Though few tourists in the United Kingdom venture farther into Wales than Cardiff or Swansea, the northern part of the country is full of rugged landscapes, bustling towns and quaint seaside communities that richly reward the intrepid traveller with beautiful sights and fun activities. The northern region of Wales is steeped in centuries of history and used to be known as the Kingdom of Gwynedd; it was the last region of Wales to surrender independence and to this day remains the stronghold of Welsh identity and the Welsh language. In addition to this cultural wealth, the region is known for its rural natural beauty and protected wilderness areas and is a wonderful destination for those wanting an active cycling or hiking holiday.
Northern Wales is home to some of the country's greatest attractions, including the rugged peaks of Snowdonia National Park and Mount Snowdon, the historical seaside town of Aberystwyth, the stark vistas of Holyhead, and the beaches of Llandudno. The region is also home to two of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Wales: the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal, and the collective of Edwardian castles and town walls of the region, which can be found at Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Conwy and Harlech.
Snowdonia is Britain's second-biggest national park, after the Lake District, and the biggest in Wales, boasting rugged mountain trails through some of the tallest peaks south of the Scottish Highlands. The tallest peak is Mount Snowdon at 3,560 feet (1,068m), which is visited by half a million people each year, many climbing or walking while the less adventurous ride the magnificently scenic Snowdon Mountain Railway to the top. Mount Snowden was written about by William Wordsworth, and has retained an aura of profound romance for many fans of the poet ever since.
While Snowdonia is a haven for hikers and climbers, there is plenty else to explore including lakes, waterfalls and glacial valleys, as well as Roman forts, Stone Age burial chambers, railways and the crumbling remains of the country's mining heritage. Other nearby destinations not to be missed include the beautiful Victorian resort of Betws-y-Coed, whose former copper mines are open to the public, and Blaenau Ffestiniog, which also offers tours through its cavernous slate mines. About 26,000 people live in the Snowdonia National Park, and more than half of the population chooses to speak Welsh rather than English, which goes some way to demonstrating the traditional and authentic nature of the region.
Situated in North Wales, across the Menai Strait from the Isle of Anglesey, is Caernarfon, dominated by the walls of its 13th-century castle. It was here, in 1969, that Prince Charles' investiture as Prince of Wales took place. It was a dramatic event marked by pomp and ceremony, and had the strong symbolic impact of strengthening Britain's dominion over Wales in this staunchly nationalist district.
Across the strait is Anglesey, which is probably most noted for the town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndobwlllantysiliogogogoch, which has the longest place name in the United Kingdom, and quite possibly the world. The name, when translated into English, means 'The church of St Mary in a hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and near St Tysilio's church by the red cave'. The island of Anglesey was the crucible for pre-Roman druidic activity in Britain and many mysterious Neolithic ruins remain.
Caernarfon has also been inhabited since pre-Roman times. Those on their way to catch the Irish ferries at Holyhead, usually rush through Anglesey and Caernarfon, missing out on its spectacular coastal scenery of sandy coves and rocky headlands. Apart from the imposing fortress, Caernarfon boasts some lovely little craft shops and good restaurants.
The pretty village of Portmeirion in Northern Wales is as charming as they come. Portmeirion was designed by the architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, between 1925 and 1976, and was intended to demonstrate how a village could be designed to suit its natural landscape so as not to detract from the natural beauty. Portmeirion was intended to be a space for events, leisure and exhibitions, and is now run by a charitable trust more as a tourist attraction than a residential village. It is, however, possible to spend the night in the quaint coastal village, which includes 15 self-catering cottages and a hotel.
Its quaint demeanor has attracted film crews, and the 1960s cult TV programme The Prisoner was filmed here, among other things. Small enough to see on foot, there are manicured gardens and a beach, as well as a few souvenir shops and a restaurant, ice-cream shop, and pizzeria to enjoy. As befitting a village which celebrates the beauty of nature, Portmeirion is surrounded by acres of lovely woodland and miles of coastal walking trails to explore. Dogs are not allowed in the village. Although the village is open to visitors year-round, it can seem a bit deserted in the winter months, when many of the shops and restaurants close.
The tiny seaside town of Aberystwyth in the north of the country is the historical heart of Wales and the birthplace of the Welsh language, but the town also really knows how to have a good time. It is home to the University of Wales and its 10,000 students, who take full advantage of Aberystwyth's numerous pubs and bars, as well as its restaurants and shops. The students bring energy and fun to the town, which is affectionately known simply as Aber. Aberystwyth is quite isolated by UK standards, but Swansea is only 70 miles (110km) to the south. The popularity of the town as a holiday resort, as well as the population of foreign students, ensures that it is easily accessible by rail and bus.
Aberystwyth is prettily situated near the confluence of the rivers Ystwyth and Rheidol, on the west coast of Wales. The town has beautiful views over Cardigan Bay and a lovely long promenade, with two stretches of beach divided by the castle. Historical sites like the ruins of Aberystwyth Castle and Constitution Hill provide pleasant vistas and are interesting attractions in their own right. The town is modern in appearance, but still boasts some historic buildings and many wonderful cultural attractions. Aberystwyth also offers active pursuits like water sports, hiking, boat trips and a steam railway.
Holyhead, located on the northwest side of tiny Holy Island near Anglesey, is a picturesque town with wonderful rugged terrain and fantastic views created by the rocky coastline. Holyhead Mountain is the highest point, and its summit provides panoramic views that extend to Ireland, the Isle of Man, and Cumbria.
Holyhead has long been an important link between Wales and Ireland, and its port is busy with ferry traffic to Dublin. The town itself is built around several historic sites, including the prehistoric hill fort Mynydd y Twr, the Roman fort of Caer Gybi, and the 6th-century St Cybi's Church, which was built inside a Roman fort.
Holyhead itself is a vibrant town of about 12,000 residents, boasting a number of shops and restaurants, a maritime museum, and the Canolfan Ucheldre Centre, which functions as the artistic and cultural heart of Holy Island.
Sailing, power boating and fishing are popular activities in this marine-minded town, and the sandy beaches of Porth Trwyn, Borth Wen, and Porth Tywn Mawr are popular for watersports. Meanwhile, there are plenty of activities in Holyhead to keep active types busy, including golf, horseback riding, hiking, wildlife-spotting and catching a local football match.
North Wales is blessed with a glorious combination of cultural and natural attractions, which lure active nature lovers and culture vultures alike. The most popular attraction is Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales and the jewel in the crown of the Snowdonia National Park. Made famous by many poets and artists, hiking Mount Snowdon is the highlight of a trip to the UK for many active travellers.
The historic towns of Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Conwy and Harlech all offer worthwhile sightseeing opportunities, and the Edwardian castles and fortifications of these old towns have collectively been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The north of Wales also offers seaside charm, with Llandudno and Holyhead attracting many visitors. Llandudno boasts a wonderful promenade and some glorious coastal walking trails.
A glorious way to experience some of the Welsh countryside is to take a trip on the Ffestiniog Railway, said to be the oldest operational railway in the world, which runs from the harbour at Porthmadog to the old village of Blaenau Ffestiniog, traversing some beautiful landscapes. A regional rail pass for northern Wales is a good option for travellers as the area is lovely to explore by rail.
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