Hiker in the woods at Cynefin Retreats
Cynefin Retreats

A guide to Hay-on-Wye: the best shops, restaurants and things to do

Words by Imogen Green
Last updated: May 16, 2024

From indie booksellers and bracing hikes to quirky pubs and impressively restored monuments – not to mention its blockbuster literary festival – here are the best things to do in Hay-on-Wye.

Hay-on-Wye isn’t your ordinary town. This small yet spirited spot on the border between England and Wales is home to a thriving book scene, excellent restaurants and traditional pubs. Despite its international fame as the home of Hay Festival – a heavyweight literary event that Bill Clinton once called ‘Woodstock for the Mind’ – it still retains a strong sense of its Welsh identity and heritage.

‘Hay’, as the locals term it, lives and breathes independence – something embodied by the constellation of small bookshops that now call it home. In 1977, a local second-hand bookseller named Richard Booth decided to put Hay on the map in a rather unique way, defiantly declaring the town an independent Kingdom of Books on April 1 – with himself as the king. From there Hay’s moniker as the World’s First Book Town was born.

Attendee at Hay Festival reads book in a deckchair
Hay Festival by Adam Tatton Reid

A decade later, a local family came up with an idea around their kitchen table that would eventually lead to the start of the internationally renowned Hay Festival. Over the years, this annual meeting of minds has transcended its local roots, spawning sister festivals around the world in Cartagena, Colombia and Segovia, Spain. Today, this international network has transformed the original festival into a site of cultural pilgrimage, where novelists, poets and readers come together, bound by a shared love of literature.

Located in the Wye Valley, with the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains visible on the horizon, Hay may be small but it punches well above its weight as a hub for voracious readers and the arts. For all the best things to do in this charismatic town, look no further.

One of the luxury lodges at Cynefin Retreats
Cynefin Retreats

The best hotels in Hay-on-Wye

Hay offers a number of compelling options to call home after a day traversing its cobbled streets, with contemporary glamping options at the forefront. Thanks to the beautiful scenery that surrounds the town at every turn, several spots offer a closer connection to the outdoors. Cynefin Retreats in particular embodies the concept of immersing oneself in nature, with individual luxury pods and lodges that allow you to experience the full natural beauty of the Welsh borderlands while still offering luxurious touches. During Hay Festival, further camping and glamping berths can be found at Tangerine Fields, which is the event’s official campsite.

Alternatively, head to Llangoed Hall, a countryside hotel set amid 17 acres of landscaped gardens. A short drive from Hay, this historic retreat offers a sophisticated stay in the heart of the Welsh countryside.

Only 30 minutes away is the city of Hereford, which offers two centrally located lodgings that serve as a worthy base for heading into Hay. One such option is the Castle House Hotel, where guests can expect refined dining in the award-winning Castle Restaurant, featuring seasonal, locally sourced menus. Nearby, the Green Dragon Hotel – one of the oldest hotels in England – is steeped in history, replete with original features such as exposed beams and open fireplaces, with a modern country-inspired design throughout.

The exterior of Chapters restaurant in Hay-on-Wye
Left: exterior of Chapters restaurant. Right: Locally sourced produce informs the menus

The best restaurants in Hay-on-Wye

While you may not expect a town of this size to have a varied culinary scene, Hay defies expectations. Starting with Chapters, a renowned, rustic spot that boasts a green Michelin star for its commitment to sustainability. Situated in a former chapel, this intimate restaurant showcases innovative and flavourful dishes, each one a celebration of the region’s finest produce.

Elsewhere, Tomatitos Tapas Bar spotlights seasonal ingredients on a menu of authentic small plates that cover Iberian classics, accompanied by a wine section curated from Spain.

Food and flowers line the table at Cosy Cafe, Hay-on-Wye
Image courtesy of Cosy Cafe

For those looking for somewhere to hole up and watch the town go by, the aptly named Cosy Cafe offers the perfect place to pause. Unmissable with a teal-toned exterior and orange sign, inside, its large floor-to-ceiling picture windows and exposed brick walls bring a touch of Brooklyn coffee culture to the town.

Lastly, for something a little different, head to Off Grid Gourmet, just outside the town. Headed up by chef Hugh Sawyer, this rustic set-up takes place in the middle of a field (with a covered section for chillier nights) and offers a true ‘back to nature’ dining experience. Everything is cooked over wood fires and smokers and fuelled by on-site solar panels and wind turbines. Expect a sensory feast with everything from roasted meats and caramelised vegetables on layered sharing platters to tarte tatin made with local apples.

Comic mural and bookshelves at the Murder and Mayhem bookshop in Hay-on-Wye
Murder and Mayhem. Image courtesy of Hay-on-Wye Tourist Information Bureau

The best shops in Hay-on-Wye

The high street in Hay is not one for big brands, instead focusing on independent shops. Head down the narrow streets of the town and, naturally, you’ll be drawn to the institution that is Richard Booth’s Bookshop. Dark red and classic in stature, this was the place that started the town’s literary revolution. A self titled ‘emporium’, inside you will find three floors of books offering everything from classic literature and contemporary fiction to travelogues and art and design tomes.

For those who prefer verse, head a few streets further along to The Poetry Bookshop. Founded in 1979, this independent boasts one of the most in-depth and comprehensive selections of second-hand and rare antiquarian poetry in the UK. Alternatively, for something more suspenseful, Murder and Mayhem is a haven for crime and thriller readers. This small but mighty bookshop boasts a diverse selection of classic titles such as Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes.

Homeware and art on display at the Old Electric Shop
Image courtesy of the Old Electric Shop

For a mix of vintage and curated finds, head to the Old Electric Shop. While its name might suggest something more historical, inside modern homewares are carefully curated with vintage and antique pieces, complete with warm and bright-coloured textiles, houseplants and its own cafe.

Beyond its books, the town has always been known for its thriving art community, with one leading spot being the Table and the Chair gallery on Lion Street. Split between two venues, it offers a modern and contemporary space for local artisans and craftsmen to hang their pieces. Open to all, it displays different mediums and is a place to witness Hay’s thriving local contemporary art scene.

Aerial shot of Hay FestivalBunting lines the tents at Hay Festival
Left: Aerial shot of Hay Festival. Right: Panellists perform to a packed tent. Photography by Sam Hardwick.

The best places to visit in Hay-on-Wye

No guide to Hay can ignore its festival. Located in a field called Dairy Meadows, just a ten-minute walk from the town centre, Hay Festival transforms this idyllic setting into the centre of the literary world for ten days each year. Since the 1980s, it’s attracted some of the biggest names in writing, politics, science and the arts, with Hillary Clinton, Dua Lipa, Bernardine Evaristo and Desmond Tutu just a few of the names that have previously graced the stage.

Visitors can attend talks, discussions and workshops alongside some of the world’s brightest and most creative minds. On site, every inch is decked in colourful bunting that lines the stages and tents. Elsewhere, choose from an array of local street food vendors in the food tent, browse Oxfam‘s second-hand book tent or sit back in one of the festival deck chairs scattered around the grounds, surrounded by fellow attendees engrossed in their new reads.

Black Mountains landscapes
A view across the Black Mountains. Photography by Michael Hamments

As you walk through the town centre, it’s difficult to ignore the vastness of Hay Castle, which serves as a cornerstone of Hay’s historical identity. Originally built in the 12th century as a Norman border stronghold, the castle now boasts a beautifully restored medieval keep. Following a meticulous restoration project completed in 2022, it’s now home to an outstanding art gallery that showcases contemporary and heritage works, and a rooftop terrace that offers unparalleled views of the town below.

Step out from the town and there is a wealth of hiking options on the doorstep, including Hay Bluff – the highest peak in the Black Mountains – with its wide panoramas of the Brecon Beacons and Wye Valley. Alternatively, you can explore the historic Offa’s Dyke Path, a 177-mile trail that runs from the town through part of the border between Powys and Herefordshire, with views to Pen-y-Fan to the south, finishing up in the market town of Knighton.


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