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Exploring North Wales on the Cambrian Coast Railway

Published on 3 Oct 2022 by Amy Greenwood

North Wales is proper train country, where chugging along and taking in epic landscapes weaves a bit of magic into your soul. 

And if you like to travel by rail, you have plenty to choose from on the doorstep  in North Wales (sometimes literally – the Ffestiniog steam railway runs through the garden of Dioni holiday cottage Rhiwgoch, near Porthmadog). Take your pick from heritage railways, miniature steam trains, and even a train that runs all the way to the top of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon).

It can be a real liberation to leave the car at home for a day or two on your holidays. Quite apart from being more environmentally friendly, it means that everyone in your group – including the person who usually drives – can fully engage in the fun and excitement of exploring new landscapes.

One of our favourite ways to travel in North Wales is on the Cambrian Coastal Railway. The line runs from Aberdyfi in the south to Pwllheli in the north. It’s around 50 miles long, and if you were to travel the whole of the length of the line it would take you around 2.5 hours each way.

The folks who run it say it is the UK’s most scenic railway, and there’s no denying it’s definitely up there, even by the very high standards of North Wales. The Cambrian line takes in the most spectacular mountain-and-coast landscapes.

Whilst the train journey can be a great day out in itself, there are plenty of reasons to jump off along the way, including beautiful walks and picnic spots, medieval castles, wildlife, spectacular sandy beaches and sheltered bays.

You’ll find some of our most beautiful seaside towns and villages along the way, and connections to the Talyllyn, Fairbourne, Ffestiniog, and Welsh Highland heritage railways. 

Here’s our guide to many of the epic things to see and do along the spectacular Cambrian Coast railway. We hope you enjoy the ride!

Explore Aberdyfi (Aberdovey)

For most of the 19th century Aberdyfi was a bustling port, shipping Welsh slate and oak around the world. It is now a superbly pretty harbour village. Quaint old streets rise up to spectacular viewpoints, whilst in the heart of the village you can browse specialist boutiques and art galleries. There is no shortage of great places to eat. The town also has a gorgeous sandy beach.

Marvel at the Mawddach estuary as you cross Barmouth bridge

At 700 metres long, the Grade II listed Barmouth bridge is one of the longest timber viaducts still in regular use in Britain. Running along the spectacular and atmospheric Mawddach Estuary below the foothills of Cader Idris, expect stunning views across to Diffwys and the Rhinog mountains, and up the estuary to Y Garn.

Look out for Portmeirion

As you head north past Barmouth, the line veers inland slightly and the flatter landscape reveals some fantastic views of Snowdonia on both sides. On a clear day you should be able to see the distant Llŷn Peninsula and Bardsey Island draw ever closer. Watch out for the colourful Italianate village of Portmeirion hidden in the trees across the Dwyryd river as you pass through Tygwyn (just after Harlech). To visit Portmeirion, get off the train at Minffordd and follow the footpath to Portmeirion (around 1 mile).

The best stops for shops and cafés

You’ll be spoilt for choice by the attractive, vibrant harbour towns of Aberdyfi, Barmouth, Porthmadog, Criccieth, and Pwllheli – wonderful for exploring anytime of the year. Each of these coastal gems has its fair share of independent shops, markets and cafés where you can enjoy great food, and shop for local produce and crafts. 

The best stops for great beaches

Tywyn, Fairbourne, Barmouth and Dyffryn Ardudwy have gorgeous long, sandy beaches, while Pwllheli has a popular watersports and sailing centre. Most seaside towns along the way offer guided adventures and activities, including sailing, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding and surfing. And all of them make great stops for a happy holiday picnic.

Look out for the local wildlife

Look out for sea birds (including cormorants), dolphins, porpoises and various birds of prey as you chug along the line.  Along the Dyfi estuary, the Dyfi Osprey Project nest is visible near Dyfi Junction and you also pass the RSPB Ynys-hir Nature Reserve and the Dyfi National Nature Reserve and Ynyslas Visitor Centre. See if you can spot the various waders, ospreys and other sea birds from the train. 

Visit Harlech Castle

The newly refurbished visitor centre at Harlech Castle is totally captivating, and an ideal all-weather day out for the whole family. The castle is over 700 years old, so it’s well worth taking the time to soak up the atmosphere, take in the stunning mountains-and-coast views, and enjoy the audio-visual tour. There’s a great gift shop here too, with some really lovely Welsh books, art and crafts on sale. The castle is around half a mile from the railway station, up a steep hill.

Explore Criccieth

This beautiful little Welsh coastal village seemingly has it all: ocean rollers, mountain views and an imposing medieval castle to watch over it all. Think rock pooling, castle ramparts, delicious fish and chips and ice cream. You’ll find traditional Welsh tearooms, plenty of great places to eat out, independent shops and some wonderfully browsable galleries and antiques. There’s even a traditional Welsh clog maker who still has his workshop in the town.

Picnic at Pwllheli

The unofficial ‘capital’ of Pen Llŷn, Pwllheli is a lovely seaside resort with a large marina and sailing community, and some great sandy beaches. The local waters are world-class, with gorgeous views across Tremadog Bay towards the mountains of Snowdonia. There’s a popular watersports and sailing centre, and plenty of shops and cafés where you can stock up with goodies for a delicious holiday picnic.

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