With its Roman and Viking history, and hurly-burly medieval core, York is one of England’s must-see cities. Don’t be fooled, though, this isn’t a place stuck in the past. Its walkable center is filled with indie restaurants, quirky shops and inventive drinking dens – a testament to York’s vibrant present-day pulse.
Arrive at the handsome station (it’s around two hours from London) and dive into our suggestions of the best things to do in York; you’ll soon be swept off your feet by the city’s picture-postcard sights as well as its fun, maverick side.
Let York Minster draw your gaze towards the heavens
One of York’s great treats is how often, when turning a cobblestone corner or squeezing down an age-old alley, you bump into its soaring cathedral, York Minster. Renowned as one of the world’s medieval Gothic masterpieces, it’s worth getting up close to the interior craftsmanship. Here you’ll find 700-year-old vaulted ceilings and nose-picking gargoyles illuminated by the building’s 128 stained-glass windows.
A trip to the interactive museum in the undercroft reveals details of York’s 2000-year-old history and its tower reaches dizzying heights above the city's rooftops. You can climb to the top for some stunning views of York but be warned – the ancient stairwells are claustrophic and those with a fear of heights should probably stick to admiring the stained-glass windows from the inside.
Step back in time in the Shambles
One of the best-preserved medieval streets in Europe, many of the Shambles’ wonky timber-framed houses date back to the 15th century. Despite its much-photographed charm, this street once housed the city’s butchers and slaughterhouses. The overhanging buildings, which in places almost kiss above the narrow cobbled lane, were designed to shelter shelves of meat from the sun. Nowadays, it’s worth visiting to briefly become part of the hubbub and browse the eccentric collection of independent shops. Slip down an alleyway for lunch in Shambles Market.
Hunt for ghosts
With a centuries-old history littered with turmoil and treachery, it’s little wonder York has a penchant for ghost stories. Even skeptics will be hard-pressed not to enjoy one of the city’s highly rated ghost walks. Led by knowledgeable performers, The Bloody Tour of York, Shadows of York, and The Deathly Dark Ghost Tour all promise plenty of macabre fun. Like your phantoms a little more tangible? As an antidote to mass-produced knickknacks, York Ghost Merchants sell diminutive handcrafted spooks from its theatrical shop on the Shambles.
Spot trains at the National Railway Museum
Until the 1960s, the vast exhibition halls of the free-to-enter National Railway Museum were part of York’s busy railway works. Now they tell the story of extraordinary engineering feats and house gleaming locomotives and plush royal carriages. Young rail enthusiasts will delight in discovering you can climb aboard many of the exhibits, including a Japanese bullet train. For a small charge, take a ride on the world’s fastest steam locomotive. You can explore more of North Yorkshire and beyond by train if the idea of gazing upon beautiful countryside from the comfort of a reclining seat is right up your track.
Head down the pub for a quick drink (or two)
Famed for its diverse drinking dens, it would seem rude not to pop into one of York’s many pubs. Some of the city’s oak-paneled taverns have been serving up booze since Tudor times, although if you want to time warp back to the 12th century, take a pew at the House of the Trembling Madness on Stonegate. For a more contemporary feel, and a selection of 40 taps, there’s Brew York’s mural-festooned beer hall. Fancy a pint with a view? At the Lamb and Lion Inn, you can spy the Minster from the beer garden; the King’s Arms overlooks the meandering River Ouse.
Walk the city walls
Perfect for history buffs, couples and snoopers alike, a stroll along York’s City Walls allows you to peer down onto timeworn snickleways (alleyways) and courtyard gardens from atop the longest medieval ramparts in England. Free to walk, and containing four grand ‘bars’ or gates to the city, these 13th-century fortifications are, in fact, the new kids on the block; the Roman walls lie underneath, protruding briefly in York’s tranquil Museum Gardens.
It takes a couple of hours to wander the 3.4-kilometer loop, peeping through arrowslits and digesting information boards. You can even pause for a flat white at the cafe within the cannon-scarred Walmgate Bar. Alternatively, ramble a shorter section; the portion between Bootham and Monk bars has superb Minster views.
York Art Gallery offers Old Masters, modern wonders and ceramics
York Art Gallery offers a welcome respite from the city clamor. The main exhibitions are free to admire; in The Burton Gallery, artworks by Italian Old Masters rub shoulders with 20th-century abstract paintings. Look out for L.S Lowry’s depiction of York’s handsome Clifford’s Tower surrounded by his distinctive matchstick mob. The real draw, though, is the gallery’s Centre for Ceramic Art. Here, prehistoric pots through to glazed delftware are curated to form a 17-meter-long ceramic rainbow.
Learn more about Vikings and Victorians at York’s museums
Championing immersive experiences long before that was a thing, York’s museums excel at transporting you into the past. At the JORVIK Viking Centre, you’re treated to a smells-and-all ride through the cultural melting pot that was 10th-century York. The animatronic dioramas are based on evidence unearthed while excavating the Viking settlement below the building.
At the York Castle Museum, visitors are likewise encouraged to see artifacts in context: cue a stroll down a dimly lit Victorian Street and hear what life was like for captured highwayman Dick Turpin in the cell that held him (the building was once York’s notorious prison).
For a more refined slice of history, the Fairfax House is a rarified gem. Padding through this restored Georgian townhouse gives a glimpse into the lives of 18th-century gentlefolk, as well as a few lessons in interior design. Touring the Treasurer’s House, on the other hand, feels like falling down a rabbit hole into a curious oversized doll’s house, filled with furnishings through the ages.
Enjoy afternoon tea
York has no shortage of places to dine on dainty sandwiches and cream-laden scones, washed down with a fragrant brew. At The Grand, tiers of nibbles are served in 5-star surroundings, whereas afternoon tea at Forest at Galtres Lodge involves a tea pairing menu and miniature Yorkshire puddings. It’s even possible to enjoy a sophisticated cuppa aboard a restored train carriage at the National Railway Museum.
Most locals, though, would cry sacrilege if Bettys wasn’t on your list of locations to sate a mid-afternoon peckishness. Be prepared to queue, but wolfing down one of their fat rascal fruit scones amid scurrying, white-aproned staff is something of a York rite of passage.
Get a taste for York’s chocolate past
While other northern cities were busy with textiles and steel, York’s Victorian industrialists were building confectionary empires; Kit-Kat and Terry’s Chocolate Orange were both created in the city’s sweet-smelling factories.
While not inexpensive, York’s Chocolate Story does a good job at immersing visitors in this history: the interactive tour includes plenty of toothsome treats. At York Cocoa House there are workshops and tasting tours. This independent factory aims to carry the baton for York’s chocolate heritage, with a modern-day focus on eco-conscious and fair-trade practices.
Sample street food at Spark:York
It’s hard not to fall for Spark:York’s inclusive community feel. This split-level market, created from brightly daubed shipping containers, brings together local indie restaurants and bars on a once disused civic space. Groups can mix and match their orders, choosing from hand-stretched pizzas, incredible fried chicken, and plant-based tacos and burgers. Kids will love the ice-cream cookie sandwiches served by Melk; their parents may opt for a craft beer.
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