While the 10th largest city in the UK has a history it can trace back to well before Romans roamed the Welsh valleys, it is only in the last decade or so that Cardiff has really been put on the map of significant tourist destinations. The city now welcomes more than 18m visitors a year; nearly double the 10m figure that paid a trip to the Welsh capital in 1999.
In that time Wales has continued to assert its independence after it achieved political devolution as a country in 1997. Cardiff in the period has built a £102m arts venue in the Wales Millennium Centre, completed Europe's largest waterfront regeneration project in the £1.8bn Cardiff Bay development, opened the Millennium Stadium and added a large extension to the St David's shopping centre with a bill of £750m.
The cash flowing into Cardiff has paid dividends with the city making the top 10 list of conference destinations and increasing its student population. But which of these projects, developments or milestones have made the biggest contribution to the growth in the hospitality industry in the city?
"The stadium, together with the development of Cardiff Bay, has been the real catalyst in the growth of Cardiff over the last decade," Ed Townsend, head of public relations at the city's official promotional agency Cardiff & Co tells BigHospitality.
"Cardiff has grown, with new venues, global hotel brands sitting alongside great independent hotels, great shopping and a wide range of bars and restaurants." he says.
Dotted around its nearly 1,000 listed buildings are 547 bars, cafés and restaurants many of which have begun trading since the turn of the Millennium.
One restaurant that joined the sector during the recent boom years is Pica Pica, an independent modern Mediterranean Tapas restaurant and wine bar. Its owners, David Tudor Griffiths and Matthew Dalley, met in the city working for a bar and years later decided to set-up a new restaurant and wine bar to combat what they saw as a lack of variety in the city.
"The city is transformed," Dalley says. "If we say ten years ago it was a very limited offering even for comparable provincial cities like Bristol. You had large chain pubs, small 'mom and pop' dated restaurants and a few other big chains but you didn't have any independents offering a high standard of customer service and value for money. One night we had to take our own limes with us because you couldn't find a bar in town that had a lime in it."
In Dalley's opinion the Cardiff Bay development has boosted domestic tourism which has had a knock-on effect on restaurants operating in nearby Mermaid Quay and elsewhere. However he points out the Bay remains a distance from the actual City Centre.
Professionals and retail
The driver for hospitality growth in the city centre has been, he claims, the establishment of many company's headquarters in the city chasing cheap rents and the knock-on effect on the amount of professional people living in Cardiff. This has been coupled with the residential city centre developments, the building of the national stadium and the opening of the Motorpoint Arena.
Recent openings have been largely polarised focused either on high-end dining in the Cardiff Bay area, such as French bistro concept Côte which moved into Mermaid Quay two years ago, and casual dining operators. Much of the lower-end development has focused on shopping centres or units near retail spots in response to the position of Cardiff as the 6th most popular UK city for shopping.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italian chain took up residence in the new St David's shopping centre extension alongside brands such as Red Hot World Buffet, Ed's Easy Diner, GBK, Wagamama, Prezzo and the first UK site for American chain Ruby Tuesday.
Restaurant development in Cardiff does not look like slowing either with Richard Caring-backed Bill's Produce set to launch in the city. Employment in the sector may soon be a reality for prisoners at HMP Cardiff if The Clink charity restaurant goes ahead with plans to expand to Wales.
If restaurant development has arguably been polarised between expensive dining options and cheaper casual operations the pub and bar sector appears to be just as polarised.
Social network CitySocialising recently declared Cardiff to be the top UK destination for socialising and going out; a fact that might explain the growth of the drinking bar and club crowd in the city. A fact that might also explain the significant backlash in Cardiff to plans for a national Late Night Levy.
Nick Newman runs the Live Lounge bar and is also chair of Cardiff Licensees Forum; he started work in bars in Cardiff 30 years ago in 1982. "The biggest change in the business dates back to the 2005 Licensing Act where businesses could open later and operate for longer hours. There has been a big rise in bars over nightclubs. The nightclubs are fewer and further between but there seems to be a bar on every street corner. If you can open all day you do," he says.
The opening stats seem to back up Newman's thesis. Bars including Revolucion de Cuba, 10 Feet Tall and Buffalo have all opened in recent years with cocktail and Tiki bar Kapu set to join the fray this year.
According to Dalley the reputation of Cardiff as a going-out destination has changed the feel of the city. "Over the last two or three years it has gone from being a very vibrant city that is hugely busy on a Friday or Saturday night to somewhere that is very lively where people go out later and spend less money," he says, adding that many bar-goers in the city drink at home before heading out till late.
Bars with Brains
At the other end of the scale pubs have, like many across the country, changed to meet differing customer demands. No feature on Cardiff could omit Brains or S A Brains the city's famous brewer and pubco.
Like many pub operators, Cardiff-based Brains have increased their food offering with sales from eating in rising to over a third of sales in its managed estate. Late last year as it looked to step up its focus on food, Brains re-opened a pub it had previously operated under a new dry-led brand - Greenwood & Brown.
The move to food and drink in a relaxed pub or bar setting led the expanding firm Loungers to take on its biggest test yet in the Welsh city. Alex Reilley will open a massive 7,300sq.ft site in St David's shopping centre later this year.
The growing number of visitors to Cardiff have a growing number of hotels to choose from with 8,413 bedrooms in the Welsh capital. The majority of the bedstock is contained within mid-scale or budget venues - Irish hotel group Maldron launched its first site in the UK last year when the 3-star hotel opened.
InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) recognised the opportunity for higher-end or boutique hotels in the city when it last month announced plans to bring the Hotel Indigo brand to Wales and Cardiff.
"There are very few boutique hotels in the market and we’re confident Hotel Indigo Cardiff will attract domestic and international guests who want to experience the local area," Robin Wicks, chief executive of Sanguine Hospitality which will manage the hotel says.
There was discussion in the press after the Maldron opening about whether Cardiff has reached saturation point with too many venues in the city for tourists. However Marie Fagan, chair of Cardiff Hoteliers' Association and general manager of the Hilton Cardiff, says the city and the association is working to raise its corporate profile to aid hotel sector growth.
"Pinnacle to the Cardiff’s growth in the corporate sector is the development of a convention centre. The Hoteliers’ Association is actively campaigning for a dedicated convention centre in the city," she says.
Fagan adds that any new convention centre would help Cardiff compete with other major cities. It should, she says, be in the city centre due to local businesses all being within walking distance of each other.
While various development projects, changes in the night time economy, pub custom and tourist demographics have driven changes in the hospitality sector, Townsend also refers to the layout of the city being a top reason for its success.
"We like to call it the 15-minute capital. You can find all that you would expect in a capital city within a 15-minute walk or a short bus or taxi ride," he says. It certainly seems the Welsh capital is developing a reputation as a hospitality capital too.
Check back on BigHospitality tomorrow for our last investigation into hospitable cities outside London; tomorrow we head to be beside the seaside in Brighton. To read all our articles in this feature, click here.