The Vale of Llangollen is a land of legends, Welsh princes and medieval churches. At the ‘Gateway of Wales’, Welsh history seamlessness blends with a cosmopolitan outlook and strong community bonds in a riverside setting.
You’ll find the narrowest stretch of the Dee Valley that carves through a UNESCO world heritage landscape. This geographical setting is considered of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ by UNESCO and includes eleven miles of canal from Gledrid, to the Horseshoe Falls via the remarkable Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
This intriguing valley is dotted with historical and religious remnants including a weighty Gothic bridge, Cistercian abbeys and the medieval ruins of Castell Dinas Bran.
The charming town of Llangollen is at the heart of the valley and is best known as the festival capital of Wales and plays host to the annual international Music Eisteddfod. Llangollen readily embraces the many oddities of festival culture and its enthusiasts. It’s not unusual to come across quilted bridges, bellowing town criers and feather bower clad ladies on stilts.
It’s a destination best suited for hikers and heritage enthusiasts, given its proximity to historical canals and rail and the long-distance Offa’s Dyke path.
Also read: Rail adventure in North Wales
There’s also plenty of culture, boutique shopping and classy accommodation. Despite drawing visitors for centuries, the Vale of Llangollen is a tourist favourite that still manages to feel undiscovered.
Pretty Llangollen has modern and historic hotels, B&Bs and even a 16th-century drovers inn where you can enjoy a restful night. Further afield lie a range of luxury properties that are within easy access of the valley.
The neaby 5-star Chester Grosvenor Hotel offers a stylish stay with individually decorated rooms, spa facilities and a Michelin-starred restaurant and hatted doormen. Dating back to 1865, the Chester Grosvenor is a historic and luxuriously appointed hotel with muted yet taste tones of ivory, champagne, and gold and a grand column façade.
Another opulent stay within reach of Llangollen is the distinctive 18 bedroom Pale Hall, a historic country home that has been expertly transformed into a luxury destination hotel with fine dining.
This picturesque part of Wales has plenty of options for hungry visitors. From country pubs and cafes to fancy wine bars, there’s something to suit all budgets.
As many travellers know, Wales is famed for its homegrown Welsh lamb and Welsh Black beef, and luckily Llangollen is surrounded by farms, where sheep and cattle graze.
Just down the road they even have an organic farm which rears bison. This means that many establishments serve local food where possible. Many Welsh artisans in the area produce traditional food and drink, such as beer, cider, Welsh cakes and bara brith.
Diners should try The West Arms, a quintessentially British pub with a creative menu that features local produce. Gales Wine Bar & Hotel is a superb place for a tipple or three in their impressive wood-panelled wine bar. They also serve a range of seasonal dishes featuring fresh local produce and delicacies.
For homemade country fayre and afternoon tea, head to Cottage Tearooms. Sitting in a natural courtyard, located under 100m from the iconic landmark of Llangollen Bridge, the tearooms are a popular place for cream tea in a historic setting.
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Horseshoe falls
UNESCO made the eleven miles of canal from Chirk Bank to splendid Horseshoe Falls a World Heritage site in 2009 for its engineering features and historical operation. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a must-visit civil engineering destination and is one of the more astonishing achievements of the industrial revolution.
At 38 metres over the Dee Valley, it’s also the highest navigable aqueduct in the world and the oldest in Britain. Designed and built by Thomas Telford and Williams Jessop, it’s still in use over 200 years after construction began.
It is a seemingly impossible canal spectacle. There are 18 arched stone pillars that support deep cast-iron troughs filled with water, forming a River in the Sky that can be accessed by foot or by boat.
There are several companies in the area that offer boat trips or hire canal boats for you to travel along the canal and across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in style.
At the southern edge of Llangollen is the medieval, chocolate box house of Plas Newydd, where the iconic ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ lived. Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler escaped from their aristocratic families in Ireland in 1780 and began a bohemian lifestyle together away from the rather dull constraints of societal norms, instead choosing to embrace intellectual curiosities.
The pair were the embodiment of endearing and mildly eccentric co-dependency, scandalising rural society by sharing a bed, dressing in top hats and men’s clothing and decorating their abode in gothic chic. Notable visitors to the cosmopolitan residence include Robert Southee, William Wordsworth, and statesmen like the Duke of Wellington.
Today the house and manicured gardens serve as an unlikely tourist attraction and now a quaint museum for visitors. Its grandiose and non-conformist quality beautifully sets the tone for the town’s free-spirited and rather accepting nature.
White water rafting on the River Dee
With rugged mountain peaks, rocky coastlines and some of the best rivers in the UK to raft on, it’s easy to see why North Wales is known as the adventure capital.
Take a guided rafting trip down the lengthy River Dee in Llangollen and experience the adrenaline of paddling against the surging rapids, ranging from grades 2-4. Locally, these rapid sections are known as Serpents Tail, Tombstones and the classic Town Falls and are best navigated with qualified guides on an organised adventure activity.
Enjoy scenic valley views as you crash through fast-flowing waves, sail through the shallows and plunge into deep pools on a river that shifts between turbulent and tranquil.
Llangollen Railway is the only standard gauge heritage railway in North Wales, taking visitors on a vintage voyage through captivating scenery. Board a 1950’s carriage being hauled by a classic steam engine and enjoy a spot of nostalgia as the train follows the river and climbs the curves of a lush, green landscape.
The line is a labour of love as rail enthusiasts have been meticulously rebuilding and restoring 10 miles of neglected lines and stations between Llangollen and Corwen, for over 45 years. The result is a splendid community asset that makes for a unique family day out on the rails in Wales.
Offa’s Dyke Path
The most dramatic section of the 177-mile Offa’s Dyke path passes through the Vale of Llangollen with shorter sections also available for keen hikers visiting the area. Local legends suggest that it was built by a medieval king as a show of strength to intimidate his adversaries.
Alongside its mythical qualities, the path takes in some of Wales’ most impressive landscapes and historic castles as it loosely follows the Welsh and English boundary.
Day hikers can attempt the 13-mile-long Llangollen to Llandegla section to see highlights of the Llangollen Canal, Castell Dinas Bran and UNESCO landscapes.