For a fortnight each summer, book lovers from around the world descend on the peaceful town of Hay-on-Wye in their droves, eager to be a part of its internationally renowned literary festival.
However, for the other 50 weeks a year, Hay-on-Wye continues on its business as a sleepy little country town close to Wales/England border. There may not be as many famous faces to see or events to attend, but these weeks are, in my opinion, when you’ll get the most out of a trip to Hay-on-Wye.
Why you ask? Well, I can’t imagine it’s very easy, or that enjoyable, to really explore the small town and its myriad of quirky bookstores when the hundreds of thousands of festival ticket holders arrive!
Instead I recommend enjoying the real Hay-on-Wye, like we did, outside of the festival season, when you’ll have the chance to get lost in the stores’ vast warrens of bookshelves, with secret corners all to yourself, or comfortably grab yourself a cosy chair in one of the cafes and start reading your latest purchase…
What to see in Hay-on-Wye
Hay-on-Wye is essentially a normal small country town, but one that’s become famous for its large number of bookshops. These are the main ‘sights’ the town has to offer, aside from a few nice bars, cafes and restaurants, but make for a lovely day of exploring, and the whole town can easily be traversed by foot.
In most hotels, and of course the small Tourist Information Centre, you can pick up a red map of the town’s 23 bookstores, as well as bookbinders, printers and more stores beyond the town’s border. I recommend grabbing this and then planning out a route for your first day, making sure you note the stores you definitely want to visit, as it’s likely you’ll run out of time to see them all!
Highlights of Hay-on-Wye
Each store has its own specialism, such as children’s’ titles, murder mystery, transport, science fiction and poetry, and some have to be seen just for their quirky designs and layouts. Here are a few of my personal favourites.
Murder and Mayhem
This place is amazing! Dedicated to detective fiction, true crime and horror, its one of the most fantastically decorated book shops in Hay-on-Wye. My personal highlight had to be the chalk body outline at the bottom of the stairs!
If this is your genre of choice it shouldn’t be missed, and even if it’s not, I still recommend you pop in for the décor alone!
This store is a joy to explore and one that I believe families would enjoy the most, thanks to the treasure hunt of quirky cubbyholes you can go on.
Many rooms are decorated in the style of the literature, from steam punk through to sci-fi. There’s a Bat-Cave dedicated to vampire-related titles and if you venture up to the top of the store you’ll be rewarded with a recreation of Scott’s Antarctic Hut!
I particularly liked this store as it had lots of comfy chairs scattered throughout, making it an easy spot to while away a few hours.
Ok, this one isn’t exactly a bookstore, but its still an amazing shop to peruse. Mostly Maps is overflowing with antique maps from around the world including Ordnance Survey and antique topographical maps as well as satirical prints. We actually ended up visiting the shop twice we loved it so much, and spent a good hour looking through all the amazing old world maps, as well as antique maps of our current county and hometowns. Well worth a visit!
Just down the road from Mostly Maps you’ll find Hay Castle hidden behind an old stone wall with an antique wooden door. More a mansion in size and style than a castle, this building was built in the 12th century. Long owned privately owned, it has fallen into a bad state of disrepair. Locals banded together to buy the castle in 2011 and now a major restoration project is underway, which will see the building be turned into a national heritage attraction.
It hopes to open to the public in 2020, but for now it’s still worth peeping through the door to see the magnificent frontage, and also take a look at the honesty bookshop, where money donated goes to the restoration fund.
Hay Cinema Bookshop
Be prepared to get lost! This converted cinema is now filled with floor to ceiling bookshelves across three floors and you can easily lose each other as you wander further and further back into the cavernous space.
Complete with creaky floorboards and directions at the end of rows, this is a proper booklovers top spot and reminiscent of an old local library.
Richard Booth’s Bookshop, Café and Cinema
Richard Booth is the man known as establishing Hay-on-Wye as ‘The Town of Books’. He is also the self-proclaimed King of Hay, as on April 1st 1977 he declared the town an independent kingdom, with him as its leader. Yep, a quirky fellow, for sure! However, you can’t deny he is the man who put Hay on the map, and he continues to be at the town’s heart.
This includes opening this store, although it is now has a new owner – which is a real hub in the town, thanks to its café and cinema. It’s one of the more modern stores – no cold drafts, damp smelling carpets and sadly, that beloved old book store smell.
Still, it’s well worth a visit, as it reminded me of a Waterstones with heart – buzzing with visitors, it’s warm and inviting with cosy leather seats and long tables to sit at while you peruse potential purchases…
Day two – head further afield
After a day of exploring the town, and most likely bringing back to your hotel several bags of new books, on your second day I recommend venturing further afield.
Hay-on-Wye is surrounded by countryside, and when the weather is good there are lots of great outdoor pursuits to get involved in.
Simply go for a lovely stroll to the Warren, a pretty meadow and river beach spot perfect for spring or summer picnicking, or pop on your walking boots and go out to explore the valley or climb the local hills the Hay Bluff and the Twmpa. For the more adventurous, a canoe ride down the river Wye is recommended.
Where to stay in Hay-on-Wye
There’s lots of camping options, glamping and yurts for those who want to immerse themselves in the great outdoors, but for those who prefer more comfort, I recommend booking yourself into the Swan at Hay, which I recently reviewed. Known as one of the best hotels in Hay-on-Wye, it’s very well placed for exploring the town and its environs.
A weekend break in Hay-on-Wye
So there you have it – the perfect itinerary for a weekend in Hay-on-Wye. Day one is dedicated to books and day two to the great outdoors. Is this the kind of weekend break you’d enjoy?