Oglethorpe, Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, Bitchdaughter Tower, Swinegate — York’s quirky place names are a legacy of its multi-layered past.
Roman, Viking and Norman invaders all came here and left their mark. Located at the midway point between London and Edinburgh, today this English city is a delightfully compact mixture of medieval muddle and eighteenth-century elegance.
Enjoy this York travel guide.
Watch our video of the top historical things to do in York:
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York for history lovers
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 a hilltop 13th century castle keep known as Clifford’s Tower. Just a short stroll from there is one of Britain’s finest Georgian townhouses — the superb Fairfax House. And the list goes goes on.
York specialises in immersive historical experiences, such as Barley Hall, where visitors can discover what life was like here circa 1483. Also check out the acclaimed Jorvik Viking Centre. It’s a superb showcase of York’s extraordinary Norse heritage, and stages exhibitions on themes such as trade, beliefs and everyday life.
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 York 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?)
Top cultural experiences in York
For cultural things to do in York, start by visiting the building that dominates the city.
York Minster is 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.
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.
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.
Where to shop in York
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.
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 The Flax & Twine. It has a charming upstairs tea-room.
Great places to eat in York
Bettys Café Tea Rooms should be at the top of your dining to-do list in York.
There are two city locations — an elegant art deco restaurant in St Helen’s Square, and a cosy teashop in Stonegate. Waitstaff 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.
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.
Ways to relax in York
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.
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.
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 departure point for City Cruises’ sightseeing cruises.
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 to add to our York travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock/Photodune
About the writer
Roslyn Jolly is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Luxury Travel, Get Up & Go, The Sunday Telegraph and The Australian. 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 Roslyn to travel extensively in Europe and North America, which she continues to do.