With more attractions per square mile than any other destination in the UK, there’s always something exciting just around the corner in York, whether for couples or kids.
Our comprehensive guide to the city’s best sights, experiences and things to do in York takes you from the soaring York Minster, one of the biggest of its kind in Europe, to the newly refurbished Jorvik Viking Centre, impressive art galleries and walking tours highlighting the city’s history.
Get up close with the city’s historic Gothic heart
York Minster, a Gothic beauty, is the largest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe. From the Roman columns in the crypt to views of the city from its central tower, this is an awe-inspiring place. The jewel is the Great East Window, completed by John Thornton in 1408 and the earliest piece of named art in the country – it is the stained glass equivalent of the Sistine Chapel.
Insider’s tip: For full atmospheric effect, approach the Minster via The Shambles, an ancient cobbled street mentioned in the Domesday Book, where the upper stories of the 14th-century timber houses lean out, almost to within touching distance of each other.
Take a walk
Want to imbibe some culture at the same time as your walk? Then follow one of the Trust Trails set up by York Civic Trust. They’ve been celebrating the great and the good with links to York since 1946, placing commemorative plaques on notable buildings around the city. The four self-guided walks – Literary York, Artistic York, Scientific York and Radical York – take up to an hour and use a plaque as a starting point. Number 35 Stonegate, for example, marks the site of John Hinxman’s bookshop, now long gone, where Laurence Sterne’s groundbreaking novel Tristram Shandy was first published in 1759. Holy Trinity Church, off Goodramgate, denotes the spot where Anne Lister, often referred to as the ‘first modern lesbian’ and brought to life in the BBC’s historical drama Gentleman Jack, attended an Easter Sunday service in 1834 with her lover Ann Walker.
Fall through a social history time tunnel
A social history time tunnel that takes visitors back through three hundred years of life in York. The eccentric York Castle Museum is best known for its ‘real’ Victorian street of salvaged shop fronts and is based around a Victorian hoarder’s collection of everyday items replicating the city’s living rooms and shops from the Georgian era to the 1980s.
Insider’s tip: For a panoramic view of the city, visit Clifford’s Tower opposite the museum. This ancient fortified mound and keep has a gruesome history and is all that remains of the Norman castle. The tower has undergone extensive repairs and additions, including a new roof deck, new walkways and staircases that have opened up previously off-limits sections and immersive soundscapes that bring the tower’s turbulent history to life.
Journey down a railway retrospective
You don’t have to be a train anorak to appreciate the National Railway Museum’s superb collection of mechanical wonders, which sheds light on the historical importance of Britain’s railways. It’s located behind York’s impressive Victorian railway station; just follow the children and adults rushing to see the legendary engines such as Mallard and The Flying Scotsman, or taking a seat on the futuristic Japanese Bullet Train.
Insider’s tip: The museum can get packed at weekends so visit during the week and outside school holidays if you can.
Be guided through the bloody side of York
Spend 90 minutes on a tour discovering York’s winding alleyways and landmarks in the company of ‘Mad Alice’ and hear about the blood and guts that have been spilled on the city’s streets over 2,000 years. ‘Alice’, who is based on a figure of local folklore and is thought to have been hanged in York Castle in 1823, will recount – and re-enact – the grisly details.
Insider’s tip: The Memorial plaque at the foot of Clifford’s Tower, (the royal castle where the tower now stands and where some of the tours finish), recalls the 1190 massacre of the city’s 150-strong Jewish population, who had taken refuge in the castle after a wave of anti-Semitic riots.
Venture back to York’s Viking past
The Jorvik Viking Centre’s olfactory experiences (some more pleasant than others) have always brought to life what was an important and thriving ninth-century Viking city. Now, after a multi-million pound refurbishment, the interactive Jorvik exhibition is back, with even more insight into one of Britain’s most exciting archaeological discoveries, unearthed 30 years ago when construction of the adjoining shopping centre began.
Insider’s tip: Look out for the old woman on crutches (recreated from a skeleton unearthed on the site, which is exhibited in a glass cabinet) and the baby crying in its mothers arms. Very lifelike – and just a little creepy.
A sweet story for chocolate lovers
Covering the journey of chocolate from raw jungle cocoa bean to the treasure that became York’s most profitable export, Chocolate Story uses impressive, immersive set pieces to unwrap the making of York’s famous confectionary families – Terry’s and Rowntree’s – and give a fascinating flavour of the city’s rich social history too.
Insider’s tip: Yes, tasting is allowed, you can even try your hand at creating your own chocolate bar. But as as well the obvious appeal of such a hands-on experience among children and chocoholics, there’s plenty to elevate this place above one long sampling session.
Fine art and al fresco dining
The York Art Gallery (which reopened in 2015 after a major refurbishment) houses an impressive collection of paintings, prints, watercolours and ceramics from the 14th century to the present day. The gallery first opened in 1879 for the second Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition. It also has a great café with an al fresco seating area overlooking the beautiful fountain on Exhibition Square.
Insider’s tip: CoCa (the Centre of Ceramic Art), which opened as part of the gallery’s refurb, houses the UK’s biggest collection of the British Studio Ceramics movement. Made up largely of gifts from significant private collectors, it highlights the personality and obsessions of its creators.
Experience an alternative to the Minster
Holy Trinity Church is medieval gem tucked away behind the bustling shopping street of Goodramgate. The Grade I listed monument is easy to overlook in favour of the Minster towering behind it, but walk through the small, secluded, leafy churchyard and you’ll find a marvellous 15th-century stained glass, a honey-coloured stone interior and the original Georgian box pews.
Insider tip: Outdoor benches make the churchyard the perfect place for reflection or a quiet lunch. On sunny days, transient beams of coloured light are scattered on the walls, making it look like medieval faces are staring out of the windows.
Walk the halls of a Regency masterpiece
Fairfax House is arguably the finest Georgian townhouse in England, an architectural Regency masterpiece that was the city home of Viscount Fairfax and with a rich interior designed by John Carr. It survived incarnations as a gentlemen’s club, offices, a cinema and dance hall, and its beautiful stucco ceilings have been lavishly restored. It also houses some of the late chocolate magnate, Noel Terry’s, collection.
Insider’s tip: A Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £100,000 helped the house acquire a 17th-century wooden panel carved by Grinling Gibbons, a Dutch-British sculptor and so-called ‘Michaelangelo of wood’, known for his works at Windsor Castle, Hampton Court Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Explore the city walls at Micklegate Bar
Micklegate Bar in York’s city walls was once the most important of the city’s medieval gateways and the focus of spectacular (and sometimes gruesome) events and this new exhibition does a good job of exploring how those same walls have evolved since the first embankments were built by the Romans in the first century. The top floor contains a large map and displays from different periods down the ages as well as videos that bring to life the various characters associated with Micklegate Bar, from royalty to soldiers and even a policeman who used to live there. There’s also a walking tour (a separate ticket is required) that goes to Baile Hill, a man-made earth mound in the Bishophill area dating back to 1068, which takes its name from a castle built by William the Conqueror.
Try your luck at the ‘Ascot of the North’
The historic Knavesmire racecourse at York dates back to 1730, but racing has been central to York since Roman times. Ladies in posh frocks and lads in pin-striped suits quaffing jugs of Pimms may have replaced emperors in togas, but in sunny weather in racing season York is packed to the gills with seriously glammed-up racegoers.
Insider’s tip: Forget trying to park and go early and on foot; it’s an easy, flat walk of 20 minutes or so through Rowntree Park from the train station. Alternatively take a taxi – most drivers will be only too keen to give you insider tips.
Price: £ to £££
Unravel the story of a historic York house
The elegant Treasurer’s House, a National Trust property, is only a five-minute walk from York Minster. From the Roman road running through the cellar to the Edwardian servants’ quarters in the attics, its history is perfectly preserved. There are 13 period rooms that tell the story of the house and its most famous owner, the eccentric Frank Green, whose collection of furniture, ceramics, textiles and paintings are well worth seeing. It’s also the sight of a famous ghost sighting.
Insider’s tip: Make sure you visit the gardens. Multiple winner of the Gold Award for Yorkshire in Bloom, they contain a huge range of plants and flowers, including (depending on the time of year) irises, crocuses, tulips and fuchsias. The avenue of London Planes leading to the garden door was planted in June 1900 for the Royal visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales.