14 Oct 19 / York
12 Reasons to Visit York
York has so much history to offer from its Roman origins dating back to 71 AD, the Vikings of the 10th century and medieval cobbled streets. And evidence of all can still be seen today making the county town of Yorkshire both fascinating and beautiful. You can find the best shopping here on one of the oldest streets in Europe and enjoy a pint at one of the oldest pubs in the country. It’s a small city, but it certainly packs a punch. Here’s our round up of the best things to do in York.
1. YORK MINSTER
One of the largest cathedrals in northern Europe, the impressive 13th century York Minster took over 250 years to complete. Located in the city centre, and magnificent inside and out, you can see this beautiful landmark Gothic building from most of the city.
The craftsmanship is breathtaking, but when you have admired The Rose Window and the Five Sisters Window, you could climb the Central Tower. There are 275 steps up the spiral staircase but you are rewarded with marvellous panoramic views of the city.
Afterwards, spend time in Dean's Park next to the Minster as you may get to hear 'Big Peter' – the largest manually-swung bell in the British Isles. It is swung for 5 minutes at noon daily and on the hour accompanied by six clock bells.
If you enjoy stunning architecture, do consider a visit to Castle Howard, just outside of the city. One of Britain's finest stately homes, it has been a popular filming location so you may recognise it from Brideshead Revisited and ITV's Victoria.
2. THE SHAMBLES
The Shambles is one of the best-preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe. This narrow, cobbled, medieval street has even won an award as the most picturesque street in Britain'. It is just one of a maze of narrow, twisting cobbled lanes known locally as snickelways and ginnels. The overhanging, half-timbered Tudor houses date back to the 14th and 15th centuries and, at certain points, the road is so narrow that the top floors of opposing buildings almost touch each other.
The street once had 26 butcher shops and you can still see the heavy iron butcher's hooks hanging from under the eaves on many of the buildings. Today it is home to some of York’s best independent boutique shops, cafes, bars and restaurants.
Enchanting any time of day, do take an early evening stroll along The Shambles when the shops have closed to enjoy the street without the crowds. Harry Potter fans will feel as if they are walking down Diagon Alley and there are shops here where you can buy your wand for Hogwarts. That spooky atmosphere continues with the Ghost shop that opened in summer 2019.
If you love to shop, do also head to the York Designer Outlet, just 15 minutes south of the city, where there are over 120 designer and luxury brands offering up to 60% off all year round.
3. GHOST WALK
Back to the spooky, why not go on an evening ghost walk in Europe's most haunted city? Established in 1973, the Original Ghost Walk of York was the very first ghost walk in the entire world. Tours start from the Kings Arms pub, close to York Dungeon, at 8pm daily. The guides bring the humour and the theatrical storytelling as you explore the hidden nooks and crannies of the city.
Whether you believe in ghosts or not, York has the history for the stories. It is thought that there has been over 500 hauntings in York thanks to ghouls such as Mad Alice and the Grey Lady. Treasurer’s House was in the Guinness Book of Records for having the 'Ghosts of Greatest Longevity' as the cellars are said to be haunted by Roman ghosts.
4. JORVIK VIKING CENTRE
On the site of Jorvik, the 10th century Viking village, Jorvik Viking Centre is a time machine that takes you back to 975 AD when York was the trading hub of the Viking world. One of Britain's top visitor attractions, this is the only attraction of its kind that is based on a real archaeological dig.
There's a ride that takes you through a reconstruction of the village, complete with life-like animatronic characters and an audio guide that describes Viking life. But the authenticity is incredible as every detail was taken from the excavation, down to the faces of the inhabitants.
It's all about giving you facts and dispelling any misconceptions about the Vikings. You also get to see the actual remains of the real Jorvik plus displays of artefacts including everyday tools. Costumed 'Vikings' can answer your questions and tell you stories including how they think the Viking soldier (skeleton on display) actually died.
While you should aim to book your tickets online to avoid the queues, there is an excellent gift shop that you can access without a ticket. And every February, there's the annual Jorvik Viking Festival. Why not grow your facial hair for the Best Beard Competition?
5. YORK CITY WALLS
York City Walls are the longest medieval walls in England. York isn't large and the 2 mile (3.4 kilometre) long walls enclosed the city. You don’t have to do all of the walk in one go but if you choose to, the trail takes about 2 hours.
The city walls were initially erected by the Romans but what we see today is mostly medieval from about 700 years ago and the tops were partly rebuilt about 150 years ago. Amazingly, the majority of the York city walls are still intact and their elevated position offers views across the historic city.
The walls are completely free to enjoy and you will get a fantastic view of York Minster from Bootham Bar – one of the old entrances to the city. And hopefully, the York Walls Festival will return and become an annual summer event.
6. NATIONAL RAILWAY MUSEUM
One of the best of its kind in the world, the National Railway Museum is well worth a visit. From Mallard – the world's fastest steam locomotive – to the only Japanese bullet train outside of Japan, this place is a great day out. There are over a hundred locomotives on display plus over a million objects related to the history of the railway. You can see royal trains including Queen Victoria's favourite carriage, a replica of George Stephenson’s Rocket and even the Eurostar.
This is the largest railway museum in the UK and it is also completely free. You can even enjoy an afternoon tea here in a beautifully restored railway carriage.
And don't forget, Hotel du Vin York offers afternoon tea too.
Speaking of afternoon tea, Bettys has been a York institution since 1936 offering a full afternoon tea experience. Founded in nearby Harrogate by Swiss confectioner Frederick Belmont, the café and tea room celebrated its centenary in 2019.
Quintessentially British, the tea room has decor inspired by The Queen Mary Liner. It feels indulgent, the staff are exceptional, and the cake stand treats are divine. Sip on Yorkshire tea while trying one of its famous fat rascal scones – a delicious cross between a scone and a rock cake. It gets busy so we recommend making a reservation.
8. YORK'S CHOCOLATE STORY
The art of chocolate-making has been practiced in York for over 300 years with two of the biggest chocolate brands in the world, Rowntree’s (now Nestlé) and Terry’s, starting here. Chocolate treats such as Toffee Crisp, Smarties, and KitKat all hail from the city with six million Kit Kats produced in York every day.
At York’s Chocolate Story, chocoholics can enjoy a guided tour exploring the history (see if you can spot Shackleton's cocoa tin, all the way from the Antarctic) plus plenty of sample tasting opportunities along the way. You can even try your hand at making your own chocolate at the end.
Chocolates made on-site are on sale in the ground floor shop and the café serves delicious hot chocolate. And if you need to walk off some of the sugar rush there’s a free York Chocolate Trail to follow around the city.
9. THE YORK RACES
We can thank the Romans for this tradition as they started horse racing in York in 208 AD. Considered the best racecourse in Britain, York Racecourse has races from May to October. York is the third richest racecourse in England and race season is well-loved by locals and visitors.
Going to The Races is a reason to dress up. Gentlemen are required to wear a jacket, collared shirt and a tie or cravat in the County Stand. There is no formal dress code for women but the suggestion is for 'wedding guest attire' and fascinators are popular.
In Grandstand & Paddock there is no dress code so some dress up whilst other racegoers wear shorts and t-shirts to enjoy the sun. The Clock Enclosure is a relaxed area to enjoy picnics with family and friends whilst watching the racing.
10. YORK LUCKY CAT TRAIL
The York Lucky Cat Trail is celebrated at York Glass on the Shambles (you can pick up the free trail leaflet there). Cats have played a part in York’s history and luck has been linked with them since records began.
The original cat statues were placed on the old timber-framed buildings to scare rats and mice which could carry plague and diseases. Cats were also thought to ward off wandering evil spirits and generally to bestow good luck and good health. The older medieval statues have decayed but have been replaced with cat statues on buildings in York for around 200 years.
Once you've found the cat statues around the city, you can buy a York Lucky Cat at York Glass. They are small handmade glass cats which are available in the twelve gemstone colours considered lucky for each month of the year.
11. YORK CASTLE MUSEUM
On the site of York Castle, which was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1068, York Castle Museum offers over 400 years of York's history. The interactive galleries hold thousands of historic objects to discover from recreated Jacobean dining rooms to the Space Age and the swinging Sixties.
The museum buildings were once a Georgian Prison and you can go down to the cells to learn about the brutal history. The most notorious inmate was the legendary highwayman, Dick Turpin.
Kirkgate is a recreated Victorian street that brings history to life. Walk along the cobbles to meet the local characters and visit the authentic shops selling everything from traditional sweets to the pharmacist's unlikely 'cures'.
12. CLIFFORD'S TOWER
One of the best-loved landmarks in York, the top of Clifford's Tower offers amazing panoramic views – you can even see the North York Moors in the distance. The imposing tower is the largest remaining part of York Castle, once the centre of government for the north of England.
Originally built by William the Conqueror to subdue the rebels of the north, it was twice burned to the ground, before being rebuilt by Henry III in the 13th century. The tower takes its name from one grisly incident in its long history when Roger de Clifford was executed for treason against Edward II and hanged in chains from the tower walls.
Ascend the 55 steep steps of the ancient mound to reach the stone tower and explore the royal apartments inside. Afterwards, climb the spiral staircase to the top of the tower for some of the best views in York.
WHERE TO STAY IN YORK
Whatever you plan to do or see in York, Hotel du Vin is the perfect place to stay. Centrally located in a Grade II listed mansion house, there are 44 distinctive rooms – some with freestanding baths for the ultimate luxury. The newly-decorated Bistro du Vin serves heart-warming, traditional French food using regionally sourced quality ingredients. And don't forget to relax in a sumptuous leather armchair in the bar where the sommelier can help you choose the ideal wine for the occasion.
Written by Laura Porter – Travel writer for Malmaison and Hotel du Vin