Best Things To Do In Pembrokeshire
The best things to do in Pembrokeshire all have one thing in common: soaking up the atmosphere of its rich cultural landscape. Our guide offers a microcosm of Pembrokeshire’s attractions. We present seven experiences to savor in Pembrokeshire: a quaint town lined with medieval walls and a swath of golden beach; a holy island; two ancient evocative castles; a clifftop coastal walk above dramatic shoreline; a magnificent cathedral dedicated to the country’s patron saint; and a tutorial on the beloved folk art of Welsh lovespoons.
The Lay of the Land
Pembrokeshire is the westernmost area of Wales, a county that sits at the end of a large promontory that is surrounded by several different bodies of water: St. George’s Channel to the northwest, the Celtic Sea to the west, and the Bristol Channel to the south. Needless to say, this makes for a surf-lovers paradise! Indeed, Pembrokeshire has 186 miles of coastline with more than 50 beaches. In 2011, National Geographic rated Pembrokeshire as having the second-best beaches in the world. (To the east, Pembrokeshire abuts the Welsh counties of Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion).
The southern half of Pembrokeshire is sometimes referred to as “Little England Beyond Wales.” The Landsker Line defines a language boundary in Pembrokeshire, with Welsh-speakers to the north and English-speakers to the south. This delineation will be invisible to most visitors as both English and Welsh are official languages of the country. About 99% of the population speaks English and about a quarter speak Welsh to varying degrees. That said, the observant traveler will pick up on the cultural differences.
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Parks and Coastal Paths Among Best Things to Do in Pembrokeshire
Pembrokeshire National Park, established in 1952, is one of Wales’ three national parks. The park has an area of 243 square miles with 186 miles of coastline. This incredible treasure has more than 40 different beaches and a diverse landscape of rocky cliffs, wooded estuaries, and wildlife.
The Pembrokeshire Coast Path was established in 1970. It has a total of 35,000 feet of ascent and descent from the high cliffs. In the care of the National Trust, Pembrokeshire National Park has received many awards and recognitions for its beautiful beaches, areas of conservation, and nature reserves.
We’ll take you to three of the attractions located within the park: the village of Tenby, and Carew Castle and Tidal Mill, and St. David’s Peninsula.
A Visit to Tenby, One of the Best Things to Do in Pembrokeshire
Tenby is a great place to base yourself for a visit to Pembrokeshire or to visit for a day. The town is beautifully situated with a naturally sheltered harbor and 2.5 miles of soft sandy beaches. It’s just a train ride away from Pembroke, Carmarthen, and Swansea, as well as within easy reach of other attractions in Pembrokeshire.
Tenby has a rich and ancient history, with many battling for control of its strategic location. First taken over by the Normans in the early 12th century, it was routinely sacked by Welsh forces in 1153, 1187, and, finally, in 1260 by the famous Llwelyn the Great. Llewelyn was King of Gwynedd in North Wales and eventually ruler of all Wales. Skilled at both warfare and diplomacy, the chieftain was a pivotal figure in Welsh history for 45 years, and continues to live on in Welsh culture.
After being conquered by Llweyln, town walls were erected in Tenby in the 13th century, which still stand today. The enclosed settlement is now known as the “old town” and is distinguished by its tall towers and gates. A large D-shaped tower called the “Five Arches” still stands today after being built in the mid 16th century.
During the late Middle Ages, Tenby served as an essential port for trading. Merchants from Bristol, Ireland, France, and Spain brought over wool, skins, canvas, coal, iron, and oil. The Portugusese even brought over the first oranges in all of Wales to Tenby in 1566!
Castle Hill And Tenby Museum and Art Gallery
Adjacent to Tenby’s harbor is Castle Hill, a large promontory that extends out into Carmarthen Bay. A fortified castle was built here in the 12th century by the Normans after their invasion of West Wales. There are minor ruins that still endure here. You can follow a path from the beach through one of the fortresses’ remaining gates and up a steep hill. At the top, you reach a grassy park where you can take a stroll where the castle walls once stood. There are terrific views of neighboring St. Catherine’s island, where a 19th-century fort is located and open to the public.
Located on Castle Hill, the Tenby Museum and Art Gallery is the oldest independent museum in Wales, and dates to 1878. The Art Gallery features stunning 19th-century pieces from Gwen and Augustus John. It also has more recent works by Elizabeth Haines or Denis Curry and kid-friendly exhibits!
- Opening hours: Closed until January 2021. Winter hours are 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, Tuesday through Saturday
- Admission fees: Adults £4.95, children are free
- Website: tenbymuseum.org.uk
Tudor Merchant’s House
The Tudor Merchants House is the oldest house still standing and was built during the 15th century. It was originally a storefront and home for a merchant and his family, who likely sold cloth, coal, spices, and vinegar. The three-story building is furnished with decorations and furniture that depict how the house looked back in the day. It even features some original wall paintings from that time! The Tudor Merchant’s House is right next to the old harbour, and easy to find thanks to good signage.
The Tudor merchant’s house offers insight into daily life five centuries ago, including leisure pastimes. One of those pursuits is Three Men’s Morris, a popular game in the Roman period and from the Middle Ages. This board game is found carved into the cloister benches of many Cathedrals, to the 17th and 18th C. In the game displayed here, players have three men each and with each turn, place them on the board trying to make a row of three, while also stopping their opponent from doing so. Rows of three may be along each side, or along the orthogonal (+) or diagonal crosses. Once all six men are on the board, players take turns to move one man each turn to an adjacent position on the board trying to make a row of three. Once one player achieves this, his opponent is reduced to two men and has lost.
While visiting, you can check out the Merchant’s Shop, or time travel by dressing in period costume. View the painted clothes depicting real-life scenes from the 15th century.
- Opening hours: Closed until November 2020. Check back soon!
- Admission fees: £6.00 for adults, £3.00 for children, and family discounts at £15.00
- Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/tudor-merchants-house
Tenby Lifeboat Station
Finally, make sure you visit the Tenby Lifeboat Station, located on the eastern harbor since 1852. It still houses a Tamar-class boat called Hadyn Miller, as well as a D-Class lifeboat called the Georgina Taylor. The need for these boats is little these days, but it’s still available for water rescues and distress calls.
- Opening hours: The station is open year round for public viewing, 8:30am to 5:30pm. The shop is open from mid-March to Christmas, everyday, 10:30am to 5:00pm
- Admission fees: Free
- Website: http://tenby-lifeboat.co.uk/
Caldey Island, One of the Best Things to do in Pembrokeshire
From Tenby, take a 2.5-mile cruise to Caldey Island, which has been a place of prayer and meditation for more than a millennium. Caldey is considered one of Britain’s holy islands, and its history reveals the ebb and flow of religious influences over time in Wales. The island’s known history dates to the 6th century A.D. when it was named Ynys Byr after the Celtic Abbot. Lore says that the Abbot was not immune to human shortcomings, and came to his end by falling into the monastery well after having too much to drink.
It’s believed that the Vikings used the island as a source of fresh water; the name Caldey is a Norse name meaning ‘Island of the Spring’. Norman Benedictine monks had a monastery here from the 12th – 15th centuries. From the mid-15th century until 1906, Caldey had a series of private owners, and then was bought by a community of Anglican Benedictines. In 1925, the island changed denominations again, and was bought by the Catholic Cistercian Order, who continue to own it today.
Caldey Island | What to See
Today, the centerpiece of the island is the abbey built by the Anglican monks at the turn of the 20th century. The complex of buildings were designed by the English architect John Coats Carter, who is known for his work restoring and creating churches in an Arts and Crafts style.
Past the current Abbey complex on the right is the Old Priory and St Illtyd’s Church, which sits on the edge of a mill pond populated by swans. The Priory was home to the Benedictine monks who lived on Caldey in medieval times. The church is still a consecrated Roman Catholic Church and has a distinctive spire, which leans at an angle. Visitors can write down their personal prayers on paper, leaving behind some of their burden in the serene Caldey Island.
Afterwards, stop by the colonial-style tea-shop on the green for some refreshments on your way to the Caldey Lighthouse, built-in 1829. When it was built in the 19th century, the lighthouse was used to guide coastal traffic involved in the trading of limestone and coal. It also identified the Bristol Channel to help sailors avoid confusion with the English Channel. Its round, limestone tower stands at 56 feet, with walls 3 feet thick at the base. The light itself stands tall at 210 feet above sea level and has been automated since 1927. While you can’t go inside the lighthouse, it’s a beautiful sight to behold on the summit of the island.
- Opening hours: From Easter to the end of October, 9:30 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday. From mid-May to mid-September the island is also open on Saturdays. Ferries run between the island and Tenby harbour every 15 minutes
- Admission fees: £14.00 for adults, £7 for children 14 and younger, and a family discount of two adults and two children for £35.00. Tickets can be purchased at the Caldey Island Kiosk at Tenby Harbour
- Website: caldeyislandwales.com
From Tenby, head to one of Wales’ beautiful castles! Just six miles inland is Carew Castle and Tidal Mill, a fascinating place to spend a few hours if you are a history or architecture buff, lover of ghost stories, or just someone who appreciates a lovely atmosphere!
The history of this castle goes back 2,000 years, with excavation evidence showing signs of life from the Iron Age, Dark Age, and a collection of Roman pottery. Constable Gerald de Windsor was the first to build a fortification here made of earth and wooden stakes. However, the current stone castle was later built by Nicholas de Carew, hence the name. Ownership of the castle was given to the National Park Authority in 1983, leading to great restoration efforts to preserve the buildings and increase public access.
Today, there are said to be many spirits roaming around the castle. From the ghosts a Celtic warrior to a kitchen boy who bangs pots and pans, Carew Castle has been the hotspot for many paranormal investigations over the years.
Perhaps the most intriguing apparitions are of Princess Nest, the most beautiful woman of Wales, and the Barbary Ape. The ghost of Nest, or the “white lady,” is said to drift from room to room, roaming the ruins in the daylight or illuminating under the full moon. On dark stormy nights, the Barbary Ape may make himself present. This creature was said to have been taken from the Barbary Coast by Sir Rowland Rees during the 17th century. He trained the ape to follow his every wish and command. Sadly, when Rees’ servants checked on him one early morning, they found him dead, with the ape never to be seen. Legend has it that the ape is still seen and heard by visitors.
Carew Castle Tidal Mill
Probably the most aesthetically pleasing attraction at Carew Castle is the Tidal Mill, one of only five in the UK, and the last restored tidal mill in Wales. Of the two mill wheels, one dates back to 1801, but there is documented evidence of the mill existing around 1542. From the time the mill was revived in the late 18th century due, it was in constant use until ceasing operations in 1937. The mill now features an exhibition with audio commentary and interactive displays showing how the Mill worked while in use.
The Mill, the castle, and a Medieval bridge with a picnic area are all placed along the path of a mile-long circular walk. Guests with disabilities are not left behind as the path is suitable for wheelchairs and buggies that can be rented. Visitors with disabilities get a 25% discount on standard day admission prices, and those in wheelchairs and one caretaker are allowed free access. Well-behaved dogs on short leads are also invited. Free parking is available in the main Castle car park and a second car park on the north side of Millpond.
- Opening hours: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, every day, year-round
- Admission fees: £6.00 for adults, £4.00 for children, and a family discount for £16.00. Tickets must be booked in advance!
- Website: pembrokeshirecoast.wales/carew-castle/
Picton Castle and Walled Garden
If you feel like making a day of exploring a couple of Pembrokeshire’s castle, head next to Picton Castle and walled gardens. Located about 20 minutes north of Carew Castle, Picton is a completely different experience and offers another window into Wales’ social history.
Rarely do we find a 13th-century castle so well maintained with a garden so diverse like we do at Picton Castle and Gardens. Originally built by a Flemish knight, this castle has been the property of many prestigious families. Sir John Wogan reconstructed parts of the building between 1295 and 1308. His design was considered unusual as there was no interior courtyard, which was a common feature of castles at the time. The main building was protected by seven tall, circular towers, and the windows were small and narrow. After it was passed onto the Dwnn family and then to the Phillips in the 1490s.
Generations of the Phillips family made alterations to the castle, including Sir John Phillips who remodeled the interior of the castle between 1749 and 1752 to create a “stately home”. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the Phillips family was known as one of the most powerful families of Wales, exerting enormous political, economical, and social influence. Picton Castle and Gardens remained in ownership by the Phillips until 1987 when Honourable Hanning Williams and his wife Lady Marion Phillips gifted the property to the Picton Castle Trust, which has maintained it since.
Visit the Gardens for Relaxation and Education
From viewing the largest and oldest trees in Wales; to centuries worth of flowers and plants from around the world; this garden is like something you’ve never seen before. The garden features an extraordinary collection of conifers, roses, a colorful Bluebell Walk, and more. It’s known as one of the most beautiful and atmospheric in Wales, and is a Royal Horticultural Society Partner Garden.
Of all the beautiful plants and wildlife seen around the castle and gardens, owls in the Welsh Owl Garden may be the most popular. Visitors have the chance to spot over 26 different species of owls and other exotic birds flying through the sky during their visit. They even have a chance to experience real handling sessions or other interactive activities! This specific garden is open daily, 10 am to 5 pm, with admission included in the garden entrance fee.
- Opening hours: Currently closed until November 2020. Check back soon! Usually, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday
- Admission fees: £6.00 for adults, £4.00 for children
- Website: pictoncastle.co.uk/get-involved/the-walled-garden-project
Marloes Sands Beach and Marloes Peninsula Coastal Walk
Everybody loves a good beach day! If you’re looking for a quiet place to relax and reflect, or if you want to release some energy climbing rocks, Marloes Sands Beach is a great place to explore for a few hours or even a whole day. Located about an hour west of Tenby, Marloes Sands Beach is almost a mile long, with many secluded areas to choose from along its golden sands. While the adults sunbathe, the kiddos can explore the many rock pools and go exploring for shrimps, starfish, crabs, and more. Remember to return all sea life and rocks back to their original resting place, of course!
Park at the National Trust car park (£3 for a half-day, £6 for a full day) and enjoy the scenic 10 to 15-minute walk down to the shore. You may pass some geologists, fossil hunters, or surfers making their way down too. Geologists aren’t the only ones fascinated by the rocky landscape. The sandstone and volcanic rocks create magnificent rock formations with jagged folds and faults that are a wonder to behold. Also on the beach are the Three Chimneys, which are three vertical lines of Silurian sandstone formed 443.8 million years ago and mudstone that is millions of years old.
Lunch and Coastal Walk
While there are 11 different restaurants within 5 miles of the beach, we highly recommend stopping for a bite to eat at Runwayskiln. Only a 9-minute walk from the beach, the traditional farm buildings of Pembrokeshire overlook Marloes Sands, with the Runwayskiln Cafe located right in the center. Eat where the Runwa family brewed Runwa’s Dale Ale with toasted barley from a kiln back in the 1500s. Within five miles of the beach is also Skomer Island and West Blockhouse, a 19th-century artillery fort still standing.
The Wales coast offers a plethora of walks with stunning scenery. A stand-out trail is the four-mile circuit around Marloes Peninsula. The trek is considered moderate and will take about two hours. Park at the Marloes Sands Beach lot and follow signs to the coastal path. From the clifftop, you’ll see the beach below to your left, but head right. The route will bring you by Gateholm Island, the site of an Iron Age fort. Continuing on, you’ll reach Martin’s Haven, where boats depart for views of Skomer Island and a great place to spot seals playing in the water. Further on, you’ll have magnificent views across St Bride’s Bay towards St David’s Peninsula.
A Visit to St. David’s, One of the Best Things to do in Pembrokeshire
St. David’s on the River Alun is situated on a peninsula that is Wales’ most westerly point. The town, which is the smallest city in the U.K., is located between the scenic coastal Whitesands Bay, considered the best surfing in Pembrokeshire, and Porthclais Harbor, a gorgeous tiny cove popular with boaters. Beyond its narrow streets lined with cafes, restaurants, hotels, art galleries, and pubs is St. David’s Cathedral, which has been drawing pilgrims for more than 800 years.
Supposedly, the Cathedral’s founder David was born in the 6th century on the top of a cliff during a fierce storm, which is today marked by the ruins of a tiny ancient chapel. During the “Age of Saints,” David was considered the most influential clergyman of Wales and founded a strict monastic brotherhood whose activities and duties included praying, cultivation of the land, beekeeping, and feeding and clothing the poor and needy. Unfortunately, the original cathedral used by St. David was a popular site for plundering by the Vikings and was fatally destroyed by fire in 1087.
The Cathedral is the fourth to occupy the site of David’s original monastery. In 1081, William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England, visited St Davids to pray and recognized the spiritual significance of the place. The Normans rebuilt the cathedral after they conquered the area in the 11th and 12th centuries. The church is strategically situated on low-lying land beyond the city (more aptly called a village), to avoid being seen by potential plunderers sailing by. Thanks to the water table of the marshy location, some of the structure has settled. If the nave pillars seem to lean at an angle, it’s not you! The architectural style of the Cathedral is Romanesque, but some features like the pointed arches reflect the transition to Gothic.
Story Behind Intriguing Tomb
If sacred architecture is not your thing, you can’t help but be intrigued by the tombs that line the cathedral’s aisles. The effigies of priests, bishops, and knights who were buried here are moving sculptures in stone that tell the story of Welsh history. One such figure is Lord Rhys, one of the most successful and powerful Welsh princes during the Norman era. Called ‘Prince of Wales’, Rhys united poets and musicians from across Wales for the first National Eisteddfod of 1176.
Ironically, Rhys died an excommunicate. His poor favor with the church was the result of a quarrel with the bishop; all over the theft of some of the bishop’s horses. As penance, Rhy’s corpse needed to undergo a ritualistic whipping before burial in the cathedral was allowed. The ornately-carved tomb dates from the 14th century, some two hundred years after his death. It makes a statement about the long memories inspired by national heroes.
The nearest railway stations to St. Davids are Fishguard and Haverfordwest, with bus services running to St. Davids and back multiple times a day. If you plan to take advantage of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, take the Puffin Shuttle around St. Brides Bay or the Strumble Shuttle which acts as a connecting point between St. Davids and Fishguard.
Finally, we have the Lovespoon Workshop, a father-son business maintaining Welsh heritage and culture from the 17th century. Father and son Kerry and Dave Thomas spend their days delicately carving lovespoons from single logs of wood. These spoons have been given as a token of love or romantic intent for centuries, and are distinctive to Wales despite other cultures taking on the practice. Located close to the seaside resort of Tenby in Pembrokeshire, this small shop has hundreds of spoons decorating the wall, with one made specifically for the Thomas family every year since 1969.
Speak with Kerry and Thomas to learn more about the tradition and to see the exquisite attention to detail these carvings take. Within all lovespoons is a message whether it’s a family name, a place of birth, or a personally meaningful symbol, almost anything can be carved into these spoons. Some common symbols that have been seen in more recent years are anchors, which can be interpreted as meaning stability and putting down your roots. While many of the traditional symbols and spoons have more nautical designs, other symbols like the Celtic knot are meaningful to the people of Wales as they come from Celtic heritage. Dragons and daffodils are also popular, meaning something different to each and every recipient.
Of all the beautiful lovespoons adorning these workshop walls, probably the most notable is the longest lovespoon in the entire world at 27 feet, taking 300 hours of man labor. Even at this great length, the gigantic wooden spoon was still carved from the same piece of wood. The Lovespoon Workshop operates as an “eco-business,” as they continuously use recycled materials and have recently planted more than 100 trees to give back to the environment that they have taken.
Pembrokeshire is full of castles, beaches, and traditions that all tell a story in themselves. This county of Wales has a rich, diverse history and continuing culture that you could explore for a lifetime. The locales in this guide are ones that are sure to create happy memories. If you’ve been to Pembrokeshire, share a tip for future travelers in the comments below. If you are just beginning to plan your trip here, feel free to ask a question!
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Reporting by Hannah Haslam, a senior at Endicott College who is currently interning with Best Cultural Destinations. As a major in Communications, she enjoys all forms of expression and creativity, including content creation, social media marketing, storytelling, writing, and video production.