When Gareth and I first started dating, he told me about his hometown of Cardiff. I thought it was romantic that there was a big old castle right in the city center. And when he told me that it is now a popular spot for weddings, I started planning one of my own. (Never mind that when we did finally decide to get married, we ended up in Sacramento -- that fantasy wedding in a castle still sounds so romantic!)
The dream only intensified when I finally got my first peek at Cardiff Castle, in the winter of 1991. (Note the long, curly hair in the photo above -- I did spend an entire decade with a perm!)
"I know you Americans -- all you want to see is castles," my new father-in-law explained, as he drove us around from one ancient relic to another. Although there were plenty of other kinds of sites I wanted to visit, he had a point; until I'd set foot in the United Kingdom, the only castle I'd visited was the one at Disneyland, and I longed to see the real thing. I had come to the right place. Wales is littered with castles. After about a week of sightseeing, I started complaining to my husband that I'd become all castle'd out.
That does not mean that we never returned to any of those castles, especially after we had kids. The truth is that there's nothing quite as exciting for a child to explore as an old castle. (For proof, check out this five-year-old photo of Megan, who enjoyed her visit to Caerphilly Castle despite getting caught in a downpour!)
Another truth about kids: They don't always remember the places you visited five years ago. They also process the information at different ages very differently. That's why, if you had fun seeing a site a few years ago, you may want to do it again, even if you think you'll be bored. After all, it's a different experience for you, too, when you are seeing it through your kids' eyes.
Which brings me back to Cardiff Castle. Megan was still in preschool the last time we took a guided tour there. She had NO MEMORY of the castle interior -- which is a shame, as this old fortress has a fascinating history and contains some of the most spectacular rooms in all of Britain.
The castle (and much of Cardiff) was part of the holdings of John Crichton-Stuart, the 3rd Marquess of Bute, who inherited a huge family fortune, thanks to his father's (the 2nd Marquess) decision to develop Cardiff as a port city to export the coal and other minerals mined on his vast property holdings in Wales. The Marquess was an educated young man with a particular interest in Medieval times, one that he shared with his college friend, an architect named William Burges, who turned the castle's residential apartments into a wild, Gothic fantasy.
As so much of the castle was renovated in the 19th century, purists might decide it's not worth seeing. I disagree. Walking around the castle grounds is like taking a journey through history, as there are bits that date to the Roman Empire, the motted Norman Keep in the center of the courtyard, the residential apartments, which date from the 16th century, and of course, the Burges-designed interiors. These rooms are unlike anything else I've ever seen from both an art and a craftsmanship POV (even more fantastic than Disneyland!). The docents who conduct the tours do an excellent job of explaining the origins of the symbols Burges scattered throughout, and put it all into historical context.
Your kids will love being able to run around the courtyard, climb the steps of the Keep, and watch the peacocks and birds of prey on display there.
Cardiff Castle is open daily (except for Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day), from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (March to October) and until 5:00 p.m. the rest of the year. (Last entry is 4:00 p.m.) Admission (including the guided tour of the apartments) is £6.95 for adults (appoximately $14) and £4.30 for children (about $8.50). You may enter the grounds only (without the tour) for about half that price, and there are family and group discounted rates, as well.
The Castle has a gift shop and a full-featured cafe which serves light meals and tea (as well as wine and beer).