Cardiff, Wales: Best places to shop - the classic arcades

Saunter around the laneways and arcades of Cardiff and soak up the atmosphere of days gone by, writes Tim Richards.

Despite its age, Spillers Records doesn't look like the oldest record shop in the world. When it opened in 1894, Spillers met the needs of Cardiff's music fans by selling recordings on wax cylinders and shellac discs.

Now, tucked into a corner of Morgan Arcade, it appears this venerable music shop's decor was last updated in the 1970s. Its logo sports a groovy retro font, and there are racks of vinyl records in the upstairs room.

It's nice to see this humble retailer has survived, at least so far, the rise of downloadable music.

A sign on the wall says the shop has been an influential meeting place for Welsh musicians over the decades, and the steady flow of customers flicking through CDs and records suggests there may be life in the old dog yet.

Much the same can be said for Cardiff's shopping arcades. Enormously popular in the late 19th century – when most of them were built – they're attractive laneways of timber-lined shopfronts sheltered by long peaked roofs of glass planes.

It seems like a scene from an idyllic retail past, with wooden shelves, wicker baskets, and staff in white coats cutting cheese to order.

Tim Richards

The arcades are a lesser-known attraction of the Welsh capital, threaded through the pedestrian-friendly city centre. They've hit highs and lows as the nature of shopping has changed over the years, but now play host to an interesting mix of classic and hip retailers.

One of the former is Wally's Delicatessen, in Royal Arcade. Founded in the postwar years by a Jewish family who had fled the Nazi takeover of Austria, it moved around the city before settling here.

The marvellously old-fashioned interior stretches through a number of shopfronts, the windows piled with packets of imported goods. It seems like a scene from an idyllic retail past, with wooden shelves, wicker baskets, and staff in white coats cutting cheese to order.

Local produce is well represented. Among the Welsh cheeses is Amber Mist, a cheddar blended with whisky; oak-smoked Caerphilly; and my own favourite, Y Fenni - a cheddar blended deliciously with mustard seed and ale. The deli's stock of Welsh ciders would be an ideal match with this cheese.

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I head upstairs to visit a recent addition to the business, Wally's Kaffeehaus. Early in the morning there are only a few people in this Viennese-style cafe but we're all aiming to look like archetypal  cafe-goers; three of us are writing notes while two white-haired gents by the window have an animated discussion about world events.

I order the Mozart Kaffee, a double espresso with sherry brandy and whipped cream. Inevitably, the Blue Danube swells over the speakers as I sip.

Not that it's all old-school in these arcades. Further along Royal Arcade I spot Vom Fass, which decants spirits including whisky and brandy to order; Dotclothing, the outlet of a cutting-edge local fashion designer; and the oh-so-hipster Keep the Faith, a "bespoke tattoo and barber studio".

The Plan, in Morgan Arcade, is a cafe in a big glass-fronted store on the junction of two lanes, serving good coffee and vegan dishes. Nearby, there's a shop with a posh dark interior filled with expensive men's shoes. It's called The Brogue Trader.

If Morgan Arcade is subtly more upmarket than its rivals, Cardiff Market is the people's choice. A de facto arcade, this covered market stretches back from an imposing stone and brick facade.

There are stalls geared towards tourists as you pass through the entrance. Further on, however, are outlets of a more traditional hue, selling tools, crockery, meat, jewellery, and fruit. Among the oldest tenants is Ashton, a 200-year-old fishmonger.

To finish my exploration of Cardiff's arcades, I enter the 1887 Castle Arcade. As the name suggests, it's located near Cardiff Castle.

With upper and lower levels, its mishmash of outlets includes art gallery Subject to Change; a nitrogen ice-cream bar known as Science Cream; cheese specialist Madame Fromage; and Strawberry Fields, selling eclectic collectables from Russian dolls to a ukulele signed by the Beatles.

There are several more arcades to explore on another day, including High Street Arcade and its tea houses; Wyndham Arcade with its Bear Shop full of vintage men's accessories which have become cool again (hip flasks, cuff links, shaving brushes); and St David's Centre, which adapts the look of a classic Cardiff arcade to the space of a modern shopping mall.

For now, I'm content to have a drink at Coffee Barker, a  cafe inhabiting several shopfronts within Castle Arcade. With its random scatter of comfy leather sofas, and decor consisting of antlers and old clocks, it feels like a random tribute to the Victorian past. Much like its arcade.

Tim Richards was hosted by Visit Britain and Visit Wales.

THE FACTS

FLY

Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies from Melbourne to London from $1900 return. Cardiff is a two-hour train journey from London Paddington (see thetrainline.com).

STAY

Radisson Blu Hotel, Bute Tce, Cardiff, radissonblu.co.uk.

Austins Guesthouse, 11 Coldstream Tce, Cardiff, hotelcardiff.com.

SHOP

Morgan and Royal Arcades, royalarcadecardiff.com.

Cardiff Market, cardiff-market.co.uk.

St David's Centre, stdavidscardiff.com.

Cardiff shopping guide, visitcardiff.com/shopping.

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