Notes from Northern Ireland

 

notes from northern ireland

I don’t think my dad was very happy with me when I told him I was going to Northern Ireland. In his 60s, The Troubles – a violent 30-year conflict affecting the nation – coincided with most of his adult life. As someone who will soon be knocking on the door of 30 myself, I’ll admit that even I snuck in a quick Google search before booking my day trip to the Giant’s Causeway and Belfast. Of course, as is almost always the case, I had nothing to worry about.

Apart from a modest road sign, there is nothing resembling a formal border crossing between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. As our coach whizzed its way towards Belfast from Dublin the only real indication that we were in a new country was a light smattering of Union Jack flags billowing over roadside towns.

There is no way of putting this nicely, but Belfast is not a pretty city. It gives off a grimy, industrial vibe and Ireland’s famously grey weather was not helping on the day of my visit. However, beautiful architecture is not why visitors come to Belfast.

Belfast Northern Ireland

My tour, which I took with Wild Rover Tours, gave us two options: Visit the new Titanic Experience or take a political tour of Belfast in a Black Taxi Cab. I chose the latter and upon arrival in Belfast, four of us climbed into an old London-style black taxi with a Belfast native at the helm.

Our guide was an interesting character. An energetic man in his 50s, he was blessed with the gift for gab and ended every sentence with ‘OK?’

Political Mural Belfast Northern Ireland

Bobby Sands Mural, Falls Road

Political Mural Belfast Northern Ireland

Stephen McKeag Mural on Shankill Road

We spent over two hours zipping through the gritty streets of Belfast, making pit stops at murals along Falls Road, traditionally an Irish nationalist stronghold, and Shankill Road, an area associated with the pro-union side of the conflict. At the end of the tour we were given an opportunity to sign the Peace Wall, a massive 20+ foot wall separating the two opposing sides of the city.

As we rejoined the rest of the group at the gleaming new Titanic Belfast, I couldn’t help but feel torn about the political tour. On its own merits, the tour and our great was great. My problem was with that it all felt a bit too premature.

Northern Ireland - Signing the Peace Wall

The guide himself – who had two close friends killed in the Troubles – mentioned that 2014 had been the first year in his memory without attacks. And the Peace Wall (or Peace Lines) still closes its gates every night in an effort to mitigate further violence. While I felt perfectly safe during my time in Belfast, I just don’t know if it’s appropriate for the tourism industry to ‘cash in’ on this aspect of the city when there is still ongoing tension in the area.

On the other hand, all that tourism does bring in lots of money into the country and keeps a fair amount of people employed. It’s also very much an educational experience, particularly for those of use who are too young to recall The Troubles.

Coastline - Northern Ireland

Coastline – Northern Ireland

From Belfast, we meandered out of the grey and into the green of the Northern Irish countryside. The skies cleared just as we reached Giant’s Causeway, a natural formation of hexagonal stones built up along the coastline.

Some tourist attractions use history, myths, and legends to help market themselves. The Giant’s Causeway has Finn McCool (perhaps the best name for a mythological figure ever). Truth be told though, they don’t really need him. The causeway stands on its own – sans legend – as a remarkable place to visit.

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway

If the Giant’s Causeway were in America, there would be a fence around it. People would travel an hour or two from Belfast to stare at a pretty coastline from afar. This is not how they roll in Northern Ireland. The only fences here are ones to keep you from sauntering onto private land. Fair enough.

The Irish, or Northern Irish I should say, let visitors enjoy Giant’s Causeway. You’re free to climb these giant stones, hop from one to the other, and snap away on your camera. I reached the coast just as the sky cleared, which made for a remarkable photography session. I could have stayed here for hours, but was happy that I got a chance to hop around the rocks for an hour or so before grabbing lunch and heading out to our final stop on the tour.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

The Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge was a short drive away and I have no qualms in saying that this was little more than a tourist gimmick. The bridge connects the mainland to what basically amounts to a rock formation. If you look down as you cross you’ll see nothing but the crashing waves of the Atlantic beneath your feet. It’s supposed to be thrilling, or even scary. It really wasn’t. The bridge is so short that it’s hardly worth the experience.

In the end though, the side trip to Carrick-a-Rede was hardly enough to spoil what had been a fulfilling – albeit long – day of sightseeing. My trip with Wild Rover Tours proved to be an excellent introduction to a beautiful country, but next time I’d like to hire a car and drive around the countryside at my own pace.

(My trip to Ireland was sponsored by Tourism Ireland. However, I paid for this excursion myself.)

A City Unknown: Diving into Dublin

 
Dublin during St. Patrick's Fest

Dublin during St. Patrick’s Fest

As soon as the seatbelt sign clicked off following a bumpy take off, the plane ended its brief stint at cruising altitude and hastily made its way back down to terra firma. At scarcely over an hour away, Dublin and London are practically neighbours. And on the surface, the two capital cities have a lot in common.

In addition to geographic similarities, there is some architectural and aesthetic overlap. Dublin, as a tour guide described it, is very much a Georgian city – a stamp left by the British Empire who claimed Ireland as its own until the 1920s. Of course, Westminster left much more of a mark on Dublin and the rest of the Emerald Isle than a few stately buildings.

A sign stating Fáilte Ireland greeted me as I exited Dublin Airport. Fáilte is a Gaeilge (Irish Gaelic) word for welcome. And while the Irish accent, with its heart-melting diphthongs and sing-song tones, is beloved around the world, it is Gaeilge – not English – that is the national language of the Republic of Ireland.

A result of a concerted effort on the part of the British Empire to suppress Gaeilge and align the Emerald Isle closer with the crown, English became the de facto primary language of Ireland. A globalised economy means that this is unlikely to change, but I was told by more than a few locals that Gaeilge is experiencing a bit of a comeback.

St. Patrick's Day Parade

St. Patrick’s Day Parade

My visit to Dublin coincided with St. Patrick’s Fest, a multi day festival culminating in a St. Patrick’s Day parade through the centre of town. To celebrate, the city was doused in generous proportions of green, white, and orange – the colours of the Irish flag. Filling the streets of Dublin were tourists, mainly from the US, donned in Kiss Me I’m Irish t-shirts, orange leprechaun beards, and green Viking helmets.

St. Patrick’s Fest, admittedly, is probably not the best time to witness Dublin at its most authentic. However, the national holiday does provide an excellent opportunity to discover the history and heritage of Dublin and its people.

Amidst the endless pints of Guinness and bright green regalia, this worldwide-celebrated holiday honours St. Patrick. St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the outskirts of central Dublin marks the site where Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, baptised 5th  century Dubliners, thus aiding in driving the snakes (paganism) from the island.

Floor of St. Patrick's Cathedral Dubline

Beautiful floor tiles in St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Walking in the footsteps of St. Patrick, my guide led me through the story of Dublin. From its original settlers to clashes with Viking invaders and the British Empire, it became clear to me that Dublin was nothing like London. Looking past the Georgian buildings and peeling back the English language, I discovered a city previously unknown to me.

Yes, St. Patrick’s Fest is for tourists. But alongside the shots of Jameson and tourism dollars, the festival beautifully showcases Dublin as an Irish city, with an Irish heritage unmistakably distinctive from its neighbour to the east.

Getting to Dublin

Ireland’s national airline Aer Lingus operates regular flights from multiple destination in the UK as well as the US.

Where to Stay in Dublin

Buswells Hotel Dublin Ireland

My room at Buswells Hotel

I stayed at the three-star Buswells Hotel. Occupying an elegant Georgian home in the centre of Dublin, it was clean, comfortable, and had a fabulous pub and restaurant. It did feel, however, a bit dated.

For more modern accommodation, try the Conrad Dublin. The hotel is located a little further out from the centre, but it’s not a bad trade off considering the modern facilities.

Dublin’s most famous, historic, and prestigious hotel is The Shelbourne. This five-star establishment was the site where the Irish constitution was drafted and boasts a long and proud history. Former guests include President Kennedy and Jackie-O, among others.

Where to Eat in Dublin

Irish_Stew

Irish Stew and Soda Bread.

Tucked away in Dublin’s photogenic Georgian quarter, Matt the Thresher serves up heaps of delicious seafood in a modern setting and attracts locals and tourists alike.

Quite possibly Ireland’s poshest supermarket, Fallon & Byrne in central Dublin also boasts an impressive upstairs dining area where guests are treated to delectable local dishes. Fallon & Byrne is an active participant in the slow food movement, which focuses on preparing food using ingredients from local sources.

Dating back to 1198 (no, that’s not a typo), the Brazen Head Pub is far and away the oldest pub in Dublin. While it’s worth a visit for that reason alone, patrons also come for the live music, Irish storytelling, and the free flowing pints of Guinness.

Additional Reading

For more information on what Ireland and Dublin have to offer, visit Ireland.com and VisitDublin.com.

(My trip to Ireland was sponsored by Tourism Ireland. However, all opinions are my own.)

Has anyone else been to Dublin before? Fill us in on what you thought about the city and your favourite attractions in the comments section!

Fall Colours at St. Fagans

 
St. Fagans National History Museum

Lonely footpath

For some reason I always have a lull in my travel schedule around November and that leaves me itching to go somewhere. Because I’ll be on the road for all but 3 days in December, I’m forgoing my annual fall (err…autumn) trip and will be partaking in some exciting events in London (more details to come!).

Around this time last year I was, quite predictably, itching to travel, so I hopped on a train and spent a week working remotely from Cardiff, Wales (further reading: The Anatomy of a Working Vacation). Cardiff is just a two-hour train ride from London’s Paddington Station and is an easy weekend or multi-day trip to plan. The central part of the city is rather small and is packed with lots of modern hotels. When I visited in November there was a cute Christmas market in the middle of town, and other highlights of the city include the harbour area, Cardiff Castle, and the old Victorian-era Cardiff Market.

Just outside of the city lies St. Fagans National History Museum (yes, yes, the name is funny. go on, get your giggles out now). Occupying a lovely rural patch of land, historically significant buildings from all across Wales have been transported and planted/rebuilt here to create a really innovative outdoor museum. And as you know, I’m a sucker for museums.

The museum is open daily from 10am-5pm and entry is F-R-E-E. You can get here from Central Cardiff by bus, but we chose to take a taxi (£15) for the sake of simplicity.

St. Fagans National History Museum

Abernodwydd Farmhouse (17th Century)

I’m sure St. Fagans looks absolutely beautiful in the summer, but there was something really special about visiting it in autumn. The museum is sprawled out across 100 acres and each of its historic buildings was framed with gorgeous hues of red, orange, and yellow.

St. Fagans National History Museum

Early 20th century/late 19th century storefront

St. Fagans is about as close as you can get to stepping back in time. Buildings are all arranged by time period, and the curators have recreated little communities right down to the smallest details. One of my favourite areas is pictured in the photo above. These stores were built in 1880 and once called Ogmore Vale, Glamorgan (in South Wales) home. The furniture and decor date back to the 1920s and offers an eye-opening glimpse into what it must have been like to live in rural Wales around the turn of the 20th century.

St. Fagans National History Museum

Farmhouse

Local Wildlife :)

St. Fagans National History Museum

More Fall Foliage

St. Fagans National History Museum

Pond

The museum’s website recommends you set aside 2-4 hours for your visit, and I think that’s just about right. While I wouldn’t recommend making the trip out to Cardiff from London just to visit St. Fagans, check it out if you happen to be in the area for a few days.

Day Trip: Leeds Castle, Dover Castle, and Canterbury with Luxury Travels and Tours

 

On 6 April my boyfriend and I embarked on a coach trip to Leeds Castle, Dover Castle, and Canterbury with Luxury Travels and Tours, a small London-based company that operates tours across the UK. Together with Stonehenge & Bath and Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon & the Cotswolds, this is one of the most popular day trip options from London as it takes you to two fairytale castles and a marvellous historic cathedral town.

On the morning of the trip we woke up to overcast skies and left our East London flat early so that we could make it to the pick-up point at South Kensington. We reached the South Kensington with 15-minutes to spare and were greeted by pouring rain as we make our way down the street to the awaiting coach.

8:30
The coach took off bang on time at 8:30. Prior to boarding our guide checked our names and collected our entry fees for Leeds and Dover castle. It’s worth nothing that coach tours generally do not include the price of admission into their fares. This caught a few of the passengers of guard, but it’s stated quite clearly on Luxury Travels’ website.

The advantage of paying admission through the guide was that all the passengers qualified for the group rate, which was £15/person/castle. The normal prices of admission to Leeds Castle and Dover Castle are £19.00 and £17.50, respectively.

(10:00 – 12:15) Leeds Castle
After an hour of driving through London traffic, the coach finally made it out onto the motorway and headed southeast through the countryside to Leeds Castle. We arrived promptly at 10:00, which is precisely the time the vast gardens surrounding the castle open, though the castle itself doesn’t open until 10:30. It took about 15-minutes for our guide to get our tickets sorted after which we were let loose in the gardens.

Black Swans at Leeds Castle

Black swans at Leeds Castle

Even on a chilly, misty spring morning, the gardens of Leeds Castle were enchanting. At the entrance you have the option of purchasing a small container of bird food for £1 and I strongly suggest doing so. The castle’s gardens are famously home to beautiful black swans as well as a host of song birds, ducks, geese, and peacocks. Before making my way around the bend to the castle I ran into what may just be the most adorable family of ducks ever.

Ducklings at Leeds Castle

Ducklings at Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle

After tearing myself away from all the cute ducklings, I walked over to the castle entrance. Leeds Castle is set up in such a way that visitings are led on a one-way path through the structure. You’re free to walk through at your own pace, but there’s not doubling back in order to keep the flow going.

I think what surprised me most about Leeds Castle is how modern it was. Its exterior is very much that of a castle you’d imagine from the middle ages, but the interior more closely resembles a stately manor, whith only a few rooms paying homage to its medieval heritage. The library struck me as the prettiest room in the castle with its rows of neatly aligned books and gold trim.

Leeds Castle

Tudor-era room in Leeds Castle

Leeds Castle Library

Leeds Castle Library

Leeds Castle Chapel

Leeds Castle Chapel

Depending on your personal pace, it takes anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes to finish a complete tour of the castle. With the coach taking off as 12:15, we left the building with plenty of extra time to explore the grounds. Our first stop was the maze, which is located about a 5-minute walk from the main building. The maze was nothing special, but it bizarrely ended at an underground grotto decorated with seashells. It was too dark to take pictures, but my boyfriend did manage to get one decent shot in.

Leeds Castle Grotto

Leeds Castle Grotto . . . ??

After our excursion to the grotto we started heading our way back to through the gardens towards the car park. Before leaving I gave my last bit of bird food away to a very friendly peacock.

Peacock at Leeds Castle

Peacock at Leeds Castle

In total we got to spend just over 2 hours at the site of the castle, which felt like the right amount of time for what I wanted to see and do. However, I tend to move through historic sites and museums pretty quickly. If you prefer taking things in at a slower pace, two hours might feel a little rushed to you.

(13:00 – 15:15) Dover Castle
The drive from Leeds Castle in Maidstone to Dover didn’t take very long, but I was disappointed to see the town’s famous white cliffs shrouded in fog. At Dover we were given the option of exploring Dover Castle or the town of Dover itself. I had always been more interested in the castle and have to say that as we drove through the town, it looked a little worse for wear.

I made a big mistake by not eating lunch at Leeds Castle, because by the time we reached Dover I was starving and could think of nothing but getting something in my stomach. With only 2 hours to spend at the site, I spent more than half an hour eating! That left us with only enough time to visit the main tower of the castle (called the keep), which to its credit was pretty well preserved and adhered to its Norman roots.

Dover Castle

View from the top of Dover Castle

Dover Castle

Inside Dover Castle

Dover Castle

Wall etchings

What we didn’t really get to see were the World Ward II era tunnels that were dug into the chalk cliffs near to the castle. Entrance into the tunnels and a laundry list of other separate sites is all included in your admission price into Dover Castle, but you need half a day at the very least to really see everything here. If in the future I ever take a ferry from Dover to France, I’ll be sure to pencil in some time to re-visit the castle and check out what I missed.

(15:45 – 17:00) Canterbury
Canterbury is a quick jaunt from Dover and it felt like we arrived in no time. The coach dropped us off at the edge of the old part of town and our guide led us to Canterbury Cathedral, which he warned would probably be closed. Normally the entrance fee into the cathedral, one of the oldest in Britain, is £9.50. Luckily, we arrived just as they were opening their doors for an afternoon Sunday service and were able to pop in for free. If you’ve been to other cathedrals around Europe the one in Canterbury will now blow you away. It has a long nave with an intricate ceiling and some fancy stained glass. There is an interior cloister that is quite beautiful as well as a few separate rooms and buildings to explore.

Canterbury Cathedral

Inside Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

I think what I found more impressive than the cathedral was Canterbury itself. Its historic centre oozes charm, even when it’s loaded with tourists. I caught word from our guide that Canterbury tends to be packed on Saturdays, but the crowds thin out on Sundays. The street adjacent to the cathedral and the main shopping street are pedestrian zones covered in worn cobblestones. There are lots of great historic buildings to look at here and I really thoroughly enjoyed the visit.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral peeking through a narrow cobblestone street

Canterbury

Canterbury

Canterbury Public Library Museum

Canterbury Public Library Museum

Canterbury

Canterbury

Back to London
We were warned by the driver that the journey back to London on a Sunday evening could take 2 hours or more, putting our arrival time at 19:00. Because the route back to S. Kensington would take us quite literally past our apartment in E. London, we asked our guide if we could arrange for a special drop off. He passed our request on to the driver and they came up with a plan to schedule two drop-offs: one in E. London and one in S. Kensington.

We made it to the border of London around 18:00 and 15 minutes later the coach driver very kindly dropped us off about a block away from Tower Gateway station, which is just a few stops on the DLR from where we live. We were back home at 18:30 and I had managed to make dinner, eat, and get ready for bed in the same time it would have taken us to drive all the way down to S. Kensington, then take the Tube all the way back to East London. I’d like to thank our guide Jeremy and the driver Ray for saving us all that extra time!

The Verdict
It was a long, yet satisfying day. The tour delivered on everything it promised, which is all you can really ask. My only major grip about the trip was the fact that we had to line up outside in the rain for a while to board the coach because we were asked to pay for our admission upfront. It probably would have been easier to collect the money on the coach. The weather could have also been better, but that just goes along with living in England. As I believe I’ve mentioned previously, while I’m a firm believer in being an independent traveller, there are times when coach tours such as these are just more convenient and cost effective. This would have been a difficult and expensive trip to do by rail and we ended up saving £20/person using a coach rather than hiring a car.

Our guide was helpful and took care of all the logistics for the passengers, but didn’t accompany us into the sites. We were left to explore things on our own, which I strongly prefer. The driver operated the coach safely and I was really happy with the service at the end of the day.

I’d recommend the trip for anyone staying in London for more than a week or so. If you like to take your time when you travel, then opt for the itinerary that hits two of the three sites and visit the third site on your own on another day.

  • To get to Leeds Castle by rail, take the train to Bearsted station, where there is a shuttle service from March to October that will take you directly to the castle.
  • To visit Canterbury, you can take the train from London to Canterbury East or Canterbury West. Trains operate frequently and the journey time is 90 minutes.

How to plan a day or weekend trip from London

 

So you’re spending a semester studying in London or you’re holidaying here for a few weeks. Better yet, you’ve moved to London. Yay!

After you’ve seen Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and hit up a few museums and pubs, it might be time to start thinking about taking some trips outside the city to see what the rest of England is all about. If you’ve reached this point in your London life, then I’m here to help! Below are some tips and some advice on how to plan for short trips outside of the city.

Oxford, England

Destination

First thing’s first – Where should you go?

While I definitely haven’t been everywhere, here are my top picks for day trips outside London:
1. Oxford
2. Cambridge (visit Oxford or Cambridge, but don’t waste time on both!)
3. Bath and Stonehenge (Often done as one trip)
4. Windsor Castle
5. Leeds Castle, Dover Castle, and Canterbury (Often done as one trip)
6. Hampton Court Palace
7. Brighton (in the happier, sunnier months only)

Bath, England

And now here are my top weekend destinations (again, not an exhaustive list):
1. Cornwall
2. Stratford-Upon-Avon and The Cotswolds
3. The New Forest
4. Jersey or Guernsey
5. Isle of Wight (Take a train to Southampton, then hop on a ferry)

New Forest

Transportation

Once you’ve picked a destination, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to get there. For most city destinations, trains will do just fine. Try www.nationalrail.co.uk to see routes and pricing.  Once you get to your destination city, you can either use public transport or one of those city tour buses to get around.

The more remote destinations like Cornwall and New Forest are reachable via train as well, but it’s best to hire a car if you can.

Then there are the specialty tourist destinations like Bath, Stonehenge, Leeds Castle, and Dover. Because these places are so popular, the easiest way to visit them is by tour bus. I’ve done several day trip tours and found them to deliver on their services in that they provide easy and direct transportation. I wouldn’t, however, expect a great tour guide or anything. Nevertheless, it’s a good option if you don’t feel like driving yourself.

The only automatic car available for rent – Oh yea, I totally crashed it.

A word on car hire in the UK:
There are four major things to know about hiring and driving a car in the UK.

  • All standard rentals are manual/stick shift. You will have to pay a hefty daily rate (often £75 – £120) if you want an automatic car.
  • Some major rental companies will not rent automatic cars to you if you are under 25, so double check if you’re in that age bracket.
  • Driving on the left side of the road is weird, but it’s probably not as hard as you think. Just drive slowly and you’ll be OK.
  • US, Canadian, Australian and European driver’s licenses will work just fine for hiring a car. I don’t know about other nations.

Accommodation

There’s nothing out of the ordinary involved with booking a hotel in England. I’ve noticed that some of the older and more traditional B&Bs don’t have great web reservation systems, but they’re still adequate. Bring your passport along as the hotel staff may ask you for ID (and it’s good to have your passport on you when you travel anyway).

B&B in New Forest

Travelling on a Budget

If you’re a student (or non-student) reading this and thinking “this sounds great, but it also seems really expensive”,  then I’ve got a few more tips for keeping within a modest budget:

  • If you’re a Youth (16 – 25) and are going to be in London for a year or more, look into the Youth Rail Pass. It costs £30 but will save you 1/3 on all rail fares for 1 year.
  • Big bus tours to places like Stonehenge and Bath typically offer student discounts, so check them out.
  • Travel in a group – If you can bring along 4-5 people in one car you’ll probably save on transportation. Groups of 2 or more are also eligible for group rail discounts.
  • A lot of towns in the UK have youth hostels where you can get a bed for less than £10/night. You could also try camping if you’re brave enough!
  • If you enjoy eating out, opt for lunch specials over dinner. Meal deals at lunch are almost always a better bargain than at dinner. Head to the local supermarket and pick up some snacks and sandwiches for dinner.

Weekend Break: Cardiff, Wales

 

After living in England for three years, I finally made it out to another UK country a few weeks ago. My trip to Cardiff was a bit of a last minute affair that I squeezed in between visiting Iceland and Thailand. It’s only about two and a half hours by train from Paddington Station in Central London, and provided a nice break from frantic London.

Rush hour in Paddington Station

 

Cardiff may be the capital of Wales, but it’s population hovers around 300,000, as opposed to the over 8,000,000 people who reside in Greater London. Upon arriving on a chilly autumn evening, I made my way through the rail station, baffled by Welsh-language signs featuring impossibly long words with no vowels. The city was easy enough to navigate, and I made it to the Cardiff Novotel in no time.

The Cardiff Novotel was my second choice of accommodation, behind the Radisson Blu. However, thanks to a big rugby match, the Radisson was fresh out of rooms by the time I tried to make a reservation.  Despite being a bit further out of town, the Novotel still suited quite nicely and offered plenty of space along with a decent free internet connection, which was paramount as this was a working holiday.

My first full day in Cardiff was mainly spent working while enjoying the novelty of television (I don’t have one at home). After the work day was complete, I headed out to explore downtown Cardiff.  A mix of old and unabashedly new, the city is pretty compact and pedestrian friendly. Most of the shops were already familiar to me, as they didn’t differ much from what could be found in London. Hungry, I meandered into a sushi restaurant inside a shopping mall and had my first taste of a Welsh-produced cider called Black Dragon; it was delicious and I’m disappointed to announce that I haven’t been able to locate it back home in London.

Downtown Cardiff

Downtown Cardiff

The northern edge of downtown Cardiff is flanked by one of its biggest tourist attractions – Cardiff Castle. Like all good castles, the one in Cardiff features a terrifying winding staircase that offered unparalleled views of the city. Seeing it as my duty to capture the essence of the UK, I went against my better judgement and made my way up the steps with a bad knee. Here are the results:

View from Cardiff Castle

Other highlights from Cardiff Castle include the interior of the structure itself. There’s a lot of great woodwork and other detailing here, particular in the ceilings of the main dining hall and the famous Arab Room.

Cardiff Castle Ceiling

Cardiff Castle – Arab Room Ceiling

Aside from downtown, Cardiff’s other main hotspot is Mermaid Quay, which is full of restaurants, bars, and sits along the water. It’s a short walk from the Wales Millennium Centre, which is perhaps the country’s most famous building, along with a striking Norwegian church.

Wales Millennium Centre

Juggling work and sightseeing, my final major stop in Cardiff turned out to be the best. Located on the outskirts of town, St. Fagans National History Museum was the highlight of my trip. St. Fagans (yes, it’s pronounced how you think it’s pronounced), is an outdoor museum that features all kinds of typical Welsh buildings and structures spanning nearly 500 years. Most of the buildings were transported to the site and rebuilt using traditional techniques.  Though it’s incredibly popular in the warm summer months, I found that it was almost deserted in autumn, which gave me plenty of time to enjoy the fall foliage and the charming old buildings.

Thatched farmhouse @ St. Fagans

Old shophouses @ St. Fagans

Autumn foliage @ St. Fagans

St. Fagans

Now that I’ve completed a successful trip to Wales, I’m looking forward to visiting Scotland and Ireland in the near future. Next year I’m planning a tentative getaway to the Scottish Highlands (contingent on my driver’s license status), and a quick weekend break in Dublin.