If what you’re after is an idyllic English town that perfectly embodies what we, foreigners, imagine England to be like (heaps of history, cream tea, quaint pubs, welcoming locals that call you “luv”; the usuals) then you absolutely must visit York.
Indeed, the town is a place of remarkable cultural and historical heritage and has, miraculously, lost little of its glory, with some attractions dating as far back as the Roman era. And while it would be perfectly reasonable to visit York on a day trip from London (in fact, a lot of people do), I do, however, recommend staying overnight as York is really quite different after nightfall; if you thought its network of medieval streets was impressive in broad daylight wait until you have them all to yourself once the hordes of tourists have left and the pubs have started playing live music.
Yep—it’s just as awesome as it sounds. Convinced, yet? Here’s what you should do during your time in York.
The Best Things to Do in York
Have tea in a vintage train carriage at the Railway Museum
Rainy day in York? This being Northern England there’s a very strong possibility it might happen—fret not: have afternoon tea the National Railway Museum instead! Sweets and tea are served in a converted vintage carriage that the Dutchess of Bedford herself (who is widely credit for having invented the concept of afternoon tea) would undoubtedly be excited about.
Plus, the museum is free to visit and offers a unique perspective on the fascinating history of trains in Britain — did you know, for instance, that when chefs ran out of supplies during the journey, they hollowed out a potato, put a note inside it and threw it out at the next signal box; the signaller telegraphed up the line, and everything the chef needed would be waiting at the next station. I also particularly enjoyed the lavish royal carriages, the World War I ambulance trains as well as the travelling post office van.
Who said rainy days in Northern England were a bad thing?
Arguably one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals in the world and the largest of its kind in Northern Europe, the York Minster is mostly famed for its medieval stained glass and the sprawling views of the town from atop its central tower. Time your visit right and you might get the chance to hear the daily evensong or even one of the choir’s acclaimed performances.
Merchant Adventurers’ Hall
As one of York’s most cherished medieval marvels, the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall is definitely worth a visit. A whopping 650 years old, the stunning timber frame structure was built for the Company of York —a religious fraternity formed by local merchants— as a place where they could not only socialise but also, and perhaps most importantly, conduct business and form guilds. The Great Hall remains one of the largest buildings of its kind and date in Britain.
Explore the pedestrian streets
NOT getting lost in York’s mazelike network of lanes is a bit of a challenge but one I’ll take gladly, as these are home to impossibly photogenic angles and shopfronts. In order to fully enjoy their long history and learn about their incalculable secrets, a guided walk is an absolute must.
Have a pint in historic pubs
Indulge the long-lasting tradition of Sunday roast and a pint (or two, or three) at one of York’s numerous pubs. Some of my favourites include the Guy Fawkes Inn (birthplace of the infamous plotter Guido Fawkes), the 400-year old Walmgate Ale House, and the perfectly quaint Royal Oak, complete with wood-burning fireplace, locally-sourced grub and a few friendly ghosts.
Medieval city walls
See York in a wholly new perspective from England’s longest medieval town walls! At 3.4 kilometres long, the beautifully preserved walls —essentially built to protect York against the Scots 900 years ago— are one of York’s most distinctive features and feature five main “bars” (not of the kind that serves beer, rather the kind that is used as a gateway) as well as over 45 towers. Unsure where to start? Friends of York Walls put together a series of itineraries that showcase the best bits of this massive structure.
A lot of first-time visitors to York like to start their visit at Clifford’s Tower, whose viewing platform offers panoramic views of the town. Originally built on a high mound by William the Conqueror in order to subdue the rebels of the north, the former keep is pretty much all that’s left from York’s legendary castle. The tower served many purposes throughout its long history, including a prison and a royal mint.
Stroll in the Shambles
Google “things to do in York” and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll see the Shambles; they are indeed York’s emblem and, as the ultimate representation of York’s haunted medieval lanes, have maintained every bit of its antiquated charm.
While the narrow pedestrian street is now awash with a mix of fancy shops and souvenir stands, it wasn’t always so jolly; the 14th-century overhanging timber-framed buildings used to be butcher shops —in fact, shambles is an obsolete word once used to describe open-air slaughterhouses and meat markets. Meat hooks can still be seen on some façades along with shelves on which meat would have been displayed, right next to runnels where overflowing blood and offals once were alleviated.
While chock full of tourists in the daytime, the Shambles are surprisingly quiet come nightfall, aside from the occasional ghost tour group…
Yorkshire Museum Gardens
Partly because I didn’t quite have enough time to make it inside the famed museum and partly because it was unusually sunny during my time in York, I opted to explore the leafy gardens instead. And indeed, it was the right call to make: with the striking ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey and the fragrant, colourful flower patches as well as the vast botanical collection. The perfect place to have a picnic and enjoy York’s relaxed atmosphere!
Things to Do in York – Know Before You Go
- There are myriad museums in the city and I barely even scratched the surface during my visit. Should you wish to explore the numerous treasures of North Yorkshire, then the York Pass might be worth your while.
- York is just 1.5 hour from London by train with multiple daily connections with Virgin Trains. Tickets can be purchased up to 12 weeks in advance.
- Should you wish to set up base in York and explore the stunning beauty that is North Yorkshire, there is a wide range of day trips to choose from: wine tasting, the Captain Cook Museum, the North York Moors national park, Fountains Abbey, Rievaulx Abbey, the Yorkshire Dales, the Flamborough Head coastline, the York maze and Castle Howard, as well as charming villages like Thornton-le-Dale, Kettlewell, Robin Hood’s Bay, Boroughbridge and Whitby.
* I visited York as a guest of Visit York. All opinions are my own.