Travelling for the Champions League final? Here’s what to see in Cardiff
Well, it’s that time of the sporting year again, when two behemoths of the football world come together in a celebration of bloated, corporate backslapping. The type that has turned the sport – at the highest level – into a festival of “customers” replacing fans, the “matchday experience” instead of just going to a game, and highlighting the shuddering cravenness of UEFA, as well as organisations like the EFL and the FA, to kowtow to wheelbarrow-loads of cash. That’s right, it’s Champions League final time.
The city playing host to the final this year is Cardiff, at what used to be called the Millennium Stadium. Apparently it’s now called the Principality Stadium, which I didn’t know until I checked it for the purposes of this article. I – rather foolishly – assumed that, in a fit of national pride, Wales had decided to alert the world to the fact it is slowly working its way towards independence, but no, it’s a sponsorship thing of course.
Anyway, that’s by the by. What of Cardiff? Well, in the last couple of decades the Welsh capital has experienced rather a renaissance. The seat of the National Assembly and home to both the Welsh national media and BBC Wales (responsible for some of the corporation’s best-known output, such as Doctor Who and the recent adaptation of War and Peace), it attracts over 18 million tourists a year.
Historically, there has been a settlement on the banks of the river Taff since the territory was ruled by the Silures, an Iron Age tribe of Celts, before the Roman invasion of Britain led to the establishment of a fortress as part of a rather more extensive settlement. After the abandonment of Britain by Roman forces, very little is known about what happened in the centuries between that event and the Norman Conquest. We know that William I went on a bit of a castle building spree on the border between England and Wales including, in 1081, using part of the old Roman fort to establish Cardiff castle, which has been an integral part of the city’s geography ever since.
From the 1830s, Cardiff really hit its stride. John Crichton-Stuart, the 2nd Marquess of Bute made it his life’s work to turn the city into the main industrial and shipping area of Wales. He would later be known as the Creator of Modern Cardiff, as it was his vision and tenacity that meant the docks were built. This in turn was linked to a railway that meant coal could be transported down from the Cynon, Rhondda and Rhymney valleys for export. All of this expansion led to Cardiff becoming Wales’ largest town by 1881, being granted city status in 1905, and eventually becoming capital of the principality of Wales in 1955.
Since the turn of the millennium, a lot of building and redevelopment work has taken place in the city, and it is now home to a number of shopping centres and leisure districts. At the bottom end of Lloyd George Avenue, south-east of the centre of the city, is Cardiff Bay. This area houses the Millennium Centre, the Norwegian Church Arts Centre and the Doctor Who Experience, among others. As an unashamed geek, I went to the Doctor Who experience and loved every second of it. Close by is Eddie’s Diner at Mermaid Quay. It’s where they shot scenes pivotal to Matt Smith’s Impossible Astronaut episode. The owner is very friendly and willing to discuss the show and take photos for you. He also does a lovely cup of tea.
Heading back into the city, turn up St. Mary’s Street and keep following it to reach the castle. £12.50 for an adult ticket gets you entrance to pretty much every part of the castle, plus an audio guide and access to the Interpretation Centre; an area of exhibitions and films concerning the castle and the city. It’s pretty good value, and a nice way to get out of the bustle of the city centre. Added to that, beyond the castle is Bute Park, which is a stately stretch of greenery that follows the River Taff and is a lovely place for walks, picnics and some impromptu games of football.
The rest of the centre really is shops and restaurants as far as the eye can see. St. David’s Cathedral is a relatively unspectacular pile of bricks, built in 1842 in that drearily austere style so beloved of the Victorians. The City Hall and the University are worthing taking a look at though – solid, elegant, Baroque architecture showcasing a city that really had asserted its identity as Wales’ flagship around the time of construction.
The Principality Stadium is slap-bang in the centre of Cardiff, meaning you really can’t miss it. Approachable on foot from every direction, and right next to Cardiff Central railway station, its location really couldn’t be better. As someone who is sick of out-of-town stadiums on retail parks, the idea to build right next to Cardiff Arms Park rather than move the stadium out of the city is an idea I’m on board with. There are plenty of chain pubs in the streets surrounding the stadium – The Prince of Wales is a Wetherspoons, meaning it’s cheap, and is opposite the Irish chain pub O’Neills on Wood Street. For the more discerning / hipsterish fan, Westgate Street has a BrewDog and a Zero Degrees, and for full on craft beer, burger and beards, go to Tiny Rebel on the corner of Church Street and Womanby Street. My personal choice would be The City Arms, directly opposite. It has a good selection of beers and lots of wood. Which is just how I like my pubs; although the floors are slightly sticky from years of celebratory beer being flung about because of success in the rugby.
So that’s Cardiff for you. Not a city that would immediately spring to mind as a destination, but whether you’re going for the football, a bit of sci-fi geekery, a shopping spree or to explore its history, it has a few surprises up its sleeve.