Cardiff Cafes: Exploring Wales on a Rainy Day
When the Weather Turns: An Indie Coffee Crawl Around Cardiff, Wales
By Dana Armstrong
It came out of nowhere: a torrent of sideways rain punctuated with hail the diameter of a pound coin. Then, minutes later, pure sunshine and rainbows—no kidding.
Thankfully, Cardiff, Wales’s temperamental weather doesn’t seem so scary behind the window of a coffee shop. A steaming, fruity and lightly floral Ethiopian pour-over kept me and a friend company in the sudden storm.
It was served in a wood-fired, earthenware mug. All of the shop’s ceramics are created by Micki Schloessingk, a potter who resides in South Wales.
Shelter from the Storm
Lufkin Coffee in Pontcanna’s tucked away King’s Road Yard sheltered us from the storm that afternoon. Its fairly remote location, an alleyway in a primarily residential area west of Bute Park, is easily overlooked by tourists.
Therefore, it provides a small-town oasis within the larger city of Cardiff.
At the time of my adventure, January to March 2020, I was a college junior from a small, rural town in Virginia studying abroad for the spring semester at Cardiff University.
Oblivious to the much larger storm that awaited me (in the form of a pandemic), I started to feel a homely familiarity to Cardiff within this little coffee shop.
We learned from the barista that, on Saturdays, the little yard hosts a farmer’s market from 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with organic fruits, vegetables, meats, and sourdough from Welsh farmers.
The other independently-owned businesses in the yard are Pipes micro-brewery and the Lazy Leek, a vegan takeaway stand.
After the five-minute weather tantrum, we proceeded as planned to enjoy an afternoon in nearby Thompson’s Park.
When it rains…
Cardiff is Wales’s capital city and is located in the southwest portion of the U.K. alongside the Bristol Channel. Its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and its unfortunate placement under a jet stream makes it prone to an average rainfall of 39 inches per year.
Moaning about the rain is practically a pastime for Welsh locals. But prospective visitors don’t have to let the rain dampen their adventures in the city.
I found to make the most of my time exploring Cardiff’s castles, arcades, waterfront, and parks, it was best to invest in some good quality rain gear and have a list of places to duck into when the weather strikes.
Second to Cardiff’s myriad of red dragon flag-flying pubs, the city boasts an array of independently-owned coffee shops — perfect for an ex-barista and aspiring coffee snob like me.
A 2020 study ranked Cardiff seventh among a list of twenty U.K. towns and cities that consume the most coffee. No matter what part of Cardiff I was exploring, I always made it my mission to find all the best coffee shops in which to weather a five-minute storm.
The City of Arcades
Like many tourists, my beginning of the semester adventures in Cardiff began with exploring the City Center. Cardiff is nicknamed the City of Arcades for its numerous covered Victorian-style alleyways lined with shops.
The City Center contains the bulk of these arcades along with the Cardiff Central Market. This market, established in 1891, is filled with fresh produce, meats, baked goods (including Welsh cakes), flower arrangements, and other odds and ends. On its upper story, you can pick out vintage tunes from Kellys Records — in business since 1969.
On rugby match days, the City Center’s streets bustle with children and grown men alike in polyester daffodil hats on their way to the Principality Stadium. I was tempted to purchase a daffodil hat of my own from a street vendor but wisely decided to preserve suitcase space.
But the real draw of the City Center is its walled castle. Cardiff Castle dates back as far as the 1st century when it was a Roman keep. Over its 2000-year history, the castle endured many transformations.
In the 11th century, Norman invaders crafted its signature motte and bailey. During World War II, Cardiffians used the castle as an air-raid shelter.
Today, visitors can learn more about the castle’s history on a self-guided audio tour (opening times and ticket prices here). If you’re lucky, you might be able to catch a concert or movie showing on the grounds.
Even better, you can attend Tafwyl, the two-day festival celebrating the Welsh language and culture that takes place annually anywhere from May to July.
Where to go when it rains in Cardiff:
The builders of Cardiff’s City Center must have kept the rain in mind. All of the covered arcades provide welcome shelter from the sudden winds and rains. The arcades house numerous indie coffee shops — and some even provide heated lamps to keep their customers warm.
The hip atmosphere of Uncommon Ground makes it a gathering place for many of the students studying at Cardiff’s four universities, including my study abroad friend group. It features a mismatch of chairs, trendy exposed brick, and bottomless vintage tea kettles repurposed as lampshades.
The two brothers who own the business roast their own coffee beans in a separate facility in Cardiff. It’s hard to get more local than that. Find their shop in the middle of the Royal Arcade for a well-priced £2-3 pour over.
Aptly named, Corner Coffee occupies the corner of the High Street Arcade. The shop prides itself on its sustainability with biodegradable takeout cups and vegan options. The multitude of hanging and potted plants within contributes to the clean and green aesthetic.
Practically a stone’s throw away from Cardiff Castle, its location is ideal for a speedy duck and cover from the rain. It’s a pricier choice, but many locals claim it as having the best coffee in Cardiff. Fortunately for me, they satisfied my chai tea latte craving just as well.
Bonus option: The Keep Terrace
The Keep Terrace isn’t an independent shop. However, it’s hard to resist the temptation to enjoy your cuppa within the walls of a castle. If you bypass the tourist desk and gift shop within Cardiff Castle, you can dine there without paying an entry fee.
The Terrace offers everything from espresso drinks and draft beer to cakes and full meals. On drier days, you can eat and drink at the castle green’s (called the Public Square) newest addition: socially distanced tables.
Mermaid’s Quay at Cardiff Bay
It would be a mistake to miss out on Cardiff’s most substantial renovation.
Once part of Cardiff’s red-light district, the area underwent a significant transformation in the late 90s. Developers renamed what was then called “Butetown,” “the Docks,” or “Tiger Bay” to Cardiff Bay in hopes that it would become a world-class waterfront attraction.
Some argue that the revitalization highlights a darker aspect of history: gentrification and the displacement of Cardiff’s most racially and ethnically diverse communities. (More on that history in this insightful Twitter thread.)
While it’s important to keep this history in mind while visiting the area, you should still enjoy the artistic and recreational activities the Bay has to offer.
Arts enthusiasts can enjoy plays and concerts from the golden-plated Wales Millennium Centre or browse paintings, jewelry, and other crafts from Welsh artists in the Makers Guild Wales. Television and literature buffs will appreciate Ianto’s Shrine (for the beloved Dr. Who character) and Roald Dahl Plass (dedicated to the Cardiff-born children’s novelist) in Mermaid’s Quay.
The terracotta-colored Pierhead building contains the Welsh Museum and part of the Welsh parliament, or “Senedd Cymru” in Welsh. There, free audio-visual renderings take you through the history of Cardiff and Wales.
In the summer, the Bay transforms Roald Dahl Plass into a sandy beach complete with a merry-go-round, bumper cars, and a ferris wheel. You can finish off the day with a scenic boat tour departing from Mermaid’s Quay.
Where to go when it rains in Cardiff
The window-lined Coffi Co shop, converted from an old storage unit, juts out over the Bay. This provides gorgeous waterfront views for a mid-range priced cuppa. Their specialty candy-inspired lattes and hot chocolates, such as hazelnut Bueno, mint Aero, or chocolate orange, may just convince you to become a “#coffihead.”
The classy chandeliers and hanging greenery inside are sure to brighten up any outdoor downpour. This is an especially gorgeous location to enjoy at sunset.
Bonus option: Cadwaladers
Cadwaladers is a larger, family-owned and operated chain that originated from Gwynedd in northern Wales. It blends the coffee shop and ice cream parlor into one scrumptious experience. They pride themselves on their original and decadent Welsh vanilla ice cream.
Fancy an ice cream latte or affogato? Or, perhaps, a couple scoops of sticky toffee pudding ice cream? They have seven locations around Wales, including the one in Mermaid’s Quay, and one shop in Staffordshire, England.
Rowdy Cathays and Roath
Cathays serves as the hub for Cardiff University’s student housing. The shops and eateries cater to a more youthful, dare we say reckless, audience. If you want to avoid drunken teenage revelry and shattered glass during a late-night stroll, perhaps opt for a different part of Cardiff.
One lesser-frequented but fascinating spot is Cathays Cemetery to the north. The 110-acre cemetery is the third largest in the U.K. It’s free to visit and worth a wander. Some of the stone graves date as far back as the 1850s. The grandiose Protestant chapels at the front of the cemetery are currently undergoing restorations.
Also in the area is Roath Park – a favorite among dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, horse riders, fishermen, garden enthusiasts, and anyone who likes to people-watch on public benches.
The park features a 30-acre wide lake and a wealth of picturesque outdoor gardens and hiking trails, ranging from one to ten miles long. Boats and tennis courts can be rented out for a small fee.
For the rainy moments, you can opt for a self-guided tour in the indoor botanical garden with tropical plants and fish.
More Great Cardiff Cafes
Terra Nova is named after the ill-fated Antarctic-bound ship once captained by Royal Navy officer Robert Falcon Scott. The café provides one of the most scenic views of the memorial to Captain Scott and his crew on Roath Park Lake.
Terra Nova serves up espresso drinks, full meals, and a wide variety of baked goods. More recently, it has started serving takeout fire-roasted pizzas from its new pizza oven. The walls that aren’t lined with windows are filled with purchasable art from local artists.
A favorite study hangout for Cardiff University students, Metchy’s Café is a spacious shop with very affordable and tasty coffee. The owner, Mehmet Unvar, is a Turkish immigrant who brought his passion for good food and coffee to the Welsh capital.
The café’s cushioned benches and complimentary wi-fi make it a perfect spot to linger in for a longer rain shower. Best of all, you can while away the time indulging in the Turkish fare and muffin flavor of the day.
For my friends and I, Metchy’s was the spot where we booked an Italian tour for our spring break that never was.
The Early Bird
If you’re ever in the mood for a scrumptious cinnamon roll the size of your head, The Early Bird is the place to go. Though the actual shop’s interior can get a bit cramped, the covered back terrace is a lovely space to enjoy a cappuccino and brunch.
They serve multiple adaptations of an English breakfast, a hearty meal sure to warm you up in even the dreariest moments of wet Cardiff weather. Those, or the moments of planning for an early escape back to your home country during the beginnings of a pandemic.
The Welsh language has a beautiful word that is not easily translated in English: hiraeth. It represents a deeper form of homesickness, not necessarily for a physical hometown or house, but a nostalgia for a place, time, or person to which you can never return.
For me, hiraeth is the Cardiff I knew from January to March 2020 – the one in which studying and sipping a latte in a coffee shop shared with mask-less friends and strangers didn’t feel like such a luxury.
It’s a Cardiff I hope myself and other travelers will have the opportunity to experience again soon, for this lesser-known U.K. capital has so much to offer.
Dana Armstrong is a travel, arts, and culture writer based in Virginia. Her work has been published by the Pulitzer Center, where she was a 2021 Reporting Fellow, the independent zine Everything But…, and her home county’s local newspaper. She studied journalism and dance at William & Mary and received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 2021. When not writing or traveling, she works at a family-owned bakery and teaches dance.