Geek Weekend: Cardiff
Welcome to the second instalment of the Geek Weekend at Pocket-lint. Every two weeks we'll be bringing you a guide to a UK city designed specially for the discerning geek traveller and today is the turn of the great city in Wales that is Cardiff. So, if you're planning a trip to the other side of the Severn, then make sure you keep this page bookmarked. Big thank you to the top tips from Joseph Middleton, Matt and Jimbo.
Proclaimed a city in 1905 and the capital of Wales 50 years later, Cardiff is one of Europe's youngest regional centres and it's been developing at a pace ever since. More recently, the city has revamped its waterfront, transforming what was working major port for coal into a cosmopolitan urban area and they've just opened the £675 million shopping complex that is the St. David's 2 centre but what's here for the geek tourist? Well, these are a few things you might want to look out for.
Places to Stay
While there's plenty of plush and budget options in Cardiff, you're not going to find quite the tech haven that you might in some of the American or East Asian capitals. So, really what we're after here are the golden words "Free Wi-Fi".
As well as our friend Mr Free Wi-Fi, Sleeperz offers free UK calls, tea and coffee making in each room and a Sony Bravia screen with Freeview as well. What really adds the fun to this unique establishment though is its interesting design with floor to ceiling city view windows, bright colours and look of railway chic, particularly if you opt for the fun twin or "cabin" room which gives a nice take on train sleeper compartment bunks. Sleeperz is right in the centre of town - next to the station, funnily enough - and rooms start at a very reasonable £55 per night.
The Big Sleep
At a similar reasonable price level is The Big Sleep Hotel with basic rooms from £45 up through several choices to a penthouse for just under £100 per night. Again, it's all about central location and modern design here, this time with the decor like something out of Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange only in a shade of blue. Each room has the ever-popular free Wi-Fi, tea and coffee making facilities and flatscreen TVs.
Do make sure to have a look at the rooms, as they're all quite different, or try booking over the phone rather than online if you need help finding one of the better ones from the staff. Also, note that The Big Sleep does offer breakfast to go if you need to catch an early flight or train or you just would rather eat on the hoof. Great location for shoppers.
Location: 51.478149, -3.171444
Cardiff Castle is the big one on the map for most visitors and, as much as it's largely about the gardens, the building, the jousting and Shakespeare events, there is one piece of medieval geekery for the discerning techie not to miss - the shooting of the trebuchet. Back in those days all that time ago, the trebuchet was the most geeky of all gadgets. As it happens it was a massive siege gadget but a gadget nonetheless. It's only around for this summer at the moment as it's being borrowed from the film set of Ironclad but it's well worth timing you're visit to watch this 10m tall machine hurl huge missiles through the air. Check the website for dates before you go.
This 75,000 seater stadium is one of the great modern feats of Welsh engineering and is a must for those who get off on that kind of thing. The excellent tours are good value at £6.50 for an adult and you'll be regaled with huge volumes of facts and figures of just how much concrete when into its construction, how many ship loads of steel they had to call in and just how on Earth they get that amazing roof to open and close so quickly and quietly while only costing £2.54 each time it does so. Do look out for the beer machines that can pour 12 pints in less than 20 seconds and the Dad the hawk who's employed to keep the local seagulls and their mess away.
Fully completed only in 2009, the Millennium Centre is Cardiff's home for the arts and most notably the Welsh National Opera. What has opera got to do with technology? Well, not a lot, but there a two different tours you can do of this building - one for those who wish to geek out on the engineering side of things and one for those who want to see the techie side of putting on a show.
While the former talks about the problems they faced in constructing this beautiful building, the latter sends you right up into the flies of the auditorium where all the lighting is housed and into the depths of the orchestra pit to talk about acoustics. Make sure to book in advance or expect to be disappointed. There also happens to be some rather plush public toilets in the building as well for those in need of a pit stop.
Cardiff Bay Barrage
With the old Cardiff coal port out of action, the city was left with an unattractive tidal mudflat on its coastal front door that didn't make for the most appealing of views. So, in the 1990s, the construction of a £220 million barrage across the bay was begun as part of the docks £2bn regeneration project. Because there were quite a few concerns on the impact of the local wildlife, engineers had to go to great lengths to figure out ways of keeping the water in to form a pretty lake without blocking the salmon and other fish from getting through and up to the river Taff beyond.
As a result the 1km long construction makes for a surprising entertaining tour for the travelling geek keen on his or her facts, figures and physics. If you're in a hurry, then a walk across from Mermaids Quay in the north to Penarth in the south is a fairly short hike with a welcome stop at the Old Custom House pub/hotel at the end where you can sit out on the terrace enjoying the sea views if it happens to be a nice day. If not, inside with a pint of Brains and some chit chat with the friendly locals will do nicely before you turn around and head back to the city.
If you have time though, there are two better ways to get the most out of the Barrage. The first is by a boat tour which you can pick up from Mermaids Quay and the second is by the slightly giggle-worthy Road Train tours of the bay. The trip lasts about an hour and is well worth it for the information at just £3 per adult. It's also the only way you'll get access to the working part of the port if that's of interest.
Dr Who Exhibition
You're either a Whovian or you're not and if you are, then the Dr Who Exhibition in the Red Dragon Centre is probably the whole reason you're in Cardiff in the first place, you massive geek, you. It's open all year round, 7 days a week and has on display all sorts of props and costumes from the cult BBC sci-fi show including fly-headed monsters, clothes worn by the Doctor, the TARDIS and, yes, lots of Daleks and Cybermen. It's £6.50 for adults to get in and the shop is predictably good for lots of Dr Who themed gifts.
Techniquest is Cardiff's answer to London's Science Musuem and, although far less grand, it does have the same excellent focus on interactivity and is especially good for young ones. The idea is to introduce mathematics, physics and engineering while keeping it all as fun and colourful as possible. As an attraction, it's really only still in its infancy, so expect more to come here in the near future. It's open 7 days a week with some planned closure in September 2010 and make sure you don't miss the planetarium on site. Always nice to do a little guided star gazing.
Cardiff Central Library
It might seem like a strange place to find tech-geekery but the brand new Cardiff Central Library has a state of the art secret that's well worth checking out if you're passing by. It happens to house a rather excellent automatic book checking in and out system that works by RFID. When you take books, you just have to remove them from the shelf and you receive a slip of paper telling you when the return due date is. When you take them back, you put them back on the shelf and they're automatically checked in again.
If they won't let you join up to use the system, then it's also a good place to use the internet with 90+ free terminals for all as well as free Wi-Fi if you happen to have your laptop with you. You might be able to borrow some CDs and DVDs if you're lucky and there's some listening and video pods to play with as well.
If you're going to watch a big film, you may as well do it in IMAX. The place to go is the Odeon in the Red Dragon Centre, right next to the Dr Who Exhibition. The premium seats are generally worth the extra money.
Again, in the Red Dragon Centre, is the fairly tacky and run down Hollywood Bowl. You might not want to spend your evening there but it's a good place to go if you're itching for a little arcade action or you're trying to kill time before your film begins.
Chapter Arts Centre
If you prefer your movies more on the independent side of things, then the Chapter Arts Centre is where to head. The food options are also a hell of a lot better than the usual chain fare you'll find near the Odeon. Also, it's worth taking a look to see what's on in the Chapter Centre gallery. You might find a photographic exhibition for camera geeks out there.
Roald Dahl Plass
The second stop on the map for all Whovians has to be Roald Dahl Plass and you don't need us to tell you why. For the rest of the geek tourists who don't know what we mean, there's a plaza around Cardiff Bay near the Millennium Centre where you might see lots of people taking pictures of not very much. This is because, according to Dr Who, it's under this area that the famous Torchwood Institute is supposed to be located. It's also supposed to be the location of a spatio-temporal rift, so watch your step.
St. David's 2 Centre
Shopping centres may be on the soulless side but the recently opened St. David's 2 mall is home to quite a few shops of tech geekery that are worth a browse if you're in the mood. It houses an Apple Store, Gamestation, Game, Swatch, Watches of Switzerland, all the mobile network shops and an enormous John Lewis with an excellent technology floor.
Established in 1894, Spillers Records is the oldest record shop on the planet Earth and is an essential visit for music geek travellers in Cardiff. Sadly, this Welsh institution has been under threat since a massive rent hike in 2006 and there's currently a huge bit of people power trying to keep it going with the likes of the Manic Street Preachers, Columbia Records, the Welsh Assembly and Plaid Cymru all behind it. It should be enough backing to keep it going but do make a visit just in case.
Porthkerry Country Park
If the weather's good and both the Bay and the shops are getting a bit much for you, then take a bus or train over to the nearby town of Barry from Cardiff Central Station. Slightly to the north and west of the shops and houses is the beautiful Porthkerry Country Park which eventually leads out onto some rugged coastline. Importantly to the geek tourist though, the park does have an impress viaduct where trains run by at dizzying heights. Very pretty indeed.
Eating & Drinking
It's not every day you come across a ship with a lighthouse built on top of it and rarer that they come with a cafe/restaurant on the deck. Just round Cardiff Bay you'll find the Goleulong 2000 Lightship and should probably stop for a brew at the very least. The food isn't the best you'll ever taste but it's good budget eating and a great place for kids to run around while you finish your coffee. Lovely on a lovely day, quirky when it's not.
Apps to Download
If there are any budding app developers out there, then you'll find that Cardiff is sorely lacking in good application support even on the iPhone platform. There's money to be made here. However, until someone comes up with something brilliant, one or two of the following are worth a look in.
uTalk Welsh (Android)
It ain't cheap at £5.99 but what you get for your money is recorded versions of genuine Welsh people speaking the phrases properly, some learning games and a claimed scientific quick learning method. You'll also have the locals taking you under their wing in no time if you can remember any of it.
Welsh Dictionary (iPhone)
Does what it says on the tin. Doesn't mean you'll be able to pronounce it or speak the language at all but then, in Cardiff, you don't really have to. $3.99.
The Four Ancient Books (Android)
A collection of excellent 14th century Welsh bard's tales and well worth a read to get you into the spirit of the land. It's also much cheaper this time at just $0.99.
Cardiff Genius (iPhone)
Obviously, if you pay your mobile bill in the UK, then there's no need to download this $0.99 Cardiff map app. However, it's an offline application, so it's a good one for those from abroad who'd rather not rack up roaming charges while trying to access Google Maps.
Cardiff Fans Chants & Songs (iPhone)
Cardiff City football fans are a spirited lot to say the least. The team's on a bit of a high at the moment and if you find yourself in a bar with football shirted men with a bluebird on the badge, then you might do well to be able to blend in with the crowd. This app will give you the lyrics to what on Earth it is you should be mouthing as well.
The true geekiest sights and sounds are often the hardest to find and there's no way that in a city like Cardiff, that this guide can have covered them all. So, whether you're a local or someone back from a visit, do let us know your tips and ideas in the comments for how to get techie in town.
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