Six of the Best: Must-see Historic Towns on Snowdonia's Coast
Castles or coastline? On Snowdonia’s shores you don’t have to choose. Our welcoming waterside towns and resorts mix stunning scenery with heavyweight heritage – a winning combination that guarantees you’ll always find new things to experience and enjoy, even in the most familiar locations and those close to home.
We’ve collected a few of our favourite seaside superstars below, highlighting their most striking historic and cultural assets – including some of the jewels from the collections of Cadw and The National Trust. We’ve also outlined some easy coastal strolls and tasty places to eat and drink – perfect for recharging the batteries after a day of exploration.
You’ll find plenty of great places to stay too. Take a look at our accommodation pages to browse a selection of hotels, B&Bs and self-catering properties perfect for couples and parties of all sizes.
Think you already know Snowdonia? Think again – we’ll show you more.
Wales’s oldest city on the banks of the Menai Strait.
What’s the story?
Strung along the shores of the Menai Strait, bustling Bangor is a lively university town with a lengthy history. One of its most ancient sites (and source of its city status) is St Deiniol Cathedral. Founded in AD525, it’s the oldest cathedral in Britain – in turn making Bangor the oldest city in Wales. Most of the current cathedral dates from the early 12th century, through keen-eyed observers will spot later additions, including the 16th-century bell tower.
The cathedral is also closely linked to Storiel, Bangor’s colourful museum and gallery. It’s housed in the former Bishop’s Palace, residence of the town’s holy leaders from the late medieval period until the mid-20th century. Now reborn as one of the most exciting arts venues in North Wales, it draws on an archive of more than 10,000 items from the University of Bangor’s collection to host a rotating programme of exhibitions featuring textiles, ceramics, furniture and art.
There are also photographs, documents and artefacts that shed light on the area’s rich social history, including the role of the nearby Ogwen Valley in the slate industry. It’s one of the Industrial Revolution’s most significant stories – recognised by the designation of the Slate Landscape of North Wales as one of the UK’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Founded in 1885, Bangor University’s building are a blend of 19th-century architecture and more modern features. Perhaps the most striking of its newer buildings is Pontio, a unique arts and cultural centre that showcases a global programme of music, theatre, dance and performance.
It’s a community-focused space open to everyone, where you can catch everything from movie screenings and skateboarding demonstrations to high-flying circus shows and stand-up performances from top touring comedians. Music lovers are well catered for too – take your pick from folk, pop, showtunes and recitals from touring orchestras.
Take a stroll out to sea with a walk along Bangor’s historic 19th-century Garth Pier. Extending for 1,541ft/470m into the Menai Strait, this charming period piece serves up stunning sea views and vistas across to Anglesey. If you’d like to go a little further, continue your stroll south-west along the Wales Coast Path for more marvellous Menai views.
Head to Wood Fired Shack for the perfect pizza in a relaxed setting overlooking the cathedral. The cocktails are pretty good too. Or sample a selection of street food inspired dishes at Clena, a quirky café with a unique shabby-chic sense of style.
Historic harbour, boundless beach and birthplace of The National Trust.
What’s the story?
Occupying a spectacular spot at the mouth of the Mawddach Estuary, beautiful Barmouth is a sandy seaside resort with a hefty heritage – a reflection of its past as a busy port. You’ll see grand churches and chapels, tiny fishermen’s cottages in the narrow winding streets of the old town and unusual buildings like Tŷ Crwn, a conical structure on the seafront used to lock up unruly troublemakers in the 19th century.
Rising up above it all is the rugged expanse of cliff and heath called Dinas Oleu, Barmouth’s crowning glory. Once the location of a Roman fort (its name translates as ‘Fortress of Light’), it’s now best-known as the birthplace of the National Trust.
Donated as the Trust’s first property by local landowner and philanthropist Fanny Talbot in 1895, with the understanding that its wild nature would never be sullied, its network of paths reward exploration with stunning views over the town and Cardigan Bay’s blue waters.
For more on Barmouth’s history, follow the heritage trail. Taking in many of the town’s most notable landmarks, there’s a surprise around every corner.
For a superior seaside stroll, take a walk from the harbour and out onto the Victorian railway bridge that spans the mouth of the Mawddach. As well as trains, the bridge carries the Mawddach Trail cycling route and provides expansive views across town, estuary and sea.
For a quick walk, head to the middle of the bridge before retracing your steps. If you fancy a longer journey, carry on over to Fairbourne on the other side before catching the ferry back to Barmouth.
When it’s time to eat, combine history with hospitality at The Last Inn. Housed in a 15th-century former shoemaker’s shop, it’s one of the oldest surviving buildings in Barmouth. There’s a wealth of atmospheric original features to enjoy, alongside a menu of locally sourced pub favourites.
Alternatively, take a trip to Davy Jones Locker overlooking the harbour, for coffees, light bites and more substantial meals.
A mighty medieval castle and millennia of Roman history.
What’s the story?
Caernarfon’s strategic location at the meeting of River Seiont and the Menai Strait has seen it prized by military leaders for millennia. The Romans were the first to get in on the act, building the fortress of Segontium here in AD77 – just a short distance from the modern-day town centre.
Once home to a garrison of 1,000 soldiers (plus the infrastructure that grew up to support them), it’s one of the longest-lived Roman settlements in Britain, remaining in use for around three centuries. Today, you can take an immersive trip into distant history by exploring the evocative remnants of structures including a shrine, basilica and bathhouse.
Caernarfon later caught the eye of English King Edward II, who made it the location for perhaps his most impressive Welsh castle. Its soaring towers are as impressive today as they were when this mighty fortress was new over 700 years ago, a testament to the ingenuity and skill of its medieval builders.
Take a walk along its walls to enjoy dazzling 360-degree views across the Menai Strait and back to the peaks of Snowdonia and marvel at the architecture of a castle built as a royal palace as well as an impenetrable stronghold. Little wonder that this fabulous fortress is a World Heritage Site.
The castle is also home to more recent military history. Housed in its two towers you’ll find the Royal Welch Fusiliers Museum, which tells the 300-year story of Wales’s oldest regiment.
Take a stroll north from the castle along the waterfront path that passes between the old town walls and the sea. Before arriving at Caernarfon’s lively, boat-packed marina you’ll pass the Hanging Tower, where prisoners were executed in the 19th century. It’s also worth heading east from the castle to take a look at Cei Llechi, the old slate quay that has been transformed by a £5.9 million regeneration project.
Nestled within Caernarfon’s town walls, the 16th-century Black Boy Inn is one of the oldest hostelries in North Wales. It’s an atmospheric place to grab a bite to eat, with an extensive menu of home-cooked food sourced field-to-fork from local producers. For a slightly different take on our regional produce, try the stylish Sheeps and Leeks, serving intricately designed tasting menus made with the finest seasonal ingredients.
Stunning sea views and picture-perfect castle.
What’s the story?
Tucked into the southern shores of the Llŷn Peninsula, Criccieth is a compact coastal resort with piles of personality. Rows of pretty houses descend towards a sweeping shore, bisected by the rocky outcrop that provides a base for the town’s striking, 13th-century castle (more on that later). Sandy beaches on either side of this natural obstacle provide stunning views out into Cardigan Bay and along the Snowdonia coast towards Harlech.
At the eastern end of the seafront is the RNLI lifeboat station. It’s been watching over the seas here since the mid-19th century, during which time its volunteers have saved countless lives and won numerous awards for their bravery. Perhaps the most famous rescue took place in 1845 for which four Criccieth lifeboatmen won Silver Medals, when the American ship Glendower was wrecked off Porthmadog.
Criccieth’s focal point is its castle, standing in a prime seafront spot on a rugged headland overlooking town and sea. While it can’t compete in size with its neighbours in Harlech and Caernarfon, it more than matches them for location and atmosphere – just ask JMW Turner, who was inspired to paint it in the 19th century.
It’s also notable as one of the few Welsh castles both built and destroyed by native rulers. Erected in two stages by medieval princes Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) and his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn the Last), it later fell into the hands of English invaders. In 1404, the forces of Welsh prince Owain Glyndŵr attacked the fortress to drive the English out, leaving it a smoking ruin.
From the castle, take the Wales Coast Path along the seafront past the west beach and on to the mouth of the River Dwyfor. For a longer walk, you can follow the river before turning inland to Llanystumdwy, where you’ll find the boyhood home and final resting place of former Prime Minister David Lloyd George – plus a museum dedicated to the great man.
Housed in a spectacular Art Deco building on the seafront, Dylan’s is the perfect spot for a memorable meal. The food’s just as impressive, with a menu of delicious dishes sourced from the land and waters of North Wales – try the mussels, a house speciality. Alternatively, indulge in some afternoon tea at Tir a Môr, a cosy café just a stone’s throw from the beach.
Shifting sand dunes and a world-class medieval fortress.
What’s the story?
Overlooking Cardigan Bay and the Llŷn Peninsula from a steep hill a little way back from the sea, Harlech has a different feel to many of Snowdonia’s coastal communities. The town sat at the water’s edge at the start of the last millennium, but the intervening centuries have seen the sea retreat beyond a wide swathe of dunes and grassland.
If you want to see the sea at close quarters nowadays, head to Morfa Harlech National Nature Reserve, accessible from Min-y-Don car park a short hop from the centre of town. Tucked away behind sweeping Harlech beach, it’s one of the most important dune systems in the UK and a habitat for a huge number of rare plants and animals. It’s also a great spot for views of Harlech’s most famous feature – its iconic 13th-century castle, perched high on a rocky cliff.
The walls of this UNESCO World Heritage Site seem to spring from the outcrop on which it stands, a doubly daunting obstacle for any would-be attacker. Thankfully, access is pretty easy these days, with a striking floating bridge from the castle’s state-of-the-art visitor centre providing a quick route over the moat. Inside, the castle’s walls-within-walls structure is perfectly preserved.
Head up onto the battlements for stunning views over the sea and the peaks of Snowdonia, or traverse the 108 steps down the water gate – a vital supply point and reminder of a time when Harlech Castle was lapped by the waves.
Explore the magical myths of Harlech’s past on the Meirion’s Story walking trail around town. Starting from the playground in the shadow of the castle, the 2-mile/3.2km route takes you on a tour of the town’s key locations – linked by five intricately carved storytelling chairs (it can be broken up into smaller chunks if you don’t have time to walk the whole thing).
Harlech means ‘on a slope’ or ‘beautiful slope’. That’s an understatement. At a lung-busting 37.45% gradient, Ffordd Pen Llech alongside the castle is one of the steepest streets in the world. You’ll almost tumble down it and feel like a mountaineer on the way back up.
Enjoy a meal at Castle Cottage, a stone’s throw from Harlech’s iconic fortress. It’s been a mainstay of good food guides for decades, serving up superb locally sourced dishes with the occasional Thai-influenced twist. Alternatively, treat yourself to an Italian-inspired meal in the relaxed bistro-style surroundings of As.Is. Alongside its sit-down menu, it’s also home to La Bottega, a deli/café where you can pick up coffees and food to go.
Heritage railway hub with a maritime twist.
What’s the story?
It might be hard to believe now, but popular Porthmadog was once a hive of industry. Its location at the mouth of the Glaslyn Estuary made it a thriving harbour town during the 19th century, serving as a transport hub for the vast quantities of slate extracted from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
Spend any time in town and you’ll soon hear the sound of puffing steam engines, courtesy of Porthmadog’s terrific trio of historic railway lines. Starting from the station at the harbour, the Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog Railways have transitioned from shifting slate to carrying cargoes of people wide-eyed at the scenery.
The Ffestiniog is the oldest heritage railway in the world, connecting Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog along 13½ miles/22km of twisting track. As you climb towards your destination, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of Snowdonia’s slate landscape, one of the UK’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
From the oldest to the longest. The Welsh Highland’s 25 miles/40km of track make it the lengthiest in the UK. Its luxuriously restored Pullman coaches also make the journey around the foot of Snowdon to Caernarfon one of the world’s most comfy heritage railways experiences.
Rounding out Porthmadog’s railways is the more modestly sized Welsh Highland Heritage Railway, which runs from a spot close to the town’s modern-day station. The little narrow-gauge service takes the short trip to Pen-y-Mount, with a stop off at a fascinating hands-on heritage centre along the way. If you’re lucky, you’ll ride in the restored carriage named after Prime Minister William Gladstone, who travelled in it in 1892.
You can also explore the salty side of Porthmadog’s industrial past at the Maritime Museum. In a former slate shed on the harbour, it’s home to collections that tell the stories of the shipbuilders, fishermen and seafarers who made a living in this busy port, which once had links with the world.
Take a stroll from the Ffestiniog Railway station out onto The Cob, Porthmadog’s famous flood defence/railway bridge which separates the saltmarsh and farmland on one side from the sea on the other. During summer, colourful wildflowers bloom on The Cob’s banks, while the views inland to the peaks of Snowdonia are breathtaking all year round. For a longer walk, carry on from The Cob to the unique Italianate village of Portmeirion tucked away on the shores of Dwyryd Estuary.
The welcoming Yr Hen Fecws combines a menu of beautifully prepared seasonal dishes with an extensive wine list. If beer is more your thing, try The Australia, a cosy inn where you can try ales from Porthmadog’s own Purple Moose Brewery alongside an extensive selection of hearty, home-cooked meals.