Last Updated on 14th January 2020 by Sophie Nadeau
Books in the castle, shelves on the streets and more little boutique bookstores than you could ever have thought possible: this is Hay-on-Wye, an adorable town on the Welsh/ English border.
Filled with all things book related and plenty of quaint eateries where you can enjoy traditional British grub with your new purchases, if you’re a bibliophile then you simply must see this book-town for yourself on any visit to Wales! And, if you head there in the early summer, then there’s even a world-famous literary festival to attend…
A history of Hay-on-Wye as a book town
The idea of transforming this welsh town into a go-to dream for literary lovers simply didn’t start overnight. In fact, the bookish town began in 1961 when Richard Booth opened the town’s first second-hand bookshop in an old firehouse.
After hearing that lots of libraries in the USA were closing down, Booth stocked up on plenty of books. Soon, many other people in town opened their own bookshops, with many specialising in a specific niche. Now, there are bookshops dedicated to rare, vintage, children’s, historical tomes and more. In total, Hay on Wye now has over twenty bookstores, all dedicated to the love of written word.
Rumour has it that Richard Booth, self-proclaimed ‘King of Hay’ once owned most of the shops in town, though today he runs just one. His original store in the firehouse is now run by Elizabeth Haycox who was inspired by beautiful bookstores such as Shakespeare and Company in Paris. As well as plenty of bookstores, Hay also has a growing number of antique shops you may also want to check out while visiting.
Hay on Wye Festival for Literary Lovers
Each year, an annual book Hay festival is held in Hay-on-Wye to celebrate books, as well as the town itself. Bill Clinton once called it the ‘Woodstock of the Mind’ and the festival has been held for two weeks each year for over thirty years. Cut off from the rest of the world by a dismal phone signal and lacking in chain stores, a wander through Hay on Wye is a step back into the past and an adventure of literary proportions (literally!)
Usually, the festival is held at the beginning of June. It attracts book lovers, writers, artists, among others. A normally tiny population of around 1500 permanent residents increases to up to half a million during the festival season. Live performances are held in the evenings (typically costing around £10 per event), plenty of food stalls serve freshly made food, and the festival itself is free to enter.
Taking place between the end of May and beginning of June each year, the Hay Festival lasts for around 10 days and is easily one of the best literary festivals in the world. For more information about visiting and how to attend, check out this guide on everything you need to know about Hay Festival.
Hay On Wye Bookshops you must visit when in Hay-on-Wye
Of course, when you first arrive at the book filled town, named Y Gelli Gandryll in Welsh, it can be a little overwhelming to choose to visit one or two must-see bookshops. However, if you’re looking for a specific type of book or thing to do, then you’ll surely find it in one of Hay on Wye’s many stores.
Honesty bookshop in the castle ruins of Hay
My absolute favourite bookshop in Hay-on-Wye (if it’s possible to choose one) was the set of shelves set against the castle ruins. The castle is one of two castles in the town (there are castles pretty much everywhere you go in Hay!) and honesty bookshops can be found throughout the rest of the town. They are basically open-air shelves (I have no idea how the books stay dry!) with payment boxes nearby that you’re expected to put your money in, be ‘honest,’ and then enjoy your purchase!
Richard Booth’s Bookshop, 44 Lion St, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford HR3 5AA
Quirky and bursting with books, Richard Booth is often credited as the person who single-handedly introduced the idea of Hay-on-Wye as a bookish town. Open on a daily basis, inside there’s a three-level emporium absolutely bursting with books. There’s also a café and cinema showing independent and popular films.
Hay on Wye Booksellers, 13-14 High Town, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford HR3 5AE
Situated in the very heart of town, with its timber-framed façade, vintage sign and two floors of wooden shelving inside, Hay on Wye Booksellers is arguably the most iconic of all Hay on Wye bookshelves. If you feel like wandering inside, then make sure to set aside plenty of time to peruse the shelves, sit in the comfortable armchairs and bring a bit of cash to buy a book or two. We ended up staying in this cosy store for well over an hour during our visit to Hay! And you may well find that you will as well…
The Poetry Bookshop, Cranbourne House, Lion St, Hay-on-Wye HR3 5BU
This unique boutique is the only Second-Hand bookshop in the entire UK dedicated to poetry. Filled with books, tomes, and more books on the subject of lyrical writing, the bookstore is a must visit if you love poetry, or even if you simply want to visit a specialised bookshop.
Murder and Mayhem, 5 Lion St, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford HR3 5AA
Joining the ranks of the very best bookstores in Hay-on-Wye, Murder and Mayhem sells just what its name suggests: all things related to horror, thriller and detective stories. This specialised store is the kind of place you never thought you needed to visit. But once you step inside, you’ll find yourself hard-pressed to pry yourself away from the shelves of crime stories just waiting to be read…
The Addyman Annexe, 27 Castle St, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford HR3 5DF
If you’re looking for an instagramable location in Hay-on-Wye, then you’ll most likely find the perfect spot if you head inside Addyman’s, a maze of shelves, books and small reading nooks. A sign outside proclaims that ‘Kindles are banned’.
After all, this is not a shop that celebrates the art of writing, but the art of books themselves. Sister shop to Murder and Mayhem, which is located just across the street, many of the books are organised by colour. While this is perfect for photos and aesthetically pleasing, it’s not the best method for finding a book you want to read!
Addyman Books, 39 Lion St, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford HR3 5AA
A third bookshop owned by the same person as Murder & Mayhem, as well as the Addyman Annexe, is that of Addyman Books. Specialising in rare, vintage and unique finds, you’ll find it hard to leave these premises without purchasing a tome or two!
How to get to Hay-on-Wye
Located in the county of Powys, Southern Wales, Hay-on-Wye is easy to reach from London and the Welsh capital, Cardiff. Although when we visited the Welsh town, we travelled by car, there’s also plenty of public transport options available to visit the town.
Trains run on a regular basis to Hereford from London as well as other major cities, a town just over twenty miles away from Hay-on-Wye. From there, there’s a regular Stagecoach service that will transport you from Hereford’s railway station and right into the middle of Hay-on-Wye.
Non-book related things to do in Hay-on-Wye
You may well be a bibliophile, but perhaps you are travelling with someone who isn’t into books as you are. If so, then don’t worry! Hay-on-Wye has lots on offer other than the books, especially if you want to sample some local cuisine and enjoy a foodie getaway.
Shop for antiques in Hay on Wye
In recent years, there has (sadly) been a small decline in the number of second-hand books available in town. As a result, a fair few antique shops have opened up in their place. And, who knows? Perhaps you’ll leave Hay with some vintage furniture or an old map, rather than the tome you envisaged taking home!
Visit Hay Castle
Towering above the rest of the town, the ruins of Hay Castle are a large reminder of the town’s history. Once upon a time, this area was full of battles with various groups vying for control over the area. Today the fortified walls are a real sight to see and the interior is due to be turned into a cultural centre within the next few years.
Hay on Wye Thursday Market
As its name suggests, a market is held in the centre of town every Thursday and some kind of market has been held in Hay in some form or another for well over seven hundred years! This flea market sells not only books, but plenty of locally produced food, vintage wares and a wide array of quirky and offbeat antiques.
Hike Hay Bluff
Near the town, there’s a large hill which is locally known as ‘Hay Bluff’. If you fancy giving your eyes a rest from reading all the novels and short stories in town, then head up the hill and admire views over the rolling Welsh hills. Just be sure to bring some sturdy and waterproof walking shoes. There’s a reason that the countryside of Wales is so green!
Where to stay in Hay-on-Wye
When it comes to the town of books you can spend a day perusing the shelves or opt to stay a little while longer in order to truly soak up the atmosphere and explore all the shelves which Hay-on-Wye has to offer. Accommodation here comes in a variety of forms and here are some of the best hotels in Hay-on-Wye:
The Swan at Hay
Situated in the very heart of the town, in the middle of where all the action unfolds, the Swan offers 19 beautifully appointed and classic rooms. Hotel facilities include Wi-Fi, room service and an onsite restaurant. Check prices and availability here.
The Old Black Lion
Also located in the centre of Hay, the Old Black Lion is a historic pub dating all the way back to the 17th-century. Parts of the pub may even date back to the 1300s. Either way, this centrally located Hay-on-Wye accommodation is a great place to stay if you want to be close to all the bookshops! Check prices and availability here.
While not technically in Hay proper, the Swan is too pretty to not make the list! Located three miles from the book town, this B&B is incredibly well rated and offers beautiful views onto the British countryside. Check prices and availability here.
Nearby Attractions to Hay-on-Wye
While you could easily spend days upon days getting figuratively and literally lost among the Welsh book town’s many shelves, there’s plenty of other things to see and do in the area that shouldn’t be missed during a trip through Southern Wales.
The ruins of a once grand monastic building are hauntingly beautiful, and shouldn’t be missed on a visit to the region. Founded in the 12th century, the monastery was confiscated by Henry VIII during the dissolution and fell into ruin,. Its ruins have since become a real gem of the Welsh countryside and whats left of its interior can be visited today for a small fee.
The Brecon Beacons
One of the highest National Parks in the south of Britain, the Brecon Beacons are filled with hiking trails, open plains and quaint villages. One of the quirkiest hamlets within a short drive of Hay-on-Wye is that of Pengenffordd, home to the highest castle ruins in Southern Wales, as well as the highest pub in this part of the country.
Frequently asked questions about Hay on Wye (Hay-on-Wye FAQs)
What is Hay on Wye Famous for?
Situated on the English-Welsh border (though technically located in Wales), the town of Hay on Wye is famous for being a ‘book town’. What this means is that there are bookshops around every turn and even an annual literary festival celebrating all things book related!
How many bookshops are there in Hay on Wye?
From specialised and niche stores to broader ranging shops, there are now around twenty bookshops in Hay (though the exact number changes on a regular basis).
When is the best time to visit Hay on Wye?
Though fun to visit all year ’round, exactly when you should visit Hay on Wye depends on your personal preferences and travel style. For example, while the summer months bring longer days, this inevitably means more crowds and more expensive hotel rooms!
Meanwhile, the winter can be pretty chilly and rain is pretty common. Finally, if you visit during May or June, be sure to book your accommodation well in advance as your visit may well coincide with the annual Hay on Wye Literary Festival, which sees visitors from all over the globe flock to he tiny town.