Imagine a city with a 2,000 year history, where you can still walk the medieval streets. Where you can explore the influence of the Romans, the Vikings and the railway age. The seat of an archbishop, a cultural centre, quirky pubs and cafés and gourmet restaurants. This is York, the historic capital of Yorkshire, and one-time capital of Roman England. Here is my choice of the best things to do in York, and a few of the less obvious attractions.
Top Things To Do In York
The historic centre of York is compact, mostly contained with the boundary of the medieval walls. Apart from the walls themselves, which have steps, and the mound of Clifford’s Tower, the city is walkable and on level ground.
Tip: Many of the sights mentioned in this post (including York Minster and City Cruises) can be visited free of charge with a York City Pass.
The magnificent York Minster dominates the town. Built in the 7th century on the site of an earlier Roman basilica, it is one of the most important church buildings in England. (Not only is it the seat of the Archbishop of York, but it was on this spot that Constantine, who introduced Christianity to the Roman Empire, was declared emperor.)
Apart from its historical importance, the Gothic cathedral is a work of art in its own right. You will have to pay to go inside, but it is worth it for the architecture and the stained glass. You can also climb the 275 steps to the top of the tower for the views, and explore the Roman remains in the Undercroft Museum.
Although York was an important Roman town, most of the Roman buildings were later incorporated into the medieval infrastructure. However several tantalising fragments remain in various parts of the city, and you can discover them on a self guided Roman trail (read about my exploration of Roman York).
Wherever you walk in York you’ll be surrounded by evidence of the Middle Ages. Most notable are the city walls, an almost complete 2½ mile circuit of fortifications built upon the foundation of an earlier Roman structure. As you walk around the walls you’ll pass towers and gatehouses, cafés and the Richard III museum. (More here – A Slow Walk Around The Walls Of York.)
Within the city several medieval streets remain, most notably The Shambles. This was once the street where butchers plied their trade, but fortunately today the piles of blood and discarded meat have disappeared, leaving quaint buildings and independent shops in their place. Elsewhere you will find several medieval guild halls, and if you walk around the city at random you are likely to discover aspects of Hidden York for yourself!
For a more leisurely look at the city, consider taking a city cruise along the river. The boats are equipped with a detailed commentary, and you will get a different perspective on some of the sights as you pass through the city centre to the outskirts. It is also possible to take an early evening cruise (if you are lucky you will catch the sunset).
The Museums Of York
York has several excellent museums to cover all interests.
If you just go to one museum make it the Castle Museum. This is housed in the old York Castle, which was built by William the Conqueror in 1068, but was later used as a prison. Half of the museum covers the social history of York: a highlight of this part is Kirkgate, a reconstructed Victorian street. The other half is the prison, where you can see the cell in which Dick Turpin, Britain’s most notorious highwayman, was held. There are also special exhibitions and a 19th century watermill.
Built in the grounds of the former St Mary’s Abbey, the Yorkshire Museum concentrates on archaeology and science. There are displays of York and Yorkshire through the Roman, Viking and medieval eras. And exhibitions of local geology, fossils and dinosaurs.
The Museum Gardens contain fragments of the old abbey and other historic buildings. This is also a peaceful place for a stroll or a picnic.
Jorvik Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre is an innovative museum exploring the city’s history in the 10th century. Based on the site of an archaeological dig it attempts to recreate the Viking town, using sights, sounds and even smells to bring the scene to life.
National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum is the world’s largest rail museum. Housed in a series of engine sheds it features more than 100 locomotives, restored carriages, mocked-up stations, and rail memorabilia. Whether or not you are a train enthusiast you will enjoy exploring the sumptuous royal trains. You can also take a ride on the museum’s miniature railway, or travel on the road train between the museum and York Minster.
Less Obvious Things To Do In York
There are lots of other, less obvious, things to do in York. You could follow the free York Cat Trail, looking for the cat statues that are hidden in different buildings. You could hunt for ghosts, either on your own, in one of the many reputedly haunted pubs, or by taking a ghost walk. Or venture a little way from the city centre to Goddards, an arts and crafts style house and gardens that once belonged to the Terry family (of the local Terry’s chocolate empire).
Then there are the numerous independent pubs, cafés and restaurants. You can enjoy anything from a light lunch, afternoon tea or fine dining. Some places are very old, like the 12th century House of the Trembling Madness, with a “beware of the ghosts” sign on the stairs. Others are local legends, such at Betty’s, housed in Art Deco style premises and so popular that you have to queue to get in (it is worth it…)
Tours And Day Trips
If your time in York is limited, or if you want a more in-depth exploration of the city, it is worth considering a guided tour. Have a look at the suggestions below or explore with a local person using WithLocals.
York is also ideally situated for a range of day trips, with a choice of countryside, coast, cities and historic places. There are several suggestions here – Day Trips From York.
Where To Stay In York
Accommodation options in York cover the whole range from luxury hotels, budget accommodation and B&Bs. Self catering options are also available. Have a look at the choice available on booking.com.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.