trust me I’ve heard all sorts on my travels. “Oh, you’re from Wales. Is that on England?” As if England were an island. As if “England” and “the UK” were interchangeable. It really gets my back up. The ignorance!
Please, please, please – and yes, I’m mainly talking to you, America – stop saying “England” when you’re actually talking about the UK/Great Britain.
Anyway, now I’ve got that out of the way, let’s get into the good stuff. As I mentioned to James and Lucy in the podcast, I believe the beating heart of Wales thumps most loudly along its coast and in its countryside.
People have asked me before, “Which cities should I visit if I go to Wales?”. And I think, you’re really missing the point.
Cardiff, our capital, is a great city, don’t get me wrong. And the city of Swansea has its charms, too. But to understand Wales I think you need to immerse yourself in its rolling green vastness, its peaks and craggy coastlines. You need to put your hiking boots (or wetsuit) on and get outdoors!
My Favourite Places in Wales – All Mentioned in the Podcast
Gower Peninsula, Swansea – Beautiful Beaches, Rural Living and Proper Pubs
I was invited on the DK Eyewitness ‘Where to Go’ travel podcast to talk broadly about Wales and make recommendations for first-time visitors.
However, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was being paid commission by the Gower Peninsula tourist board, as I definitely talked more about this part of the country than anywhere else.
Gower is, of course, where I live, where I’m from, so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d waffle on about its spoils for the bulk of my chat.
As the UK’s first ever officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Gower Peninsula offers what I consider to be the best of Wales in a compact and easily navigable 70-square-mile radius. This makes it ideal for travellers visiting Wales for the first time.
What should you do on the Gower Peninsula?
In a nutshell, go for walks on the glorious beaches of North Gower (Rhossili Bay is a good place to start). Or, even better, go surfing (Llangennith is my favourite).
Check out my guide to the best beaches on the Gower Peninsula for tips on what to see, where to eat/drink and also recommendations for local accommodation.
Then go for coffee and ice cream at Joe’s Ice Cream / GG’s / Fortes / Verdi’s / Castellamare and spend your afternoons/evenings with endless pints of Gower Gold and Penderyn Welsh whisky in one of the beautiful local pubs (I’ve listed a few of my favourites below).
It’s a simple, uncomplicated way of life, and that’s what makes it so special.
My Favourite Gower Peninsula Pubs (All Mentioned in the Podcast)
King’s Head (Llangennith): There’s nowhere better after a surf and the beer garden is a fun place to be on a warm summer’s evening. A must visit whether you’re visiting the beach for the day or camping overnight at Hillend Campsite.
The King Arthur (Reynoldston): With vibrant hanging baskets out front in all summer and a roaring fireplaces inside in all winter, this is the perfect pub for a pint and a Sunday roast.
The Rake and Riddle (Penclawdd): A great place to stop on you way to or from the Gower beaches. Loads of outdoor seating and a huge children’s play area makes it perfect for families. They also offer essential local ales from the Gower Brewery and do a mean burger!
Gower Brewery Tap Room (Crofty): The Gower Brewery is a must for beer buffs visiting the area. Take a tour and enjoy a tasting session in the tap room.
Beach House (Michelin Starred Restaurant on Oxwich Beach, Gower Peninsula)
When I moved back to Wales after living the life of Riley in Barcelona, where I was paid to dine at fancy restaurants on a weekly basis, my main concern was that I’d miss the intricacies of Mediterranean cuisine (and wine, more to the point!). But then I ate at the Beach House and realised I had nothing to worry about.
Headed up by Chef Hywel Griffith, who has become something of a TV celebrity recently, Beach House has earned a Michelin star for its creative seasonal dishes, which draw on the fresh, locally-sourced produce.
Try the Gower salt marsh lamb to find out why Wales is so famous for its sheep, or treat yourself to the Oxwich Bay lobster, caught within casting distance from the restaurant itself.
Pair your meal with local Welsh wines – yes, they do exist! – and finish with a Welsh cheese board and Gower strawberry soufflé.
The Wales Coast Path
Wales was the first country in the world to have a walkable footpath spanning the entirety of its coastline. Its a craggy affair that stretches some 870 miles and offers spectacular sea views. The beauty is that you can join it pretty much anywhere and be guaranteed a blissful coastal walk.
I would highly recommend starting in the South Gower area, where the Wales Coast Path will lead you to picturesque beaches and secluded coves. I’ve outlined my personal favourite stretch here, which will take you to Caswell, Brandy Cove and Pwlldu.
But of course, you can join the path from any beach in Wales, which makes it extremely easy to tackle.
The Brecon Beacons
Wales is a small country that’s huge on mountains. At 1,085 m (3,560 ft), Snowdon is the tallest (in both Wales and England). However, the Brecon Beacons is equally as scenic, and far less frantic.
I suggest starting with a hike up Pen y Fan, which is no mean feat at 886 metres (2,907 ft). It’s well signed and easily climbable even for non-serious mountain hikers.
Check out my Pen y Fan wild camping photo essay and journal, and if you’d like to stay and eat in the area then definitely check out my review of the stunning Gliffaes Country Hotel.
Laugharne is a small coastal town best known for its association with Dylan Thomas, Wales’ most famous poet and writer, who lived here for the latter part of his life.
“The strangest town in Wales” was something of a muse to Dylan and inspired his seminal masterpiece, Under Milk Wood (a play for voices).
Dylan’s cliffside boathouse and writing shed, which was paid for by a patron, is now open to the public and offers an uncanny glimpse into his world and life. I find it absolutely fascinating and have visited multiple times.
I would highly recommend spending a day and night in Laugharne. You can visit the castle and Dylan’s boathouse, explore the little cafes and, most importantly, have lunch/dinner and a few pints at Brown’s Hotel, where Dylan would go to “celebrate myself sick and dirty”.
Book a room at Brown’s Hotel and you can do the same yourself.
You can also pay your respects at the local church (Saint Martin’s), where Dylan was buried in 1953.
Top tip: Dylan Thomas was born and bred in Swansea and you can visit his childhood home at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive. It has been turned into a sort of museum and is presented exactly as it would have been when he lived there as a child. And just around the corner you’ll find the Upland’s Tavern, which has a little cosy corner known as the ‘Dylan Thomas Snug’.
Order a pint, park your buns by the fire and listen to Dylan reminisce about his “ugly, lovely town”, where “truant boys and Sandfield boys and old men from nowhere, beachcombed, idled and paddled, watched the dock-bound ships or the ships steaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions; threw stones into the sea for the barking outcast dogs…”
Portmeirion, North Wales
Portmeirion is a miniature Italian village… in Wales.
Designed and built by eccentric architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975, its piazzas, frescos and Gothic pavilions look out over estuary waters. It reminds me a lot of the Amalfi Coast. I mean, it’s no Positano, but it still has a little of that “cliffside dolce vita” thing going on.
It’s quite a magical little world and a must for anyone looking for a taste of the good life while travelling in north Wales.
Top tip: There are two luxury hotels within the village, too. So be sure to stay overnight
Listen to the Podcast
Here me talk about all of this and more!
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Best Beaches on the Gower Peninsula, Wales ~ A Local’s Guide
Pen y Fan Wild Camping: One Night to Wander
‘Like Living on an Island’ – A Photo Essay Exploring Life on the Gower Peninsula in South Wales
Rhossili Bay Glory (Gower Peninsula): A Short Film & Photo Journal
Nearly Wild Camping on the River Dulais (Neath, South Wales)
VIDEO: Rhossili Down Hike (Gower Peninsula, South Wales)
A Local’s Guide to Llangennith Beach on South Wales’ Glorious Gower Peninsula