Cardiff or Swansea is often the decision when it comes to deciding where to go for that quick weekend break in South Wales. From dramatic coastline and sandy beaches to vibrant nightlife, cafes, and bars, these two coastal destinations have plenty to offer.
Located on Wales’s south coast, roughly 40 miles away from each other, Swansea and Cardiff have many similarities, but also some standout differences. Cardiff is the multicultural capital of Wales. It’s got a lot going on when it comes to urban life and nightlife. Swansea, on the other hand, has some incredibly beautiful beaches right on its doorstep, but something of a quieter feel.
In this guide, we will take a look at different aspects of Cardiff and Swansea. From beaches and things to do to nightlife, shopping, and accommodation, we will help you decide which Welsh city is the one this year.
Cardiff or Swansea for getting there?
The two largest cities in Wales lay on the south coast, around 40 miles away from each other. It takes about one hour to travel between the two by train, bus, or car. Both cities are located on the M4 corridor and are pretty easy to get to from most parts of the UK, especially the south.
Cardiff is the closer of the two to the Severn Bridge – the main connection between England and Wales. That means that if you’re traveling by road from almost anywhere in the UK, Cardiff is the easier city to reach. All buses, trains, and cars traveling to Swansea will usually have to pass Cardiff first, too. In addition, it takes less than an hour to drive there from Bristol, around three hours from London, and about 4.5 hours from Manchester. Cardiff also hosts the only international airport in Wales.
Unless you’re traveling to Swansea from West Wales, it will take longer to get there than to the capital. You need to add around an hour to your journey, since you will most likely be passing Cardiff on your way through anyhow (consider stopping off for a visit en route?). However, Swansea is the western terminus of the main train line in from London, and still has two major junctions linking it to the M4 motorway, so it’s just a case of a slightly longer journey.
Cardiff or Swansea for beaches?
Cardiff is the vibrant capital of Wales. It’s known for its nightlife, shopping, and restaurant scene. But one of the coolest things to do when visiting this bustling city is to enjoy some of the lovely beaches right on its doorstep.
The best beaches in Cardiff include:
- Penarth Beach – A family-friendly pebbly beach with a beautiful pier pavilion dominating the view. There are lots of cafes and restaurants in the area.
- Whitmore Bay – A lovely sandy beach surrounded by lots of cafes, bars, and shopping arcades, Whitemore Bay is very popular with families on weekends.
- Pebble Beach – A quiet, pebbly beach near Whitmore that’s much more secluded.
- Barry Island – Cardiff’s summer resort, Barry is filled with beaches that are similar to Blackpool, thanks to their chip shops, arcades, and kiosks.
But none of those even come close to the beaches you’ll find in Swansea. And we don’t just mean the five miles of golden sands on the main city beach. This is home to the Gower Peninsula, the hidden gem of South Wales. From dramatic clifftops to miles of sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters, Gower is a paradise on Earth. You may not get that much sunshine, but when the rays do hit the coast, it’s hard to beat it. (Shh! We don’t want everyone to know!)
Some of our favorite beaches in Swansea include:
- Rhossili Bay – A beautiful sandy bay surrounded by high limestone cliffs at the western end of Gower. It’s one of the most picturesque beaches in the UK and a fantastic place for walking, swimming, and surfing.
- Three Cliffs Bay – This is a picture-perfect bay in the heart of Gower. Rugged green cliffs surround a winding river in the middle of the beach. At low tide, you can enjoy a large, sandy bay with access to shallow waters. At high tide, it’s best to stick to the clifftops and enjoy the stunning views down below.
- Oxwich Bay – A long stretch of golden sands and one of the easiest beaches to access in Gower since you can park right by it. There are a few lovely cafes and restaurants nearby.
- Caswell Bay Beach – A beautiful sandy cove on the coastal path. It’s one of the closest beaches to the city, popular with families and surfers.
Cardiff or Swansea for things to do?
Like most major cities in the UK, Cardiff has a lot to offer to keep you entertained. They range from classic tourist attractions like museums, galleries, and shopping centers to historic castles, parks, and outdoor exhibitions. So, whether you’re visiting the Welsh capital on a sunny summer weekend or in the midst of winter, here are some of the best things to do:
- Visit Cardiff Bay – A waterfront area full of cafes, bars, and restaurants, this is a great place to walk around on a sunny day or enjoy one of the organized tours. It is also a location of the Welsh Government.
- Visit St. Fagans Museum – A fantastic outdoor museum on Welsh history and folklore.
- Visit Cardiff Castle – A medieval castle located in the heart of Cardiff.
- Enjoy the rugby – Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, known by many as the Millennium Stadium, is where the most important Welsh rugby matches happen. There is no better way to enjoy Wales’s culture than through the national sport – trust us!
Swansea, meanwhile, may not be the most enchanting place when it comes to the town center. Venture further west, though, and you’ll find lots of great places to visit. From walking the incredible coastal paths to enjoying some of the most amazing beaches in the country, it’s really all about the great outdoors here.
Some of our favorite things to do in Swansea include:
- Walking – From miles of breathtaking coastal paths in Gower to the long promenade on the coast, there are loads of lovely walks you can do in Swansea. There are challenging hilltop hikes like Cefn Bryn or Rhossili Downs, where you can enjoy breathtaking views of the coast. And for family outings, there is a long, paved path along Swansea Bay itself.
- Surfing – Whether you’re a beginner looking for a surf lesson or a pro looking for more challenging waves, Swansea is the place to go. Caswell, Langland, and Llangenith are the most popular surf beaches in the area.
- Joe’s Ice Cream – Joe’s is locally considered to be the best ice cream in the world. Can we tempt you to verify that opinion?
- Visiting Mumbles – A cute neighborhood on the western headland of Swansea. A place to enjoy stunning sea views and lovely cafes and restaurants.
Winner: Cardiff, but Swansea if you’re outdoorsy
Cardiff or Swansea for accommodation?
Swansea is all about the beaches, so you will want to stay near the coast to enjoy the best things about this city. From seafront hotels to cozy cottages, there are lots of cool places to stay in. It is Caswell, Langland, and Mumbles that come out with the bulk of the top beach accommodations. In Gower, you will find cute cottages and campsites to enjoy the outdoorsy life.
Some of the best rated beach accommodation in Swansea include:
Cardiff attracts more of an international crowd, especially when rugby matches are on, so there is lots of accommodation around the Principality Stadium. They join with city center flats and business hotels, meaning Cardiff has accommodation for all budgets. Finally, for hospitality venues and beautiful sea views, consider a stay in Cardiff Bay.
Some of the best hotels in Cardiff include:
Winner: Cardiff for more variety
Cardiff or Swansea for shopping?
Whether you’re a keen shopper or you like seeking out local stores for unique items, Cardiff is a great place to go. From Victorian and Edwardian arcades full of independent boutiques to large shopping centers and indoor markets, you won’t be disappointed with the retail offering here.
Some of the best places for shopping in Cardiff include:
- Queens Arcade (Queen St) – The biggest of the shopping arcades in the city.
- St David’s Dewi Sant (Bridge Street) – High-street stores are located here.
- Royal Arcade (City Center) – A charming arcade that dates back to the 1800s!
- Cardiff Market (St Mary St) – Come here to taste real Welsh seafood and farm produce.
Swansea’s shopping scene is less impressive than that of Cardiff’s. There are fewer shopping centers and big brands. That said, there are lots of cool independent and locally-owned shops around the city. In Mumbles, especially, there are plenty of cute little stores selling a range of products from clothes, crafts, and arts to wine, beer, and food. If you’re into your surf brands and eco cosmetics, we recommend checking out Hiatus Store in Uplands.
Cardiff or Swansea for nightlife?
When it comes to nightlife, both cities have plenty of fun places to enjoy late-night drinks.
In Cardiff, there are venues of all sorts. From live-music clubs open till late hours to cocktail bars, beer gardens, and breweries, Cardiff’s nightlife scene is well established and, frankly, hard to beat in Wales. On weekends, places fill up with partygoers from all over the country, especially around the university district. The most popular areas for drinking in Cardiff are around St Mary’s Street and Cardiff Castle, but you could also try Cathays for more local pubs.
There are many cool bars and pubs around Swansea, especially in the areas of Uplands and Brynmill, but things here don’t tend to stay open as late as in the capital. If you’re looking for long nights of dancing and drinking, check out Wind Street. That’s a long run of nightclubs and drinking holes that goes on past midnight. For something more upscale, head over to Mumbles, which has wine bars and gastropubs with views across Swansea Bay.
Cardiff or Swansea for prices?
Even though this part of the UK isn’t as expensive as London and the South East, South Wales can still be quite pricy.
As is usually the case with larger cities, things in Cardiff tend to cost more than in Swansea. From hotels to drinks and food, you should expect to fork out extra on your visit to the Welsh capital. The average cost of a week’s holiday in Cardiff for one person is around £850. It can go way beyond that, depending on where you stay and what you do.
Swansea is generally slightly cheaper than Cardiff. The average cost of a seven days’ vacation is estimated to be about £580 for one person. That means that you will most likely spend £200-£300 less than in the Welsh capital. That said, if you want to stay in some cozy, sea-view cottage in Gower, you should expect to spend a lot more than the above!
Cardiff or Swansea – the conclusion
Cardiff and Swansea have lots going for them. Although the two largest cities in Wales are in a similar geographical location, there are different reasons for choosing one over the other for your break.
Cardiff is the larger of the two and has a lot on offer when it comes to nightlife, restaurants, cafes, and shopping. There is lots more going on when it comes to events and culture, whether that’s the Six Nations rugby or the regular food festivals. Basically, it’s the city life that you want, choose Cardiff.
Swansea, on the other hand, beats the capital when it comes to the outdoors. The undoubtedly beautiful coast of the Gower Peninsula is hard to beat. It is also more budget-friendly, but not by much.