Rugby mecca Cardiff has been staging major soccer fixtures since the turn of this century. Venue for the 2017 Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Juventus, the Welsh capital is the ideal setting for the big occasion.
Few other European cities feature a magnificent 74,500-capacity national arena – the Millennium Stadium, rebranded the Principality Stadium in 2016 – right in town, surrounded by decent hotels and busy pubs, a short walk from the train station.
As for domestic football, Cardiff City returned to the top flight in 2018. The Bluebirds, once forced to play in bright red at the whim of Malaysian owner Vincent Tan, seem to have left behind decades of debt and lower-tier football. With a new stadium opened in 2009, after a century at ‘The Bearpit’ of nearby Ninian Park, and talk of a new training centre, the club remains in Tan’s capricious hands.
An underwhelming return to the Championship in 2014-15 was offset by Tan’s decision to revert the club colours to blue.
Pre-Tan, mention Cardiff in a football context and the famous FA Cup win of 1927 would be immediately evoked. The first and so far only time the trophy has left England was when a somewhat fluky Hughie Ferguson shot eluded Glamorgan-born Dan Lewis, and beat the great Arsenal side under Herbert Chapman. The legend of the Welsh goalie’s greasy jumper lived long and large – until Cardiff made two more Wembley finals, then promotion, in recent years.
Top-level football had not been missing from the Welsh capital, though. The opening of the Millennium Stadium in 1999, the national arena for both codes, coincided with the rebuilding of Wembley. Major finals were hosted here during the long-winded process of Wembley’s reconstruction.
Every spring, fans from over the border swarmed over the Severn to fill the pubs and bars of St Mary Street before taking their seats in a superb arena where noise and atmosphere were assured. The contrast with Wembley was striking – though the traffic problems occasionally similar.
For six seasons from 2001, the FA Cup again left England, lifted by Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United skippers on the banks of the Taff. The Millennium also hosted League Cup Finals, Community Shields and play-offs, including Cardiff City’s last-gasp one of 2003.
The Welsh national team also provided 70,000-plus spectators with a few choice memories, not least the 2-1 win over Italy in 2002. Winning goalscorer was Cardiff-born Craig Bellamy, recently retired from the national side to play the home-town club he helped gain Premier League promotion in 2012.
The Millennium has not always been full, though, nor the crowd sent home satisfied. All but one qualifying matches for Euro 2012 and Brazil 2014 were played at the Cardiff City Stadium and Swansea’s Liberty Stadium.
Before then, Ninian Park was considered the home ground for many decades, although the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham has staged more internationals, and for longer, since 1877. Twenty games were even played the National Stadium, the rugby arena that the Millennium replaced.
The other half of the bitter South Wales derby, Swansea City are also enjoying their best spell in decades. So steeped in violence it was Britain’s first derby to have away fans banned, this fixture was a top-flight affair for the first-time in football history in 2013-14.
In May 2017, the city’s university team, Cardiff Met, came within 90 minutes of a European place only to lose the Europa League play-off final to Bangor City. Promoted to the Welsh Premier in 2016, The Archers started out as UWIC Inter Cardiff in 2000, settling on their current name in 2012. The club then went from Welsh Division Three to One in three straight seasons. Home ground is the Cyncoed Campus on Cyncoed Road, north-west of the city centre, accessed by half-hourly bus No.52 from beside the Marriott Hotel in town.
Cardiff Airport is 19km (12 miles) west of town, with its own Rhoose Cardiff International Airport station linked by shuttle bus (£1) with the terminal. An hourly train runs to Cardiff Central (Sun every 2hrs, 30-35min journey time, £4). A recently introduced Cardiff Airport Express bus runs every 20min (journey time 40min, £5/£8 return) to Cardiff Central Bus Station.
The city-centre Millennium Stadium must have 20 hotels within a short walk. The nearest is the waterfront Holiday Inn, that does special rates for teams, officials and supporters’ groups when occasion demands. Rooms are long booked before big occasions but a quick call to reception on 02920 347213 might just turn up a last-minute cancellation. Also close is the spruced-up Victorian Angel Hotel, which offers guests use of a nearby health club.
Overlooking the stadium across the water are a cluster of more affordable options, including the Anchorage Guesthouse (45-47 Fitzhamon Embankment, +44 29 2022 8904), Riverside B&B, Nos Da studio hostel and Austin’s Guesthouse. Cheaper still is the River House, a fine example of backpacker-focused boutique.
Chains abound. There’s a Travelodge near the stadium on Queen Street and one by the train station. The Park Inn by Radisson is a five-minute walk from the Radisson Blu at Meridian Gate. The Premier Inn and ibis on Churchill Way appear gleaming and contemporary while offering rooms in the affordable bracket. The Jurys Inn exudes grandeur.
For something a little more independent and funky, the Big Sleep is a budget hotel with designer touches, 24-hour reception and tea- and coffee-making facilities in every room. Right by the station, sleeperz is one of a mini-chain of new-style budgets, with a touch of colour and style, and a decent breakfast.
With the closure of the Ninian Park Hotel, now the Maverick steakhouse, there are few accommodation options near the Cardiff City Stadium – though it, too, is within easy reach of the centre.
Cardiff is choc-full of pubs, the red dragon of local Brains beer ubiquitous around town. A significant number of venues double-up as pre-match spots for the Millennium, right in the city centre.
The many bars of St Mary Street are a stagger from station and stadium, such as sport-forward The Bunker, with its wall of plasma screens and nightclub hours at weekends. Further up, the Brewhouse is all about live music and sport while opposite, the Prince of Wales was once a cinema of the same name, now one of six Wetherspoons in town. Pretty much the first thing you see as you exit the station, apart from a huge construction site, is the Great Western, once a classic railway hotel, now in the Wetherspoon fold. Opposite the Park Plaza Hotel, you’ll find another, The Crockerton. Alongside, the Three Rivers provides big-screen sport and generous drinks and meal deals.
Closer to the Millennium Stadium, Elevens Bar & Grill is the creation of local brewers Brains and national legend Gareth Bale – hence the Bale Ale on tap. With ultra HD 4K TVs, surround sound, own-recipe burgers, craft bottled beers (Barry Island, Black Mountain) from the Brain stable, and Mahou, Peroni and Asahi among the many choice lagers on tap, Elevens is a major addition to Cardiff’s already oversubscribed sports-bar scene.
A more traditional Brains establishment, the long revered Goat Major is pie-and-pint heaven without forgetting TV sport – the Old Arcade is in similar vein, filled with rugby memorabilia. The newly refurbished Owain Glyndwr broadcasts the action on eight plasma screens. The nearby Rummer Tavern, dating back 300 years, showcases local ales, currently Double Dragon by the Felinfoel Brewery and Vale of Glamorgan Dark Matter.
Mention must be made of Chapel 1877, a more upscale sport-focused bar/bistro opposite the Premier Inn, laying on a three-course pre-match meal on Champions League eve, with a personal appearance by Liverpool legend Jan Mølby two nights before.
Award-winning Porter’s Cardiff (‘Good People, Good Times’) is the ideal spot to end the night, with 3am closing three nights a week, open mic nights and cabaret shows, and a great range of ales. Handle the Sharp’s Wolf Rock with care – a mix of Red Ale and IPA.