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Once known for its coal trade and busy port, Cardiff’s transformation into a cosmopolitan city and tourist destination over the last decade has been given a boost by two dashing heroes: The Doctor and Captain Jack Harkness.
To be exact, that’s the BBC’s mega-hit science fiction television shows Doctor Who and Torchwood, which both film in the city. One of the first stops for visitors is the stunning redevelopment of Cardiff Bay, which is the headquarters for alien-fighting organization Torchwood lead by Captain Jack. Oh, and there’s also a rift in the fabric of time and space over the bay that allows pesky aliens to occasionally fall into Cardiff and cause mayhem.
While dodging Daleks and other little green men, there is plenty to see in modern Cardiff with museums, shopping, beautiful parks and even a castle.
Creating Cardiff Bay
Cardiff Bay is a marvel, mainly because it’s only existed for about a decade. The bay was created by building a barrage at the mouth of the Taff and Ely rivers to form a freshwater lake. The derelict docklands area was regenerated with high-end apartments, shops, the construction of Roald Dahl Plass (named for the beloved children’s writer) and its centerpiece, the Wales Millennium Centre.
Constructed of slate, metal, wood and glass, Millennium Centre is instantly recognized by its forward sloping roof with the inscription “In These Stones Horizons Sing,” written in both Welsh and English. The building is the permanent home of the Welsh National Opera and also hosts concerts, theatre, ballet and more. There are often free performances happening on the ground floor, which also has numerous shops, cafes and restaurants.
Just outside the main doors of the Millennium Centre is the 70-foot tall Water Tower, a metallic monolith with water cascading down its sides, which is also the fictional entrance to the Torchwood headquarters. The illuminated light pillars in Roald Dahl Plass are a nod to Cardiff Bay’s original name, Oval Basin.
Also in Cardiff Bay is the Snedd, the ultra-modern Welsh Assembly Building, which looks like a glass box, juxtaposed next to the Pierhead Building, the 1897-era French/Gothic building also used by the Assembly.
The Doctor Is In
Next door to the Millennium Centre is Red Dragon Centre, another modern building full of restaurants, nightclubs, a casino and, the biggest draw, the Doctor Who Exhibition.
The museum deals mostly with the latest incarnations of the Doctor, although there are reminders of the show’s more than 40-year history. Kids and sci-fi fans will get a kick out of the full-sized replica of the Doctor’s time machine, The TARDIS, costumes, props, and dioramas with all the villains like the Cybermen, Daleks and Sontaurans. There’s also a gift shop with every Doctor Who toy ever made. Admission is £6.50 for adults, £5 for kids, although if you just need a sonic screwdriver or action figure, you can browse the shop for free.
Much of Cardiff city centre has been turned into wide pedestrian walkways. Queen Street is filled with shops, restaurants and nightclubs, while The Hayes is now home to the giant St. David’s Shopping Centre, which is home to upscale shops, an Apple store and more. It’s anchored by John Lewis department store, which is the second largest in the UK. Also in The Hayes is the new Cardiff Central Library, which has more than 90,000 books and regularly host’s art and music events. Along side these new structures are historic ones, like the beautiful St. John the Baptist Church, the oldest in the city dating back to 1490.
A visit to the city centre wouldn’t be complete without browsing Cardiff Market, which has been a landmark since 1891. The two-story, indoor market is filled with fresh produce, specialty foods, books, clothing, jewelry and art.
If you’re looking for an unusual hotel in the city centre, look no further than The Big Sleep. Co-owned by actor John Malkovich, the hotel is in a reclaimed office building and the lobby and rooms are all monochromatic white and blue. The rooms are big and comfortable (rates range from £45 for a budget room to £99 for the penthouse suite) and offer incredible views of the city. There’s also a photo of Malkovich looking moody in various poses by each bed. A little creepy, yet very cool.
Overlooking the city is Cardiff Castle, which has a history dating back 2,000 years with the site first being occupied by the Romans between 55-400 AD. By 1766, the site was owned by powerful Bute family, which created Cardiff’s coal-exporting hub. It was the Bute family that transformed the site into the Neo Gothic fantasyland visitors flock to today. The Norman Keep (circa 1091 remains) along with a series of towers and the main mansion are beautifully restored and maintained.
A Traditional Pub
The Conway, located northwest of the city centre in the Pontcanna district, was built in 1850 and considered an “old man’s pub” until its reinvention in 2005 as a gastropub. There are plenty of booths and tables inside around the L-shape bar, a big patio to enjoy a pint with your mates and the changing menu is written on large chalkboards. I had the skirt steak with chips (£15) and it was one of the best meals I had while visiting the UK. And, yes, The Conway was also made world-famous by being featured in Doctor Who.
Collin Kelley just returned from Europe, where he traveled and guest lectured on social media at Worcester College at Oxford University. He is the author of the novel Conquering Venus and three collections of poetry. Read his blog on Red Room, or check out his other pieces for Gadling: Three days in Paris, and Three days in London. All the images in this post are copyright Collin Kelley.