Nestled in the heart of the Brecon Beacons National Park, Brecon is a thoroughly modern market town. Alongside handsome Georgian architecture, medieval heritage and military history, you’ll find an active community where galleries, theatre, live music and museums contribute to a busy cultural scene.
Mention Brecon and you can’t help thinking of the Brecon Beacons. The Beacons, after all, dominate the surroundings and skyline. But don’t get too carried away by the sight of them, for the town merits as much exploration as those enticing razor-sharp summits.
At the meeting of the rivers Usk and Honddu, Brecon has long been one of Powys’s most important communities. As a military, religious, industrial and agricultural centre it’s always punched above its weight, most recently as a popular base for visiting the Brecon Beacons National Park.
But Brecon is also a destination in its own right, where a weighty heritage sits alongside an abundance of present-day charm. Explore the network of town-centre streets and you’ll find open spaces and narrow thoroughfares blessed with an unusual number of well-preserved Georgian houses – plus buildings dating back even further in Brecon’s history. Many are now home to shops, galleries and cafés that contribute to the town’s character, a fusion of arty cool and muddy-boot country.
To get a feel for Brecon’s effortless blend of past and present, Y Gaer is probably the best place to start. This striking cultural centre, named after a nearby Roman fort, is an amalgam of the historic Shire Hall (home to the Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery), with a new library, community hub and café.
A talisman for the entire town, it’s a stylish combination of old and new, the Shire Hall’s classical, colonnaded façade meshing with a bold contemporary design of glass and steel, surrounded by garden spaces carefully crafted to reflect the landscapes of Mid Wales.
Inside you’ll find displays of archaeological finds dating back to Roman times, historic artefacts telling the story of Welsh life through the ages and a richly varied collection of classical and contemporary art. It’s a centuries-spanning attraction that perfectly showcases modern Brecon’s unique atmosphere and appeal.
Galleries and groceries
The arty vibe continues on Brecon’s streets, lined with shops selling arts, crafts and unique Welsh gifts. There’s also a good selection of galleries – like Found, for example, a refreshingly diverse contemporary space displaying art, ceramics, photography and changing exhibitions.
There’s also Ardent, which houses three floors of works by local and international artists in the oldest surviving building on Brecon’s High Street, and Gate Gallery and Glassworks, where you can browse unique glass creations inspired by the natural shapes and textures of the flowing landscapes surrounding Brecon.
The lively shopping scene offers plenty to keep browsers busy. Along with department stores like Nicholls selling everything from homewares and luxury textiles to designer waterproofs and wellington boots, you’ll find a choice of independent outlets and outdoor gear shops.
Brecon’s traditional covered market is a big draw. With a rotating programme of farmers’ markets, crafts fairs and flea markets (as well as a selection of permanent stalls selling staples like meat, fish, fruit and veg) it’s a central part of the community where socialising is almost as important as shopping.
Music in mind
Brecon has always moved to its own beat. The world-famous Brecon Jazz Festival has been held here in some form since the 1980s, attracting music lovers and performers from across the globe. While the festival has often grabbed the headlines, it’s just part of a musical thread woven through Brecon’s daily life.
Venues like The Muse, a Congregationalist chapel turned community hub and art space, stage regular concerts hosted by Brecon Jazz Club and the Mid Wales Rhythm & Blues Club. If that isn’t to your taste, there are classical performances at the cathedral and an annual festival of Baroque music.
You’ll find more music at the town’s showpiece venue, Theatr Brycheiniog, plus a year-round programme of plays, comedy and spoken word performances. The theatre (also a gallery and community art space) is located next at the pretty, flower-decked Canal Basin, the western extreme of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Once a busy industrial hub packed by barges laden with coal and lime, it’s now a popular starting place for pleasure cruises and waterside strolls.
Out and about
There’s more watery walking at The Promenade, a lovely riverside path that tracks the banks of the Usk west from its confluence with the Honddu. It’s a short, peaceful stroll with plenty of opportunities to spot the wildlife that thrives in the Usk Valley. And if messing about in boats is your thing, you can hire one from the boathouse at The Promenade’s end to get even closer to the river.
On the opposite bank from the boathouse you’ll catch a glimpse of Brecon Golf Club. This nine-hole course is less than a mile from the centre of town – ideal for those who prefer to do their walking with a club in their hand.
For an in-depth look into Brecon’s heritage, head up Priory Hill to see the impressive Brecon Cathedral. Beginning life as a Benedictine Priory in 1093, it’s been through a lot of changes in its nearly millennia-long history, surviving the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537 to eventually receive cathedral status in 1923. As a place of worship and a venue for concerts and recitals, it’s a historic site that remains very much alive in the 21st century.
Thanks to its 14th-century Havard Chapel, the Regimental Chapel of the Royal Welsh, the cathedral also links to another of Brecon’s historic attractions – the Royal Welsh Museum at the opposite end of town on The Watton. Commemorating over 400 years of Brecon’s military heritage, the museum is packed with fascinating artefacts from campaigns across the world, most notably the Anglo-Zulu War Collection and the Victoria Crosses awarded at Rorke’s Drift, an event that became the subject of the famous 1964 move Zulu.
CURIOSITIES AND SURPRISES
Good boy. One of Y Gaer Museum’s most unusual exhibits is a stuffed chihuahua called Rigi. The beloved pet belonged to world-famous opera singer Adelina Patti, who lived at nearby Craig y Nos Castle from 1878 to her death in 1919.
A royal visit. During the Civil War in 1645, King Charles passed through Brecon with parliamentarian forces hot on his heels. He is said to have made an escape via a steep flight of cobbled steps leading off what is now The Struet (a street running parallel to the River Honddu, north of the town centre). They are still known as the King’s Steps today.
Star power. Sarah Siddons was born in The Shoulder of Mutton pub on Brecon High Street in 1755. She would go on to become Britain’s most prominent actress, famous for her portrayal of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. You can still get a pint in her birthplace, now renamed The Sara Siddons in her honour.
Strike a light. Medieval monks kept long hours, rising before dawn and carrying on with their devotions deep into the night. In Brecon Cathedral you can see Wales’s only known example of a cresset stone, a large slab carved with indentations that would be filled with tallow and wick to provide light as the holy men went about their duties.
Battle stations. Many of us will have seen the Michael Caine-starring 1964 movie Zulu, based on the story of the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Discover the facts behind the film at the Royal Welsh Museum, home to an impressive collection of archives and artefacts related to the battle.
Nice to meet you. Brecon sits at the meeting point of the River Usk and River Honddu. The town’s Welsh name Aberhonddu translates as ‘mouth of the Honddu’.
Captain’s log. Another of Y Gaer’s more curious exhibits is the amazingly intact logboat discovered at nearby Llangorse Lake in 1925. Dating back to between AD760 and 1020, this wizened vessel was carved from a single trunk of oak. It’s thought to be associated with the Llangorse crannog, an artificial island on the lake that served as a royal residence for the rulers of the ancient Kingdom of Brycheiniog.
Roman ruins. Brecon’s Y Gaer museum is named after the Roman fort a few of miles west of the town. A tranquil place today in farmland beside the River Usk, it’s difficult to imagine it as one of the Romans’ largest inland forts, guarding a strategic spot overlooking the meeting between two major roads.
Old school. Founded in 1541 by Henry VIII, Christ College is the second-oldest school in Wales. It’s also one of just a handful of public schools that you’ll find in the country.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
There’s a lot to see and do on a day out in Brecon. Here are a few things you won’t want to miss. While you don’t have to visit them in this order, we’ve laid them out in a way that will help you get the best of your time in town. And if you only have half a day or less to spend, simply pick the places that spark your curiosity.
Y Gaer Museum, Art Gallery and Library
Named after the Roman fort close to the town, this cultural and community hub, a dazzling combination of old and new, encapsulates Brecon’s unique atmosphere. Merging the historic Shire Hall with a state-of-the-art construction of glass and steel, it’s home to the Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery, plus a café and the town’s library.
It’s packed with fascinating exhibits that stretch all the way back to Brecon’s Roman past, plus an impressive collection of classical and contemporary art. If you have time, take a stroll through Y Gaer’s gardens, a series of striking outdoor spaces designed to echo the landscapes of Mid Wales.
Royal Welsh Museum
Brecon is a garrison town with centuries of military heritage. The Royal Welsh Museum brings this heritage to life with an impressive archive of documents and artefacts from campaigns across the world. Most notable is the Anglo-Zulu War Collection, covering battles at Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift (immortalised in the 1964 film Zulu). Alongside Victoria Crosses awarded to those who fought, you’ll see the flag that flew over Rorke’s Drift and the first account of the battle, written just hours after the fighting ended.
Canal Basin and Theatr Brycheiniog
Once a busy industrial hub for barges carrying cargoes of coal, lime and agricultural products, Brecon’s Canal Basin is now focused purely on pleasure. At the western end of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, it’s a lively launching point for laid-back cruises and canalside walks.
Sitting at the water’s edge in Canal Basin is Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon’s showpiece arts venue. Alongside a packed calendar of plays, stand-up comedy, music, lectures and talks, you’ll also find a shifting programme of exhibitions featuring works from local and international artists.
Take a stroll along The Promenade, a peaceful riverside path that tracks the banks of the Usk. It’s an easy walk with plenty for wildlife watchers and bird spotters to enjoy along the way. If you have time, we’d recommend that you hire a boat from the boathouse at The Promenade’s end (short duration hire is available).
Starting out as a Benedictine priory in 1093 (though it may have been built on the site of an even earlier church), what is now the cathedral has been a constant in Brecon life for centuries. Its long history is reflected in its architecture, which includes Norman arches, a soaring 19th-century timber roof and an adjoining tithe barn from the 16th century.
You can also see a selection of unusual artefacts, including an elaborately carved Norman font, a stone used by archers at the Battle of Agincourt to sharpen their arrows and Wales’s only surviving cresset stone (a medieval lamp used by the cathedral’s monks).