A Celtic Adventure in North Wales

Travel brief:

  • Fly into Manchester Airport.
  • Car rental is a must, as is requesting an automatic transmission car when you make your reservation if you don’t want to wrestle with a stick shift. Bring proof of auto insurance.
  • Remember that the British drive on the left (opposite) side of the road.
  • Accommodations and eateries are plentiful.
  • Prioritize visits to World Heritage Site castles, Snowdonia National Park, and seaside gem Llandudno.
  • If a hike up Mt. Snowdon is part of the itinerary, dress appropriately and set aside seven hours.
  • Dress in layers and comfortable shoes, especially on the coast.
  • To make the most of your visit, study up on Welsh history.
  • Visit Go North Wales for more information.

The untamed beauty of North Wales is a sight to behold. Its rugged coastline, rolling green hills, and imposing castles echo with timeless legends of Celtic heroes, foreign invaders, and kingdoms won and lost. If exploring the ramparts and portcullises of medieval fortifications and hiking the slopes of majestic Mt. Snowdon gets your Celtic spirit singing, this corner of the United Kingdom may be just the ticket. As the locals say, Croeso i Gymru (Welcome to Wales).

Getting there

North Wales is an easy, two-hour drive from Manchester Airport in England, a major international hub that hosts most leading airlines and car rental agencies. Renting a car is a must, as the area is generally rural with only small towns and villages and limited public transportation. Roads in this part of Wales can be narrow but are well-maintained and marked. Remember, too: the Brits drive on the left side of the road.

Importantly, most rental cars in Britain include a standard (manual) transmission. If you are uncomfortable operating a stick shift on the left side of the road, be sure to request an automatic transmission car when you make your reservation. Finally, be sure to bring a copy of your auto insurance.

Getting around

Wales is a bilingual country. All road and site signs are written in English and Welsh, but not necessarily in that order. Often, English translations will be below the Welsh. Nevertheless, navigation is straightforward, and your U.S.-based Waze app will be able to handle touring around the Welsh countryside easily. Finally, the Welsh are known to be very friendly. If you find yourself turned around between Llangower and Llanuwchllyn, ask for directions.

Where to stay and eat

Many of North Wales’s best sites are clustered on or near the coast, which opens up several accommodation options. If you fancy a quaint Welsh village, try The Ferns Guesthouse, a well-appointed B&B with a hearty breakfast in Betws-y-coed. The village is centrally located, offering a good selection of shops, restaurants, and bars. Additionally, there are several points of interests nearby. For a fun, inner-city diversion, take a five-minute walk down the road to the village green where you can watch the local football (soccer) team practice.

Caernarfon (Source: Shutterstock / Orlando Alberghi)

Alternatively, try the luxury Victoria House B&B or harbor-front pub-and-inn the Anglesey Arms in the royal port town of Caernarfon. Dominated by the mighty Caernarfon Castle, this medieval town of narrow streets and stone houses also includes a tony new waterfront and several highly rated restaurants and pubs. For traditional Welsh fare (lunch or dinner) and a cozy atmosphere, you can’t do better than local favorite, Y Gegin Fach (The Little Kitchen). Try the homemade lob (beef and vegetable stew) or cawl (lamb or beef, cabbage, and leek).

Traditional Welsh Cawl (Source: Shutterstock/ CKP1001)
Traditional Welsh Cawl (Source: Shutterstock/ CKP1001)

For a more adventurous approach to accommodation, restored historic properties are available for rent through the UK’s National Trust. These are equipped with modern conveniences and range from luxurious manor homes to quaint stone cottages. Several are located in Gwynedd, ideally situated for hiking in Snowdonia and less than an hour’s drive from the northern coast. Happily, there are several good eateries in the area. Try Y Stablau (The Stables) for traditional Welsh pub fare or Olif for a selection of Spanish tapas-inspired small plates and sharing platters.

Finally, if a daily wander through a castle isn’t enough, you can stay within jousting distance at the Castle Hotel in the walled city of Conwy. Housed in an old coaching inn, the hotel is known for its boutique-y feel and outstanding food, sourced locally and prepared in keeping with both tradition and modern taste.

What to do

A kingdom of castles, Wales is known for some of the best fortresses in Europe. Within a 40-mile stretch on the north coast are four extraordinary structures built by English overlord Edward I in the 13th century to hold off the warring Welsh: Harlech, Caernarfon, Conwy, and Beaumaris. Together, they comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Caernarfon Castle (Souce: iStock / George-Standen)

While all are worth a visit, Caernarfon and Conwy are standouts. Caernarfon Castle’s indomitable stature is one of the best motte-and-bailey fortifications still standing. Massive stone curtain walls, portcullises, and towers are its hallmarks.

Conwy Castle
Conwy Castle (Source: Shutterstock / Enrique Arnaiz Lafluente)

At Conwy Castle, take the (restored) spiral staircase to the top of the towers and walk a complete circuit around its mammoth battlement walls. The views of Snowdonia’s jagged mountain peaks — not to mention the walled town of Conwy — are well worth the climb.

While in Conwy, consider a stop at St Mary’s Church. It was built as a Cistercian Abbey in the 12th century and served as the original burial spot for Llywelyn the Great, one of Wales’s greatest princes.

If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, or just enjoy a pleasant meander through the woods, Snowdonia National Park should be on your bucket list. Explore easily accessible estuaries, lakes, Neolithic burial cairns, Roman ruins — even an old slate mine. The Snowdon Mountain Railway, a cog railroad (open from March through October) goes to the top of Snowdon (3,500 feet), where you can enjoy the breathtaking views across the valley and a snack at the Hafod Eryri Café and visitor center.

Hiking in Snowdonia
Hiking in the Snowdonia Mountain Range (Source: iStock / Sebastien-Coell)

Hiking Mt. Snowdon, however, might be best left for the more adventuresome. The route up is marked by steeply wooded slopes, rocky terrain, and unpredictable weather. Plus, it takes five to seven hours round trip. The right attire, including a base layer, hiking boots, and a windproof jacket, is essential. Check first with an adventure outfitter like Adventure Smart UK to prepare appropriately.

If you’d rather stay closer to sea level, visit coastal Llandudno, one of Britain’s most picturesque seaside resorts. Take a stroll along the majestic seaside promenade to the Grade II-listed Victorian pier, where you will find shops, cafes, and two arcades, featuring traditional games for all ages.

Llandudno is also the site of one of the most astonishing archeological finds in modern history. Take the Great Orme Tram to the 200-meter headland summit where you can don a hard hat to do a self-guided tour of a copper mine from the Bronze Age.

Insider tips

Welsh weather is generally on the cooler side and can be unpredictable, especially around the coast. Pack multiple layers and comfortable shoes for touring all those castles. While the region is beautiful and the castles magnificent in their own right, brushing up on your Welsh history ahead of time will add significantly to your trip.

For more information, visit Go North Wales online.