5 Places in Wales Locals Visit for Gorgeous Hikes, Epic Stargazing, Castles, and Rugby

Here's how to see the very best of this proud Celtic nation.

Sanding Stones Pembrokeshire, Wales

Rory Fuller/Travel+Leisure

The Welsh love Wales. This proud country of three million people is culturally distinct from the rest of the U.K. and geographically unique. Called Cymru (cum-ree) in the Welsh language, the people of this Celtic nation have a reputation for being passionate about rugby (and football), but most of all about Wales itself.

Surrounded by the Irish Sea to the north and west and bordered by England to the east, Wales is a land of mountains, rolling countryside, and, yes, castles (427 at last count). Living in Wales, I'm always exploring its hidden corners in search of quintessential Welsh experiences and lesser-visited locations. Here's where the Welsh go on their days off.

Llanthony Priory, Brecon Beacons National Park

Castle ruins at Llanthony Priory Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales

Rory Fuller

If you're after something genuinely idyllic, you don't have to start too far into Wales. The Welsh Marches that separate Wales and England are some of the most beautiful countrysides in Britain, none more so than Hatterall Ridge in the remote Vale of Ewyas. A wild part of the Black Mountains in the popular Brecon Beacons National Park, Hatterall Ridge is a natural part of the 177-mile-long historic Offa's Dyke Path that connects south and north Wales. It's also its highest point at 2,310 feet, and from Hatterall Ridge, it's possible to see over into Longtown below, in England. However, it's what's behind you that's most captivating. Though mostly in ruins, the 12th-century Llanthony Priory in the Vale of Ewyas is one of Wales' great medieval buildings. Yet within its boundaries is that most British of institutions — a small pub — with a hotel nearby. It's best visited after completing a five-mile circular walk up Hatterall Ridge. Twelve miles north is the famous "book town" of Hay-on-Wye, while 12 miles south is the Michelin-starred Walnut Tree Inn beside another classic short walk, The Skirrid.

Stargazing in the Elan Valley

Night sky full of stars in Elan Valley, Wales
Jamie Carter

More of the night sky is protected in Wales than any other nation. The darkest and most visually epic by day is the 45,000-acre Elan Valley, a vast chain of man-made dams, reservoirs, and an aqueduct that's also a certified International Dark Sky Park. It's about 100 years old and looks like it, with an iconic Victorian pump house on Garreg Ddu and a vast wall of water at Caban Coch dam at the entrance. It's best seen by bike, which you can rent, or by car, with the Elan Valley Hotel right by the entrance.

Nearby at Rhayader is Gigrin Farm and its Red Kite Feeding Station, which operates daily at 2 p.m. (from five hides). Tickets to photograph the incredible sight of hundreds of birds of prey swooping down must be booked in advance.

The Standing Stones of Pembrokeshire, West Wales

Sanding Stones Pembrokeshire, Wales

Rory Fuller

Stonehenge is for tourists. If you want to go deeper into Britain's mysterious neolithic history — and discover the origins of that iconic English monument — visit Pembrokeshire Coast National Park in West Wales. In addition to 186 miles of incredible clifftop coastal walks, this region contains dozens of bizarre monuments from 5,000 years ago, many of them in spectacular coastline locations.

One of the most dramatic is Carreg Coetan Arthur, a tomb in a boulder field on St. David's Head with spectacular seascape views. Another is Carreg Samson, a short walk from the tiny harbor at Abercastle. However, the most impressive and most famous is Pentre Ifan, a large capstone near Newport. Not far away is Waun Mawn in the Preseli Hills, where the oldest "bluestones" of Stonehenge originally stood.

Beddgelert, Snowdonia National Park

Row of houses in Beddgelert near Snowdonia National Park in Wales

Rory Fuller

Idyllic mountain scenery is what you get in Beddgelert, a small and perfectly formed stone-built village in the shadow of Snowdon (Yr Wyddfa in Welsh), the highest mountain in Wales and England at 3,560 feet. From Beddgelert, the region's highlights are within reach, from the stunning glacial lake of Cwm Idwal to Llanberis, where you can hike up the mountain (or cheat and take the Snowdon Mountain Railway), take a circular walk around Llyn Padarn lake, or visit the lofty Dolbadarn Castle for spectacular views. Then, return to Beddgelert for a pint in its pubs, Prince Llewelyn and Saracens Head Hotel, before camping, glamping, or opting for secluded luxury at Forest Holidays and its woodland chalets complete with hot tubs.

A Rugby Match at Cardiff's Principality Stadium

Wales walk onto the pitch before the Autumn International match at Principality Stadium, Cardiff
David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

It's not quite the biggest sports stadium in the U.K., but Cardiff's Principality Stadium is certainly the best. What helps make it a standout for atmosphere is its retractable roof, which is useful on rainy match days and turns the place into a cauldron of excitement. Hearing 74,500 rugby fans belt out Welsh hymns like "Bread of Heaven" and, in particular, the national anthem, "Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau," is an experience like no other. Try the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) for tickets or take a stadium tour while you're in Cardiff. The Principality is also one of the few stadiums in Europe to be right in the center of a city. So, on match day, Cardiff — the capital city of Wales — buzzes with people, and the pubs become packed. As a bonus, it's across the road from one of Britain's weirdest fairy-tale castles that gives the capital of the "Land of Castles" a special feel.

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