York is one of my favourite cities in England, if not my most favourite of them all. It is like walking through a time warp into medieval times. York is almost like an open air museum yet still with the living, beating soul of a thriving city. You can’t help but fall in love with its charm, its narrow cobbled lanes, its wonky buildings that bend and lean into each other, its history, its array of fabulous independent shops. I utterly adore this city. I make sure to visit at least once a year, just to amble down its winding streets and take it all in again. I don’t think I will ever tire of it. There is so much to do in York that it is a fabulous place for a UK city break. Not to mention that you can walk from one side of the city to the other in under half an hour, making it ideal for exploring on foot. So if you’re headed to this historic city, let me fill you in on all the best things to do in York to make your stay unforgettable.
Walk The City Walls
The city of York is still surrounded by much of its former Roman fortifications that have protected it for nearly 2000 years and taking a walk along these walls is the perfect introduction to the city. In fact they are the best preserved city walls in the whole of England. Take a walk along one of the surviving sections, or if you have a couple of hours to spare then walk it all. You’ll get some fantastic views of the city and get a real sense of what it would have been like in days gone by. My favourite section is the stretch that takes you from the gate on Monkgate where there is access onto the wall, all the way round the back of York Minster before getting off again through the gate at St. Leonard’s Place. This walk gives you some of the best views of the Minster! If you would prefer, you can book a private walking tour of the walls here.
Climb Clifford’s Tower
The imposing Clifford’s Tower is the largest remaining part of York Castle. It used to be a timber tower back in the 12th century but in 1190 it was burned down after York’s Jewish community was besieged here and committed mass suicide. The present tower was built after that horrible event, dating back to the 13th century and was used as a prison within the castle. The tower sits a top a small hill on the outskirts of the city centre and offers some pretty fantastic views over the city if you climb to the top. Not only do you get to look out over York Minster but you can see for miles in all directions.
Visit The Jorvik Viking Museum
York is a city with a lonnnng history. Back in 866 the city was invaded by the Vikings under the command of Ivar The Boneless (if you’ve been watching The Vikings on Amazon you’ll know all about him!). They settled in York, or Jorvik as they named it, and ruled here for over 100 years, during which time York grew into a prosperous city. In the 70’s, excavations unearthed a Viking settlement beneath the city streets and on the site now lies the Jorvik Viking Museum. It is a fascinating museum which gives a real glimpse into what life would have been like during this time. Take a ride into the past and discover what a Viking village would have been like, smells and all. Let me tell you, 9th century Viking York smelt pretty darn bad! This place is incredibly popular so make sure you book yourself some tickets in advance to avoid queues and disappointment.
Visit York’s Museums
The Jorvik Viking Museum isn’t York’s only museum, it has a handful of others worthy of a visit whilst in the city. The York Castle Museum is one of the best in my opinion as it take you back through centuries of York’s history. I would tie this into your itinerary just before Clifford’s Tower as it is located just a stones throw away. This museum always has a fascinating array of exhibitions, my favourite being the interactive Victorian Street, where you can experience the atmosphere of Victorian England as it would have been back then. Complete with cobblestones, guides in period costume, an old school room and even shops which you can go into. The Yorkshire Museum is another I’d highly recommend visiting. This museum is very different in style to the York Castle Museum and hosts a treasure trove of archaeological wonders, from fossils to a Roman mosaic floor to 11000 year old deer antler headdresses. This museum is captivating.
Visit York Minster
York Minster will not fail to impress and a visit here is one of the very best things to do in York. As one of the biggest, most striking cathedrals in Europe, you are sure to stand in awe of York Minster in all its gothic glory. Its history dates back to 627AD when a wooden church was built here as a place for the Anglo Saxon King Edwin of Northumbria to be baptised in order that he could marry the sister of the Christian King of Kent. In the early 12th century the Normans replaced this with a much larger, stone church which forms part of the foundation of York Minster today. But the Minster as we now see it, took over 250 years to build and wasn’t completed until 1472. The word ‘minster’ harks back to its Anglo Saxon roots as this was the name they gave to their important churches. Besides from York Minster, only Westminster Abbey in London retains this title which goes to show you how old these two places of worship are. More than 2 million people pass through its doors each year from all over the globe and it is no wonder why. Impressive doesn’t even cut it! The architecture both inside and out is nothing short of a masterpiece. Not to mention the stained glass windows which is the largest collection of medieval stained glass in the world. York Minster is a must visit.
- York Minster has one of only six cathedral police forces in the world, which was founded in 1285.
- It costs £23,000 per day to run! From heating to cleaning to lighting to employing 150 members of staff.
- The central tower weighs about the same as 40 jumbo jets – if you have time, do climb up to the top as the views are unparalleled!
Visit The Treasurer’s House
Nestled behind York Minster you will find The Treasurer’s House. The first house to be given to the National Trust with a collection. In 1897, Frank Green, the grandson of a wealthy industrialist, bought the Treasurer’s House and created a lavish show home, grand enough to impress Edward VII during his visit. He was passionate about history and indulged this by saving the Treasurer’s House and other buildings in York. Frank built a large collection of fine antiques, art and furniture from around the world which you can still see today. This building and the land it stands on has a history spanning 2000 years. If you visit, make sure to do a tour of the cellar where you can see the old Roman road! You’ll also get to hear the tales of ghostly sightings of Roman soldiers seen down in the cellar. Find out more here.
Go Inside The York Dungeons
Pay a visit to the York Dungeons for an interactive trip through 2000 years of Yorks gruesome history. You will be taken through numerous sets, all dressed from different periods of history and with the help of some rather scary actors and special effects, you will get to experience some of Yorks terrifying past and even meet some of its most well known characters such as the Vikings and Guy Fawkes. Be prepared for some shocks! Get advanced tickets here to save yourself time and money.
Go On A Ghost Walk
If that wasn’t scary enough for you, then book a spot on one of the many ghost walks held in York – and as one of the UK’s most haunted cities, there are plenty! You’ll be taken down the cities back streets and narrow, winding passageways where you will be told the many tales of blood, violence and death. I always love a good ghost tour and York has some of the best that I’ve been on. For me this is definitely one of the best things to do in York.
Do A Pub Crawl
In a city with more than 365 pubs, going on a pub crawl is a must! It would be rude not to. There are the haunted ones such as The Golden Fleece Inn which is reputedly the most haunted pub in York. There are the historic ones such as The Guy Fawkes inn which stands in the shadow of York Minster and the birthplace of the one and only Guy Fawkes – you could even book a night in one of its 13 rooms and spend the night. Then of course there are the cocktail bars. My favourite of these is The Evil Eye which is tucked away behind a speciality, World Record holding gin shop. Since a friend from York introduced us to this place nearly a decade ago, this has become a firm favourite of ours, particularly if you are visiting on a Sunday as they do an incredible Sunday Roast!
Another great place to stop for a drink and a quick bite to eat is The House Of Trembling Madness – owned by Ian Loftus, the man responsible for The Evil Eye. The name Trembling Madness comes from a term for the DT’s (Delirium Tremens) as it is more popularly known, the shaky hands that those who over indulge in too much alcohol get – I rather like this humorous pubs name! Head out back to the taxidermy room where you will find a wealth of history. This room is an old medieval hall which dates back to 1180AD and was part of the first Norman house built in York. You can sit and take in the wooden beams, many of which are reported to have come from an old ship that sailed the seas over 800 years ago. Not to mention the the stuffed animal heads from centuries past which mount the wall. Whichever watering hole you stop at, you are sure to be surrounded by history.
Wander Along The Shambles
The shambles is my favourite street in York and one of my favourite in the whole of England. It is even rumoured to be J.K. Rowling’s inspiration behind Diagon Alley in the world of Harry Potter, something this street plays on and has opened up a couple of Harry Potter themed shops. It is an unbelievably beautiful cobble stoned street with medieval timber framed buildings which lean into one another, trying to keep themselves upright. Most of these buildings date back to the 14th century when this was a butchers street. In fact, that is where it gets its name from, deriving from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘Fleshammels’ meaning Flesh Shelves where the butchers would display their meat. The street actually used to be called The Great Flesh Shambles and up until 1872 there were still as many as 25 butchers shops here but none of those are left today. If you look closely above the old wooden ledges of the shop fronts, you can still see all the butchers hooks where they would have hung their meat. That is also why the cobbled street has two gutters to either side which run down the length of the street, so that the blood of the butchered carcasses could wash away.
Pro Tip: Get here early if you want to have the street to yourself for a photograph or just to enjoy its beauty. It is absolutely heaving throughout the day!
Explore Yorks Shops
The Shambles certainly has some fantastic little independants from the Harry Potter themed ‘The Shop That Must Not Be Named’ to chocolatiers and fudge makers where you can watch everything being made through the windows. The entire city is brilliant for shopping though. I love visiting York for its shopping scene as you will find hundreds of shops that you can’t find anywhere else in the country. Fossgate, Stonegate and Petergate are my particular favourites. You can be sure that wherever you wander though, you will find plenty of quirky and unique gems. I always try and pay an extra visit in December when the annual Christmas market is on, it is one of the best in the UK!
Enjoy Lunch At The Shambles Market
Tucked away behind The Shambles you will find the market, part of which is The Shambles Food Court which has a great food scene! Here you will find everything from Buffalo burgers, gourmet hotdogs, Indian street food, Greek gyros, burritos, Thai dishes, Turkish wraps, Sicilian pizzas, coffee and cocktails. I have to admit, we stop here for a bite to eat every time with visit York!
Stop For A Cup Of Tea Or Coffee
On the subject of food and drink, York has a fabulous coffee scene and not to mention, the world renowned Betty’s tea rooms where you can enjoy a traditional afternoon tea. Book here if you can as the queue’s go mental! There are two different tea rooms to choose from, the Betty’s Tea Rooms on Helen’s Square (bigger, brighter and busier) or the one on Stonegate which is my preferred one as it has much more character which I love!
Fossgate is THE place to head for coffee and has some fantastic coffee shops! My favourite of these are Fossgate Social and Spring Espresso who do really good coffee. Directly across the road from Fossgate Social is The Hairy Fig, a brilliant deli where we always stop in to grab some nibbles for the drive home. If you have time, tucked away down the alley at the side of The Hairy Fig, you will find the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall, one of the best medieval guildhalls in the world.
Do The York Lucky Cat Trail
This is something that Heidi absolutely loved doing! The York Cat Trail is a fun thing to do as you wander the city streets. Cats have long played a part in York’s history and the original cat statues dotted around on buildings were put there to frighten rats and mice away as they were the carriers of disease and plague. Pop into the York Lucky Cats shop on The Shambles to pick up a leaflet with a map of the trail on or download it straight from their website. Let me know how many you find!
Take A Boat Ride
No trip to York would be complete without a ride down the River Ouse. The river flows through the middle of the city and is not only lined with some lovely riverside walking paths but also makes for some lovely views of the city where you can enjoy the main sights from a different perspective. Hire your own boat here.
Do A York Tour
If you would prefer to be shown around by a guide and soak up plenty of information on this history city, then a tour is for you! I like this cycle tour but there are numerous different options to choose from and here are some that I think you might like.
Invisible York Tours
This is a tour with a difference and a wonderful way to give back. Invisible York is a walking tour led by someone that is either homeless or has been affected by homelessness. The guide decides on the theme of the walk and where they take you and most will cover social aspects affecting York as both today and in the cities past. Click here to find out more and to book tours.
Explore The Surrounding Countryside
I adore Yorkshire and if your trip allows, I would highly recommend venturing out into the countryside where you will find a wealth of beauty! You can take a day trip to the North Yorkshire Coast where you can enjoy some wonderful seaside villages like Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay. You can book a day trip tour here. I wrote a blog post on all the prettiest villages in that area which you can read here. If you head in the opposite direction you can visit Bronte land and explore Haworth where they lived (Click here to book a tour). There are even some wonderful country estates to explore such as Castle Howard, a magnificent stately home well worth a visit. Book advanced tickets to the house here to save yourself time and money.
Save yourself time and money by grabbing a York Pass. This pass provides you with access to a number of the attractions in York and the surrounding area as well as access to a hop on hop off again bus to transport you between places. The pass is well worth getting and will save you a fair chunk of money on admission tickets. Choose between a York City Pass and the York and Beyond Explorer Pass. Click here to grab yours.
Further Reading: The Most Beautiful Villages In North Yorkshire
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