The best things to do in York

    things to do in York
    The Shambles. Credit: Nick Brundle / Alamy

    Few cities wear their past with as much pride as York, says Sally Coffey. Here is our guide to the best things to do in York

    The best things to do in York

    If you had to name a British city with a chocolate-box image, York would surely be it. The undisputed ‘capital’ of Yorkshire, York itself is not only insanely pretty, but its location between the Yorkshire Moors, Wolds and Dales mean it’s well placed to reach many of the county’s other beauty spots.

    Packing a lot into its petite frame – including numerous museums and other visitor attractions that play on its tangled past – as well as some of the best-preserved medieval streets in Europe, the only problem visitors to York tend to have is how to fit it all in.

    History of York

    The city’s story goes back to AD71 when the Romans founded it as ‘Eboracum’.

    things to do in york
    Clifford’s Tower. Credit: Christopher Ison/English Heritage

    Though there is some evidence of Mesolithic settlements prior to this, this is when the city as we know it today began to take shape, with the Romans turning it into an economic powerhouse over the next three centuries.

    The most intact part of the original Roman walls, including the Multangular Tower, can be found in the attractive Museum Gardens, while St Sampson’s Square is home to the remains of a Roman bathhouse, and the Yorkshire Museum’s cabinets gleam with Roman treasures.

    By AD866, the city’s global significance had caught the eyes of the Vikings, who, led by Ivan the Boneless, claimed it for their own and renamed it ‘Jorvik’. Despite their violent reputation, the Vikings’ time in York was overwhelmingly peaceful; under them the city prospered in terms of crafts, shipbuilding, trade, art, and agriculture. Look out for street names such as Stonegate and Petergate, which come from the Roman word for ‘road’ – ‘gata’ – and pay homage to this time.

    history of york
    York is reputed to be the most haunted city in the world. Credit: Jim Richardson

    It is for its medieval era, still evident in many of the city’s characterful buildings and lanes, however, that York is most celebrated.

    During this time the city’s walls were rebuilt and strengthened and many of the Viking buildings were torn down and replaced with stone buildings. A period of great change, it’s also when the footprint of the city centre that we know today was mapped out, with cobbled lanes leading to the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall and the Guildhall.

    things to do in york
    Magnificent York Minster towers above the city, with a section of the city walls in front. Credit: eye35 / Alamy

    Today, one of the best things to do in York is to walk the walls to get a sense of the scale of the city and for views of the surrounding countryside, but in medieval times, these walls would have been a serious line of defence against would-be invaders.

    They also performed a more macabre role: at Micklegate Bar, the most prestigious gateway through which kings and queens would enter the city, heads of traitors were displayed. These included the heads of Richard Duke of York, his son (the Earl of Rutland) and the Earl of Salisbury, which were impaled during the notorious Wars of the Roses, only to be replaced with the heads of their Lancastrian rivals following Yorkist victory at the Battle of Towton.

    things to do in York
    The Shambles

    The Shambles, a narrow lane where the houses all lean in towards each other as though sharing a secret, is one of York’s most adored medieval streets and reputedly provided inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. It is top of our list of the best things to do in York and it is often packed with eager visitors, who come to pick up souvenirs from one of its many quaint (and quirky) independent shops.

    things to do in York
    York Minster

    And then of course you can’t have a list of the best things to do in York without York Minster, the grand church on the site of the Roman basilica, begun in the 13th century, which took 250 years to complete, whose Gothic towers and spires dominate the skyline. York Minster houses some of the richest and most remarkable stained glass in Britain – the famous Great East Window is larger than a tennis court and has the biggest expanse of medieval glazing of anywhere. Thankfully, the Minster has withstood numerous fires and besieges – not least during the English Civil War when it was surrendered to the Roundheads on the proviso it would not be destroyed.

    A large part of York’s appeal also comes from some of its more unusual aspects, from itscenturies-old cat connection (cats supposedly symbolise good luck in York) to its odd street names – Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate never fails to raise a smile – and the many ghosts said to roam its streets.

    Top five things to do in York

    York Minster

    Seen from most parts of the city and one of the most magnificent cathedrals in the world, a visit to the Minster is a must.

    things to do in york
    The Kings’ Screen at York Minster depicts 15 English kings, from William the Conqueror to Henry VI. Credit: York Minster/Visit York.

    Jorvik Viking Centre

    Come face to face with the Viking residents of York at this immersive and interactive attraction in the heart of the city.

    Clifford’s Tower

    This Norman stronghold – built by William the Conqueror to subdue northern rebels – was also the scene of one of the Middle Ages’ worse anti-Semitic massacres. Its revamped visitor experience will reveal all.

    things to do in york
    The National Railway Museum. Credit: Ian Dagnall / Alamy

    National Railway Museum

    Another big part of the city’s story is how the railways helped save the city from stagnation, so this homage to the history of the railways is quite touching.

    City Walls Experience

    Based at the Micklegate Bar, this attraction offers great insight into the history of the walls.

    Where to stay in York

    With all this sightseeing you’ll need somewhere comfortable and close to recoup at the end of the day and The Grand, York, a historic hotel set within the city’s ancient walls and just a short stroll from the network of lanes that make up the city centre, is an excellent base for your visit.

    where to stay in york
    The Grand, York

    The stylish rooms are large (particularly the executive rooms and the suites), and there is an excellent restaurant in The Rise, which harks back to The Grand’s heyday as a ‘Palace of Business’ railway hotel, In addition, the service is exemplary, and there is a spa with a pool, steam room, Jacuzzi, and sauna to refresh yourself at after a busy day exploring, in preparation of doing it all again the next day.

    Because, after all, one day is never enough in York.

    Read the full feature in our April/May 2024 issue of Discover Britain, available to buy from 1 March here. 

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