Top things to do in York

Only got a couple of days to get to know a new city? Our Big Five City Guides can help. We break each destination down into culture, history, food, shopping and relaxation must-sees and dos. We call them our Big Five and they’re everything you'll need to experience the essence of a new city. Here, Roslyn Jolly checks in from the historic Northern England city of York. A visit here is probably the closest any of us will get to time travel...

Things to do in York

Things to do in York: Clifford’s Tower

Top things to do in York


Oglethorpe, Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, Bitchdaughter Tower, Swinegate – York’s quirky place names are a legacy of its many-layered past.

Roman, Viking and Norman invaders all came here and left their mark. Today the city is a delightfully compact mixture of medieval muddle and eighteenth-century elegance.

Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in York.

Things to do in York

Things to do in York

History

History lovers, if you visit only one city in Britain apart from London, it should be York! Superlatives have been showered upon this city’s historic attractions. As the capital chosen by Britain’s Norse invaders, it contains the fullest archaeological record of the Viking era. York is also home to the best-preserved medieval street in Europe, the Shambles, and boasts Britain’s finest Georgian townhouse, the superb Fairfax House.

Things to do in York

The Shambles

York specialises in immersive historical experiences, such as Barley Hall, where visitors can discover what life was like here c1483. The acclaimed Jorvik Viking Centre is currently undergoing flood repairs, but special exhibitions on themes such as trade, beliefs and everyday life continue to showcase and interpret York’s extraordinary Norse heritage.

Watch our guide for Sky News Business Class to places to stay and eat in York:

York city guide – The Big Bus tour and travel guide

Adam Ford, editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and host of Tour the World, regularly joins the team at Sky News Business Class to discuss top travel destinations around the world. In this interview Adam covers things to do in York, Northern England.

Historical things to do in York also encompass more modern times. The National Railway Museum behind the beautiful Victorian railway station draws enthusiasts from all over the world to see its 100 historic locomotives, while the Castle Museum is an award-winning museum of 19th and 20th century British social history. York’s Chocolate Story is a visitor experience dedicated to the city’s chocolate industry – did you know that York was the birthplace of famous brands such as Kit Kat and Smarties?

Things to do in York

Things to do in York: Barley Hall. Image courtesy of Visit York

Culture

For cultural things to do in York, start with the building that dominates the city – York Minster, one of the greatest of all Gothic cathedrals. The interior is a sublime expression of medieval spirituality, its wide nave and soaring arches creating an incomparable sense of space, height and light. Visit as a tourist (entry £10) or if you can, attend a service or concert for a first-class experience of English choral music.

Things to do in York

York Minster is one of the world’s greatest examples of Gothic architecture.

The stained glass in York Minster is some of the best anywhere. The recently restored Great East Window, the world’s largest surviving medieval stained glass window, represents a theological history of the planet from creation to apocalypse – the same story that is presented in the York Mystery Plays, a biennial production that takes place either in the Minster or in the streets of the city.

Things to do in York

Things to do in York: Enjoy the splendour of York Minster’s stunning interior. Image: Roslyn Jolly

Illuminating York is an autumn street festival where light installations transform the city into a dynamic 3D artwork. Fringe events bring some of York’s best-known landmarks to life through a mixture of live performances and special lighting effects.

Things to do in York

Illuminating York. Image courtesy of Visit York. Image: Anthony Chappel-Ross

In February the city hosts its annual Jorvik Viking Festival, a reimagining of traditional Norse springtime festivals. If you like dress-ups and re-enactments this one’s for you. You can even take part in the ‘Strongest Viking’ or ‘Best Beard’ competitions, or simply enjoy the spectacular combat performances.

Things to do in York

Things to do in York: Jorvik Viking Festival. Image courtesy of Jorvik Viking Centre

Shopping

Antiques, vintage, fashion and chocolate are the highlights of shopping in York. Car-free Stonegate is the city’s most important shopping street, housing upmarket boutiques and galleries in a mix of historic buildings from different centuries.

Things to do in York

Things to do in York: Shop up a storm on Stonegate.

In the Shambles – named for the butchers’ shops that once lined it – the fourteenth-century buildings lean drunkenly towards each other across the narrow cobbled street, a bit like Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films. Here you’ll find artisan chocolate makers Monkbar Chocolatiers and the gift, vintage and antique shop Flax & Twine, with its charming upstairs tea-room.

Lovers of retro/pop culture and all things vinyl won’t want to miss The Inkwell in Gillygate. The shop, set out like an old-fashioned schoolroom, stocks record-players, new and used records, and a second-hand book collection that includes pulp fiction, old film magazines and vintage children’s annuals.

Food

The most famous eating establishment in York is Bettys Café Tea Rooms, with two city locations – an elegant art deco restaurant in St Helen’s Square, and a cosy teashop in Stonegate. Waitresses wear traditional uniforms (think Downton Abbey staff) and serve Yorkshire specialties such as ‘fat rascals’. Pop in any time for coffee or lunch, or reserve a table for one of their signature Lady Betty’s Afternoon Teas.

Things to do in York

Things to do in York. Image courtesy of Bettys Café Tea Rooms

The Bar Convent Living Heritage Centre is Britain’s oldest operating convent. Its café, located in a beautiful Victorian atrium, offers locally sourced light meals, gluten-free sandwiches and cakes, and an award-winning English breakfast.

The Grand Assembly Rooms, on Blake Street where the high society of 18th century York gathered to see and be seen, now house a restaurant that’s part of the ASK chain of Italian eateries. You’ll never eat pizza in a more splendid setting!

If all this olde-worlde charm is in danger of overwhelming you, the Biltmore Bar and Grill in Swinegate provides a more modern, metropolitan-style experience, serving up swish cocktails, fine food and a party atmosphere within a sleek, contemporary space.

Relaxation

York has plenty of places to unwind and relax, many of them with a touch of history.

The York Museum Gardens are home to stunning plant collections and around 40 species of bird. Set amidst the romantic ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, the Gardens are a four-hectare oasis of peace and greenery in the middle of the city.

Things to do in York

Things to do in York: Walk the medieval parapets that surround the old city.

The best surviving medieval walls in Britain encircle York’s old town. High and wide, the stone walls form an elevated walkway commanding great views of both city and countryside. Enter by one of the four original ‘bars’ (gateways) and join the many locals as well as tourists who say that strolling on the walls is one of their favourite leisure activities in York.

Things to do in York

Things to do in York: Cruising the Ouse is a popular way to relax.

Historically King’s Staith was the main landing stage for boats on the River Ouse, which once made York an important trading port. Today, the quayside area is all about outdoor eating and drinking, as well as being the access point for York Boat River Cruises.

Things to do in York

Things to do in York: Atmospheric public houses are a speciality of this destination. Image courtesy of Visit York. Image: Gareth Buddo

York’s 365 pubs could keep you busy for a year. With more limited time, choose a historic gem such as The Lamb and Lion next to Bootham Bar. Trainspotters will enjoy York Tap, a well-above-average traditional station pub. For live music try The Hop or long-running local venue, Fibbers.

Do you have any tips for top things to do in York? We would love to hear from you. Please leave us a comment.

Additional images: Bigstock/Photodune

 

Roslyn Jolly

About the writer

Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury TravelGet Up & GoThe Sunday Telegraph (Escape) and The Australian (Travel & Indulgence). In her former career as an English Literature academic, she studied and taught the work of great travel writers, such as Henry James, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson, and became fascinated by the history of travel and tourism. Two years at school in Wales and three years at university in England allowed her to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do. On a trip to Borneo in 2015, her eyes were opened to the wonders of Asia. Her most amazing travel experience so far was looking into the eyes of a Bornean gibbon spotted in the rainforest canopy in Brunei. Dream destinations for the future include Antarctica, Mongolia, Bhutan, Namibia, Iceland and Greece – and seeing more of Australia’s north and west.

  1. Great photos – it takes me back to the Shambles…
    I love York because York Minster is a matching cathedral to Lincoln Cathedral.
    Makes me want to revisit York soon…

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