Cardiff Bay waterfront

5 free things to do in Cardiff

There are plenty of places to spend your money in Cardiff but on a recent visit we discovered the city attractions you can enjoy for free. Read on to find out more.

1. Bute Park

Bute Park is located between the River Taff and Cardiff Castle. Walking up to the entrance we passed the Animal Wall which consists of a variety of animal sculptures such as lions, a hyena and a sea lion.

We didn’t visit on the nicest of days. The rain was just stopping when we arrived so our first port of call was the cafe. Unlike a group of Japanese visitors we resisted the lure of afternoon tea (at 10am) although it was rather tempting.

Bute Park, Cardiff
Bute Park, Cardiff

The park covers an impressive 130 acres and includes an arboretum collection, fitness and play trails and a riverside path. It’s famous for its champion trees, which are the tallest or broadest specimens of their type. As ours was a springtime visit the leaves weren’t out but this meant we saw some great tree shapes (photo above).

I was also impressed by the amount of bird life so close to the city centre. We watched a jay up close for ages and also saw a tree creeper, nuthatch and lots of robins and coal tits.

2. St Fagans National History Museum

St Fagans is the most visited heritage attraction in Wales. Its 50+ historical buildings have been moved from around the country and re-erected at the open air museum. The buildings cover a wide time frame and range from farmhouses through to urinals and workshops.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

It’s best to visit on a dry day as the buildings are spread out across 100 acres of parkland. Whilst you can shelter in the buildings there’s a fair amount of walking between them.

Some of my highlights were the coloured paintings at St Teilo’s church (picture above), the 1940s prefab and watching the blacksmith in the smithy. I also enjoyed the Ironworkers cottages, which were similar to those we visited at Blaenavon Ironworks last year.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

We spent most of our planned time looking around the buildings and hadn’t left much time spare to look at St Fagans Castle. This was a mistake as it meant we had to rush round the rooms and didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the castle or its grounds. Plan to spend a whole day here if you want to see everything the site has to offer.

3. Cardiff Story

Cardiff Story is a small museum providing visitors with an insight into the history of the city. It takes you on Cardiff’s journey from a small market town to a world port through to the modern capital it has now become.

It’s a good place to start your exploration of Cardiff, allow a couple of hours to see it in detail. We only popped in for a short visit but lingered over a dolls house exhibit and a ‘build your own’ model city which I think was probably aimed at younger children rather than us!

4. Cardiff Bay

It’s easy to spend an afternoon wandering around Cardiff Bay. The area was once a thriving dockyard but fell derelict as the coal industry declined. The building of the barrage and subsequent regeneration of the area has resulted in Europe’s largest waterfront development.

Some of the original buildings remain, such as the Pierhead, where we watched a short film illustrating the growth and decline of the docks. The Norwegian Church is another survivor. Formerly a place of worship for the Norwegian community in Cardiff (Roald Dahl was baptised in it) it’s now a cafe and arts centre.

'People like us', Mermaid Quay, Cardiff
‘People like us’, Mermaid Quay, Cardiff

There are new buildings too, most notably the Senned, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Wales Millenium Centre. Both buildings are impressive from the outside although we didn’t go in.

The Mermaid Quay area is a ‘leisure district’ and primarily home to shops and restaurants. It’s a nice enough place to wander but I found it a little soulless. If you’re a Torchwood fan however you might enjoy Ianto’s shrine, a board full of notes left following the fictional death of the character. It was a bit lost on me though as I’ve never see Torchwood.

5. Cardiff Barrage walk

The controversial construction of the Cardiff Barrage created the 500 acre freshwater Cardiff Bay and has contributed (some would say, at great cost) to the regeneration of the local area.

Whilst there was strong opposition to the original project the resulting trail along the barrage is popular with walkers, cyclists and kids on scooters and is an excellent choice for a city walk.

Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage
Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage

Walking from Mermaid Quay, we were waylaid by a Tardis (courtesy of the Doctor Who Experience), playgrounds and a skate park en route to the barrage locks. These control the flow of water into the bay and it’s fun to watch the bridges opening up to let yachts and sailing boats through. We also enjoyed watching the cormorants diving for fish in the fast flowing waters of the fish pass.

Cardiff barrage locks
Cardiff barrage locks

The yellow rings in the photo above are part of an art installation ‘Three ellipses for three locks’. The full set of aligned concentric circles can only be seen from one spot; they highlight the different parts that go into making the barrage work.

We had planned to take the water bus back into the city centre from Penarth but timed it wrong so ended up walking both ways. If you’re visiting late on a Sunday afternoon check sailing times in advance!

More info:

  • Bute Park is open daily from 7.30am until 30 mins before sunset.
  • St Fagans is open daily from 10am-5pm. It’s 4 miles from the city centre so you’ll either need to drive (parking charge applies) or take the bus from outside Cardiff Central station. A return adult fare is £3, children £1.70.
  • The Cardiff Story is open 10am-4pm from Monday to Saturday (closed Sundays).
  • The Pierhead building is open daily from 10.30am-6pm; the Norwegian Church is also open daily from 11am-4pm.
  • The barrage embankment is open daily; further details are available on the Cardiff Harbour website.

34 thoughts on “5 free things to do in Cardiff”

    1. Thanks Ting. It was our first proper visit to the city centre, although we’ve driven past many times on the M4.

  1. This is a nice list, with some places to try I hadn’t thought of 🙂 I have a soft spot for Cardiff Bay as we got married in the big hotel there 🙂 #pocolo

    1. Hi Erica, my OH did take my son to the Dr Who experience but it’s pretty expensive and as I’m not a particularly big fan my daughter and I went on a mission to find free things to do. Although it was made harder by the pouring rain!

  2. Cardiff is a lovely city – big without being too big, and the bay is a great place to stroll and eat too. We’ve stayed at the St David’s hotel before, which isn’t cheap but thoroughly recommended (it has an excellent spa!)

    1. I think spa days and expensive hotels are a thing of the past…… Not that we actually stayed in expensive hotels before we had kids either!

    1. Thanks Vicky. The bay is justifiably popular; Bute Park wasn’t so busy on our visit but that was down to the weather.

  3. We went earlier this year to do some filming with Visit Wales at the Dr Who Experience and really came away amazed by how much Cardiff Bay has to offer.

    1. We were pleasantly surprised too. My OH and son enjoyed the Dr Who experience but (whisper) I’ve never been a fan so I left it to them.

  4. I was taken to St Fagans for my birthday by my parents on my 42nd birthday, i still fail to understand why I’d like to spend a whole day there, can imagine it would’ve been a lot more interesting with small children….lol

    1. Ah, that’s a pity, we really enjoyed it. Our visit was a bit rushed so I’d have liked to stay longer.

  5. We love Cardiff, my in laws live 45 minutes away and we have friends there too. St Fagans is a wonderful place to spend a day and I would add Roath park too, not in the centre but an amazing park to spend an afternoon.

  6. This post is so helpful, it’s exactly the kind of read I want to find when preparing to visit new places.
    Now I want to go and see all these beautiful things in Cardiff 🙂
    Thanks for linking up with Time Traveller.

  7. I love Cardiff Bay. In fact I was only there last week to visit the Dr Who Exhibition with my son. Cardiff has so much to see and do. There is also The National Museum Of Wales in Cardiff too.

    1. Good tip about the National Museum, I’ve just had a quick look on their website and it sounds interesting. Not sure how we missed it!

  8. It looks gorgeous! I hadn’t expected it to be so picturesque until a family friend started University there, her pictures are always great! Love the sound of the Fagan Museum in particular! 🙂

    1. Thanks Emma. I’ve never visited the city previously so it’s difficult to envisage how it once was, particularly around the docks, but it’s definitely on the up nowadays.

  9. We stayed in Cardiff a few years ago (we travelled all that way to see the Doctor Who experience!). We only stayed for two evenings and would have loved to explore the area further. We did get to walk along Cardiff Bay which was beautiful. Hopefully we’ll return one day and take in some more sights. Thanks for linking to #traveltales – I’ve pinned this post to our pinterest board. Hope to see you next month 😀 – Sam x

  10. I’ve never been to Cardiff but I’m a bit of a Dr Who fan so it’s on my radar as I want to visit the Experience there.

    The Barrage walk looks like a great thing to tie in with that visit when I get around to it!

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