This article originally appeared on June 1, 2010 in The City Traveler. Click here to see the original version
A century ago, Cardiff, the capital of Wales, was a prosperous city with covered Victorian shopping arcades and a wool and coal industry that made the waterfront the largest coal exporting port in the world.
Then the story turned sad: the coal business declined, wool became cheaper elsewhere. The waterfront, known as The Docks, became the perfect seedy backdrop for the 1959 black and white film, Tiger Bay. Things only got worse in the l980’s, when the city was hit by industrial collapse.
Today, Cardiff is showing signs of a dramatic comeback; the city is restored but still recognizable, and The Docks, renamed Cardiff Bay, has become the signature location for this city of 317,500.
Like everything else in this small city, Cardiff Bay is human sized, great for walking; there are also boat tours and kayak rentals www.cardiffwaterbus.com
The waterfront is a beguiling pastiche of various architectural styles. The most striking new building is the Wales Millenium Centre, a concert hall built of slate (there’s lots of it in the north), with what looks like a glass block sail leaning over one side. On it is marked, in English and Welsh, “In these words, horizons sing”.
A short walk away is an imposing l9th century red brick Victorian building, Butetown History and Arts Centre, which used to be a customs house but now contains photo and other exhibits on the history of the docklands and it’s multicultural past; one exhibit shows the century-old Somali presence.
The Mermaid Quay houses shops and restaurants and the St. David’s Hotel, a flamboyant glass structure with a full service Marine Spa. The marine theme continues outside with a boardwalk winding through acres of wetlands; herons, kingfishers and other birds forage for fish and insects in this food chain brought back to life.
In town, the restoration continues. The St.David’s shopping area (the name is common, since he is the patron saint of Wales). Is a circular pedestrian-only area with l9th century buildings housing ground floor shops. One is the recently opened Jamie Oliver Italian, a two-floor open kitchen restaurant
The Castle Arcade, recently revived, houses the renowned cheese shop and cafe, Madame Fromage. Choose from over 100 cheeses and tuck into a lunch of broccoli and Stilton soup. And yes, there is a Welsh Rarebit, made with three cheeses.
Nearby is the old Cardiff Market, with stalls selling their wares since 1891. Here you can find locally grown and traditional food – laverbread (pureed seeweed sometimes baked into oat cakes) and salt marsh lamb, cockles and leeks, the national vegetable.
A few blocks away is the stylish Park Hyatt, a stylish new hotel with a boutique feel; in the main floor lobby, a series of fireplaces runs the length of the room. The people at the front desk are typically Welsh, affable and informal. But the setting, despite the fireplaces is Cardiff cool.