“Cardiff is the smallest big city,” says Si Martin, an intelligent, tattooed 20-something who certainly looks like a reliable barometer for what’s hip and hot. “Everybody is weirdly connected somehow — but it’s big enough, and there’s always something going on.”
The Bath, England, native originally moved to Cardiff for university, choosing the more laid-back Welsh capital over uber-trendy London. “I was very much drawn here because of the cool music scene,” Martin explains. “It’s just got a nice vibe.”
I feel it, too — a free-spirited energy that reverberates throughout this remarkably resilient city. It’s evident in Cardiff Bay, once a derelict old port that has been redeveloped as a 500-acre freshwater lake, with walking trails, shops, restaurants and architectural showpieces like the contemporary glass Senedd Welsh Parliament and copper-plated Wales Millennium performing arts center. It’s apparent in the artsy student suburb of Roath, where City Road is lined with cheap-and-cheerful eateries serving ethnic cuisine from around the world. And it pervades the pedestrian-friendly city center, where I find atmospheric restaurants like Chapel 1877, housed in a former Gothic church, cozy cocktail bars like the speakeasy-style the Dead Canary and independent retailers like those at the Castle Emporium, where I meet Martin.
The Castle Emporium is a deliberately scruffy Gen Z shopping center that resembles a DIY clubhouse, with worn wood floors and plywood counters. Here, at Heads Above the Waves, Martin sells “merch with a message” — that's hoodies and T-shirts emblazoned with upbeat mantras — to fund the nonprofit organization he co-founded to help young folks struggling with self-harm and depression. His neighbors include a skateboard shop, an art gallery, a cafe that doubles as a record store, a one-chair barbershop and — lest you harbor any doubt that you are in the midst of post-millennial modernity — an ATM that deals in bitcoin currency.
While the Castle Emporium only opened four years ago, it’s located on one of the city’s oldest lanes. Womanby Street, where former warehouses have been reborn as nightclubs, is Cardiff’s legendary live music hub, having hosted acts like Coldplay and the Strokes. Keep your eyes peeled around the city for well-known musicians, as well as actors; Cardiff is also home to the long-running TV series "Doctor Who."
After catching a band and imbibing some Brains (Cardiff-brewed beer, that is, not a zombie smoothie), Cardiffians often end their evenings on Caroline Street, colloquially known as “Chippy Lane,” where late-night diners sling fish and chips, curry and kebabs. If you want to sound like a local, order the “half and half,” which is half rice and half chips — aka french fries — smothered in chicken curry sauce.
On High Street and St. Mary Street, a half-dozen Victorian and Edwardian arcades are home to stylish gin bars, one-off coffee shops, vintage boutiques, beard-trimming barbers, tattoo studios and a street art gallery. At Cardiff Market, a vast, wrought-iron structure filled with scores of individual stalls, you can buy everything from feather boas to flowers, snack on deep-fried Scotch eggs and ferret out exotic meats at Ashton’s Fishmongers, which sells a whole lot more than fish. (Camel? Crocodile? Squirrel, anyone?). Kelly’s Vinyl, on the upper level, stocks thousands of records, from A (as in ABBA) to Z (as in Zebra Crossing), not to mention that elusive Ubiquity "Starbooty" album you’ve been yearning for.
But the mecca for music collectors is Spillers Records, which claims to be the oldest record shop in the world. “Come to Cardiff for the Welsh cakes; stay for the records,” quips Graf Middleton, a dry-witted fellow manning the counter at Spillers, located in Morgan’s Arcade. Of course, it wasn’t really Wales’ griddle-baked “cakes” that lured him here. Like Martin, Middleton says “it was the draw of the music. But there’s so much green space, too. Drive a half hour outside of Cardiff and you’re in beautiful countryside.”
In fact, you can immerse yourself in nature without setting foot outside the city. Bute Park, which flanks the River Taff, encompasses 56 leafy hectares. Stroll along the river and picnic beneath the trees. Just save time for a tour of the neighboring castle.
Cardiff Castle’s turrets and towers peek above a surrounding stone wall, upon which perch an unlikely array of animal statues, ranging from a bear and lions to decidedly less regal specimens like a beaver, a raccoon and an anteater. Inside the castle complex, on a grassy hill at its center, an 11th-century stone keep provides panoramic views that are, quite literally, breathtaking, if you’re fit enough to huff and puff your way up a few hundred stairs to the top.
While that Norman tower appears untouched by the centuries, the main residence received a King Arthur-meets-Disneyland makeover in the late 1800s. Fueled by a Welsh coal mining fortune, the third Marquess of Bute, John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, commissioned a fevered revamp, adding marble mosaic floors, a 22-karat gold leaf ceiling, stained glass windows, a servant-summoning bell disguised as a nut in a monkey’s mouth and a 150-foot-tall clock tower. Sure, the Marquess could’ve just bought a watch if he wanted to keep track of the time, but that was not how John Boy rolled.
Now, you might say that he was a wee bit eccentric. But marching to the beat of your own drum is what Cardiff is all about. The syncopated footsteps of its citizens compose an intriguingly discordant symphony — the pulsing rhythm of city life.
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