A medieval town
Wandering around Conwy, it’s easy to see how tourists fall in love with the charm of this picturesque medieval harbour town. Nestled into the mouth of the Conwy Estuary, the narrow streets of the town are wonderful to explore, all within the shadow of the magnificent castle that sits proudly on a rocky outcrop. For a small town, there’s a lot to see and herein lies the benefit of having local guide to inform you of the best things to do in Conwy.
That local, by the way, is me. Having been bought up in a village a few miles away, Conwy was my local town. That said, my childhood memories of Conwy are of the occasional visit with my parents. My teenage years mostly saw me passing through on the bus, heading to the larger town of Llandudno nearby, full of bigger shops and fast food chains. Everything a teenager needed in the 90s. The problem of having a popular tourist town nearby, is that you spend much of your time trying to avoid it at peak times, and end up just passing through.
Growing older, I started appreciating the beauty of the town. There were a lot of pubs for such a small space so it often became the destination for a weekend night out. Nowadays, having moved to live away for 25 years or so, and relocated back recently, I love living in a tourist area. I appreciate the beauty that surrounds us, the charm that draws so many people in. I often visit the town now, and it’s a staple destination when friends come to visit and we really want to show off the local heritage. Most people don’t have a castle on their doorstep, right?
Things to do in Conwy: What to see and do
Whether you are visiting Conwy for a day or a longer period, there are plenty of things to keep you occupied. With the origins dating back to the 1200’s, there’s a lot of history to be found in the medieval town. There has also been a shift in the town over the past few years with exciting new events, new creative restaurants and bars which give the town more of a ‘destination’ feel.
Visit the Conwy Castle
The history bit: A magnificent fortress built in the 13th century, Conwy Castle and the town walls were created by the order of King Edward I. Designed by the architect Master James of St George, the castle and town walls were designed as one project between 1283 and 1287. As Edward I attempted to take control of the whole of the United Kingdom, there was much resistance by the local North Wales population and battle commenced. Outnumbered, the locals were driven back into the mountains of Snowdonia, but persisted in their attempts nonetheless. As a result of this, Edward decided to build a number of castles in North Wales that would act as an iron ring, one of these being Conwy Castle.
Over the centuries, the castle was used during many wars, notably in the English Civil War in the 1600’s. During this period, much of the castle was damaged, was abandoned and left derelict. The castle ruins were restored during the 1800’s – also the time that road and railway bridges were built across the Conwy Estuary which circumnavigate the castle. Conwy Castle is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area.
Conwy Castle, as a tourist attraction, is now operated by Cadw and is open to visitors throughout the year. Thanks to the preservation of the castle, most areas are accessible to the public including a number of the castle’s eight towers. Accessed by spiral staircases, the towers provide fantastic views over the town, the harbour and the Carneddau mountain range, on to the Snowdonia National Park.
Take a stroll across the Conwy Suspension Bridge
Standing above the East Barbican of Conwy Castle, the views out across the estuary provide a fantastic overview of the three bridges that cross into Conwy. To the left, the modern road bridge opened in 1956. To the right, the tubular railway bridge was opened in 1849 by railway engineer Robert Stephenson as part of the Chester to Holyhead railway line. The central, and most impressive (visually) is Thomas Telford’s suspension bridge which opened in 1826.
As the first road bridge to open, the Conwy Suspension Bridge replaced a ferry crossing in the same location and formed part of the main A55 trunk road along the North Wales coast. Since the new road bridge opened the suspension bridge was open for pedestrians only. The bridge is now looked after by the National Trust and is free to access and walk across. There is a small fee to access the toll house to one end, at certain times.
Walking from the east, the bridge looks at it most impressive with the stunning backdrop of the castle. The towers and archways were designed to reflect that of the castle and deck is suspended by two sets of four chains between the towers. It’s a fantastic structure and provides fantastic views of the castle.
Walk the Town Walls
Conwy’s town walls, as previously mentioned, were built alongside the castle as one project by King Edward I. The medieval walls were formed to create a fortified settlement alongside the castle. The town became an English settlement where the local Welsh residents were not allowed to enter during the early years. With 21 towers and 3 original gatehouses, the walls are around 1.3km in total length and are largely undamaged to this day.
Skip forward a few hundred years and the walls are now listed as part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, and also accessible to the public. There are a total of six access points from ground level, but it’s worth checking which are open, as essential maintenance occasionally takes place in some sections. The best place to start the walk is at the Northernmost part of the town at Berry Street where a set of steps leads on to the elevated pathway. From here you can head downhill for views across the harbour, before heading uphill along the main section of the 1.3km walk.
The walls are steep and uneven at some points, with only a low level wall / barrier to one side. If you have a fear of heights, it’s worth keeping to the ‘town side’ of the walls. The pathway leads uphill crossing many of the towers, before arriving at the highest point of the route – The Watchtower. A spiral staircase leads to the top of the watchtower which provides uninterrupted views inland across the mountain ranges, out to sea and over to Angelesey and Llandudno. This location also provides a perfect view of the town and castle.
From The Watchtower, it’s (literally) all downhill heading toward the castle. This section of wall passes over a few more of the towers, as well as the railway line that passes through Conwy. At this intersection, when the railway was built, a new access through the wall needed to be built and a beautiful Gothic arch was constructed, the style of which is unlike the rest of the structure.
Explore the Harbour and the Smallest House
The Conwy Harbour & Quay is one of the most picturesque parts of the town. Walking down the High Street and through the Lower Gate of the walls, the harbour opens up to both sides. Fishing boats are moored along the edge of the harbour and on the small shingle beach. You’ll often find families crabbing off the jetty or harbour walls. Lobster and Mussel pots line up the alongside the harbour, and the seagulls are out in force trying to second guess the most unsuspecting human who’s chips or ice cream they can steal.
A popular attraction on the harbour is The Smallest House in Great Britain. Nestled into the end of a small terrace, the tiny structure has only one room downstairs, and one upstairs. Ironically, the last resident was a 6ft 3in fisherman until the council declared that the property was not fit for human habitation in 1900. There are long lines in the holidays for people wanting to take a look inside, but it’s quite the unique attraction.
Another popular spot on the quay is the Conwy Mussels Company. Renowned as the best mussels in the UK, Conwy Mussels are a delicacy that are worth buying fresh at the harbour during the winter months, from September to April.
Take in the sights of the town centre
It won’t take you long to explore the town of Conwy, the footprint is small, but you will find yourself stopping regularly. Whether its to take a look in one of the many boutique gift shops, or to admire the architecture, it’s such a visually pleasing town. From Lancaster Square at the top of High Street, to the grounds of St. Mary’s Church in the centre of the town, there’s no shortage of scenery to be found on these narrow streets.
There are further fantastic historical buildings to visit in Conwy. Plas Mawr on High Street is also managed by Cadw, and is a fantastic example of a restored Elizabethan Townhouse. Aberconwy House on Castle Street, a National Trust property, is a medieval merchants house dating back to the 15th century and features furnished rooms and audio visual presentation of the history.
Eating and drinking in Conwy
If your visiting, or staying in Conwy there’s a wide variety of places to eat and drink. You can’t visit the coast without sampling some fish and chips, or ice cream, and Conwy has both in abundance. Grab a cone of chips, or an ice cream and take a stroll on the quay, but remember to keep an eye out for those seagulls.
Conwy isn’t short of restaurants. In fact, there seems to have been a boom in recent years with a huge variety of new restaurant openings. Looking first at new additions, for fantastic Spanish tapas in a modern setting, The Midland Tapas and Wine Bar offers a fantastic menu. Lava Hot Stone Kitchen is open during the day serving brunch, lunch and afternoon tea. Weekend evenings see a transformation into a hot stone dining experience, where you cook fresh meat or fish at your table on a hot stone – a great interactive experience in a cosy setting. For excellent pizzas, head to Johnny Dough’s. For a great gastropub experience, try The Erskine Arms which has had a beautiful refit in the past few years. The food is fantastic with a daily changing menu and large portions.
There are also some classics which have been around for a long time and still continue to bring in the customers. Alfredo’s Restaurant on Lancaster Square is a well renowned in the area for it’s classic Italian dishes and Watson’s Bistro, located in the shadow of the town walls, offers a seasonally changing menu with beautifully presented and tasty dishes. Booking is recommended at all restaurants, especially during busier periods, as the town’s restaurants are popular with locals as well as tourists.
Pubs and bars
In much the same way as the dining scene has evolved, the same can be said for the drinking establishments of Conwy. There’s never been a shortage of pubs in the town, but over the past few years there have been some changes with new bars offering a change, reflecting new drinking habits. With the rise of craft beers and local breweries, many establishments have evolved to incorporate this. The Albion Ale House on Upper Gate St is a traditional pub with a bar and lounge area, roaring log fire and much of the original features. It’s now run by a combination of four local breweries to bring the best local ales with a huge range on draft.
For a more modern setting, Bank of Conwy on Lancaster Square is, by no surprise, a renovated bank. Having been beautifully refurbished, keeping much of the original decor and items from the old bank, it has high ceilings in the main bar area and a downstairs vault for a more intimate setting. There are local and international craft beers, wines and an extensive cocktail menu. Always a staple stopping point for us in Conwy. If wine is your thing, Vinomondo on High Street offers a combination of retail wine shop with a bar serving fantastic wine, as well as local beers and spirits. There are wine tasting evening and events, all in a stylish and comfortable setting.
Finally, for something of a Conwy establishment, be sure to have a drink at the Liverpool Arms on the quayside. It’s a tiny traditional pub, but with an outdoor seating area that extends out to the side of the building in the summer. It is the perfect place to grab a pint and sit outside in view of the castle, taking in the beautiful harbour surroundings.
Coffee stops and traditional tea rooms
In a refreshing break from the repetitive chains that fill our high street towns, you won’t find a chain coffee shop on the streets of Conwy. The eagle eyed of you may have spotted a Costa sign in an earlier photo – well, they tried and failed to carve themselves a spot in the town. Independent coffee shops and tea rooms rule the roost here.
I’m a big fan of independent coffee shops serving good coffee, and if your looking for that in Conwy, head to L’s Coffee and Book Shop on the High Street. It’s a lovely, family run space with a great food menu as well as lovely barista style coffee and awesome cakes. There’s a lovely outdoor patio out the back for those sunny days, and they’ve built up a great community with weekly quizzes and events. For something a little more traditional there are plenty of traditional tea rooms scattered around the town which can be easily found.
Crossing the bridge
You wont be short of things to do in Conwy by staying inside the town walls, but it’s also a great base to get out for some short walks. For some great views of the castle, harbour and further out to sea, a walk across the bridge is a must. From the centre of the bridge, the views out to sea and to Great Orme headland in Llandudno are spectacular, especially at sunset. It’s also a fantastic spot to get some shots of Conwy Castle.
A short walk across the cob (the strip of land that crosses the estuary) leads to a pathway along the estuary and onto the RSPB Conwy Nature Reserve. The reserve was created in the early 1990’s using material removed by the construction of the adjacent Conwy Tunnel which runs under the estuary. There’s a circular route, some of it across boardwalks including bird hides overlooking two lagoons. The circular path extends around the estuary providing awesome views of the nearby mountain ranges.
Where to stay in Conwy
Being a small town, the options of accommodation are generally limited to small B&B’s and self catering cottages. That said, there are a couple of hotels and interesting options for accommodations.
For something a little quirky, Number 18 is a small Boutique B&B with four guest rooms. Located opposite Conwy Castle, the rooms are all individually and thematically decorated unlike anything else you are likely to see in the area.
Read my article about a recent stay at Number 18
For something a little more luxurious, The Castle Hotel on the High Street is a historic hotel in the heart of the town. With history dating back centuries, the old coaching inn is set in a stunning building with 29 lavishly decorated bedrooms. There’s a restaurant and coffee house on site, as well as a public bar. It’s definitely a destination for a treat stay away.
The town of Conwy is located centrally along the North Wales coast and can be accessed easily by road using the main A55 expressway. There are regular trains that run through Conwy along the Chester to Holyhead route, and direct trains run from London Euston to the nearby station of Llandudno Junction several times a day.
Note: Due to Covid-19 social distancing restrictions, the experiences detailed above may be slightly amended. Please contact the accommodation, properties or attractions directly for further details.
Have you visited the town of Conwy, or the surrounding area?
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