36 hours in Swansea

[Originally posted on www.usa.visitwales.com on May 30-31, 2009] After full-day meetings in Cardiff over the last few days, I’m now in Swansea for just two nights before flying back to New York. Here’s a kinda’ “36 hours in Swansea” –style blog post…

Swansea CastleI’ve always loved Swansea but was never quite sure why. But on this visit – my first “proper” visit to Swansea for well over a decade – I think I’ve sussed out the reasons. The Maritime Quarter, marina and Swansea Waterfront are stunning, especially yesterday which seemed to be the best day of the year with temperatures in the 70s and sunny blue skies. Then there are the museums, all with free entry: National Maritime Museum, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea Museum and the Dylan Thomas Centre. Then there are hidden gems like the Arts Wing of the Grand Theatre. The people in Swansea are really friendly (I looked lost with my head buried in a map a couple of times, and everyone offered to help direct me!) and the busy downtown shopping and entertainment center is scattered with historic Victorian buildings and Swansea Castle and Castle Square taking center stage.

I arrived in Swansea Saturday morning and immediately started my museums trek. First up was a quick re-visit to the National Maritime Museum which is located just ten minutes walk from the center of the city. It’s one of the seven National Museums Wales and is well laid out giving a multimedia insight into Wales’ rich maritime history. This museum is a “must-see” for Swansea visitors, and the location is perfect for enjoying great views of the marina and a well-deserved coffee. Just a block away is Wales’ oldest museum: the Swansea Museum, dating back to 1841. The collection isn’t particularly spectacular, but its well worth a potter around the galleries as admission is free and there are some nice insights into historic Swansea. The main gallery has been closed for some time but is expected to re-open in a few weeks with a new exhibition about crime and punishment.

View from the Grand Theatre terrace barNow to my favorite exhibition in Swansea: the Dylan Thomas Centre. I’d never visited before, so this was top of my Swansea “must-do” list. And I was duly impressed. There’s a nice display taking you through his life along with some artifacts such as copies of his letters, manuscripts and posters promoting his lectures and tours. There’s a film running on a loop which was really well put together and a great visual insight into his family life. Then there are a few exhibits from the recent “Edge of Love” movie. Once I’d toured the exhibition, I was left wanting more, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing… eager Dylan Thomas fans will also want to visit Laugharne to see his boathouse and Sea View, a new hotel in his former home there, as well as New Quay where Dylan also lived. I chatted to staff at the Dylan Thomas Centre who explained that the Dylan Thomas Festival which takes place annually in October has Swansea packed full of fans with many events taking place.

For lunch, I walked less than a block to Morgans restaurant, located in the Grade II –listed former Port Authority Building which dates back to 1902. The building is now a boutique hotel, and their restaurant even features an original 1902 mural. The lunch menu handily offers a two-course menu for just £12.50, so I chose a home-made Welsh beef pie which was delicious. My tip for frugal travelers like me is to take advantage of good value prix-fixe lunch deals like this, and then grab packaged sandwiches, juices and treats from a supermarket such as Marks & Spencer later for tea or supper back at your hotel.

Swansea MarinaSaturday afternoon it was so beautiful out, I couldn’t spend any more time inside! I loved wandering around Swansea marina and waterfront, packed with people enjoying the outdoors. I didn’t realize that there were such nice beaches right in Swansea, and a very pleasant boardwalk just minutes from the marina. Then back in downtown Swansea, the water fountain in front of the castle looked spectacular in the sunlight as people took a break from shopping to relax. St. Mary’s Church was also looking great surrounded by tree-lined walkways.

Before heading to my hotel, I wanted to check out the Arts Wing at the Grand Theatre. This one’s a bit of an insider’s tip as it was friends in Swansea who recommended going there. It’s a really neat exhibition space set over three levels. I saw a Surface Pattern Design Exhibition put on by Swansea Metropolitan University and it was fab! Great pieces of work by incredibly talented students for their degree show, I think.  Here’s a tip: enjoy drinks or lunch at the Grand Theatre’s top floor café-bar and bring your camera as the terrace has amazing views of Swansea looking inland. Pretty rows of houses set on the hillside in the distance (see photo above).

The Dragon HotelFor the most centrally located digs in town, I’m staying at The Dragon Hotel and it’s fantastic. Everywhere I’ve walked to has been less than 10 minutes walk from here. I rolled my luggage to the hotel from the train station without needing a taxi. Inside, the hotel feels contemporary and fresh after a major refurb’ a few years ago. My room is clean with fresh white linen, dark wood desk and furniture, air conditioning and flat-screen TV. I’ve even got views out to the waterfront. I’m hardly in the hotel as the weather is awesome, but if you need it they have a gym, indoor pool and spa treatments. I asked whether they have a signature spa treatment, and the “Purifying Seaweed Wrap” sounds quite special featuring local products. The brasserie restaurant has just won an AA Rosette and the dining and bar spaces feel contemporary and unpretentious.

A day trip to Mumbles…
Mumbles LighthouseAfter a good night’s sleep and a great breakfast at The Dragon Hotel, I headed out early, taking the bus to Oystermouth in Mumbles. The bus service is neat, costing £3.50 for a day pass and with three services an hour even on a Sunday. It was a 20-minute journey to the village of Oystermouth, which forms the first part of Mumbles, with the road hugging the coastline. The boardwalk (or promenade as we call it in Britain) stretches all the way from downtown Swansea to Oystermouth and continues on to Mumbles headland where I was walking this morning. I loved the amazing views out over the sea, with Swansea in the distance in one direction and the Mumbles Pier the other. With the weather so gorgeous today, there were people roller-blading, cycling and walking along the waterfront as well as enjoying the sandy beaches. As I get towards Mumbles headland, I spot quieter sandy coves surrounded by rocky outcrops. The pier itself offers nice views in every direction. Locals were fishing from the pier, and others jet-skiing and boating from some of the jetties along the seafront. The Mumbles really is one of the prettiest places to explore, and all just 20 minutes on a bus from downtown Swansea.

Oystermouth CastleAs I arrive back in Oystermouth, I head to Oystermouth Castle which I’d seen dominating the hillside as I’d walked towards the village. At the castle I met Whyt, who is originally from California, but has been living in Wales for six years as she loves it so much. She explained that the castle dates back to 1218 and that a four-year project will soon commence to carry out further preservation and to include an improved visitor center. When I asked Whyt to recommend her favorite spot in Swansea and the Gower, she suggested that avid hikers check out Paviland Cave and Worms Head, though it’s important to make arrangements to visit the caves with the National Trust warden. Climbing the spiral staircase, I could see why Whyt loves working at Oystermouth Castle… the views from the top of the walls were amazing.

I’m a big fan of the British “Sunday Roast” lunch, so I was delighted to see roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding on the menu at The Coffee Denn in Oystermouth (34/36 Newton Road). This place is a neat coffee shop as well as a great restaurant. Drinks, including wine, are all very reasonably priced, and the two-course lunch menu is £12.50 featuring some great options.

After all the food at lunch, I took the bus back towards Swansea, stopping off in Blackpill as this is another great beach area and is also popular for its wildlife. I’d been told to check out The Junction – a café in Blackpill which serves coffee as well as appetizing dishes.

So that’s how I spent my “36 hours in Swansea,” absolutely loving the free museums, Dylan Thomas connections, stunning waterfront and fab’ day-trip out to Mumbles and Oystermouth Castle. There’s much more to do, and I didn’t even get out further onto the Gower on this trip.

>> See my set of Swansea photos on Flickr

About Paul Chibeba

Paul Chibeba now lives in London and works for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew after having spent nine years living and working in New York City.
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