A small but perfectly formed city in North Yorkshire, York is a popular destination for history lovers. From the Roman Empire and the Viking invasion to the Norman conquest and Medieval times, you can trace 2,000 years of history on your visit to the city. Despite its modest size, there is a raft of fantastic things to do in York.
Wander Medieval cobbled streets, learn about the city’s past at its many museums and marvel at architectural gems. York is also home to traditional tea rooms, quirky independent shops and excellent restaurants. The city boasts more attractions per square mile than any other city in the UK, so there is no chance of being bored there. A single trip to York might not be enough to experience everything that the city has to offer.
It is important to note that tourism is York’s main industry, and, as a result, it is always busy with visitors from near and far. Also, be prepared that the costs of visiting all the top attractions quickly add up. However, the attractions and many tours on offer are of excellent quality, so you will make fantastic memories for years to come.
Here is the list of the best things to do in York to help you with your trip planning.
The Best Things to Do in York
Walk the City Walls
York’ city centre is enclosed by medieval defensive walls, the longest and most complete in England. The stone masonry that we see today was constructed in the 13th and 14th centuries on top of earth banks. However, in the Museum Gardens you will find a stretch of the walls that was built by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago.
One of the top things to do in York, a walk around the city walls is a great way to explore the city offering great views of some of its most famous landmarks. The complete walk will take about two hours to complete. Along the way, you can spot a variety of historic features including fortified gateways, or ‘bars’, arrow slits and sculptures. Access to the walls is free. Check out the full map of the walls and access point on the City of York Council’s website.
Go up Clifford’s Tower
The imposing Clifford’s Tower is one of York’s most famous landmarks. It the largest surviving building of York Castle, first established by William the Conqueror to project power over the local population. The tower was originally built from earth and timber. It burnt down in the 12th century and was rebuilt in stone a few decades later. In the Middle Ages, together with Clifford’s tower the castle was the seat of government in Northern England.
Over the centuries, the tower has housed a mint, law courts, a gaol and a Civil War garrison. It has also witnessed some dark historic events. Clifford’s Tower’s timber predecessor was the site of the tragic massacre of the Jews in 1190. Moreover, it is named after Roger de Clifford who was brutally executed for treason in the 14th century.
Today visitors can wander the tower’s internal walkways and staircases and uncover the dramatic stories from the past. You can also make your way to the top of the tower to enjoy panoramic views over the city of York.
Book your Clifford’s Tower tickets in advance on the English Heritage website. Adult admission is £8.10 (US $9.80) per person.
Visit the Shambles
Transport yourself back in time with a visit to the Shambles, one of the best-preserved Medieval streets in Europe. This cobbled street is lined with overhanging 15th century buildings that were once home to dozens of butcher shops specialising in different meats. Today, these buildings house quirky shops and independent eateries.
This charming street was also the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films. Although the Shambles did not star in those, fans should check out the Shop That Must Not Be Named that sells all sorts of Harry Potter merchandise from wands to Bertie Botts beans.
Just off the main street you will find the lively Shambles Market. It is home to independent traders offering unique jewellery, artisan homeware and delicious local produce. The Shambles Market features a food court serving up international fare from Mexican burritos and Greek gyros to French crepes and Thai noodles.
The Shambles and the nearby Market both get incredibly busy during the day. Try visiting early in the morning to avoid the crowds.
Marvel at York Minster
The magnificent York Minster, the largest medieval Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, is an icon of the city skyline. Experiencing this architectural masterpiece is undoubtedly one of the top things to do in York.
The cathedral was founded in 1220s and took about 250 years to complete. The result is a fine example of gothic architecture featuring exquisite stonework and an impressive in situ collection of medieval stained glass. During your visit, you can simply enjoy the incredible space or join a free guided tour to learn more about the history of the cathedral. You can also join a trip up the Minster’s Central Tower, the highest point of the city, to enjoy panoramic views of York.
One of my personal favourite parts of the visit was exploring the Minster’s crypt and the undercroft. The crypt contains the remains of an 11th-century Norman cathedral that was the predecessor of the Minster we see today. The Undercroft is home to a museum displaying archaeological finds from the area. There are artefacts from Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman periods. They are a reminder that the Minster’s history started centuries before the first stone of the current cathedral was laid.
You can book your tickets on the day or in advance on the York Minster website. Admission is £12.50 / US $15 (Minster only) or £18.50 / US $23 (Minster and Tower) per adult. Tickets are valid for 12 months.
Travel Back in Time at York Castle Museum
If you are interested in social history, make sure to add this excellent museum to your list of things to do in York. Founded in 1938 by Dr John L. Kirk, York Castle Museum is housed in former prison buildings which stand on the site of York Castle built by William the Conqueror in 1068.
The museum showcases over 400 years of York’s history in an engaging way. Learn about what life was like in the past through creative displays of historic interiors, costumes and artifacts. The highlight of the museum is Kirkgate, a recreated Victorian street that will transport you back in time. Explore authentic 19th century shop fronts, sample traditional sweets and get a glimpse of the darker world of poverty. Be prepared, Kirkgate engages all the senses. Let’s just say, the past did not always smell of roses.
The museum is one of York’s most popular attractions, so expect it to be busy. You can book museum tickets at the ticket office on the day or online on the York Castle Museum Website. The cost is £13 (US $16) if your book online or £14 (US $17) if you buy your ticket on the door. The ticket is valid for 12 months.
Go to Jorvik Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre is a great attraction for those interested in York’s Viking history. It stands on a former archaeological excavation site where the remains of a 10th century Viking city were discovered in the 1970s. Archaeologists uncovered thousands of ancient artefacts some of which are now on display at the Centre.
The highlight of the experience is a reconstructed Viking Village. The details that you see there such as clothing, animals, home layouts and even the appearance of the people are all based on the archaeological evidence found in the dig. Visitors travel around the village on specially designed time-cars with audio commentary that adds context to what is on display. The ride brings the whole experience to life. It is great to see the artefacts in the gallery but seeing them in action gives you a much more immersive feeling.
Pre-booking your tickets is advised. This can be done on the Yorvik Viking Centre website. Adult tickets are £13.50 (US $16.50) per person.
Visit York’s Chocolate Story
York’s history has deep connections with the chocolate industry. It has been home to well-known chocolate producers including Terry’s, Rowntree and Nestlé since the 18th century. Although some of them are trading elsewhere today, their mark on the city is still strong.
Uncover the stories behind York’s most famous chocolate makers and iconic treats at York’s Chocolate Story. This interactive guided tour delves into the history of chocolate-making in the city and beyond. Meet the founding families of the industry, discover how York’s most famous creations such as Terry’s Chocolate Orange and KitKat came about and create your own chocolate lolly. After the tour, enjoy a hot drink or buy some chocolate treats in the downstairs shop and café.
You can pre-book your tickets on the York’s Chocolate Story website. If you would like more flexibility including free cancellation and later payment, you can also book them on Get Your Guide. Adult admission is from £15.95 (US $19.50). We felt that the experience offered good value because of the many chocolate tastings that were part of it. Plus, you get to take some delectable souvenirs home.
Enjoy an Afternoon Tea
No trip to York would be complete without a visit to one if its many cafes for an afternoon tea. Enjoy homemade cakes, delicious sandwiches and a selection of fine teas in beautiful surroundings, from high-end hotels to historic tearooms. For the ultimate treat, complete your experience with a glass of champagne.
One of York’s most famous spots for a classic afternoon tea is Bettys Café Tea Rooms. Bettys was founded in 1909 in Harrogate and today boasts multiple locations across Yorkshire. The York outpost opened in 1936 and still delights visitors with its elegant interiors inspired by the Queen Mary Ocean Liner. Aside from the afternoon tea, you can also try their traditional English breakfast, a hearty lunch or decadent cakes.
You technically don’t need to book an afternoon tea at Bettys. You can simply rock up on the day. However, as Bettys is a local institution, you may need to queue to get in. To avoid wasting precious time, you can opt for a bookable afternoon tea at the Belmond Room, which sits above the main shop and café space on the ground floor. It is more expensive – £39.95 (US $48.50) per person when you book and £29.95 (US $36.40) when you don’t. If you opt for a version with champagne, the price is going to be higher. However, you do get to enjoy replenishable sandwiches and teas, live piano music and exquisite interiors.
I ended up booking a table for two at the Belmond Room for my husband and me. It was a good call as the queue was huge on a late November day when we visited. Bettys was one of the highlights of our trip to York. We enjoyed its elegant old-world spaces, impeccable service and, of course, a delicious afternoon tea.
Take a Tour
For a great introduction to York and its history, why not join one of many guided tours on offer? There is something for every taste, from small group walking tours focused on specific parts of York’s history to themed adventures inspired by the city’s darker side.
I can strongly recommend this City Highlights Small Group Walking Tour run by Yorktour. It gives a great introduction to the city’s key historic periods. From the Roman occupation and Norman invasion to the Middle Ages and the English Civil War, you will get to see the traces left by those times. I also enjoyed going off the tourist trail to discover some of York’s hidden gems.
Other great tour options include:
- Guided Medieval Walking Tour in the Shambles
- The Dark Chronicles of York Guided Walking Tour
- Comedy Horror Show: York Ghost Bus Tour (for something a little different)
Explore York’s Unique Shops
If you need a break from all the history, shopping is a great way to experience another side of York. Although there are chain stores aplenty, many of the city’s charming historic buildings are home to unique and quirky shops.
The previously mentioned Shambles Street and Market are a great starting point for exploring the independent shopping scene in York, from fashion and homewares to cheese and baked goods. The area also boasts some more unusual options. Located right on the Shambles, The Potions Cauldron offers magical drinks and souvenirs for that special wizard in your life. For a creative take on your bath and body essentials, check out The Society of Alchemists, also located on the Shambles.
If antiques are your thing, head to the Antiques Centre York on Stonegate. It consists of multiple floors packed to the brim with a variety of antique finds, from ceramics and jewellery to toys and armour. If you need to recharge, check out Molly’s Tea Rooms located on the first floor of the building.
York is also home to many small art galleries providing an opportunity to purchase works by local and international artists. Head to York Fine Arts on Petergate for traditional art pieces. This family-run gallery has been going strong for over 40 years and has a reputation for high-quality paintings and sculptures. For something different, check out the Japanese Print Shop, just a stone’s throw from the York Minster. It offers a selection of historic works by Japanese artists.
Ultimately, the best way to find York’s hidden gems is to go for a wander around the city’s cobbled streets and alleyways. You never know what you will find just around the corner.
When is the Best Time to Visit York
With its many excellent outdoor and indoor attractions, York is an all-year-round destination.
The spring and summer months offer the highest temperatures and longer daylight hours. The autumn and winter months see temperatures fall, rainfall increase, and days get shorter. However, it is worth remembering that winters in the UK are relatively mild. If you dress for the weather, you can enjoy the city at any time of the year.
You will also find that York is busy with tourists throughout the year, but more so in the summer months. This is when accommodation costs are generally higher. Heading to York in colder months might be a good way to save money.
How to Get to York
Leeds Bradford is the closest international airport to York. It is connected to a few European cities. However, there is no direct public transport link between the airport and York’s city centre. You will need to change at Harrogate or Leeds and that adds extra complexity to the journey. You will be better off travelling to a major city such as London, Manchester or Edinburgh first before heading off to York by train or car.
York is connected to most major UK cities by rail. The journey from London in particular takes just under two hours. The railway station is situated in York’s city centre. So, once you arrive, it is an easy walk to the main attractions and many accommodation options. I normally use the Trainline app to book my train travel in the UK.
You can also travel to York by car. The city is located just off the M1/M62 motorway network, meaning it is accessible from most UK regions. It is important to note that parking in the city centre is quite expensive and not easily available. Check with your accommodation beforehand if they provide any parking spaces. You will often have to pay extra for these. Alternatively, you can leave your car at a Park & Ride outside the city centre. Then you can take a bus to reach the city.
How to Get Around York
York’s city centre is compact and walkable. Most of York’s famous attractions are located within a 20-minute walk of each other. It is also important to note that many of the city’s most charming streets are pedestrianised, so you can only access them on foot.
If you prefer to minimise the amount of walking, consider taking the City Sightseeing Hop-on Hop-off Bus. These red buses operate in many places around the world, but I think they can be a great way to get acquainted with the city. They normally take you to the main attractions and provide some commentary about the historic significance of what you’re seeing. The York Hop-on Hop-off bus is no different.
In terms of public transport, York is covered a bus network. They are a great option if you need to travel out of the city centre to the suburbs and nearby villages. You can find the most up-to-date information on routes, fares and timetables on the iTravel York website.
Where to Stay in York
My recommendation is to stay in York’s city centre. That way you are likely to be within walking distance to all of York’s most famous attractions. The city centre has accommodation for all tastes and budgets, from global chains to historic boutique hotels. On our last trip to York, we stayed at Novotel York Centre. It is a great mid-range option with a good location and ample parking (at extra cost). Since we drove to York, the latter was a deal-breaker for us.
The nearby suburbs also offer accommodation, and it is slightly cheaper in comparison to York’s city centre. However, in this case, you need to take into consideration travel time and costs. It might be worth paying extra for a place in the city centre after all to avoid wasting precious time on logistics.
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