Things to do in York
Whether you’re heading there for a city break or a big event, you’re in for a treat. York is just so pretty! No matter where you’re staying, you won’t go far without tripping over some historical landmark, from Roman ruins to a whole street full of well-preserved medieval buildings.
Few cities come close to York in terms of character - largely provided by its intricate web of medieval streets enclosed by a circle of ancient city walls. But although this Yorkshire city is full of photo opportunities just waiting to be uploaded to your Instagram feed, it has plenty to please even those who weren’t exactly history fans at school.
Two universities and seven million visitors each year keep York feeling buzzing all-year round. Hardly a week goes by without an independent bar or cafe opening up in the foodie enclave of Walmgate and Fossgate, plus it’s a major shopping powerhouse, brimming with designer shops and boutiques. We’ve even created this handy local guide to York to help you make the most of your stay.
- York Minster
No trip to York would be complete with a visit to York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe which took an incredible 250 years to build. So big it even has its own police force, it’s spectacular from the outside, but inside its sheer size and scale are jaw-dropping - in fact the Leaning Tower of Pisa would fit inside the central tower.
Admission is free, as are guided tours, although a donation is asked for. So climb up for fantastic views, or simply stand and admire the detail on the stained glass windows. All the faces have tiny eyelashes, an amazing achievement for craftsmen back in the 1400s and even more remarkable when you consider the windows were 100ft from the ground, so such tiny details would never be seen.
- National Railway Museum
If you’re in York on a family city break, walk directly to the National Railway Museum because it’s unbelievably intriguing - and free. Travel back in time to when locomotives ruled the tracks at this, the largest railway museum in the world.
You don’t need to be an engineer to enjoy seeing the Flying Scotsman or the only Japanese bullet train outside of Japan. Equally fascinating are the stories. In the days before radio communication, if train cooks ran out of supplies, they’d put a note in a potato and throw it at the signaller, who’d telegraph ahead to the next station.
- Party like a Viking
Over 1,000 years ago, York was under Viking rule. Every February, the Vikings would celebrate ‘Jolablot’, a feast to mark the end of the winter and the coming of spring. Today, the Norse tradition has been revived and for the last 30 or so years, Vikings from all over the globe (and 40,000 visitors) descend on the town every February half term for family-friendly events, battle re-enactments and the popular ‘Best Beard’ competition.
But if you’re not lucky enough to be in town when the festival is on, you can still get a Viking fix at the Jorvik centre.Great for all ages, it’s the only attraction of its kind based on a real archaeological dig. More of an adventure than a museum, you’ll go back in time to a reconstructed Viking village, complete with smells and sounds.
- Enjoy a day at York races
York is famous for horse-racing - it’s a tradition here that goes back 2,000 years from the times of the Romans and Vikings. And York Racecourse is one of the finest in the country, full of listed buildings and character making it very popular among the 60,000 people who visit each year.
The racecourse runs 17 racedays from May to October, and they’re very popular. But the real attraction is the Ebor Festival. Held over four days in August the city fills up with well-dressed racegoers in all their finery.
- Get scared silly in York
In York for Halloween? You’re in luck. York was officially named the Most Haunted City in Europe by the International Ghost Research Foundation. Treasurer’s House in York is home to one of the most famous apparitions in the UK. The house was built over what was once a Roman thoroughfare, and in the 1950s a heating engineer saw a legion of Roman soldiers, visible only from the knees up, marching through one of the cellar walls.
Take your pick of one of the many Ghost Walks on offer (held after it gets dark, naturally). Don’t like to walk? Take the Ghost Bus. It’s an old 1960s Routemaster with a creepy conductor providing a running commentary.
- Walk the wall
A great way to get a feel for the city is to head upwards for a stroll along the limestone city walls. It’s free to access - just head to Museum Gardens, behind the cathedral for the best starting point. It takes about two hours to walk the five kilometre circuit. Not to be missed are the battlements at Micklegate, where traitors like William Wallace met a gristly end.
- Eat some chocolate
York is Britain’s chocolate capital, with a long history in confectionary which continues to this day - both the Kit Kat and the Chocolate Orange being its most famous exports. Take the York Chocolate Trail by picking up a map at the visitor information centre - it takes you on a walk around the city’s best confectioners. Final stop on the Trail is York’s Chocolate Story, an interactive museum that gives a fascinating glimpse into York’s chocolate making past (and lots of opportunities for tasting).
- Have afternoon tea
York is teeming with quaint tea rooms, but if you like your Earl Grey with a huge helping of 1930s glamour, head to Bettys on St Helen’s Square. Everything about it is utterly charming, from the smart waiting staff and fine crockery, to the fabulous art deco interior. Try their signature Fat Rascals - plump, juicy scones decorated with almonds and cherries.
- Shuffle down The Shambles
Crammed with buildings more than 500 years old, The Shambles is believed to be the oldest shopping street in Europe. And it looks it - higgledy piggledy timber-framed buildings that lean together so they seem to touch at the top. Once known as The Great Flesh Shambles, a number of the hooks that butchers used to hang out their meat are still visible on the buildings. Nowadays, you’re more likely to pick up a souvenir than a side of beef though.
- Simply get lost
If you’re on a family break in York, you’ll be pleased to hear there’s plenty to keep the noisiest family members quiet. Take York Maze, created from over one million living maize plants. Open every summer, it’s the largest maze in the UK. Kids will love finding their way round with a compass - and you are allowed to cheat and buy a map.
- Enjoy a pint or two
Famously, there’s meant to be a pub in York for every day of the year. But if you want a pub with a massive helping of history, head to Stonegate to the Grade II listed Ye Olde Starre Inne. The pub was first licensed in 1644 – meaning it has the longest continuous licence of any pub in York. Warm yourself by the open fire, enjoying a real ale while you hear stories about the pub ghosts - an old lady and two black cats.