Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game
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 enjoyed a brief foray in the top flight in 2018-29, attracting near capacity crowds to their own Cardiff City Stadium south-west of town. 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. An underwhelming return to the Championship in 2014-15 was offset by Tan’s decision to revert the club colours to blue.
With their new home opened in 2009, after a century at ‘The Bearpit’ of nearby Ninian Park, and a new academy being built at Llanrumney north-east of town, the club remains in Tan’s capricious hands.
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. It would be more than 80 years before Cardiff made another Wembley cup final, losing to Portsmouth in 2008.
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 that day was Cardiff-born Craig Bellamy, who saw out his playing days at his home-town club, helping them gain a first ever promotion to the Premier League in 2012.
Although in line to co-host Euro 2028 as part of the UK & Ireland bid, the Millennium is rarely used by the national team these days. Only twice in the 2010s did Wales step out there, a qualifying match with England and a friendly with Spain. Venue of choice is 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 met Cardiff for the first time in five years for a Championship fixture in 2019. So steeped in violence it was Britain’s first derby to have away fans banned, this fixture was a top-flight affair for one season only, in 2013-14.
The other main team in the Welsh capital is university side, Cardiff Met. 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. Promoted to the Welsh Premier in 2016, Cardiff Met overcame Bala Town on penalties in 2019 to set up a dream Preliminary Round fixture in the Europa League with Progrès Niederkorn of Luxembourg. Staging the home second leg at the Cardiff International Sports Campus, an athletics ground over the road from Cardiff City Stadium, the Archers won 2-1 but lost out on away goals.
Home is usually the Cyncoed Campus on Cyncoed Road, north-west of the city centre, accessed by half-hourly bus 52 from Customhouse Street JG beside the Marriott Hotel in town. Journey time to Cardiff Met Cyncoed is 20mins. Admission is £6, £1 for students with ID.
Arriving in town, local transport and timings
Cardiff Airport is 19km (12 miles) west of town, with its own Rhoose Cardiff International Airport station linked by shuttle bus (£1) every hour (every 2hrs Sun) with the terminal. An hourly train runs to Cardiff Central (Sun every 2hrs, 30min journey time, £6). The T9 bus runs direct from the terminal every 20-30mins to Canal Street JF, the other side of the Marriott hotel from Cardiff Central train station (£5/£8 return, pay on board, journey time 40mins).
More international routes are served by Bristol Airport. A National Express bus (every 1-2hrs, £16 online) takes 2hrs 30mins-3hrs to make the 50-mile (80km) journey to Cardiff Bus Station, with one change in Bristol.
Direct trains to Cardiff from London Paddington (£50) and Birmingham New Street (£80) take 2hrs, from Manchester (£100) 3hrs. Adding a Cardiff PlusBus (£3.70) to your fare allows you to use local buses for the rest of the day, although Cardiff Central station is a short walk from town and the Millennium Stadium. For Cardiff City Stadium, you’ll need to use local Ninian Park or Grangetown stations, or public transport. This is operated by several companies. For main Cardiff bus, a single ticket is £2, a Day to Go pass £4, pay with exact change/contactless on board.
Where to Drink
The best pubs and bars for football fans
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. 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 several 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.
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 establishment, the long revered Goat Major, is now the Blue Bell, having been taken over by Croeso Pubs in 2021. It’s still pie-and-pint heaven without forgetting TV sport. The Old Arcade is in similar vein, filled with rugby memorabilia. Alongside, the 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, an upscale sport-focused bistro opposite the Premier Inn, which hosts personal appearance by sports legends.
Award-winning Porter’s Cardiff (‘Good People, Good Times’) is the ideal spot to end the night, with late closing, 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.
Where to stay
The best hotels for the ground and around town
The city-centre Millennium Stadium must have 20 hotels within a short walk. The nearest is the waterfront Holiday Inn, that does special rates when occasion demands. Rooms are long booked before big occasions but a quick enquiry might just turn up a last-minute cancellation. Also close is the spruced-up Victorian Angel Hotel, with a decent restaurant in Castell’s.
Overlooking the stadium across the water are a cluster of more affordable options, including convenient WiseStay, the former Anchorage Guesthouse on Fitzhamon Embankment and comfortable Austin’s Guesthouse. Brighter still is The Riverhouse, a fine example of a contemporary B&B.
Chains abound. There’s a Travelodge near the Millennium 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 Citrus 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 style and a decent breakfast.
There are few accommodation options near the Cardiff City Stadium.