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12 Breathtaking things to do in North East Wales

Wherever you look in North East Wales there seem to be a breathtaking view to be enjoyed. The top of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct rises above the Dee Valley. The Talacre lighthouse is framed by sand dunes on a wide expanse of beach.

This corner of North Wales is perhaps less visited than others, yet beautiful and unspoiled. The Clwydian range of hills is perfect for walking and there’s pretty market towns to explore.

As the region celebrates a Year of the sea in Wales, we explored the canals, rivers and coastline, and found plenty of things to do in North East Wales. Here’s what we enjoyed and what we did in Wales when we visited on our weekend break;

Things to do in North East Wales Photo
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North East Wales

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Things to do North East Wales

1. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – the stream in the sky

One of our first stops on Saturday morning was the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. The Aqueduct was completed by Thomas Telford in 1805 to carry coal, iron and slate on canal barges high above the River Dee.

The name in Welsh means the bridge that connects. For those that can’t get their head round a Welsh tongue-twister it’s pronounced Pont – kus – sulth – teh. However, it’s better known as the stream in the sky.

Whether seen from the valley below or from the aqueduct itself, you can’t help but be impressed. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most breathtaking things to do in North Wales.

It’s a bridge of superlatives, the highest and longest navigable canal in Britain. To give you some scale, the aqueduct is 126 ft high and 1007 ft long. Its 18 slender piers carry the weight of 1.5 million litres of water.

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Things to do in North Wales Photo
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North East Wales

Walk across the Aqueduct

It’s even more impressive that in these Health and Safety conscious times, you’re actually allowed to walk across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct! For those who don’t like heights it’s something of a head-spinning, stomach churning experience. There’s only a slender railing on one side and a couple of metres of water on the other, shielding you from the sheer drop to the valley below.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North East Wales - things to do near Llangollen
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North East Wales

We started at the Trevor basin where there’s a car park and Pontcysyllte Aqueduct visitor centre. This is a good vantage point to watch the canal boats as they wait to cross the aqueduct.

A little further along the canal you can join one of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct boat trips with Jones the Boat. In the basin it’s also possible to organise canoe trips to cross the aqueduct. However, for me this would have been a bit too close to the edge for comfort.

Instead we decided to walk across, which takes 10 minutes and brings you to the basin on the Llangollen side. This is where the barges turn around and then wait to cross back the aqueduct again.

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Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North East Wales

After we’d braved the walk across the aqueduct and back, we drove down to the stone bridge at the valley level for some photos. There’s also a footpath down the to river valley if you’d like to see the aqueduct from below.

At the cute café boat by the visitors centre you can get a coffee and cake on your return. Watch the barges going to and fro, or waiting to cross in the closest thing to a canal traffic jam. More Info: Pontcysyllte Aqueduct Website

2. Things to do near Llangollen in the Dee Valley

After visiting the aqueduct it makes sense to head to the pretty town of Llangollen. Set in the Dee valley, Llangollen is surrounded by hills where the Medieval stone bridge crosses the rushing river.

The town can be quite busy as a tourist hub with plenty of ice cream and souvenir opportunities around the bridge. We also liked the interesting indie shops like Ty Nook selling stylish Welsh gifts and crafts.

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Llangollen in North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Llangollen in North East Wales

As the afternoon turns to evening, you may be drawn to The Corn Mill, one of the old stone pubs in Llangollen. There’s the original mill wheel turning behind the bar and a deck that overlooks the river. This is a prime spot for a drink or meal on a sunny evening.

If you’re looking for somewhere to eat in the evening, we also heard good things about the Gales of Llangollen Food and Wine Bar. They offer seasonal dishes and an extensive range of wines.

Llangollen Wharf

Across the bridge from the main town is the Llangollen Wharf and the same canal that we had just crossed on the Pontcysyllte aqueduct. From here you can take a horse-drawn canal ride or walk along the towpath to the Horseshoe falls, which supplies the aqueduct with water.

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Llangollen from The Corn Mill North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Llangollen from The Corn Mill North East Wales

Another big attraction is the train trip from the Heritage Railway Station in Llangollen. Board the vintage steam engine that takes you the 10 miles to Corwen and even have afternoon tea on board.

There’s a station tea room on the platform and a café inside one of the railway carriages by the track. You could easily be on the set of the 1945 movie Brief Encounter where Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. They look longingly into each others eyes over endless cups of tea in the station tea room.

Although we didn’t take the train during our visit to Wales, we could see how picturesque it must be as we drove along the Dee Valley from Corwen to Llangollen.

3. Plas Newydd Llangollen and the Ladies of Llangollen

Romance was certainly in the air when we visited Plas Newydd at Llangollen. Not only are the house and gardens picturesque but because of the romantic story of the former owners.

The house and gardens as they look now were created by Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, known as The Ladies of Llangollen. They arrived here in 1780 and were the object of curiosity in Regency society because of their “Romantic Friendship”.

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Plas Newydd in Llangollen North East Wales - Things to do Near Llangollens Photo
Plas Newydd in Llangollen North East Wales

The ladies had become close friends at school in Ireland. They decided to run away and set up a home together, driven by a need to escape the unwanted pressures of marriage and convention.

The ladies caught the imagination of society in their day. They embodied the ideal of living the Romantic lifestyle, with an escape to the country to enjoy cultural pursuits, read and improve the mind.

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Grand looking but overgrown

The Plas Newydd house looks very grand from a distance. But, it’s actually an overgrown cottage that has been ornamented inside and out by wooden carvings that the ladies and the subsequent owners of the house collected.

Downstairs we saw the rooms where the The Ladies of Llangollen would receive guests for tea and display their fine china, books and collected objects. Upstairs was the bedroom and dressing room where they could read to each other and keep their distance from curious visitors to their gardens.

Things to do near Llangollen Photo
Plas Newydd in Llangollen North East Wales

The gardens at the back of the house were covered in carpets of primroses. A romantic shrubbery lead down to the river, the house framed by the striking topiary shapes on the lawns.

We tried some of the excellent Welsh specialities for lunch in the tearooms at Plas Newydd, with Welsh Rarebit for me. Guy had a Welsh Cawl, a hearty slow cooked stew made with lamb, root vegetables and thickened with pearl barley.

The house seemed to be especially popular with families. We saw many spreading out their picnics on the lawns among the topiary in front of the house. More Info: Plas Newydd website

4. The ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen

A short drive up the valley from Llangollen we visited Valle Crucis Abbey. These are ruins of a Cistercian abbey that was founded in 1201, one of 14 Cistercian foundations to be built in Wales.

The monks of the Cistercian order who lived here wore white habits of undyed wool and practiced an austere lifestyle of poverty and isolation. They would have been largely self sufficient, with fish from the pond behind the abbey and other produce from the abbey estates.

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Valle Crucis Appey Llangollen North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Valle Crucis Appey Llangollen North East Wales

The remains of the 13th century church and the cloisters have a bare beauty. We wandered through the shell of the church and the cloisters, wrapped around by hills.

The abbey is surrounded by a campsite which felt a bit incongruous, as I would have expected open fields as you find in Tintern Abbey. This was another Cistercian monastery that was similarly closed in the 16th century with the dissolution of the monasteries. More info: Valle Crucis Abbey website

Things to do in Wales Valle Crucis Appey Llangollen North East Wales - Photo
Valle Crucis Appey Llangollen North East Wales

5. The views from the Horseshoe Pass Llangollen

The road beyond Valle Crucis Abbey makes a scenic drive and a lovely thing to do near Llangollen. Winding through hillside covered with bracken and gorse it takes you up to 1400 feet and over the Horseshoe Pass.

The name comes from the way that the road twists and turns in a horseshoe around the hillside. This makes it a favourite route for motorbike riders, with a large car park at the top where bikers gather by the Ponderosa Cafe.

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View of Dee Valley from Horseshoe Pass in North East Wales - walks from Ponderosa Café Photo
View of Dee Valley from Horseshoe Pass in North East Wales

If you stop here, you’ll have plenty of motorbikes to admire but it’s also a good place to photograph the contrasting views from the pass. You’ll see heath covered slopes on one side and green patchwork fields on the other.

There are opportunities for longer walks from Ponderosa Cafe too. Both the Offa’s Dyke path and Clwydian Way pass through here, so you have some different walking paths to choose from.

Even if you just want a short stroll, you’ll get the benefit of great views without too much effort, since you are already on the top of the escarpment. More information about the Clwydian range of hills here.

6. Gladstones Library at Hawarden

Sleeping among the books may be an unusual concept for a weekend break but it’s the rather special experience you can enjoy at Gladstones Library. This residential library was founded in 1894 to house the book collection of England’s Prime Minister William Gladstone. This is his home village of Hawarden, where he hoped to “bring together books who had no readers with readers who had no books“.

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Gladstones Library in North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo-
Gladstones Library in North East Wales

One wing houses the Reading Room with vaulted oak beams. The other wing has boutique bedrooms, a comfortable sitting room and the Food For Thought café.

Of course the library tends to attract writers, book-lovers or those who are looking for a comfortable base to explore the area. But, you can book a stay just like any other hotel.

A collegiate atmosphere

There’s a collegiate atmosphere which makes it easy to chat and mingle with other guests. Tthe beautiful gardens and calm atmosphere make for a very relaxing visit.

Gladstones Library in North East Wales - things to do in Wales Photo-
Gladstones Library in North East Wales

As a resident you get access to the Gladstones Library to read, write or work undisturbed. But even if you’re not staying, the library is well worth a visit.

The Food For Thought café offers locally sourced home cooked dishes. It’s open daily for lunch, as well as being a popular choice for Sunday lunch and afternoon tea, which need to be booked in advance.

The library hosts many events that explore literary, theological, linguistic or historical themes and in September runs the Gladfest literary festival. To visit the impressive oak-beamed Reading Room as a non-resident, there are daily Glimpse visits at 12.00, 2pm or 4pm for a 15 minute tour.

This would be easily combined with lunch or afternoon tea in the Food for Thought café. We very much enjoyed our stay at Gladstones Library and highly recommend it as a place to stay as well as a fascinating place to visit.

More Info: Gladstones Library Website | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

What’s to see in Hawarden

The village of Hawarden, where Gladstones Library is located, conveniently offers a train station, two pubs and a few small shops. Pass through the imposing gates in the heart of the village. Then, make a circular walk in the park past the ruins of the old Hawarden Castle.

The Gladstone family still own the Hawarden Estate, including the Glynne Arms in the village. This is less of a traditional pub and more of a stylish bar and restaurant. We enjoyed our dinner there on Saturday night with a selection of small plates and salads. Much of the local produce is sourced through the impressive Hawarden Farm Shop down the road.

7. Try the local Welsh produce in the Farm Shops

North East Wales is a fertile region of rolling hills and rich pasture. Here a thriving group of artisan food producers who are making the most of the area’s bounty.

A great way to tap into the food scene as a visitor, is to stop at some of the excellent farm shops as you drive around the area. A short drive from Gladstones Library is the Hawarden Estate Farm Shop. This part deli, part butchers and part café, showcases the best produce from North Wales.

The farm shop also hosts the Good Life Experience on Gladstones Farm, with a weekend of discovery, music, ideas and food cooked over the campfire.

Hawarden Farm Shop in North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales photo-
Hawarden Farm Shop in North East Wales

Another farm shop that we loved close to Llangollen was the Rhug Estate Organic Farm shop. This is a similarly large emporium of local food from artisan producers and brewers, with meat from the Rhug Estate.

There’s a popular restaurant here and the Farm Shop Takeaway is a great place to pick up a burger made with the estate’s meat, which you can eat on the picnic benches outside.

8. St Winefride’s Well at Hollywell

There was something hypnotic about the spring water bubbling up within the medieval stone shrine at St Winefride’s Well in Hollywell. The story goes that St Winefride who lived here in the 7th century, was beheaded as she was chased by a spurned suitor. Miraculously her head was restored to her body and healed by a spring that gushed from the ground.

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St Winefred's Well at Hollywell in North East Wales - things to do near Llangollen Photo
St Winefride’s Well at Hollywell in North East Wales

St Winefride’s Well has for centuries been an important pilgrimage site. It’s known as The Lourdes of Wales with everyone from kings to paupers coming to be healed and seek the blessing of the holy water.

When we visited on Sunday the site was quiet and the rectangular pool in front of the shrine was closed. On other days you can bathe here if you’d like to feel the benefit of the holy spring water.

St Winefred's Well at Hollywell in North East Wales - things to do in North Wales Photo
St Winefride’s Well at Hollywell in North East Wales

I can’t say that I was rushing to take a dip but was happy to take a sip of the spring water from the tap beside the pool. We used the cup that was given to us in the small visitors centre.

The chapel that sits immediately above the shrine is open for services. At other times you can borrow the key for a returnable deposit of £5. Entrance to the well site is £1. More info: St Winefride’s Well

St Winefred's Well at Hollywell in North East Wales - things to do in Wales Photo
St Winefride’s Well at Hollywell in North East Wales

9. A walk to the lighthouse at Talacre Beach

I love a windswept walk to blow away the cobwebs, to feel the space and wide-open-ness of the sea and sky. Where the North sea turns into the Dee estuary sits Talacre beach, a beautiful expanse of sand backed by dunes.

From here the North Wales coastal path continues for 870 miles through the bucket-and-spade seaside resorts of Prestatyn and Rhyl. I preferred the natural beauty of Talacre though – an RSPB nature reserve attracting sea birds in the dunes and waders in the shallows on the beach.

Talacre Beach in North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Talacre Beach in North East Wales

There’s parking in the village of Talacre, as well as a few cafes, pubs and shops. But once you’re on the beach there’s no development at all. There’s just the iconic Talacre beach lighthouse which makes a focal point for walkers and photographers.

The Point of Ayr lighthouse, as it is more properly known, was built in 1776. It remained active for over a hundred years, guiding ships sailing to Liverpool or the Dee Estuary. It’s now in private ownership and has a reputation for being haunted. If you see an unexpected figure of the old lighthouse keeper, you’ll know why!

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Talacre Beach in North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales
Talacre Beach in North East Wales

10. Prestatyn for walks in North East Wales

There are fantastic walking paths all over North Wales but perhaps the best known is the Offa’s Dyke path. The long distance hiking trail runs for 177 miles starting at Prestatyn on the North Wales coast and continues to Chepstow in the south.

It passes along the route of an ancient earthwork that was built in the 8th century and roughly marked the border between Wales and England. While we only stopped briefly in Prestatyn, we did drive up to the Hillside gardens where the Offa’s Dyke trail starts.

There’s a look out point over Prestatyn towards the sea. From here you’ll spot the distinctive green dome of a private house called Uplands. The house incorporates a revolving observatory for a panoramic view over the town.

What to do in North East Wales - View over Prstatyn North East Wales Photo
View over Prestatyn North East Wales

Above the house is a viewing point with a path that leads up the hillside from a small car park. From here you can try the first part of the Offa’s Dyke walk. Or, plan to walk the whole trail which would take around 12 days.

If you prefer to walk close to the sea, the North Wales Coastal path also starts in Prestatyn. It passes through the nearby holiday resort of Rhyl before it reaches Bangor 60 miles later.

In May there’s a walking festival in Prestatyn. Even if you are visiting at other times, the Prestatyn Walking Festival website is useful to give an idea of the different walks available around Prestatyn. More info about Prestatyn: At Prestatyn Website

View over Prestatyn from the Hillside Walk North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
View over Prestatyn from the Hillside Walk North East Wales

11. The pretty town of Ruthin & Nantcywyd y Dre

From Prestatyn, we headed inland from the coast and stopped for Sunday lunch in the pretty town of Ruthin. The town is centred around St Peter’s Square at the top of the hill.

Around the square there are a number of attractive old buildings, such as St Peter’s Church, the half timbered Old Court House. The brick fronted Castle Hotel, which is now a Weatherspoons pub.

On Sunday when we visited the town was quiet. We very much enjoyed our lunch of roast Welsh beef at The Myddelton Grill on the square, in a medieval oak beamed building. Just down the hill is Ruthin Gaol, which we didn’t have time to visit. At this Victorian prison you can see how prisoners, lived, worked and ate and the punishments they suffered.

Things to do in North East Wales -Ruthin in North East Wales Photo
Ruthin in North East Wales

Instead we walked along Castle Street to visit Nantclwyd y Dre. This medieval half timbered town house dates back to 1435 and is open to the public.

It’s been continuously occupied for five centuries. Each of the rooms in the house has been furnished to reflect the life and times of one of its residents.

A mixture of eras

While the structure of the half-timbered house is clearly medieval. However, you’ll pass through the hall set up with 1940s memorabilia and Bakelite radio. Then, through to the kitchen with a Victorian range decorated with horse brasses and Staffordshire china.

Nantclwyd y Dre in Ruthin North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Nantclwyd y Dre in Ruthin North East Wales

Upstairs there’s a Georgian bedchamber laid out with the dresses of elegant ladies. The adjoining dressing room is papered in the fashionable chinoiserie style. In contrast, the room next door is a 17th century Jacobean bedchamber with painted wall clothes and rush matting on the floor.

Nantclwyd y Dre in Ruthin North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Nantclwyd y Dre in Ruthin North East Wales

At the back of the house we enjoyed wandering around the surprisingly large walled garden and dovecot, leading to the recently renovated Lord’s Garden. This vegetable garden, cider orchards and beehives would have supplied the busy medieval household. Entrance £5 More info: Natclwyd y Dre website

Nantclwyd y Dre in Ruthin North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Nantclwyd y Dre in Ruthin North East Wales

12. Chirk Castle – dominating the Welsh Marches

The final stop on our tour of North East Wales was Chirk Castle, which is close to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct where we had started our weekend in Wales. The castle was built in the 13th century as one of the chain of Welsh Marcher castles.

These castles were built on the instructions of Edward I to fortify the north of Wales. Its appearance is just as you’d expect from a Welsh Castle, with thick stone walls, towers at each corner and a few small windows for archers to defend the castle from attack. Surrounded by open parkland on the high ground, the castle was an imposing symbol of English power in Wales.

Chirk Castle in North East Wales - things to do in North Wales Photo
Chirk Castle in North East Wales

When you step inside the castle it’s a surprise to find not medieval hangings and bare stone walls, but elegant 17th century furnishings that were installed by the Myddelton family. The castle was bought by Sir Thomas Myddelton who made his money in the East India Company and later became Lord Mayor of London.

Chirk Castle in North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Chirk Castle in North East Wales

The elegant state rooms with tapestries and portraits were furnished during the 400 years that the Myddelton family used the castle, pouring money into treasures to reflect their wealth and status. A few of the rooms reflect the style of Tommy Scott-Ellis who leased the castle from the Myddelton family from 1910 to the 1940s and installed fashionably opulent furnishings, to suit his artistic tastes. Chirk Castle is run as a National Trust property – Adults £15 More info: Chirk Castle

Chirk Castle in North East Wales - things to do in North East Wales Photo
Chirk Castle in North East Wales

Other North East Wales towns to visit

There are several other attractive small towns around North East Wales, so depending on where your drive takes you you may like to visit;

Mold – a market town with a weekly Saturday market that also hosts the Theatr Clwyd Wales and Mold Food Festival in September.

Denbigh – a market town that is capital of the county with medieval town walls that you can walk along and the ruins of a 13th century castle.

Wrexham – the largest town in North East Wales with the Wrexham Museum and plenty of shopping opportunities.

A suggested itinerary for a weekend in North East Wales

Of course we didn’t see everything on our weekend visit to North Wales, but here’s our itinerary as a guide to what you could easily see in 2 days, if you are touring by car.

Stay at: Gladstones Library and look around the nearby Hawarden Farm Shop. Dinner at either Food for Thought in Gladstones Library or the Glynne Arms in Hawarden

Day 1: Saturday

  • Morning: Visit the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
  • Lunchtime: A wander around Llangollen and look at the Llangollen vintage railway and Llangollen Wharf. The Corn Mill or the Old Station tearoom would make a good lunch stop.
  • Afternoon: A visit to Plas Newydd, Chirk Castle or Valle Crucis Abbey which are all close to Llangollen. As an alternative you could take the Llangollen Railway to Corwen and back.
  • Drive back to Hawarden via the Horseshoe Pass and park at the Ponderosa Cafe if you’d like to do some walking as an alternative to visiting the heritage sites.

Day 2: Sunday

  • Morning: Drive north from Hawarden to stop at St Winefride’s Well at Hollywell. From here continue to Talacre beach, for a walk through the sand dunes to the lighthouse. From here you could drive through Prestatyn and Rhyl before turning inland to Ruthin.
  • Lunchtime: We recommend Ruthin as a good lunchtime stop as there are lots of nice restaurants and cafes, although less are open on Sunday than other days. There’s lots to see in Ruthin including Nantclwyd y Dre and Ruthin Gaol as well as the town market and craft centre.
  • Afternoon: You may like to try one of the walks around Prestatyn or drive on south for some walking around the Horseshoe Pass. If culture is more your thing you could visit one of the heritage sites of Plas Newydd, Chirk Castle or Valle Crucis Abbey that you didn’t have time to visit the day before.

If you are visiting North East Wales without a car, we’d suggest basing yourself in Llangollen, as there is a lot to see in and around the town itself.

Map of North East Wales

To plan your visit to North East Wales

You’ll find plenty more information to help you plan your trip on the North East Wales Tourism Website and follow their social media channels on Twitter | Facebook.

There’s also more information available on the Visit Wales Website and local tourism websites Discover Denbighshire website | Wrexham Council

There are excellent road, rail and air links to get you to North East Wales – more detailed information on the North East Tourism website.

The region covers the counties of Denbighshire, Flintshire and Wrexham and is around 3 hours by train from London and 2 hours from Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester.

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Read about 12 breathtaking things to do in North East Wales

Thanks to North East Wales Tourism who sponsored* my weekend trip and Glad stones Library who hosted* our 2 night stay.

* More info on my policies page

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