By Nick Dalton
Wales is not only beautiful, it’s a great place for a budget family holidays. In fact, this whole child-friendly destination could be described as a wild theme park that can be visited for free. If you combine your excursions with a stay on a Welsh campsite, there’s no reason why your holiday this year should burn a hole in your wallet.
Wales has some of the most beautiful beaches in Britain – vast dune-backed stretches, jewel-like bays and secret coves. They’re almost all public and free, except for the car-parks. On the north coast, the Llyn Peninsula is lined with sandy beaches, from bustling, upmarket Abersoch to the unspoilt ‘Whistling Sands’ of Porth-oer. In mid Wales, Cardiganshire (Ceredigion) has Mwnt, with steps cut from the clifftop National Trust car-park down to its sheltered sands.
'Our family’s favourite – a world-class attraction – The Big Pit National Coal Museum is a dream for children who like dressing up – they get miners’ helmets and lamps before being taken down a clanky lift and through old tunnels by a real-life miner.'
But it’s Pembrokeshire, in the west, that is the undisputed coastal king – home to Marloes Sands, with its stunning rock formations, and perfect Barafundle Bay, sheltered by cliffs and backed by the National Trust’s Stackpole Estate ground, Bosherston Lily Ponds and Stackpole Warren Nature Reserve – all free.
But even the south coast, with its industrial heritage, has beaches to shout about: the Glamorgan Heritage Coast boasts dramatic Dunraven Bay, a closely guarded secret among locals, and Ogmore-by-Sea, a rock-pooler’s delight any time of the year.
Then there are Wales’ magical mountains. Snowdon, England and Wales' second-highest mountain, is topped by a rock-and-glass visitor centre with free exhibitions, a café and, of course, a gift shop. It’s several hours walk up, unless you cheat and take the historic cog train from Llanberis, which is anything but free (tip: book on the 9am ride and fares are almost half-price).
Snowdonia is also home to Llanberis, where you’ll find several free attractions: Padarn Country Park with its walks through pastures and around a lake, the fascinating National Slate Museum with its slate-splitting demonstrations, chunky old machinery and steam train, the Electric Mountain visitor centre with its exhibitions on the vast indoor power station nearby (tours are extra), play area and café, and ruined Dolbardarn Castle with its free nature trails.
Brecon Beacons National Park, in south Wales, is equally impressive but less crowded. Its program includes free family events and children’s activities, and its free Mountain Centre, in Libanus, has a large 3D model of the mountains, plus other exhibits. The latter is also the starting point for easy walks through Mynydd Illtyd Common. Lastly, the Beacons have spectacular waterfalls to explore – get information about falls along the rivers Mellte, Hepste, Nedd Fechan and Pyrddin from the Waterfalls Centre at Pontneddfechan, near Glynneath.
For such an outdoorsy destination, Wales is also the perfect place to be in wet weather, since its superb seven national museums are all free:
• The National Slate Museum (see above).
• The magnificent National Museum & Gallery in Cardiff, with natural history and heritage exhibitions for all ages, including animatronic dinosaurs, the hands-on Glanely Discovery Gallery, and the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris.
• St Fagans: National History Museum near Cardiff, a park with 40 traditional buildings, including a tannery and Celtic huts, lots of places to play hide and seek, and indoor exhibitions (the pay car-park is a nasty surprise).
• Blaenavon’s The Big Pit: National Coal Museum, a dream for children who like dressing up – they get miners’ helmets and lamps before being taken down a clanky lift and through old tunnels by a real-life miner. It’s our family’s favourite – a world-class attraction.
• In Swansea, the National Waterfront Museum, combining historic ships displayed in the regenerated docks with indoor exhibitions.
• The National Roman Legion Museum in Caerleon, near Newport, bringing together a museum where children can try on replica Roman armour with the remains of an amphitheatre where they can run around while you unpack the picnic ready.
• The National Wool Museum (like the National Slate Museum, more interesting than it sounds) near Castle Emlyn, where children can have a go at spinning and sewing – or follow the Woolly Tale Trail.
Find out more things to do in Wales with kids as well as our recommended family-friendly places to stay in Wales.