While planning my trip to North Wales, I had some trouble deciding what I should choose to do in Snowdonia. There are so many options! We had to see a castle, (I mean, we were in Wales), check out a slate mine, and had to add Portmeirion, if only to answer the question, why is there an Italian villa in Wales? With only had a few days, I put together this North Wales itinerary that you could easily use for a great weekend escape from the city.
Of course, you may want to drive to North Wales (much faster) but we decided to use public transportation (mainly Transport for Wales) in an effort to not only reduce our carbon footprint but so we could relax as well. We enjoyed the ability to sit on the train, read a book, and enjoy views of Cardigan Bay.
Experience a Coastal Fortress by Visiting Harlech Castle
First, we decided to stop in Harlech to see one of Edward I’s castles in North Wales. The reason we picked this castle over all the other amazing castles in North Wales was that it was near the sea and close to our other stops. Harlech Castle did not disappoint, as it truly is the coastal fortress this castle claims to be.
Because we took the train, the walk up to Harlech from the train station was about 10-15 min along a winding, steep road to the castle entrance. This may have been easier if we didn’t have our packs with us, but it was doable. And if you want to see a steep road, the “world’s steepest street” is just east of the castle.
The floating footbridge into Harlech Castle was a fantastic walk (and great photo opportunity) that lead us past the walls of Harlech. We spent a few hours exploring the grounds and taking photos before it was time for lunch.
Surprisingly, I was able to find a shop that offered gluten-free items on their menu. I didn’t think I would be able to find much in a small town, but Cemlyn Tea Shop offered a fantastic gluten-free cake while my husband enjoyed his Welsh rarebit (beer & cheese on bread).
It was a great leisurely day in North Wales before heading on to our next destination. We hopped back on the train and headed to Porthmadog.
Enjoy Snowdonia’s Scenery on a Narrow Gage Steam Train Before Hiking to a Former Slate Mine
Then, on the next day of our North Wales getaway, we decided to take a trip on the Festiniog Railway to Blaenau Ffestiniog, a town once known as the slate capital of Wales. The steam train was very comfortable, and their volunteers have done a tremendous job of keeping this route going. The scenery was beautiful and our tea and cakes were great for the 13-mile ride.
Normally, I would be going on and on about how great it was to enjoy the fresh mountain air. But on this occasion, there was an ongoing fire in the area. Due to this, parts of Blaenau Ffestiniog were not only blocked off for safety, but their firefighters were actively protecting the town while we were there. We were never in any real danger as the fire was under control.
Because our initial plans were thwarted due to the fire, we weren’t sure what to do. So we stopped at the information center for local assistance at Siop Antur ‘Stiniog. Initially, we wanted to rent bikes and book shuttle service to mountain bike the area. I need to plan another trip back here. The locals were so helpful and you can see the mountain bike culture going strong here. Since mountain biking was no longer an option that weekend, we decided to hike away from the fire.
In this case, we decided to hike Cwmorthin Waterfall, which was about 1.8 miles from the information center. The route we took was part of a guided walkabout from the town, so we were able to follow their signage until we departed for the waterfall.
My favorite part about the walkabout was seeing slate everywhere. You see a lot of slate in Wales, but this town made me realize how much slate was a part of their history. Most of the homes had slate roofs, as did the walls around town.
Here on the hike, we were able to see a waterfall, but if you keep going you come upon Cwmorthin Lake, where you’ll find the largest and deepest slate mine in the world.
We didn’t explore Cwmorthin Slate Quarry as we are not cavers, but you can hire a local guide if you want to truly explore the quarry underground. And as always, leave no trace by following “pack it in, pack it out” rules and dispose of waste properly.
In any case, it was a great scenic walk for us to enjoy some of the scenery in North Wales. We linked back up with the Ffestiniog Railway by catching it at Tanygrisiau station. After we reached Porthmadog, we headed back to Morfa Bychan for fish & chips at the local shop and a relaxing evening on the beach.
Discover Why an Italian Village Named Portmerian Is in North Wales
Finally, we decided to find out why, in North Wales, there was all this talk about an Italian village. This tourist town was considered a must-see by many who found out I was traveling to North Wales. So we boarded the bus from Morfa Bychan to Portmeirion.
Immediately upon arrival, a local greeted us as we took the walking path to Portmeirion. He was great and informed us to be mindful of the tide if we walked on the beach as it was very quick here (the water completely covered the beach by the time we saw it).
The walking path from the bus top into Portmerion follows the road for the most part. Eventually it goes on its own when you pass Castell Deudraeth and will take about 20 min. At the park entrance, their bag check was full when we arrived, so plan on carrying your things.
In any case, take advantage of Portmerion’s complimentary walking tours, it will explain the why behind Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis design. Basically, he wanted people to see that you could enhance a location without bulldozing the natural background.
Williams-Ellis did a great job, even if I was still asking myself, “this town is in Wales?” Portmerion is a must-see, especially when it prompts you to binge-watch The Prisoner (a 60s tv show that was filmed on location). Be seeing you!
As I have said, a visit to North Wales will show you great scenery, friendly locals, and fascinating history. Harlech Castle is a great stop to add to your must-see castle itinerary. It’s a perfect way for you to see a great example of why there are so many castles in Wales. You don’t have to hike Snowdonia but you can enjoy a leisurely steam train ride on Festiniog Railway.
Besides, you can keep all your friends and family guessing when you show them your photos of Portmerion. North Wales is a beautiful part of the world that is worth your time to visit. I cannot wait until I travel back to Wales so I can explore Snowdonia some more and truly enjoy that fresh mountain air.
The Basics – North Wales Weekend Itinerary
Best time to visit:
Late Spring, Summer, Early Fall (basically to avoid snow, unless that’s your thing?)
How to get there:
You can drive or take the train and busses just as we did.
We walked around and used public transport (bus). Stick with a car if you aren’t in good health as we walked quite a bit.
British Pound (or your credit card)
Welsh, but just about everyone will speak in English to you. Plus, signs are in both Welsh and English.
The Royal Sportsman Hotel in Porthmadog will be close to public transit.
An overnight stay at Hotel Portmeirion would be epic (& is what I will do next time!).
What to eat:
Harlech – Cemlyn Tea Shop for tea, gluten-free options and a fantastic view of the castle
Blaenau Ffestiniog – The Bridge Cafe for a hearty breakfast or tasty gluten-free sandwich before a hike or bike ride
Morfa Bychan – The Schooner for Fish & Chips kind of near the beach
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