You've picked a good time to arrive in Cardiff. It's a city which has long endured a reputation for raucous, boozy nightlife, best exemplified by the rambunctious scenes on St Mary's St on rugby international nights. But the past few years have seen massive strides forward and all of a sudden, it's as exciting a place to go out as it's ever been.
While you won't quite find the sheer scale of events, as you would in, say Bristol or Manchester, you will find low prices, community spirit, an infectiously down-to-earth approach to partying and a compact urban area. Venues are increasingly interesting—bank vaults, warehouses, antique centres and car parks host some of the Welsh capitals' best raves—and there's a raft of young new promoters joining some of the city's more established names.
Of course, not everything is rosy. The city's boozy predisposition mean that many clubs cater to a drinkers' crowd, and you'll be pushed to find many clubs open beyond 4am, meaning you'll have to make your own fun when chucking out time comes.
But all in all, this small city with a tremendous sense of self will always find new ways to surprise you, just when you think you've exhausted all of its considerable fun reserves. Here's how to make the most of Cardiff.
Tucked behind Cardiff Central stands a four-storey Victorian building which has survived bulldozing despite the burgeoning office developments around it. In the day, it's worth a visit—like a big museum where the exhibits are all for sale—but it's as a club space that it really comes into its own. This is Jacobs Antiques.
Teak, who cater for discerning 4/4 tastes, were the first to make use of the venue, bringing a hitherto unthinkable calibre of artists to Cardiff. The past 18 months or so has seen everyone from DJ Sprinkles, Prins Thomas and Mr Ties grace its basement. Other promoters have started to make use of it, too, including local purveyors of none-more-chunky house and techno, Delete.
The buzz around the parties means tickets are often gone within seconds of sales opening. If you've missed out, there's usually a brisk aftersales marketplace with people shifting spares at face value. There are rooftop parties during the summer too.
A Really Good Pub
You can't beat the City Arms. This storied old juicer in the centre of town is ideal for kicking off a night or spending lazy autumn afternoons gazing out of the window. The snug at the back might be the best spot to drink in the entire city.
A Decent Restaurant for Someone on a Budget
Don't believe the damning verdict of roving media gourmand Jay Rayner, there are some superb (and cheap) dining options in the city, many of them on the doorstep of Studentsville.
One of the best is Mowlana, a Persian eatery in Splott. Blanket-sized naans are a quid, while the generous and punchy stews cost a paltry £7.50. Vegetarians are well catered for, and you can even take your own wine.
A Great Gig Venue
Clwb Ifor Bach is a true Cardiff institution. Its upstairs gig space has played host to innumerable 'I was there' gigs – Wolf Alice and Foals have stopped off relatively recently on their way to festival main-stage notoriety. Which'll make the indie fan you share a kitchen with very happy indeed. Elsewhere, Tramshed, over the river in Grangetown, has plugged the gap for a bigger sized venue.
A Record Shop
Cardiff vinyl enthusiasts mourned when Catapult, the city's only specialist dance music shop, shut its doors for the last time earlier this year. But Spillers—allegedly the world's oldest record shop—is still going strong.
Despite dealing more in home listening than club weapons, they have a decent selection of electronic delights and the staff are happy to point you in the direction of new music. Which makes a change from the usual grumps you get behind the counter at record shops.
A Museum You Can Take the Person You Got off with on the First Night in Halls To
if you're after a charmingly moth-eaten family of animatronic mammoths, taxidermy aplenty and one of the biggest watercolour collections in the world, then you can't go wrong with a trip to the National Museum. It's conveniently located very near the student union, and doesn't cost a penny to enter. Meaning you'll have cash left over to blap on horrible drinks and bags of peanuts at the aforementioned SU.
A Truly Local Spot That You'll Feel Really Smug Knowing About
Very few of Cardiff's student population make the journey over the river into the western side of the city, but it's worth visiting. In Canton and Pontcanna—two adjoining neighbourhoods where debate rages about where one ends and the other begins—about 20% of the population speak Welsh. It's also home to some of the city's best pubs and restaurants (try the Lansdowne on Beda Road) along with Chapter, a world-class arthouse cinema, gallery, bar and restaurant.
Even better, promoters City Bass and Blue Honey have been known to throw some exceptional parties in a warehouse on the district's western fringe during the summer. Oh, and it's easier than ever to get there—the X1 bus, now mercifully shorn of those 'saucy' ads which made the news last year—will spirit you from Roath in comfort for just £3 return.
A Place to Drink Coffee in Between Lectures Because You Will Suddenly Decide That You Drink Coffee Now Even Though You'd Rather Have a Squash
Little Man Coffee, conveniently located near the UWIC campus in town does some of the city's best 'third wave' coffee. They host exhibitions downstairs, and have a bank vault you can hold meetings in.
A Good Bookshop
Head to Troutmark to stock up on appealingly well-thumbed second hand tomes in this old second-hand bookshop in the stupendously pretty Castle Arcade.
A Place to Laze About the Morning After the Night Before
Where to start? Cardiff is preposterously well served by green spaces. Roath Park with its massive lake (and aggro waterfowl) will be on your doorstep. Bute Park, just over the road from the university, has acres of lovely trees and a couple of cafes to sip restorative cups of tea. For some fresh sea air—well, estuary air—get yourself to Cardiff Bay barrage or over to Penarth, which has an actual beach. If it's raining, then head for Milgi on City Road, with its impressive yurt.
So that's just a start. We haven't even got on to the natural marvels near the city (the Brecon Beacons and Gower national parks are about an hour north and west respectively), the Champions League final (next May, sports fans) or local institution Ninjah.
Basically, it's not difficult (or expensive) to have an amazing time in the Welsh capital—there's a reason it came number one in one of those quality of life surveys last year. You might even find yourself sticking around and 'going native'....