How to Visit Hay-on-Wye, the U.K.’s Book Lover Heaven

Hay-on-Wye clock tower.
Mark Williamson / Getty Images

Tucked away on the Welsh border, Hay-on-Wye is a town that draws thousands of visitors every year for a very unique reason. In spite of its minuscule size, this historic town is home to an astonishing number of bookshops, and is inundated by around half a million book lovers every year at the famous Hay Festival of Literature and Arts. Although this has led to Hay being internationally recognized as the Town of Books, its tumble-down streets have much more to offer than just the festival. Visit at any time of year for outdoor activities, serene countryside, and plenty of reading material.

Top Things to Do

From seeing your favorite authors at the Hay Festival to kayaking the River Wye, here are the top things to do during your trip.

  • Check Out the Hay Festival: Known as the Woodstock of the mind, Hay Festival is well-known as one of the world’s most prestigious literary festivals, and draws big-name authors and thousands of avid readers every spring. Entry to the festival site is free, with tickets on sale for individual events. Although talks from bestselling authors tend to sell out quickly, it’s possible to pop into smaller events by buying tickets at the door.
  • Visit Hay Castle: Although under renovation since 2018, the imposing ruins of Hay Castle will be worth a stop once complete. Until then, the famous and much-photographed Hay Castle Bookshop, a charming set of outdoor shelves in the castle grounds, is open and regularly restocked. Keep an eye on their website for the castle's reopening.
  • Go Hiking: The countryside surrounding Hay-on-Wye is the perfect place for a hike or stroll. The nearby Black Mountains have a range of trails for the adventurous visitor, while the 2.1-mile Hay-on-Wye River and Rail Trail Circular Walk is good for all skill levels.
  • Explore Tintern Abbey: If you ever tire of browsing books, then the nearby Tintern Abbey is an excellent afternoon out. Just over an hour outside of Hay-on-Wye, this gorgeous gothic ruin has become a national icon. 
  • Go Kayaking: Hay-on-Wye’s river has made it a favorite spot for keen kayakers and canoeists. You can rent your preferred watercraft from Wye Valley Canoes, and enjoy a hearty breakfast at their riverside café before your day on the water.
UK, Wales, Powys, Hay-on-Wye, Hay Castle, bookstalls in grounds
P A Thompson / Getty Images

Where to Shop for Books

It wouldn’t be a visit to Hay without some serious book shopping. The tiny town squeezes in more than 20 secondhand bookshops; to help you narrow down your options, we've put together a list of six unmissable places to browse.

  • Richard Booth’s Bookshop: Credited with transforming Hay-on-Wye into a book lover’s dream, Richard Booth founded the town’s first bookshop in 1962. Now, it's a vast palace of secondhand books set over several stories, with a cinema and restaurant to boot. It’s easy to lose hours wandering along the long shelves, perching at one of the comfy chairs upstairs, and discovering your next read.
  • Hay Cinema Bookshop: Hay-on-Wye’s cinema was transformed into a bookshop in 1965, making it one of the longest established bookshops in town. Stocking more than 200,000 secondhand and bargain books, the Hay Cinema Bookshop is an integral piece of the town’s literary history.
  • Addyman Books: Addyman Books is as famous for its Instagrammable interior as its great selection of reads. From a bright blue archway stocked with Penguin classics to a sci-fi section complete with cardboard cutouts, the store's themed rooms are the perfect place to strike a bookish pose.
  • Murder and Mayhem: Crime aficionados won’t be able to resist the macabre charms of Addyman’s sister store Murder and Mayhem. Selling detective fiction, true crime, and horror, the tiny bookshop has matched its décor to its stock with blood-red walls, police tape, and even the chalked outline of a "murder victim" on the floor.
  • The Poetry Bookshop: The Poetry Bookshop boasts the rather niche title of being the only secondhand poetry shop in the U.K. With beautiful vintage editions and budget-friendly anthologies, The Poetry Bookshop has been a Hay-on-Wye favorite since 1979.
  • The Children's Bookshop: For families visiting Hay-on-Wye, The Children’s Bookshop is the perfect place to introduce your kids to the joys of Hay’s literary heritage. Catering to both young readers and collectors, books range from 1920s annuals all the way through to modern-day favorites.
Falafel Pitta Dish

Courtesy of The Globe at Hay

Where to Eat and Drink

  • The Globe at Hay: An independent arts center based in a former Methodist Chapel, The Globe at Hay is a quirky venue to take in art exhibitions, talks, and live music—but the building also has a bar and café that serves a selection of seasonal and sustainable dishes.
  • The Electric Cafe: This is the place to go for great coffee, a friendly atmosphere, and a modern vegetarian menu (think soups, sandwiches, and delicious cakes). The Electric Cafe also operates as a bookshop and vintage store, and even plays host to the occasional pop-up cocktail bar.
  • Chapters: This fine dining establishment cooks up an ever-changing set menu, with six seasonal courses that highlight Welsh delicacies. Chapters is open Thursday to Saturday.
  • The Old Black Lion: If you’re looking for a classic country pub experience, former coaching inn The Old Black Lion serves gastropub quality dining and a great selection of local cask ales in a 17th-century setting. Guest rooms are available upstairs for those wanting to stay the night.
The Swan at Hay

Courtesy of The Swan at Hay

Where to Stay

When the Hay Festival of Literature rolls around, the town tends to be overrun and accommodation can be difficult to find. With limited places to stay, camping is a popular option and there are plenty of pop-up sites at festival time. Book early to avoid disappointment, or visit outside of festival season for more options.

  • Racquety Farm: A short walk uphill from Hay-on-Wye, Racquety Farm is a budget option, with campsites for tents and camper vans, geodesic tents, and compact cabins available. The accommodation might be basic, but even the cheapest pitches include hot showers, firewood, and electric charging points. Views over the town make this a picturesque place to spend the night.
  • The Swan at Hay: If you’re looking for a more upmarket option, then the four-star Swan at Hay might be to your taste. The listed Georgian building has 19 ensuite bedrooms and is just a few minutes from the center of town. They also serve up a delicious menu at the elegant dining room downstairs.
  • Duke’s Farm Holiday Cottages: For larger groups struggling for space in Hay-on-Wye, there are plenty of holiday rentals in the wider area. Duke’s Farm Holiday Cottages is a cluster of three converted barn buildings a short drive from town. With roaring log fires, a game room, and stunning views, this is the perfect location for a rural getaway.