Tell a Londoner you are heading to Cardiff for the weekend and the response will probably be a quizzically arched eyebrow. The Welsh capital, which was largely built during Britain's 19th-century coal boom, isn't generally considered one of the country's most attractive cities. But times are changing. Major regeneration projects since the 1990s -- a new performing arts center, a revamped waterfront and a 74,000-seat stadium, to name a few -- have given the city a fresh face. Don't worry, though, Cardiff still has its edge: the punk rock scene is as vibrant as ever, and Welsh rugby fans have never cheered louder.
3 p.m.1. Welsh Politics
Wales is very much a part of Britain, but a 1997 referendum gave the Welsh people the right to make their own laws on a specific range of topics, a power that Wales had not held since the 13th century. The new Welsh National Assembly needed a home, so the government brought in Richard Rogers, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect (along with Renzo Piano) behind the Pompidou Center in Paris. The resulting structure, known as the Senedd, is shaped like an enormous glass-enclosed tree, with the assembly chamber located at the roots. Free tours are available several times a day, led by guides who are brimming with information on Welsh politics and history.
4:30 p.m.2. A Waterfront Wander
Today, Cardiff's harbor is a polished little district filled with busy restaurants, bars and boutiques, but it hasn't always been so charming. A century ago, this was one of the busiest ports in the world, with a peak of 12 million tons of coal leaving the harbor in 1913. The harbormasters managed the comings and goings of all of those ships from their offices inside the Pierhead, a building on the edge of the water that looks like a smaller, red-brick version of Big Ben in London. Today, the Pierhead houses a small exhibition that describes how coal transformed the city during the 19th century: Cardiff's population grew more than 25-fold in 100 years, all thanks to the sooty stuff from the valleys around South Wales. A stone's throw from the Pierhead, the Open Boat tour company offers 20-minute spins around the harbor for £3 a person (or $4.70 at $1.55 to the pound); theopenboat.co.uk.
6 p.m.3. Harbor Dinner
Most of the dining options in the restyled waterfront, which has been called Mermaid Quay, are upmarket British chains, but there are a couple of local gems in the mix. One of them is Bosphorus, a popular Turkish restaurant that's perched on a small jetty. Try the hunkar begendi, lamb served with smoky eggplant purée (£11.50), and end with apricots stuffed with fresh cream (£2.95).
8 p.m.4. Catch a Show
Round out your night on the waterfront by strolling over to the bulbous copper wedge of the Wales Millennium Center, a landmark performing arts space that opened in 2004. The Millennium Center is the home of the Welsh National Opera, but it also hosts ballets, concerts and musicals from London's West End. For lighter fare, test your understanding of British humor (and Welsh accents) at the Glee Club, also on the waterfront. The club offers stand-up comedy shows every Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
9 a.m.5. Hipster Coffee
Scrambled duck eggs, bacon sandwiches and excellent coffee are all on the menu at the trendy Coffee Barker, a popular cafe that sits inside one of Cardiff's several Victorian-era shopping arcades. Join the customers lounging in low-slung leather chairs as the pierced and tattooed staff members work the espresso machine behind the counter. The Plan, a small and stylish cafe in the nearby Morgan Arcade, is another good choice for breakfast.
10 a.m.6. Cardiff Castle
Get a broad-brush introduction to Welsh history at Cardiff Castle, a site that combines Roman ruins, an 11th-century castle keep and an ornate, neo-Gothic clock tower built at the height of Cardiff's coal boom. Climb to the top of the keep -- which was thought to have been built by Robert Fitzhamon, a Norman baron -- for a view over the city and the green hills beyond. In the basement of the interpretation center, a small museum offers an engaging account of more than 300 years of Welsh military history, covering the American Revolutionary War (and even earlier) through to more recent battles with the Taliban. Look out for the tattered American flag that United States troops surrendered to a regiment of Welsh soldiers at Fort Detroit during the War of 1812.
1 p.m.7. Italian Lunch Stop
There are plenty of delis and fast-food joints in central Cardiff, but if you feel like lingering over a sit-down lunch, then make your way to Café Citta, a couple of blocks from Cardiff Castle. This cozy little cupboard of a restaurant is so Italian that you might need the help of a translator to place your order; the food, however, speaks for itself. Try the tagliatelle funghi e gamberetti (£9.50), or the house special pizza Citta (£8.90), with Parma ham, rocket and shavings of Parmesan.
3 p.m.8. Shopping, Victorian Style
Cardiff has a number of glass-covered shopping arcades that were built during the coal bonanza under the reign of Queen Victoria. One and a half centuries later, the arcades are still buzzing with shoppers on the hunt for everything from cheap screwdrivers to local artwork to high-end olive oil. The Cardiff Central Market is well loved by locals, with its candy shops, fishmonger's stand and stalls piled high with fresh produce. Inside the Morgan Arcade you can find Spillers Records, which has been selling music since 1894, albeit not always in this location; the owners claim it is the oldest record shop in the world.
5 p.m.9. Rugby or Rihanna
The Millennium Stadium, opened in 1999, occupies a hefty chunk of central Cardiff, sitting just a few hundred yards from the main train station. It's an appropriate setting given that the stadium's principal function -- hosting rugby matches -- is a Welsh obsession. The stadium is also a major venue for the likes of U2, Bruce Springsteen and Rihanna. Tours (£9.50; 75 minutes) offer an insider's look at the sport that makes the Welsh world go 'round.
8 p.m.10. The Potted Pig
Cardiff, alas, is not renowned for fine dining, but there are a few places worth seeking out. One celebrated newcomer is the Potted Pig, a self-styled British-meets-French dining spot that opened in 2011. Situated inside a former bank vault, the restaurant aims for factory-chic -- think low lighting and exposed brick walls -- and pulls it off beautifully. Try the roasted duck breast (£20) or the aged, charcoal-grilled steak (starting at £16), both sourced from local farms. The restaurant also offers a diverse selection of gins, from fruity to spicy to the classic London dry (starting at £3). With three brands of tonic on offer, you can match your mixer perfectly.
10 p.m.11. Punk Rock
Explore the Cardiff music scene, starting near the city center, at Gwdihw, which is pronounced (roughly) GOOD-ee-hew. Watching a band perform in this tiny, lively space feels a bit like sitting in on a jam session in a hip friend's living room, but with local microbrews on tap. Punk rock is a staple, but depending on the night, you might stumble into a folk, reggae or funk performance. Gwdihw pulls in a good crowd through the week, so be ready for a packed house on a Saturday night. Other spots that attract an enthusiastic local following include Ten Feet Tall and the Moon Club.
10 a.m.12. Market and Picnic
Follow the locals and start your Sunday morning at the Riverside Market (Sundays only, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.), where you can find some of the best food from around South Wales: produce, baked goods, cured meats, cheeses and homemade jams and chutneys. If you're in the mood for some hot street food, look out for vendors selling curries, crepes and venison sausages. Take your pick, then wander the half-mile or so over to Bute Park, where you can picnic along the banks of the River Taff. The leafy 146-acre park has an arboretum, a nature trail and several flower gardens.
1 p.m.13. National Museum Cardiff
Moderately sized, but with an eclectic mix of art, science and historical artifacts on display, the National Museum Cardiff proves that this small nation of three million people has quite a few treasures to be proud of. To mark the centenary of the birth of Wales's own Dylan Thomas, the museum will host a temporary exhibition showcasing a series of drawings and paintings by the artist Peter Blake that illustrate Thomas's famous radio play, "Under Milk Wood." The exhibition will run from Nov. 23 to March 16. Wander down to the museum's ground floor to work your way through an engaging exhibition on the history of human settlement in Wales, complete with gold jewelry that dates from the Bronze Age and pottery that was left behind by the Romans. The displays on Welsh geology, flora and fauna are also worth exploring.
1. The Senedd, Cardiff Bay; assemblywales.org/visiting/senedd.
2. The Pierhead, Cardiff Bay; pierhead.org.
3. Bosphorus, 31 Mermaid Quay; bosphorus.co.uk.
4. Wales Millennium Center, wmc.org.uk; Bute Place, Cardiff Bay. The Glee Club, Mermaid Quay, glee.co.uk/cardiff.
5. Coffee Barker, 13 Castle Arcade. The Plan, 28-29 Morgan Arcade, (44-29) 2039-8764.
6. Cardiff Castle, Castle Street; www.cardiffcastle.com.
7. Café Citta, 4 Church Street; (44-29) 2022-4040.
8. The Cardiff Central Market, St. Mary Street; cardiff-market.co.uk. Spillers Records; spillersrecords.co.uk.
9. The Millennium Stadium, Westgate Street; millenniumstadium.com.
10. The Potted Pig, 27 High Street; thepottedpig.com.
11. Gwdihw, 6 Guildford Crescent; gwdihw.co.uk. Ten Feet Tall, 11A-12 Church Street; 10feettallcardiff.com. The Moon Club, Womanby Street; themoonclub.net.
12. Riverside Market, Fitzhamon Embankment; riversidemarket.org.uk. Bute Park.
13. National Museum Cardiff, Cathays Park; www.museumwales.ac.uk/cy/cardiff.
WHERE TO STAY
Jolyons Boutique Hotel (jolyons.co.uk), which sits in Cardiff Bay just across from the Millennium Center, offers seven rooms starting at £71 per night.
A Space in the City (aspaceinthecity.co.uk) rents out apartments along the waterfront and in central Cardiff. One-bedroom apartments start at £60 per night; there is a two-night minimum.
Riverhouse Backpackers (riverhousebackpackers.com) is a friendly, well-kept hostel on the banks of the River Taff, across from the Millennium Stadium. A single bed in a tidy dorm room starts at £16 per night; private rooms for two people are available starting at £38 per night.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 19, 2013 2:00 PM