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Things to do in York, North Yorkshire

York is the self-proclaimed "Capital of the North" and was once the principal city of the largest county in the UK – Yorkshire.

Built on the confluence of the Ouse and Foss rivers, its geographic location allowed it to prosper undisturbed and it remains one of the best-preserved mediaeval cities in Europe.

More than four million visitors flock to this northern city every year.

Famous for its Roman and Viking history, it flourished with the arrival of the railways, the Industrial Revolution and the development of Nestle/Rowntree and Terry's chocolate factories which became major employers in the area.

York Minster
York Minster © Shutterstock / WDG Photo

York has castles, dungeons, Roman and Viking sites, museums, galleries, mediaeval churches and historic houses too many to mention, but most of the main highlights are packed into the city centre within the well-preserved City Walls.

The Shambles, York Minster and the City Walls are among the most visited attractions while 10 museums range in interest from the Yorkshire Museum to the National Railway Museum.

The Jorvik Viking Centre is a one-of-a-kind attraction beneath the city while the charming streets above are lined with boutiques, antique and gift shops making any visit a real treat.

City Walls
City Walls © Shutterstock / WDG Photo

Finally, ancient pubs and taverns (one for every day of the year!) compete with top-notch restaurants and tea rooms provide visitors with a wonderful choice of food and drink.

Areas to Explore

Stonegate features Mansion House, the Merchant Adventurer's HallGuildhall and St Helen's Church as well as being the centre of the pedestrianised shopping area. A gateway leads to the Guildhall and the banks of the River Ouse.

Medieval building
Medieval building © Shutterstock / Andrzej Sowa

The Shambles is a narrow cobbled alleyway lined with quaint shops and mediaeval buildings overhanging the charming street.

Aldwark is an old area of York with the 14th century Merchant Taylors' Hall and St Anthony's Hall, both mediaeval guildhalls of note.

Micklegate has some fine Georgian houses and the old church of St Martin-cum-Gregory with its noteworthy stained glass windows.

The Micklegate Museum at Micklegate Bar tells the gruesome tales of decapitated heads of traitors regularly decorating this ancient gateway.

Coppergate is home to the Jorvik Viking Centre and the site of the original Viking settlement from 866AD.

Clifford Street is the site of the York Dungeon and leads past the Regimental Museum of the Royal Dragoon Guards to Clifford's Tower.

Clifford's Tower
Clifford's Tower © Shutterstock / WDG Photo

Knavesmire to the southwest of York is the home of York Racecourse and Rowntree Park.

Things to Do

Walking tours abound in York with themes ranging from history, the Romans and the Vikings to ghost tours and the City Walls. Join an official tour or download a walking tour to your phone, tablet or MP3 player and go at your own pace.

A visit to York Races is a great day out - race meetings are held throughout the summer and if you back a winner, you may go home richer than you started out!

Clifford's Tower on its green mound is a distinctive landmark in York. Built over 1000 years ago by William the Conqueror, this motte and bailey castle has a bloody history of siege, fire and hangings.

Visitors get great views of the city from this English Heritage attraction.

Inside Clifford's Tower
Inside Clifford's Tower © Charles D P Miller via Flickr

Close by is the York Castle Museum which has some excellent recreated scenes of everyday life including a Victorian Street and shops, an Edwardian Street, and many costumes and toys. Located in a former prison, a visit to the cells is a must!

Once the residence of the Lord Mayor of York, the Mansion House is a grand Georgian townhouse on St Helen's Square. It was built in 1732 by architect and artist William Etty, whose statue now stands in Exhibition Square near the York Art Gallery.

The Merchant Adventurers' Hall in Fossgate is the finest mediaeval guildhall in Europe. This stunning ancient monument dates back to 1357.

The modest entrance fee includes an audio guide that takes you around the timbered Great Hall, Chapel and early Hospital and explains the role of the guild.

Even older, the Eboracum Legion Bathhouse dates back to Roman times with the remains of the bathhouse in the cellar.

See the remains of ancient York and imagine life as a Roman soldier, before enjoying a meal and entertainment in the pub above.

York On a Budget

York Minster is the largest Gothic Cathedral in North Europe so it is worth dropping in to admire the 8th to 15th-century architecture and climbing the tower to see spectacular views across the city.

The Quire and Organ
The Quire and Organ © Shutterstock / Phil MacD Photography

Another of York's main sights, the Shambles, is also free to enjoy. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, this ancient mediaeval street once housed 26 butchers' shops in the uneven buildings with their overhanging upper storeys. It is now a delightful cobbled alleyway of galleries and gift shops.

Walkers can get a great workout on the three-mile-long City Walls, following in the bootprints of Roman centurions. There are four gates called "bars" at Bootham, Micklegate, Walmgate and Monk Bar.

The award-winning National Railway Museum is a big draw to York and is the largest railway museum in the world.

Displays cover the complete history of railways in Britain from Stephenson's Rocket to a collection of lavish royal trains. This free attraction has displays of locomotives and rolling stock, archives and signs telling the history of railways in detail.

For more information about visiting York on a budget, check out 10 Best Free Things to do in York.

Visiting with Kids

The Jorvik Viking Centre is a fantastic attraction for visitors who are transported underground through the reconstructed Viking-era streets of York complete with sights, sounds and smells! Archaeologists only uncovered the houses and workshops of ancient Jorvik in the late 1970s and many of the finds are on display in the museum.

River Park
River Park © Shutterstock / WDG Photo

Kids seem to revel in gruesome, so perhaps a tour of the York Dungeon is just the thing. Guides take visitors on a tour of these dark dungeons to see some primitive means of torture.

If you want to get interactive with archaeology, visit the DIG on St Savioursgate and uncover some 2,000-year-old relics of ancient York.

The Maize Maze just outside York is a fab place to take the kids on a summer's day. It features a Maze of Illusions, a giant pyramid of maize bales, climbing zones, slides and more.

NRM Duchess of Hamilton
NRM Duchess of Hamilton © AboutBritain.com

Don't forget that most kids love railways and steam trains, so it might be worth taking them to the National Railway Museum - huge trains of all kinds to discover!

Mansion House, St Helen's Square
Mansion House, St Helen's Square © Shutterstock / Alastair Wallace

History of York

York's history began with the arrival of a legion of Roman soldiers in AD71, tasked with keeping the new addition to the Roman Empire in control. By the time they were forced to leave in the 5th century AD, the city of Eboracum had sound city walls and gates protecting the local Anglo-Saxon inhabitants.

Pope Gregory chose this city to be the base for Christianity in northern England in the 7th century. Times changed with the violent arrival of the Vikings in 866AD and Jorvik, as it became known, was a centre for trade for these new arrivals.

In 954AD Eric Bloodaxe was defeated and York once again settled down to a prosperous era until William the Conqueror built his castles at Baille Hill and Clifford's Tower. After quelling the local uprising, the Normans built the huge York Minster.

During the 14th century, the successful city of York was a favourite for royal visits. The city paid dearly for its loyalty during the Wars of the Roses and later during the English Civil War in 1644.

York once again rose to power during the Industrial Revolution as railways brought new visitors to the city and helped transport commodities and goods.

Rooftops of the City viewed from the Minster
Rooftops of the City viewed from the Minster © Shutterstock / Jeff Dalton

Well away from the main Luftwaffe targets during World War II, York's historic buildings and landmarks have remained largely intact for us to visit and enjoy today.

Quirky Facts

  • Guy Fawkes was born in Petergate and educated at St Peter's on Bootham before attempting to burn down the Houses of Parliament in 1605
  • Highwayman Dick Turpin's reign of terror came to an end in York where he was imprisoned in the York Castle Dungeons and executed
  • Pope John Paul II visited York in 1982 and 200,000 people gathered in Knavesmire to see him
  • New York City was named after the Duke of York, James Stuart, who became James II
  • Known as England's Railway City, York's Railway Museum is home to a replica Rocket, the first train ever built
  • The Shambles was once voted "Britain's Most Picturesque Street"
  • York is one of the most haunted cities in the world
  • There are more miles of intact city walls in York than anywhere else in England
  • York hosts the largest annual food festival in the UK
  • York's Maize Maze is possibly the largest of its kind in the world
  • York Racecourse is dubbed "the Ascot of the North" and has been attended by the Queen

Popular Events and Festivals

Seasonal events start with a costumed parade for the Viking Festival in early February. Easter is the Chocolate Festival followed by the start of the York racing season in mid-May. Railfest sees an impressive line-up of steam locomotives visiting the National Railway Museum, also in May.

Railfest © Matt Buck via Flickr

The Comedy Festival and Roman Festival are worth attending in June along with the Carnival Parade which showcases local talents.

Dragon Boat Racing on the Ouse, the Festival of Rivers and the Jazz and Blues Festival liven up July followed by the Peace Festival, National Book Fair and the Food and Drink Festival in September.

The "Illuminating York" Festival sees the city's architecture beautifully highlighted after dark in late October followed by the festive Christmas Lights Switch On and St Nicholas Fayre in late November.

December sees the city hosting the magical Festival of Angels with ice sculptures and skating in Swinegate.

Getting Around

York city centre is very manageable on foot; you can actually walk from one side to the other in less than 20 minutes, although the cobbled street and hills can be tiring. Most of the city centre is pedestrianised until 16:00, which makes getting around very easy. Most of the main attractions are close together.

North Transept Roof, York Minster
North Transept Roof, York Minster © Shutterstock / Phil MacD Photography

York roads were designed for carts and are very narrow. If you arrive in York by car, plan to use a Park and Ride or park your vehicle at your hotel and leave it there.


York is an excellent shopping destination with many independent stores around the Shambles and King's Square. Fossgate Shopping Centre has many smaller boutiques, deli's and furniture shops and the thriving Swinegate Shopping Centre includes food stores, specialist shops and quirky clothing shops. Stonegate is known as one of the top 20 fashion streets in the UK.

Balloons Over York Racecourse
Balloons Over York Racecourse © Peter via Flickr

Brown's department store in Davygate is one of a family-owned chain of department stores in the area which has been in business for over 100 years. It sells furniture, fashion and beauty from designer names such as Chanel, Bobbi Brown and Jean-Paul Gautier.

The Coppergate Shopping Centre includes high street names such as Topshop, Clarks and Marks & Spencer while bargains galore can be found at the McArthurglen Designer Outlet Mall in Fulford.

Micklegate Bar
Micklegate Bar © Shutterstock / Alastair Wallace

Entertainment And Nightlife

Like any university town, York has lively nightlife in its many city-centre clubs and bars. Club Salvation is open Thursday to Sunday and is well-frequented by students looking for a relaxed place to drink and dance.

Tru Nightlife benefits from a recent multi-million-pound facelift and includes four rooms, five bars and a VIP lounge.

York Theatre Royal offers a wide range of entertainment from drama to comedy and the Grand Opera House in Micklegate puts on several productions each year.

Live music can be enjoyed at the National Centre for Early Music which hosts a series of jazz, folk and classical concerts in a mediaeval church setting.

Moviegoers will find plenty of choice at Vue Cinema multiplex in Clifton Moor Retail Park. For a more intimate experience, try City Screen which has luxurious seating and an upscale café bar.

Where to Eat

York has an impressive choice of 200 restaurants, 150 cafés and over 365 pubs so you really won’t go hungry. The Golden Fleece is a popular "haunt" with gourmet dishes served in an old black-and-white building, said to be the most haunted property in York.

Sunday roast is always a popular option in the many pubs in the Swinegate and Stonegate districts. Try Ye Olde Starre Inne, believed to be the oldest licensed premises in the city or Kennedy's Bar where the chef-prepared menu has an excellent reputation.

For a tasty lunch try the delicious hot offerings from the West Cornwall Pasty Co on Parliament Street or head for the Black Swan which serves a range of homemade pies from traditional steak and ale to pigeon, fish and even squirrel!

NRM Royal Carriage
NRM Royal Carriage © AboutBritain.com

Where to Stay

Luxury: The Churchill Hotel is a boutique hotel of character in a Georgian mansion within its own grounds yet within walking distance of all York's attractions. The Piano Bar and Restaurant has an AA 2 Rosette award and yes, there is a baby grand piano playing in the corner.

Mid-priced: For a romantic weekend, 23 St Mary's offers homely 4-star B&B accommodation in an 1890's period property close to York Minster.

Economy: Hotel53 is located in Piccadilly in the heart of York. This modern hotel has guest parking, an on-site restaurant and WiFi Internet access. It has excellent reviews.

Family Choice: Great value for money, the three-star Elmbank Hotel has family rooms with a double and two single beds, and cots upon request. It is a 10-15 minute walk from York attractions and the 68 guestrooms have complimentary WiFi and tea/coffee makers.

From Romans and Vikings to present-day university students, the streets of York have continually been pounded by an ever-changing society.

What makes York so special to visit is that you can delve beneath the streets to find preserved relics of its ancient past, making it fascinating for families, archaeologists and history lovers.

If you're visiting York for the first time with friends, you'll find lots of activities in our Fun Things to Do In York for Adults article.

Check out our other article about York:

10 Best Free Things to do in York

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By Air: The nearest airport to York is the Leeds-Bradford airport 31 miles away so most visitors arrive by train, bus or car.

By Road: York is served by the A1(M) to the west and the M62 to the south, making it easy to reach the city by car

By Rail: York is a major hub for Britain's railways so you can reach York easily from almost anywhere in the UK. East Coast trains run every 30 minutes from Edinburgh Waverley station to King's Cross in London, stopping at York. Journey times are 2hrs 30 mins from Edinburgh and 2hrs 15 mins from London.

The First Transpennine Express links York with Manchester, Manchester Airport, Huddersfield and Leeds.


NCP car parks are located at the Stonebow (65 spaces), Tanner Row (285 spaces), Queen Street (136 spaces) and on Piccadilly (60 spaces). Council car parks charge between £2.30 and £3.70 per hour and visitors must call or text the displayed number for instructions on how to pay.

There are 5 Park and Ride services covering all major routes into the city. Parking is free and shuttle buses run every 15 minutes from 07:00 to 19:00. There is a fixed fare of £2.60 return (in 2013) and free for up to two accompanied children.

The Green Line 2 Park and Ride runs from the A1237/A19 junction north of York and drops visitors outside the National Railway Museum or near York Minster.

White Line 3 picks up from A1036 and stops at the Railway Station before travelling into the city centre.

Red Line 7 picks up from the A19/A64 junction south of York and calls at the York Designer Outlet Mall en route to the city centre.

Yellow Line 8 starts from the A64/A1079 and calls at the Merchant Adventurers Hall and Coppergate.

Silver Line 9 serves the A1036 east of York and goes directly to the city centre.

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