Swansea in Wales – lovely and not all that ugly
Right after the capital city, Cardiff, Swansea in Wales is the second-largest city in the states and the largest in Swansea County. The city has more than 179,000 residents. In Welsh, it is called Abertawe, which translates to mouth/estuary of the Tawe. The Tawe is a river that flows through Swansea and empties into the Bristol Channel.
Although Swansea has had a reputation of being industrial, the city and county are letting go of that and increasingly becoming tourist destinations, thanks to funding. The city in itself is extremely rich in culture, and a little ways away from the Gower peninsula. Here, visitors find themselves amidst glorious nature, perfect for doing some sports. Don’t get fooled by superficialities!
Poet Dylan Thomas called his hometown Swansea “an ugly, lovely town”. He wasn’t entirely wrong, as he said that in the first half of the 20th century. Read on to find out more.
At the beginning of the 12th century, the Normans conquered the Gower peninsula on behalf of the English King Henry I. In order to secure his reign over the region, he issued an order to build Swansea Castle on the mouth of River Tawe. The city slowly developed, following waves of English settlers and the weekly captives market. Swansea exported wool, leather, butter, cheese, and grains to England. From the 17th century onwards, Swansea began shipping coal and iron from minor ports. Then in the 18th century the production of porcelain, copper, tin, and zinc began.
In the 19th century, the city finally boomed as the center of the metal industry with the Swansea and Mumbles Railway. It was one of the first railways and even transported people.
As with all rapidly expanding cities, Swansea had its fair share of problems: mainly overpopulation and poor hygiene – two problems that only worsened with the cholera epidemic.
In the 1920s, Swansea opened an oil terminal and a refinery. The shipbuilding industry continued to grow as did the tin, steel, and copper processing. All was going well until the Depression of 1929 hit the city, causing the unemployment numbers to skyrocket.
During the Second World War, the city recovered a little, but the entirety of the inner city was destroyed by bombs. Only the port and the industrial areas remained unscathed.
After the war, the heavy industry was not the same. Today, only a part of the original docks remain; the South Dock was turned into a marina.
The city of Swansea in Wales
Decades after his death, the most renowned figure of the city is and will always be poet and author Dylan Thomas. You may recognize some of his famous poems, like “Do not go gentle into that good night” and “And death shall have no dominion”, not forgetting the radio drama “Under Milk Wood”.
He is one of the most important Welsh poets of the 20th century, and Swansea is particularly proud of him. The city turned his childhood home and birthplace on 5 Cwmdonkin Drive into a museum. Many places were also dedicated to him, like the Dylan Thomas Centre in Maritime Corner, where the Dylan Thomas Theatre is located. Additionally, the annual Dylan Thomas Festival also takes place there.
In Maritime Quarter, you’ll find many Dylan Thomas statues, as well as Captain Cat statues; one of the characters from “Under Milk Wood”.
In addition to the aforementioned Dylan Thomas museums, Swansea also houses many interesting places with different themes. Swansea Museum is the oldest museum in Wales, and was open in 1841. Entry to the museum is free of charge, where you can explore its six parts; including a mummy and numerous other exhibitions.
The Tramshed, also run by the Swansea Museum, is worth a visit too. In the Tramshed you’ll see coaches of the former Swansea and Mumbles Railway, as well as three ships in the Marina.
In the vicinity you’ll also find the National Waterfront Museum, which displays the history of Wales, the industrial revolution, as well as many inventions. There is a part dedicated to pop culture and celebrities from the area, in addition to many temporary exhibitions.
For art lovers, a visit to the Mission Gallery and Glynn Vivian Art Gallery will be worthwhile. The Mission Gallery is located in a former church and focuses on contemporary art, paintings, installations, photography, and crafts.
The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery was founded by Richard Glynn Vivian, an art collector from the renowned family Vivian of Swansea. The collection is still based on the works and art objects that were once his possessions.
The Gallery was opened in 1911, six years after Richard Glynn Vivian offered his collection to the museum. Today the art collection is varied – from Old Masters to postmodern art in various media. There are paintings, prints, drawings, watercolors, stained glass as well as porcelain.
It is truly an eclectic mix of big names like Albrecht Dürer, William Blake, Claude Monet, Lucien Pissarro, Paul Nash, Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth and Ceri Richards. Still, a considerable number of local artists have their art displayed here as well. The famous Meissen porcelain is also exhibited here.
Music and theater
Swansea hosts a fine number of indoor and outdoor performances. Other than the Dylan Thomas Theatre mentioned above, the Grand Theatre houses regular pantomimes, operas, and plays. Another is the theater in Taliesin Arts Centre at University of Swansea. In Brangwyn Hall many concerts take place and every fall the renowned Festival of Music is held here due to the superb acoustics of the theater.
In summer, you’ll find runs of Shakespeare plays in Oystermouth Castle, while in Singleton Park you can attend any of the many parties and concerts covering all genres. The traditional Welsh festival Eisteddfod has taken place in Swansea seven times. The festival hosts competitions between poets and musicians and goes way back.
The male choirs of the south Welsh valleys are fairly famous worldwide. One of the more famous choirs is the Morriston Orpheus Choir from Morriston in Swansea County, which you can listen to during your visit.
It is the biggest indoor market in Wales and is right in the heart of the city center. The current market building was opened in 1961. The market has been held here since the Middle Ages.
Inside is a labyrinth of stalls with all kinds of products: fruits and vegetables, butcheries and fishmongers, continental and local products, small boutiques, cafés, and fast food kiosks. Make sure to take your time here to sample the products. Continue reading to learn more about typical south Welsh cuisine.
The county of Swansea in Wales
Leaving the city, we now head to the Swansea County, where you should definitely visit the Gower peninsula. From the Swansea bus station you’ll find many bus lines, but you can definitely opt for a walk instead.
The Wales Coast Path, which runs along the entirety of the Welsh coast, goes through Swansea and Gower. Walking and cycling are popular activities in the area. Golf is also an option, whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player. Golf in Wales is not an elite sport by any means.
A big part of the Gower Peninsula was declared the first “Area of outstanding Natural Beauty” in the entire United Kingdom in 1956. When you come for a visit, you’ll see why.
Mumbles consists of electoral wards of Oystermouth, Newton, West Cross and Mayals. The lighthouse from the 1790s is now powered by solar electricity, and there’s also a pier built in 1898 for the excursions on the Swansea and Mumbles Railway.
The pier has been home to the lifeboats of Mumbles since 1866. In 1947 an accident, now referred to as “the Mumbles lifeboat disaster”, took the lives of the entire crew of the lifeboats. The accident is now commemorated in All Saint’s Church in Oystermouth. In this small but beautiful church with a wooden ceiling and carved choir stools, you’ll find commemorative plaques to the crew as well as stained-glass windows portraying the event.
Mumbles is also known as “Mumbles Mile”, which refers to a street riddled with pubs. That street is popular among university students in Swansea and Cardiff.
In recent years, a few pubs were closed and turned into apartments or restaurants, but there are still plenty of places to stop and grab a drink. Furthermore, in Mumbles you can go shopping in small indie boutiques.
In Gower, you’ll find all kinds of castles. You can start with the Oystermouth Castle in Mumbles, as it is one of the best preserved castle ruins in the region. From here you’ll get an encompassing view of Mumbles and Swansea Bay. In summer, the inner courtyard houses theatrical plays and concerts.
Most of the castle dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries, and in 2012 the chapel was reopened, and a glass bridge was added. Now visitors can marvel at the fantastic tracery the castle boasts. It is said that the white ghost of a woman from Oystermouth roams the castle and wails loudly through its walls. She is said to have been murdered in the dungeons of the castle, maybe you’ll hear her sobs as you’re walking down the path…
Other ruins worthy of a visit on the peninsula are the Oxwich Castle over Oxwich Bay (a manor house in the Tudor style), Pennard Castle near Three Cliffs Bay with a golf course, Weobley Castle (also a fortified manor near Llanrhidian), in addition to many other stones and man-made cairns.
Beach lovers will have a blast in Gower. Note, however, that one needs time to explore the many breathtaking beaches this place offers.
Gower has four Blue Flag beaches for sustainability and safety: Bracelet Bay, Caswell Bay, Langland Bay, and Port Eynon. It also boasts five Green Coast Award beaches for water quality and environmental standards: Rhossili Bay, Mewslade Bay, Tor Bay, Pwll Du Bay, and Limeslade Bay.
The Blue Flag beaches are popular swimming beaches and have restrooms and cafés nearby, as well as everything else needed for a great beach holiday.
You can try one of the many water sports here, most popular being sailing, surfing, stand-up paddling, water-skiing and coasteering. You don’t know what coasteering is? It is a sport not very popular outside of Wales. Coasteering involves climbing and swimming along a cliff coast, then jumping in water or diving. The equipment you need is your swimsuit, gloves, shoes, and a helmet. The sport has no ropes as a safety measurement. Do you like the adventure this sport entails? Then come on over to Gower and try it out!
For a less physically demanding beach adventure, go to Rhossili Bay. The beach stretches over 4.5 kilometers, with hills the more inward you go. On the southernmost end you’ll see the headland “Worm’s Head”, which looks like a sleeping dragon in the sea and is only accessible for 2.5 hours a day during low tide.
Over and over, tourists needed to be rescued from Worm’s Head as they get stuck in water. So do your research before exploring that area!
A part of the headland forms a natural bridge that isn’t completely stable from the side, which earned it its name: Devil’s Bridge.
Want nothing to do with dragons? Then have a look at the Helvetia ruins at low tide. The ship wrecked in Rhossili Bay in November 1887. Today it is almost fully submerged in sand, but huge pieces of it are still visible.
Blue Pool Bay is a small bay near Rhossili Bay, named after the naturally formed, round, and around 2.4 meter deep pool, which is only accessible at low tide through steep rocks. The adventure is worthwhile, because next to it, you’ll see a stone arch submerged underwater at high tide.
Without a doubt, one of the most beautiful beaches is Three Cliffs Bay. In June 2006 the BBC series “Holidays at Home” named it the best beach in Great Britain. Its name pays homage to three special limestone cliffs at the very end, standing at 20 meters in height. These cliffs are favorite climber destinations. Situated on the hill above the wide sandy beach are the remains of Pennard Castle. This place is an extremely popular photo motif, because it looks good from every angle and at both low and high tides.
Park Cwm is like a time machine that will transport you to the past when you visit it. It is a burial site with chambers from the Neolithic period, which vary in shape from other sites found in the region. Park Cwm is 12 kilometers away from Swansea in the Coed y Parc Cwm of Parc le Breos. The site is made up of a cairn, a main chamber with a forecourt and four side chambers. Excavations took place in 1869 and all the way through the 1960s. In total, the findings include the remains of 40 people, skeletons of pets as well as wild animals, shards and pieces of flint. The time of building was estimated to be between 3800 and 3500 BCE.
Also, nearby is the cave called “Cat Hole”, in which finds of the Mesolithic era until the Middle Ages were discovered.
If you’re after something more serene for a change, we recommend visiting the Clyne Gardens in Mayals. This botanical paradise was created from the landscaped gardens designed by Glynn Vivian and the Vivian Family upon their purchase of the estate in 1860.
The park covers 19 hectares of land with over 2,000 different plant species, including more than 800 rhododendrons species and the biggest magnolia in Britain.
To the right of the Clyne Castle there is a nice pavilion with Monterey pines, and a little farther up is the Japanese Garden with red-white bridges, bamboo, watercourses and artificial pond. Tiny graves for the late dogs of the Vivian family can be found around the park.
Moreover, there is a small chapel, Clyne Chapel, which has been actively used for church services since 1908. There are also some magnificent viewpoints overlooking the sea.
Further up the hill, after Clyne Gardens, you’ll find Clyne Farm. You can book a horseback ride over the meadows here and through the woods of the Clyne Estate. Regardless if you can ride or not, the horses and ponies are super friendly; there are rides offered with an experienced staff member. The staff member leads the horse while you enjoy the scenery around. Horseback rides on the beach are only offered during the low season.
The cuisine in Swansea is heavily influenced by Gower, which was completely isolated from the rest of Wales due to its terrible infrastructure, which led it to develop a self-sufficient cuisine.
Typical vegetables are root vegetables, like rutabagas, potatoes, cauliflowers, as well as asparagus, green beans, and peas. Popular fruits are raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, and currants.
Meat and fish are the center of the cuisine. Delicious meat dishes are prepared with the Gower salt-marsh lamb (lamb that grazes on salt marshes). The area produces beef of the Welsh black cattle or welsh black, rabbit meat, and also pork and poultry. Fish dishes include laver (a type of seaweed), crab, cockles, oysters, shrimp, mackerel, perch, and squid.
In addition to Swansea Market, there are other farmer markets in Llangennith, Pennard, Loughor, Mumbles, Penclawdd and Sketty. Here you can try Welsh Cakes, small flat cakes prepared with currants and raisins, and Laverbread and cockles.
The last two are available when you try a Gower breakfast. There, the seaweed of the laverbread would be cut into tiny cakes and fried. Cockles and Laverbread distinguish the full breakfast in South Wales from other breakfasts elsewhere.
Another delicious dish is Faggots, which is essentially meatballs made out of pork meat and offal, served with peas, mashed potatoes, and gravy.
If you have a sweet tooth, a visit to “Joe’s Ice Cream Parlor” will be right up your alley. The parlor is over 100 years old, and all the ice cream is produced locally in Swansea. Another spot is “So Cocoa”, an indie chocolate store in Mumbles that offers luxurious treats.
Want to grab a bite and drink a few cocktails? “The Swigg” is super varied and the perfect local restaurant at Swansea Marina. Burgers, hot dogs, tapas, snacks, and self-service cocktails – it’s got it all!
If you have a sudden craving for gin while at The Swigg, head over to the micro-distillery “Gower Gin Company” in Port Eynon. Here you’ll find a “gin garden” to sample and upon request go on guided tours.
When is the best time to visit Swansea in Wales?
There’s always something to do in Swansea, from art and music to exploring the south Welsh cuisine. If you want to see Gower nature in its full glory, then visit during the summer months from June to August. That’s when sunny days are most probable.
Nevertheless, Wales is the wettest place in the United Kingdom, so keep a jacket with you at all times. Many activities, like horseback riding on the beach and surfing, are offered during the low season, as there are too many beach-goers in the summer for horseback riding and the waves are better in spring and fall.
The city and county of Swansea in Wales is home to a myriad of fascinating places simply waiting to be explored. The moving history is well documented in museums, as is the passion of this city for art, music, and literature.
Excursions to the beautiful beaches of the United Kingdom are a relaxing yet exciting adventure, where the roads are dotted with old castles open for tourists. Water sports are insanely popular on the beaches of Swansea, so don’t hold back.
Don’t miss out on the culinary experience Swansea offers. The traditional Gower cuisine, originally designed to be self-sufficient, is always improved and personalized, so that each visitor finds what they’re looking for.
We’re certain that when you find yourself in Swansea, you’ll understand what Dylan Thomas meant by “ugly, lovely town”.