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The Unmissable Top 10 Things to Do in York, England

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3 weeks ago

Founded by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago, captured by the Vikings in the 9th century, and conquered by the Normans in the 11th century, much of the best things to do in York trail this layered and complex history. This is a city that has changed faces many times over its two millennia history, and it’s deeply fascinating to walk through its inspiring streets and learn its history. And today, York is one of the best places for solo travelers in Europe.

York is a delightfully walkable city, so there’s no need to hire a car while you’re enjoying the sights, sounds and flavors of the city. If you’re trying to work out where the best place to stay in York is, we recommend Bishophill if you prefer a larger hotel near the station (our pick is The Grand), and Bootham if you prefer a more boutique experience (we recommend No.1 and 23 St Mary’s).

1. Walk the old city walls

York’s city walls are considered the most complete surviving walls in Britain. It’s only about two miles in distance, and you get some of the most spectacular views of York Minster and the whole city of York. There are four different entry points across the city.

Best of all, walking the walls is free, and it fully delivers in giving you a sense for old York.

We think it’s the best place to start your journey through York because the elevated position of its ramparts surrounding the city can help you get your bearings. You can walk the full length of the wall in an hour if you don’t stop, but you should carve out at least a couple of hours so that you can stop to enjoy the intriguing sites along the way.

If you want to learn about the history of York Castle and the city generally, we recommend walking the walls with a local.

2. Marvel at York Minster

No trip to York is complete without visiting York Minister – and no: it’s not enough to simply see it from the outside (although the outside is magnificent). York Minster’s handcrafted stone exterior is magnificent and plainly impressive, but inside its walls lies the largest single expanse of medieval stained glass in the UK.

York Minster really is a place to spend time marvelling. As soon as you enter, your eyes are greeted with the stunning stained glass, the sheer magnitude of which is impressive to say the least. This incredibly detailed and awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral will make you pause and wonder how we used to build such beautiful places.

Travel tip: If the weather is nice, book a tour to go to the top of it. You’ll see both York Minister and York from an entirely different (and very pleasing) angle.

And after you’ve explored York Minster, try to get a table outside at Vanilla Café or Crumbs Cupcakery and enjoy the view. York has quite a unique hustle to it, and one of the best places to take that in is right in front of York Minster.

While you’re in the area, pop by the Treasurer’s House located right behind York Minster. It’s a little haven away from the bustle of the streets around it. Fun fact: The furniture is exactly where the previous owner, Frank Green, wanted it be. Rumour has it that Frank threatened to haunt the house if any of his thoughtfully curated furniture was moved.

3. Laze in the Museum Gardens

The tranquil and relaxing Museum Gardens is perfect for a moment of relaxation in York. It’s also the home to magnificent ruins of St Mary’s Abbey which dates back to the 11th century. The ruins are spectacular to witness with your own eyes, and there is something truly special about sitting in front of the ruins as the sun sets. Many of the best walking tours include a walk through the Museum Gardens.

Yorkshire Museum is itself worth a visit (not least because you can walk barefoot over a real Roman mosaic floor), but the real attraction is the Museum Gardens. We also recommend that you pair a visit to the Museum Gardens with a walk along the River Ouse, just like York locals like to do.

Local tip: You can also visit King’s Manor in the University of York campus directly behind the Museum Gardens (connected to it, in fact) and next to the Art Gallery museum.

King’s Manor is host to a beautiful, old library where mainly archaeology students work. It feels just like a room in Hogwarts – and no one knows about it!

4. Experience the Shambles

If you don’t visit the Shambles, you simply haven’t experienced York. Steeped in history and full of charm, the world-famous Shambles is the best-preserved medieval street in Europe. It was a meat market once upon a time, but nowadays it’s a centre of commercial activity. Beyond from its inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter, it’s magical to see the buildings seemingly collapsing on both sides of you.

At points, the street is so narrow that you can touch both the buildings on both sides of the street with your arms stretched out. There’s also a food market just behind the Shambles, but if you’re looking for traditional, hearty (and heavy) Yorkshire food, we recommend the Shambles Sausage & Pie Company.

You may also want to walk by the York Ghost Merchants (though you can’t miss it because there is usually a very long queue to enter). They are famous for their ceramic ghosts which are made by hand. The buying experience is a little like Ollivander’s Wands in Harry Potter: the ghost chooses you!

5. Run up Clifford’s Tower

As you walk down Castlegate, you’ll happen upon Clifford’s Tower, the largest remaining part of York Castle. Run up the small hill into the building itself for the best vantage point to take in the city. Prepare yourself for quite a few steps and steep walkways.

And if you’ve been to York before and think you’ve already seen Clifford’s Tower, it’s undergone extensive renovations so entirely new parts are open which are well worth a visit. English Heritage has done an excellent job restoring the Tower.

6. Hop on a river cruise

One of the best ways to learn about the intriguing history of York is a cruise on the River Ouse which has had an immense impact on the city’s development. It’s especially perfect on a sunny day – and it’s only an hour. If you prefer an evening vibe, there is a beautiful cruise that runs in the evening.

There are a few cruises, but the best cruise has earned its title as the best river cruise in York simply because of the excellent guides that change the experience. Regardless of that, it’s always nice to see a city from the comfort of a boat.

7. Go on a (self-)guided chocolate tour

Once known as the Chocolate City, York is where the Kit Kat we know and love was created. Stop by York Cocoa Works to try some of their innovative flavors, or even join one of their masterclasses if you’ve left yourself a bit more time to enjoy York. The other local favorite is Monk Bar Chocolatiers in the Shambles which prides itself on small batches of handmade chocolate.

8. Shop antiques and charity shops

York has a large concentration of antiques shops and charity shops which carry beautiful jewellery and unique items that you can’t find anywhere else. Let yourself get lost in these shops as you pass them during your day. If you’re looking for them specifically, we recommend The Antiques Centre and Red House Antique Center.

And make sure you check out Dog & Bone Vintage towards Castlegate which has items handpicked and saved from landfill. You’re contributing to a better earth just by shopping there.

9. Peruse the art galleries (and actually buy art)

York has a wonderful selection of art galleries selling all types of pieces scattered throughout the city. What’s particularly great about York’s art galleries is that their pieces are actually affordable. Pick yourself the perfect souvenir to remember your trip.

Our picks for galleries are The Braithwaite, Pyramid, Blue Tree and York Fine Arts. There are many more art galleries scattered throughout York, each with their own unique style.

10. Go on a ghost tour

With over 2000 years of history, many souls have lived and died in York. Some of these souls continue to haunt York, and their stories are deeply fascinating. Make sure you choose a ghost tour that takes you through the story of Harry Martindale. That one is quite spooky.

If you want a souvenir to remember York’s haunted history, the best options are on offer at The York Ghost Merchants in the Shambles (though prepare to line up).

Special Mention: Spot the cat statues

There is a long and rather peculiar tradition in York of placing cat statues on and around buildings throughout York’s city centre. As you’re walking throughout the city, keep an eye out for these ornamental cats dotted on buildings. You’ll find a high concentration around the Shambles, but there’s at least over 20 throughout the city.

Day trips from York

York is well connected to all of the best places to visit in Yorkshire, including the Yorkshire Dales, Castle Howard and the neighboring city of Harrogate. If you plan to make York your base, make sure to leave a couple of days to explore some of the best of York’s surrounding region. Check out our comprehensive guide on the best day trips from York.

And make sure to leave extra time in York to enjoy all the wonderful food and desserts on offer in York.

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