European leaders meeting in Cardiff this week may be surprised to find themselves in a green and pleasant capital of culture and song. Whether looking at Impressionist paintings or visiting the Welsh National Opera, they will have no excuse for being bored. By Nerys Lloyd-Pierce
Why Go There?

Cardiff will find itself under considerable scrutiny over the next two days as Europe's political luminaries converge on the city for a two-day meeting of the European Council. But what will Kohl and co find when they visit the Welsh capital?

Cardiff has to be one the most under-rated cities in Britain. The last decade has seen it emerge from the rubble of its industrial past to evolve into a lively city with a 'craic' like Dublin's and a population whose gift for humour parallels that of the Liverpudlians.

A survey carried out by the University of Glasgow rated Cardiff and its environs fourth in the UK in terms of quality of life. The city can lay claim to having more parkland per head of population than any other city in Britain; an airily grand Portland stone civic centre modelled on Lutyen's plans for New Delhi; elegant Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades; the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris and Europe's biggest free festival.

GETTING THERE

Air: British Airways (0345 222111) operates a three-times daily service from Glasgow to Cardiff International Airport at pounds 109 and a daily flight from Belfast at pounds 129. Further flight details are available from Cardiff International Airport (01446 711111). The airport is situated in Rhoose, a 20-minute drive from Cardiff. A regular shuttle bus service ferries passengers to and from the airport for pounds 2.90 return (pounds 2.35 one way). Alternatively, a taxi will cost you pounds 15 for a one-way ride.

Train: An hourly service runs from Paddington to Cardiff, a journey of just under two hours. A return ticket costs pounds 35 if you're travelling midweek and pounds 40.90 if you travel on a Friday. Rail Enquiries 0345 484950.

Bus: National Express Coaches (0990 808080) travels from Victoria Coach Station to Cardiff every two hours. The journey takes two hours 45 minutes. A return journey costs pounds 22.75, (pounds 27.50 return on a Friday).

Getting Around

Cardiff is a very compact city so walking is the easiest way to see most of its attractions. If you want to take a trip to the furthest flung suburbs an efficient local rail service runs every 10 minutes and costs pounds 1.60 per day return. A trip to peripheral towns such the seaside resort of Penarth costs around pounds 2 per day return. Train enquiries: 0345 484950. Cardiff Bus Company's distinctive tangerine coloured vehicles provide good transport around the city and taxis are not extortionate either.

What To See & Do

Cardiff Castle (daily 9.30am-6pm, admission: adult pounds 4.80; child/senior citizen pounds 2.40 which includes a guided tour) is a wildly flamboyant testimony to the huge wealth acquired by the Bute family courtesy of the once-booming coal industry. The third Marquess of Bute lavished much of his substantial fortune on creating this exuberant folly. Architect William Burges was commissioned to carry out the work and his distinctive stamp can be seen in the castle's garishly opulent apartments.

The National Museum and Gallery (Tues-Sun 10am-5pm, admission: adult pounds 4.25, children/concessions pounds 2.25, family ticket pounds 9.75. Closed Mondays) is set within the neoclassical splendour of the civic centre. Apart from housing the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris - including work by Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and Van Gogh - the museum is also home to Rodin's bronze statue The Kiss and a decent collection of contemporary works. Around pounds 26m has been spent on developing the museum and this is reflected in the fascinating Evolution of Wales wing and an excellent natural history section.

Techniquest (Mon-Fri 9.30am-4.30pm, Sat, Sun and Bank Holidays 10.30am- 5pm. Admission: adult pounds 4.75, children under five free, children over five pounds 3.50, family ticket pounds 13.50) is the kind of hands-on science discovery centre which makes you wish you hadn't chosen three Arts subjects for your A-levels. Children are guaranteed to love it (and they can't break anything either) but if you've left them at home don't feel that you have to give the place a miss.

Llandaff Cathedral is tucked away in a green hollow close to the River Taff (of "Taffy" fame). Begun in the 12th century by Bishop Urban, the cathedral wasn't completed until the 15th century and you'll find miscellaneous medieval ecclesiastical styles lurking here. The interior is attractive if you ignore the hideous statue of Sir Jacob Epstein called Christ in Majesty.

Bute Park Arboretum (admission free). This oasis of quiet in the heart of the city is a good place to take a picnic lunch on a sunny day. If you fancy it, you can stroll along the River Taff to Llandaff Cathedral two miles away.

Cardiff Bay is the birthplace of Shirley Bassey, though Tiger Bay - the notorious slum area where she was born - has long since been demolished. Now upwardly mobile, Cardiff Bay is to be the home of the Welsh Assembly. A controversial barrage scheme will ensure permanent high water, much to the chagrin of those who believe that the permutations of the tidal flow are infinitely preferable to stagnant water.

Mount Stuart Square was the commercial heart of the old docklands area and its listed buildings are impressive. The focal point is the Coal Exchange, where Britain's first million pound deal was struck. Now a concert venue, it has seen Jools Holland, bluesmen Walter Trout and John Mayall and jazz artist Roy Ayres on its books.

Guide Friday (every half hour from 9.55am until 3.55pm, price pounds 6 adult, pounds 5 OAP/ concessions and pounds 2.50 child. Tel: 01222 384291/522202) provides an open-top guided bus tour around Cardiff. Kicking off at the castle it takes in the civic centre, Cardiff Bay and the new rugby stadium (due for completion in time for next year's Rugby World Cup). You can get on and off the tour as you wish, but the total journey takes about an hour.

Salmon and Trout Fishing: Extraordinary though it may seem, it is possible to go fly fishing within the confines of the city centre and almost imagine yourself in the country. The River Taff rises on a sandstone escarpment in the Brecon Beacons National Park and is home to salmon, sea trout, brown trout (both wild and stocked) and grayling. The death throes of the coal industry spelt good news to this particular river, which now runs clean and pure from the hills. Day permits cost pounds 10 and are available from Garry Evans Tackle Shop, Whitchurch Road, Cardiff (01222 619828).

Out Of Town

Cardiff is only a small city (population 300,000) so its periphery is easily reached by bus, rail or even a cab.

Castell Coch (daily March-October 9.30am-6.30pm; Nov-Feb, Mon-Sat 9.30am- 4.30pm and Sun 11am-4pm. Admission adults pounds 2.20, OAP/child/concession pounds 2, family ticket pounds 7. Tel: 01222 810101) is perched on a wooded hillside five miles from the city centre and could have leapt straight from the pages of Grimm's fairytales.

Built in the 19th century as a country retreat for the third Marquess of Bute, it, like Cardiff Castle, bears the ornate hallmark of the architect William Burges. In summer the courtyard provides an attractive space for outdoor theatre productions.

Rhondda Heritage Park (daily 10.30am-6pm but closed Mondays from Nov- Mar. Admission pounds 5.25 adults, pounds 4.25 children, family ticket pounds 16. Tel: 01443 682036). Due for demolition when it closed in 1983, the Lewis Merthyr Colliery was reprieved at the eleventh hour by an ambitious proposal to turn it into a living history museum. The story of coal is now graphically told via an underground visit conducted by ex-miners. No visit to Cardiff is complete without a visit here.

Museum of Welsh Life, St Fagan's (daily 10am-5pm, admission pounds 5.25 adults, pounds 3.75 concessions and pounds 13.50 family ticket. Tel: 01222 573475) has to be one of the best museums ever. Exhibits have been reconstructed stone by stone and include a 17th-century farmhouse painted livid pink to ward off evil spirits, a rough-hewn quarryman's cottage, a working bakehouse where you can buy fresh bread and a village store selling local cheese and handmade chocolate. It would be easy to spend an entire day here.

Where To Stay

There is a reasonable range of places to stay in Cardiff suitable for all pockets. For those who are particularly flush, the city's first 5 star hotel will be ready next year.

The Angel Hotel (Castle Street, Cardiff, Tel: 01222 232633) looks like a great big iced cake. Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich and Sir Anthony Hopkins have stayed here, so you'll be in good company. A double/twin room in this centrally located hotel costs between pounds 68-pounds 110 and singles pounds 49-pounds 90.

Lincoln House Hotel (118 Cathedral Road, Cardiff Tel: 01222 395558) is situated in the trendy suburb Pontcanna, a designated conservation area due to its fine Victorian architecture. The hotel (a converted Victorian house) is 10-minutes walk from the city centre but is only a stone's throw from a number of stylish cafe-bars and restaurants in Pontcanna itself. Doubles/ twins range from pounds 59.50-pounds 68, singles pounds 48-pounds 55.

If you're a fitness fiend then a stay at the Welsh Institute of Sport (Sophia Gardens. Tel: 01222 300500) should suit you fine. After a bout on the squash court, the five-minute walk along the River Taff to the city centre will seem a doddle. B&B costs pounds 24.25 per night and full board costs pounds 38.50. Singles pounds 19.80.

Marlborough Guest House (98 Newport Road, Cardiff. Tel: 01222 492385) is the only B&B in Cardiff to secure a place in the Which? Bed & Breakfast guide - you even have a breakfast menu choice if you can face making a decision that early in the day. A double/twin room costs pounds 42-pounds 52, singles pounds 25-pounds 42.

The Cardiff Backpacker (98 Neville Street, Riverside, Cardiff. Tel: 01222 345577) is the ideal option for anyone on a budget. Best of all, Madhav's shop opposite sells delicious samosas and other Indian savouries cooked freshly to order. Dormitory accommodation costs pounds 12.50 per person, individual rooms cost pounds 16 per head, pounds 29 for two people sharing and pounds 35 for triple occupancy. All prices include breakfast.

Food & Drink

Wales has worked hard to earn itself a place on the gastronomic map so visitors can look forward to more exciting options on the menu than Welsh rarebit (tasty though that is). Many restaurants use Welsh ingredients such as sea trout and organic salt marsh lamb rather than serve dedicated Welsh dishes. Eighteen different cultures are represented in the eating houses in central Cardiff.

Le Cassoulet (5, Romilly Crescent, Cardiff. Tel: 01222 221905) offers exquisite French cuisine in an informal setting and the owner, Gilbert Viader, is charming. Expect to pay pounds 50 per head for a three-course meal and wine.

Chikako's (10-11 Mill Lane, city centre. Tel: 01222 665279) is run by the eponymous Chikako and has the distinction of being Cardiff's only Japanese restaurant.The food is great (especially the dishes cooked at your table) but Chikako is the biggest treat - like Nancy Lam without the attitude. Three courses with wine cost around pounds 30 per person.

Celtic Cauldron (47-49 Castle Arcade, City Centre. Tel: 01222 387185) is situated in one of the most attractive arcades in the city. This wholefood restaurant serves traditional Welsh dishes such as Glamorganshire sausage made from leeks, Caerphilly cheese and parsley. A light lunch and glass of wine costs only pounds 6.

The Thai House, (3/4 Guildford Crescent, Churchill way, Cardiff. Tel: 01222 387404) serves delectable food in bright and airy surroundings. A two-course set menu for two people costs pounds 31.95 without drinks.

Brava (Pontcanna Street, Cardiff. Tel: 01222 371929) is a lively up- beat cafe bar which serves excellent food. On a sunny day you can relax over an espresso at the pavement tables. Two courses and a glass of wine shouldn't cost much more than pounds 10-pounds 12.

Blas ar Gymru (A Taste of Wales) Restaurant (48, Crwys Road, Cathays, Tel: 01222 382132) has been described as heaven for Americans searching for a nugget of old Wales. It's not funky, but if you like traditional furniture covered in Welsh tweed and gargantuan portions, then come here. A three course meal with wine costs in the region of pounds 30 per head.

Bar Essential (33 Windsor Place, Cardiff. Tel: 01222 383762) is situated in an attractive Georgian side street and is a chic little joint which attracts local trendies. Two courses and a glass of wine cost pounds 10-pounds 12 per head.

The Greenhouse (38 Woodville Road, Cathys. Tel: 01222 235731) specialises in vegetarian and seafood dishes. Two courses cost pounds 8.50.

Entertainment

For a comprehensive guide to clubs, gigs, pubs, theatre and film check out The Big Issue Cymru (Wales), Buzz Magazine and the local papers South Wales Echo and the Western Mail.

The startling success of Welsh bands such as Catatonia, the Manic Street Preachers and the Stereophonics has helped give Cardiff some cred as a "happening" place. There is certainly enough going on for the place to warrant its capital city status. Most big name rock stars - Rolling Stones, U2, Bob Dylan, Oasis - include Cardiff on their itinerary and the city is also home to the internationally renowned Welsh National Opera.

Cardiff is well served for theatres. If you want conventional productions then the New Theatre is your venue, for something a bit more experimental try Chapter Arts Centre (its gallery has showcased work by Cornelia Parker and Orlan). The Sherman Theatre, St David's Hall is the place for classical concerts, many of which are broadcast live on Radio 3 (the venue also hosts the biennial Cardiff Singer of the World Competition) while Sandy's Bar has live jazz every night of the week.

Contemporary dance companies Earthfall and Diversions perform regularly in their home town, in between international tours.

Festivals

Astonishingly, Cardiff hosts the biggest free arts festival in Europe (Tel: 01222 873936). It may not have the kudos of Edinburgh, but if you want entertainment without the ravening hordes you should come to Cardiff. Running from 17 July - 9 Augustit has some excellent events including street theatre, a comedy festival, a performance by Welsh National Opera, and three days of live music on the lawns of City Hall. One of the highlights is a Notting-Hill-style Mas carnival (previous guest artists include Benjamin Zephaniah who devised a dub chant for the procession to sway to). Making the costumes is a community affair and this year a Trinidadian costume maker will be on hand to oversee proceedings.

Information

Further information is available from Wales Tourist Board on 01222 499909 or Cardiff Tourist Information on 01222 227281. They have an extensive selection of free guides which can be supplied. The Rough Guide to Wales (pounds 10.99) has a section on Cardiff and there is also Jarrold's Guide to the Welsh Capital City of Cardiff.

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