Looking for the best things to do in York? Then look no further. This northern city had been high up on my places to visit in the UK for a very long time and it was only a matter of time before Sam and I ticked it off. With a quick train ride from London to York, we soon found ourselves strolling around the narrow cobbled streets, marvelling at the medieval buildings and getting lost in the quirky shops and museums. Don’t worry, I’ve put together a little itinerary so you know all the best things to do in York. You’ll be happy to hear many of York’s attractions are relatively close to each other, which makes it really easy to walk around and soak up as much of the charm of the city as possible!
Here are our top things to do in York.
1. York Minster
If there’s a must when visiting York, it’s the York Minster. With stunning handcrafted façade details and striking stained glass windows, York Minster stands as the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. There have been at least three previous churches on the site, with the first recorded church dating back to the early 7th century. Rebuilt and expanded throughout time with new and more impressive structural additions, including towers, bells and shrines.
Currently devoted to St Peter, York Minster is also one of the first cathedrals in the UK to introduce girl choristers. Like us, you may be lucky enough to see a choir performance which happen most days during term-time. Some of the musts of the York Minster include:
- Watch out for the Five Sisters Windows – restored in 1923 and 1925 as a memorial dedicated to the women of the British Empire who lost their lives in WWI, the original stained glass dates back to the mid-1200s!
- Kiss under the Heart of Yorkshire – legend says couples who kiss under the heart-shaped tracery of the Great West Window will stay together forever!
- Climb the narrow staircase with 275 uneven steps of the Central Tower to reach the top of York’s Minster. The reward? Some of the most stunning panoramic views of York.
- Visit the Undercroft Museum and explore 2,000 years worth of history of York Minster through archeological findings – from Roman times to Viking York and up to this day!
York Minster admission prices range from £9 to £11.50 (free for children under 16), with an extra £5 for access to climb the Central Tower.
York Minster | Deangate, York, YO1 7HH
2. York City Walls
Walking the York City Walls is a must for both tourist and locals and certainly a great way to experience the rich history of York first hand. Also known as Bar Walls, Roman Walls or simply, City Walls they stand as the best preserved and longest medieval town walls in England. The best bit? Walking the walls is free and you can choose how to plan your day around them as they can be accessed them through four main and two secondary gates.
3. Clifford’s Tower
Clifford’s Tower offers one of the best perspectives of the city of York. The original motte-and-bailey castle that once stood here was one of the Norman towers built by William the Conqueror on both sides of the River Foss in 1068. However, rebels and the Viking army destroyed the tower in 1069 and it was later rebuilt, creating an artificial lake and a moat around it that no longer exists.
The Tower was again burnt down in 1190, when the Jewish Community of York took refuge in the castle after King Richard I ordered all Jews to be killed. Refusing to surrender and convert to Christianity, they set the castle on fire to avoid being mutilated after their deaths. The tower was later rebuilt between 1245 and 1262 by order of King Henry III and York Castle became an important military base that included prisons, law courts and a Royal mint. After an explosion in 1684, the interior of Clifford’s Tower was destroyed and it slowly fell into disuse. Now, you can climb up to the top of Clifford’s tower and enjoy some stunning open-air views over York.
Clifford’s Tower | Tower St, York, YO1 9SA
4. The Shambles
Located very close to York Minster, The Shambles is one of the most medieval looking streets in England and arguably the best preserved in the world. The Shambles takes its name from the old Anglo-Saxon word for “flesh-shelves” (fleshammels), a reference to the shelves displaying meat at the butcher shops in this narrow street. The wonky, timber-framed 14th century buildings have remained almost intact with the original meat hooks still on the outside, as if frozen in time. The butcher shops have now been replaced with quirky cafés, independent boutiques and loads of Harry Potter and wizard themed shops – it’s said to have been an inspiration for Diagon Alley, after all!
The Shambles | York, YO1 7LZ
5. York’s Lucky Cat Trail
Cats have been part of York’s history and thought to bring luck since medieval times (they have 9 lives after all!). Originally, statues were placed on buildings to scare mice and rats away. Now, you can have fun trying to find them all following the York’s Lucky Cat Trail! There are a total of 22 cat statues scattered on rooftops, chimneys and windowsills of historic buildings all around York.
6. Afternoon tea at Bettys Café Tea Rooms
Afternoon tea at Bettys is a must if you’ve been sightseeing in York and need a break or simply have a sweet tooth and can’t resist the mountain of finger sandwiches and scones! The legendary tea room, bakery and luxury gift shop has become a popular spot in York, offering a mix of traditional English afternoon tea and elegant Swiss café. And it has been around for 100 years!
Swiss chocolatier and confectioner Frederick Belmont (née Fritz Bützer) opened the first Bettys in 1919 in Harrogate, expanding during the 1920s to Bradford and Leeds and eventually, to York in 1937. Here, Betty’s tea rooms present a luxury art deco interior with live violin music, lavish window displays, wood panels and ornate mirrors designed in the spirit of the RMS Queen Mary by the actual London craftsmen of the famous liner. Look out for one of the mirrors in the basement bar, where many American and Canadian bomber crews signed their names with a diamond-tipped pen during WWII.
As it happens with such popular places, Bettys tearoom gets busy relatively quickly and you can often see visitors queuing outside for a table. Luckily, it not too long until you get in and find yourself eyeing their delicious menu. Bettys offers a gorgeous selection of meals – including traditional Yorkshire and Swiss dishes -, blend teas, luxury chocolate boxes, signature cakes and pastry options. I was a big fan of their famous “Fat Rascal”, a giant fruit scone, hand decorated with a funny cherry and almond face!
Bettys York | 6-8 St Helen’s Square, York YO1 8QP
7. Guy Fawkes Pub
Remember, remember, the 5th of November…We all know the story about the most well-known gunpowder plot conspirator. But did you know that Guy Fawkes was born in a little house in the cobbled Stonegate in 1570, a stone’s throw from York Minster? He was also baptised in St. Michael le Belfrey just across the street. Ironically, he later became a Roman Catholic which led him to an unsuccessful Catholic Revolution when failing to ignite 36 barrels of gunpowder underneath the Houses of Parliament in 1605.
Centuries later, Guy Fawkes Inn remains in a remarkable condition and now offers accommodation, local real ales and delicious food at the pub located on the ground-floor. Definitely a place to visit in York!
Guy Fawkes Inn | City Centre, 25 High Petergate, York, YO1 7HP
8. River Ouse and Little Red Boats
Hire a self-drive red Boat and see the city of York from a whole new perspective! With prices ranging from £20 to £50 and a returnable cash deposit of £40 per hour (up to 8 passengers per boat), you can book these little red boats either online or at the quayside. Don’t forget to pack a picnic and take some good photos!
City Cruises York | Tower Gardens, York, YO1 9RZ
9. National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum is the largest train museum in the world, home to more than 300 locomotives showcasing the history of the British railways over the last 200 years. Opened in 1975 in the old York North locomotive depot (now called the “Great Hall”), it’s extended throughout the years to accommodate the world’s largest collection of polished locomotives, Royal carriages and over a million train related paraphernalia including original posters, photographs and ticket machines that take us back in time.
Gems include the Mallard (the fastest steam engine it the world with a record speed of 126mph in 1938), the luxury Royal carriages of Queen Victoria, Queen Adelaide and King George VI, among others, the only bullet train to be found outside of Japan and a replica of George Stephenson’s Rocket.
National Railway Museum | Leeman Rd, York, YO26 4XJ
Other things to do in York
- Take a Ghost Tour
- Sample some York Gin
- Visit the Museum Gardens
- Explore the Nordic past of York at the Jorvik Viking Centre
- Get spooked at the York Dungeons
- Go to the York Races
Best places to eat and drink in York
- Goji and Brew and Brownie for sweet treats and a cuppa
- Cosy Club and Café No.8 for quirky brunch
- Mr P’s Curious Tavern, The Whippet Inn and Stonegate Yard for a delicious meal
- The Biltmore for sophisticated cocktails
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