The book-loving town of Hay on Wye is more than just a cover story. With quirky independent shops, stunning natural scenery, medieval ruins and outdoor pursuits, this Welsh charmer is a real page-turner.
Nestled on the banks of the River Wye and surrounded by the undulating countryside of the Brecon Beacons National Park, Hay on Wye is a small Welsh town with its identity firmly established in books. But dig a little deeper and you’ll soon find a collection of interesting things to do in Hay on Wye beyond its internationally acclaimed literary credentials.
Distinctly devoid of twee, not really posh and far from grungy, the vibe in Hay on Wye is confident, relaxed and easy-going. The annual Hay Festival may draw the crowds, but the charming river-side town has its own allure any time of year.
Outside the town, hiking trails range from tranquil river strolls to punishing mountainous climbs. The meandering river is perfect for a scenic paddle and country lanes and hilltop roads provide a myriad of cycling options or breathtaking views.
Here are our favourite things to do in Hay on Wye for a day trip or a relaxing weekend away in the UK.
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1 – WANDER AROUND HAY’S BOOKSHOPS
The first thing to do in Hay on Wye is to discover what put this pint-sized Welsh destination on the map – its love affair with books. Coming from London, sadly bereft of independent bookshops, stepping on to the streets of Hay on Wye is a sensory immersion in retail nirvana.
For anyone who gets their highs from browsing through interesting and quirky bookshops, Hay on Wye has enough to satisfy even the deepest addiction. With a focus on rare antiquarian books, there are many surprises to be found on the shelves.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop, the largest second-hand bookstore in Europe, is spread over a 3-floor emporium. The owner is credited with starting Hay on Wye’s book craze and his store is the best place to soak up the book-loving vibe. The Poetry Bookshop is the only second-hand book shop in the UK devoted to poetry and Murder & Mayhem covers detective fiction, true crime and horror.
2 – EXPLORE THE INDEPENDENT SHOPS IN HAY
There’s an understated cool vibe in Hay on Wye that extends beyond the shelves lined with rare and interesting tomes. It feels like a town that knows what it’s all about; the independent shops are the first glimpse of a self-assured destination.
Neither hippy nor posh and without an exaggerated focus on design, the shops in Hay on Wye are not about making bold statement. They’re quirky and interesting, but still friendly and welcoming.
Bain and Murrin’s is an emporium packed with unique clothes, shoes, accessories and general stuff from people with an eye for retail. Mostly Maps is an online and retail business specialising in fine, rare and unusual antique maps. The vinyl revival is alive and kicking in the bright purple Haystacks Music.
3 – PICK A HIKE IN THE BEAUTIFUL WYE VALLEY
Situated in the undulating countryside of Southern Wales beside the idyllic Wye River, a weekend in Hay on Wye is the ideal opportunity to stretch out beyond the limits of this charming market town and explore the Wye Valley.
STROLL ALONG THE RIVER ON THE WYE VALLEY WALK
The Wye Valley walk is a 136-mile trail that follows the River Wye over 12 days. However, you can easily pick off a small section of the hike to appreciate the beautiful scenery in this part of Wales with a stroll along the river.
The Rail Trail Circular walk is a 3.4-kilometre loop from the centre of town that ambles along the banks of the river, utilising an abandoned railway tunnel and track. Leaving from St Mary’s church, the walk passes Norman ruins, the beautiful Warren (more on that later) and several large grassy clearings by the river that are ideal for a picnic. It’s a relatively flat path which should take around an hour to complete.
HEAD TO THE BLACK MOUNTAINS ON OFFA’S DYKE PATH
If you’ve got a bit more energy, climb up to Hay Bluff via Offa’s Dyke Path – a stunning mountainous hiking path that follows the contours of the Black Mountains while crisscrossing the border between England and Wales.
The path starts from just south of Hay on Wye and climbs for around 7 or 8 kilometres to reach Hay Bluff. From here, great views extend across to the Black Mountains. You can either head back the way you came or continue along the magnificent ridge behind the bluff.
4 – TAKE A PADDLE TO THE WYE RIVER
The Wye River stretches for 215 kilometres creating a meandering border between England and Wales and around Hay on Wye it is idyllic. Lush green trees surround the wide river which ambles through farmland underneath imposing mountains. The best way to see it is on a canoe.
From the village of Glasbury, it takes 2 to 3 hours to paddle down to Hay on Wye. It’s a beautiful part of the river and, heading downstream you barely need to paddle at all. A few mini rapids along the course provide the faintest rush of adrenaline for inexperienced canoers. If you have a full day to spare, you can go all the way to Witney on Wye
Wye Valley Canoes in Glasbury rents out canoes or kayaks for half or a full day, with pick up from Hay on Wye or Witney on Wye included. For a slightly longer adventure, Celtic Canoes organises 2- or 3-day canoe trips where you can make it all the way from Glasbury to Hereford camping by the river on the way.
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5 – SWIM AT THE WARREN
If your visit to Hay on Wye coincides with some nice weather, the Warren is a small rocky beach on the banks of the Wye River which is perfect for wild swimming. Beyond the beach, a small grassy area is a great spot to have a picnic or kick a ball around for a lazy afternoon.
There are a couple of different ways to get to the Warren from Hay on Wye. Firstly, you can walk from St Mary’s church. It’s a lovely 20-minute stroll with glimpses of the river appearing between the dense foliage of the trees lining the water.
The other option is to collect the Warren on a canoe trip from Glasbury to Hay on Wye. The beach appears around 2 hours after leaving from Glasbury (about 20 minutes before you get to Hay on Wye). As you’ll probably be a bit wet from the canoe, it’s a good time to go for a swim anyway. A waterproof drum is provided by Wye Valley Canoes to store towels, picnic supplies and any other stuff.
6 – CYCLE VILLAGES AND MOUNTAINS
Dissecting the beautiful mountainous scenery in the area, numerous bike trails provide a great opportunity to get outdoors. It’s a wonderful thing to do in Hay on Wye for the exercise alone, but there’s also plenty to see along the way.
To explore the sleep villages of the area, a 24-mile circuit leaves from the town and takes the back roads over quiet country roads. With stops for photo opportunities along the way, this should take around 2-4 hours. If you add an extra 38 miles and extend the time to a full day, you can also cover the cute black and white villages of Herefordshire.
If you’re really prepared to work the legs, take a 30-mile cycle into the mountains for incredible views of the Black Mountains scarp. Allow 5 to 6 hours and lots of hard work. The friendly people at Drover Cycles will be able to kit you out with a bike and provide details on the best routes in the area.
7 – DEVOUR THE HAY ON WYE FOOD SCENE
While the town may be steeped in literature, there’s no fiction to the stories of fabulous locally sourced food radiating from Hay on Wye. While the Hay on Wye literary festival brings international visitors who are looking for decent grub, any time of year you’ll find great eating options in the town.
The Electric Café in the Old Electric Shop serves up excellent vegetarian food from a small daily menu. The Chinese buddha bowl and the homemade tagine were both delicious. The cake and coffee both let them down, so head over to the Globe at Hay where we found (surprisingly) much better coffee. It’s also a great place to sit outside in their garden and enjoy a drink.
At the other end of the eating spectrum, Chapters does a very reasonably priced seasonal set menu Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings. We were particularly impressed with the very creative vegetarian menu. Just outside Hay on Wye, in Glasbury, the River Inn Café (the café attached to Wye Valley Canoes) does tasty lunches on their deck overlooking the river.
If your visit to Hay on Wye coincides with the excellent cheese market on Thursdays, grab a pastry on the fly from the pop-up stall from Kate’s Bakery.
8 – DRIVE UP GOSPEL PASS TO HAY BLUFF
If hiking up to Hay Bluff feels like it will take more time and energy than you’re willing to expend, the scenic drive up via Gospel Pass gets you to the base of the bluff without any of the effort. It’s also a stunning drive.
The road to Gospel Pass follows the long, narrow, steep-sided Ewyas Valley with stunning views over the rolling country on one side and the Black Mountains on the other. The single-track road is the highest in Wales and one of the most scenic things to do in Hay on Wye.
Once you arrive at the top of the pass (the Hay Pass car park) there are various short walks you can do to explore the area, including a 9.2-kilometre loop up to Hay Bluff. Alternatively, you are free to roam around the unusually bobbly grassy area taking in one of the best views in Wales.
Once you’ve finished exploring the area continue to the Llanthony Priory.
9 – HAVE AN AFTERNOON PINT AT LLANTHONY PRIORY
Just a 20-minute drive from the Hay Bluff car park, the ruins of Llanthony Priory are one of the most atmospheric things to do near Hay on Wye. The priory dates back to 1100 but the ruins you see today are from the final rebuild in the 13th century.
Henry VIII disbanded the monastery in 1538 as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries whereby religious buildings were appropriated by the crown as one of his initial acts following the separation of English and Welsh churches from the control of the Pope. Henry VIII eventually sold the priory for £160 and, following subsequent owners, it was eventually left to decay.
Its current state creates a thoroughly atmospheric experience with the old ruins set in a remote valley in the Black Mountains. Velvety green grass frames the ruins which are backed by stunning views. Grab a pint from the hotel, remarkably built right within the abbey, and enjoy one of the most scenic drinks in Wales.
WHERE TO STAY IN HAY ON WYE
With the Hay Festival an international event attracting big tourist numbers every year, there are more accommodation choices in Hay on Wye than you would usually expect for a town of its size. Keep in mind, however, that accommodation can book out early over the festival, so book well in advance. Here are some suggestions for a great stay in Hay on Wye.
HAY ON WYE
THE SWAN AT HAY
Soak up the glamour of this Georgian building with elegant individually designed rooms, loads of style and a top location near the centre of town. There’s two bars to choose from and the relaxed bistro overlooks the lovely garden and patio
HEARTY & HOMELY
While this historic townhouse is bursting with rustic charm, it’s the friendly hosts who make the experience. Don’t go past the full delicious cooked breakfast.
OLD BLACK LION
An oldie but a goodie. Stay in traditionally styled rooms in this charming inn with a wooden-beamed bar. Centrally located in Hay on Wye and serving good food.
BEST TIME TO GO TO HAY ON WYE
Hay on Wye and the scenery that surrounds it has something to offer at any time of year. Between June and August the weather is at its best, the town will be buzzing and the countryside a lush shade of green. From September to November tourist numbers and accommodation rates start to cool off with the weather.
Over winter there will be a crisp chill in the air and the surrounding mountains might be frosted with snow – lovely conditions for a fresh wintery walk. The town will also be much quieter.
The cycling and canoeing are available any time of year although the Wye River will be a little more refreshing over winter and there may be snow on the hills.
The annual Hay Festival is what draws crowds to this otherwise sleepy Welsh town. The festival runs for 10 days from the end of May to the start of June, where international authors descend on the town to deliver talks. There’s also live music, short films and stuff for kids. The festival has become so popular it has branched out to international venues including Mexico, Spain, Croatia, Peru and Abu Dhabi.
Visiting Hay on Wye during the festival is a great thing to do, but it gets very busy so accommodation should be booked well in advance. Fortunately, at all other times of the year, there’s plenty to do in Hay on Wye.
HOW TO GET TO HAY ON WYE
There’s no train station in Hay on Wye so getting there via public transport involves catching a train to Hereford which is 22 miles away. From Hereford, bus services run 5 times a day from Monday to Saturday. There are no bus services on Sunday.
Over the Hay Festival there is additional public transport options so check their website for more information. If you need to hire a car for your Hay on Wye trip, we recommend rentalcars.com who compare prices across all major car rental companies.
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