Historic Aberystwyth – the unofficial capital of Wales

Aberystwyth is a vibrant seaside town located on the west coast of Wales. The unofficial capital of Mid Wales, this small town makes up for its size – only amassing 10,000 permanent residents – with its intriguing past and prominent attractions.


Aberystwyth has a rich history, dating back to 700 BC. You can trace the footsteps of time with a short hike up Pen Dinas hill to the remains of a Celtic fortress. You will probably spot it whilst approaching from the South.

There are little pockets of history all around town, from the bloody history of the Aberystwyth castle ruins to the fusion of gothic, classical revival and Victorian architecture that makes up the train station. You might notice the interesting names of some roads; many of these road names date back to the Middle Ages.

The town is a historical gem of Wales.

Photo: Courtesy of Clare Cottage

The two main beaches of Aberystwyth

This old-school seaside town has two large crescent-shaped beaches. The North Beach is the most popular, a mixture of sand and shingle; the area is lively with retro arcades, many food spots and a long promenade lined with colourful buildings.
The pebbled South Beach is much quieter in comparison, although it still has a great atmosphere and is only a short walk away from a quaint harbour.

These two beaches are separated by the ruins of Aberystwyth Castle.

Aberystwyth Castle

Elaine Delworth Photographs
Photo: Courtesy of Elaine Delworth Photographs

Aberystwyth castle tops the list of fascinating sites in this town.

The castle was constructed by King Edward I of England, who wanted to establish his authority in Wales; this was part of his campaign against the Welsh. It became a pawn in the ongoing Wales-English conflict throughout history and was the target of constant sieges and ransacking.

In 1649, Oliver Cromwell himself tried to destroy the castle.

Tourism has since breathed life back into the old ruins, becoming a local attraction and a unique public park; you can picnic amongst centuries-old ruins whilst catching glimpses of Snowdon in the distance.

The Seafront

The promenade stretches a mile from Constitution Hill to the harbour further south.
The buildings have the postcard-worthy beauty of a typical seaside town: buildings that cheerfully clash in colours, with pops of Georgian and Victorian character seen in the bow windows and elegant architecture.

The Royal Pier

Aberystwyth pier
Photo: Courtesy of Clare Cottage

One of the highlights of the seafront – and another tourist attraction – is the Royal Pier. At 242 metres long, it was opened in 1865 and was the first amusement pier in Wales. However, violent storms led to damage and, in turn, the shortening of the Pier by the following year.

The town

Further inland, the town boasts an impressive collection of coffee shops, restaurants and independent shops. It’s no wonder, as it is one of the largest towns in mid-Wales – the unofficial capital. Whether you’re in the mood to dress up for a fancy cream tea, or just want to pop around for a pint from a local country inn, Aberystwyth has it all. In fact, there are an exceptional number of pubs, over 50 crammed into only one mile of space. There are also the average seaside amenities; ice cream stalls and fish-and-chip shops are plentiful.

A few streets back from the seafront, Great Darkgate Street has the majority of shops – both chain and independent. The local independent shops are unique and give this otherwise average shopping street a burst of character.

The Bookshop by the Sea and Ystwyth books are charming little bookstores worth exploring; You can also spend a couple of hours rummaging through coastal antiques only a street away.

There is also a local farmer’s market which is regarded as one of the best in the country. It is held every other Saturday, usually on the first or third Saturday of each month.

Aberystwyth university

Despite all its attractions, Aberystwyth is a relatively small town, with a population of only around 18,000. However, during the school year, the population increases to almost 30,000, making it a true student town. In fact, the first University of Wales was established here in 1872.

The beautiful buildings that make up the campus have become quite the attraction. The old College of Aberystwyth University is a Grade I listed building, with its iconic gothic revival architecture complimenting the nearby castle ruins.

It was originally built in 1795 as a hotel but, following bankruptcy, it became a university in 1872. It was the main campus for almost 100 years, before the new campus was built on Penglais Hill.

A city of art and culture

Being a university town, Aberystwyth is a melting pot of culture and a hub of education. The National Library of Wales is located here, with over 5 million books; the library also contains the smallest book in the world. This imposing building has an incredible view of the town, countered only by the Arts Centre a little further up the hill.

Close to North beach, the Amgueddfa Ceredigion Museum showcases the local history and is worth a visit.

Constitution Hill

Constitutional Hill (Craig-Glais in Welsh) also provides spectacular views of the whole town.
You can reach the peak either on foot, following a staircase that ascends for around 25 minutes, or via the longest funicular railway (until recently at least) in Britain – the Aberystwyth Cliff Railway.

This 778-feet long railway, built and opened on August 1st 1896, provides panoramic views up the hill during the summer months. It also operates between November and March but on a reduced timetable.

The view isn’t the only attraction of Constitution hill; there is bowling and golf, footpaths, a cafe and a beer garden with spectacular views over Cardigan Bay. It is worth making a trip up the hill for sunset.

Aberystwyth cliff railway
Photo: Courtesy of Clare Cottage

The Camera obscura

At the top of Constitution Hill, there is a camera obscura. The original was the first of its kind, built in 1880, and was quite the tourist attraction in Victorian times. It is currently the world’s largest camera obscura, providing a 360-degree view of wider Aberystwyth and the surrounding countryside.

This faithful replica draws tourism during the summer months.

Other ways to take in the views

Aberystwyth is set against the backdrop of the beautiful Welsh countryside, and there are many footpaths you can follow to take in the views.

The 870-mile Wales Coast Path is one such route that follows the entire coastline of Wales.

The town’s location on Cardigan Bay means that there is a huge variety of wildlife, including bottlenose dolphins that can be spotted by boat – there are many boat trips available.

Whether you decide to retrace history and explore the castle ruins, take a stroll along the promenade or relax on the beach, Aberystwyth has a little bit of everything.

Cover photo: Gjt6, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons