With its cathedral built on the site of a monastery, Britain's smallest city has long been a religious centre. But there's plenty here for non-believers, too, says Nerys Lloyd-Pierce
uring the Middle Ages, the Pope decreed that two visits to St David's were equal to one to Rome, and three visits on a par with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Although people still flock to Britain's smallest city to visit its impressive cathedral, the place has plenty of secular attractions for the ungodly, not least the doll's-house-sized cottages and narrow back streets, as well as its glorious front garden - the Pembrokeshire Coastal National Park, its cliffs and beaches having evaded the developer's hand.

A lively surfing community helps funk up the atmosphere in summer, as do the colourful surf shops bedecked with kites; the city has as many galleries as it has pubs, and its artistic community has been compared to that of Cornwall in the 1930s.

Getting there

St David's may be somewhat out on a limb, but that is part of its appeal. Trains leave from London Paddington on the hour (change at Swansea). Information on local train times is available from The South Wales and West Railway Enquiry Line (tel: 0345 484950). The nearest railway stations to St David's are at Haverfordwest (16 miles) and Fishguard (15 miles).

There are coach services from London and Birmingham, with other services from Heathrow and Gatwick. Call National Express (tel: 0990 808080). The nearest airport with scheduled flights is Cardiff International. (tel: 01446 711111). For information on local bus services, call the local council (tel: 01437 764551, ext 5227).

What to see and do

Cosily situated in a sheltered hollow, St David's Cathedral (tel: 01437 7201392) was built in Norman times on the site of the Welsh patron saint's monastic settlement. St David is said to be responsible for adopting the leek as the country's national emblem.

The attractive ruins of the Bishop's Palace (tel: 01437 720517) lie next to the cathedral. Ornate architectural styles, a vast great hall and colossal vaults for storing food and wine confirm that the bishops didn't stint on comfort.

The city has many art galleries. A host of different painting styles depict the region's dramatic maritime scenery.

St David's Exhibition, New Street (tel: 01437 720185) is a friendly gallery featuring work by Tony Kitchell and other artists, alongside ceramics by his brother Tim. The Gallery, Peter's Lane (tel: 01437 720570). Inspired by the wild beauty of the Celtic seaboard, artist John Rogers has worked in Ireland, Brittany and the Hebrides. Open from Easter. Albion Gallery, Nun Street. (tel: 01437 720120). Run by Anne and David Dixon, David's mixed-media interpretations of the local landscape emphasise the effects of the light on colour. The Studio Gallery, 28 High Street (tel: 01437 721920). Represents four artists, including Stan Rosenthal, whose styles include wildly colourful abstracts.

If you have children you might like to visit the Oceanarium, 42 New Street (tel: 01437 720453). The emphasis is on learning through fun, but without any gimmicks. Adults pounds 3, children pounds 1.80, family ticket pounds 9.

Thousand Island Expeditions, Cross Square (tel: 01437 7216 86) runs high-adrenaline trips to the notorious "Bitches" rapids in Ramsey Sound. As you will be travelling through the strongest tides in Britain, it's comforting to know that the craft is unsinkable. The trip costs pounds 20 and is unsuitable for children. Voyages of Discovery, High Street (tel: 014137 721911) will take you out to explore the cliffs and caves around Ramsey Island. The island is teeming with bird and marine life. Adults pounds 12, children pounds 7. From 1 April to 31 October.

Out of town

There is plenty to do within spitting distance of St David's. If you fancy a stroll before lunch, you can take yourself off to Porthclais. This inlet is characterised by dome-shaped limekilns along the grassy quayside. Designated as ancient monuments, these kilns were used to burn lime for spreading on Pembrokeshire's highly acidic soil.

Skomer Island (tel: 01437 765462; or: 01646 601636) is home to the world's largest colony of Manx shearwaters; it is worth staying overnight to hear their cacophonous screechings. On a day-trip you are likely to see, at close quarters, puffins, razor-bills, fulmar and guillemots, and you stand a sporting chance of spotting seals, porpoises and dolphins. In early summer, the flowers are breathtaking. Boat trips run from April to October and cost pounds 6 for adults, pounds 4 for children; landing on Skomer costs pounds 6 for adults, children under 16 free.

West Wales Wind, Surf and Sailing, Dale, Pembrokeshire (tel: 01646 636642). The centre offers excellent water sports, including windsurfing, sailing, surfing and canoeing.

Set amid hills and ancient woodland, Castell Henllys, near Newport, Pembrokeshire (tel: 01239 891319) is an Iron Age hill-fort with roundhouses and animal shelters. The views to Carn Ingli in the Preseli Hills are superb. Entry pounds 2.65 for adults, pounds 1.75 concessions, pounds 7 family ticket. Open from 29 March to 31 October.

Outdoor activities

Walking: Pembrokeshire's coastal walking is among the best in Britain.

Coasteering: What, you ask? St David's Twr-y-Felin No Limits (tel: 014037 721611) can lay claim to inventing this sport. It involves traversing cliffs at sea level with climbing, scrambling and swimming thrown in plus a few big cliff jumps. A qualified instructor is in charge at all times.

Thrill-seekers should check out Twr-y-Felin No Limits for other outdoor adventures, including climbing, canoeing and surfing. Two-day courses start at pounds 160 per person.

Climbing: The fine gabbro and sandstone cliffs on St David's Head attract many climbers. With the Atlantic swell breaking below, and airy views to the outlying islands, climbing here can be exhilarating.

Canoeing: A sea-kayak is a nimble piece of equipment permitting exploration of cliffs and caves. The tides are fierce, so only experienced paddlers should venture out without an instructor.

Surfing: While the ravening hordes have been flocking to Cornwall, discerning aficionados of the sport have been riding waves in Pembrokeshire in splendid isolation.

Scuba Diving: If you fancy exploring the mysteries of the deep perhaps you should kick off with a course at St David's Scuba Diving Centre (tel: 01437 721788). The centre has an excellent diving school, shop, a b&b, a campsite plus bar and restaurant. Courses cost around pounds 275 and are available all year.

Bird-watching: The RSPB allows a few visitors on to Ramsey Island daily. Thousand Island Expeditions, Cross Square (tel: 01437 721686) will ferry you out there for about pounds 7. Other options include a sunset shearwater watch with RSPB guide (pounds 12), a puffin watch with RSPB guide (pounds 12) and a half-day, 20-mile voyage to Grassholm Island, home to 100,000 nesting gannets (pounds 35).

Where to stay

Warpool Court Hotel, St David's (tel: 1437 720300) is in an exquisite location. It has two AA rosettes for its food and and wine list; it offers a gym, sauna and swimming pool. Expect to pay between pounds 61-pounds 64 per person for b&b in a sea-facing room.

Twr-y-Felin Hotel, St David's (tel: 01437 721611) is refreshingly informal. The converted 18th-century mill is topped by a glass tower which is worth climbing for the glorious views. The place doubles up as an outdoor activity centre. B&b costs pounds 20 per night per person.

The homely Old Cross Hotel, Cross Square, St David's (tel: 01437 720387) is slap-bang in the centre of the city. The dining room uses fresh local produce and there's an attractive garden. Prices in the range of pounds 35 per person for b&b.

Possibly the best hotel on the planet is the highly individual Druidstone in Druidstone Haven, just outside St David's (tel: 01437 781221). Perched on a cliff, this converted family home makes guests feel like they are staying with a friend. The home-made food is excellent. B&b in a sea-facing room costs pounds 37.50 per person.

Lower Haythog, Haverfordwest (tel: 01437 731279) is an attractive working farm dating back to the 13th century. The varied cuisine earned Lower Haythog a "Farmhouse Food" award. Fishing and pony rides available. B&b, pounds 22 per person.

Food and drink

The popular Morgan's Brasserie, 29 Nun Street (tel: 01437 720508) specialises in seafood - bass, turbot, sea trout and fresh local crab. Listed in Which? and recommended by Michelin and the AA, booking is advisable. A three- course meal excluding wine will cost around pounds 20 per person.

The Farmer's Arms, St David's (tel: 01437 720328) serves good simple pub fodder in a friendly environment.

St David's has a cluster of coffee shops. Taylor's, The Pebbles (tel: 01437 720254) is open all year for coffee, cakes and crafts; The Sampler, Nun Street (tel: 01437 720757) is renowned for its tasty home-made soup; then you can have local clotted cream with your scones at Belmont House, The Square (tel: 01437 720264). Open all year.

The port of Porthgain, little more than a cluster of houses, boasts an art gallery, a good pub and an excellent restaurant. The Harbour Lights (tel: 01348 831549) is run by chef Annie Davies and her family. Lobster fresh from the quay is a speciality, as are the vegetable dishes inspired by Annie's vegan sister. It is open for lunch and dinner. Dinner costs pounds 23 per person excluding drinks.

Built in 1743, the low-slung pub The Sloop, Porthgain (tel: 01348 831449) serves the fattest and most succulent crab sandwiches (price pounds 3.20).

Special events

Bitches Rodeo Run by Twr-y-Felin No Limits (tel: 01437 721611) from 16- 18 May, this event sees the best in canoeing acrobatics on the "Bitches" tide race between Ramsey Island and the mainland. The revelry is as legendary as the event itself.

This year sees the 20th anniversary of the St David's Cathedral Festival (tel: 01437 720271). Running from 29 May to 6 June, it takes place within the august arena of the cathedral and is a feast for classical music lovers. Artists featuring this year include the Brodsky Quartet, Alun Hoddinott and the Holst Singers.

A drama festival (tel: 01437 720517) takes place in St David's at indoor and outdoor venues, during the first half of August. Other theatrical events are staged at the Bishop's Palace.

Sand Church Building Competition (tel: 01437 720392) Adults and children alike turn their hand to sculpting ecclesiastical edifices at Whitesand Bay. No date has yet been fixed, but it always takes place in August. Call for details.

Further information

The Wales Tourist Board (tel: 01222 499909); St David's Tourist Information Centre (tel: 01437 720392).