Whether you go for the Roman and Viking history, to feast on Fat Rascals or to wander down the closest real-life approximation to Diagon Alley, there is never a shortage of diverting things to do in York.
Sitting at the city’s heart is the resplendent Gothic York Minster, surely one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. But even it is a relative newcomer in a city that can trace its roots back, past the Vikings who once colonised it and all the way back to the Romans who did so before them. Few cities are as excellent to visit if you’re travelling with family. These are some our favourite things to do on a York jaunt.
No visit to York is complete without a wander around the Gothic cathedral, which is the seat of the archbishop of York. A church has stood on the site since a wooden chapel was built for the baptism of King Edwin of Northumbria on Easter Day 627. Various structures later replaced it until the present one was constructed between 1220 and 1480; it has stood firm and resplendent ever since. Do venture to the undercroft, where you can explore York Minster Revealed, an interactive exhibition that takes you through 2000 years of history. Visit the website here.
York Castle Museum
There are few museums that bring the past to life quite so vividly as York Castle Museum. Its displays take visitors through reconstructions of what daily life would have been like through the centuries. You can pass through everything from Georgian sitting rooms right through to the highlight: a recreation of a Victorian street, complete with shops you can wander into. It is gloriously dedicated to the pursuit of bringing the past into the present. And for those who enjoy the more gruesome end of history, you can even try out a condemned mans’ bed in a prison cell; indeed, highwayman Dick Turpin was imprisoned here before being hanged in 1739. Visit the website here.
National Railway Museum
Are you travelling with a young (or not so young) rail enthusiast in tow? Then head straight to the city’s excellent Railway Museum. It is the biggest in the world, with 100 locomotives housed under its roof and has something to offer everyone – even if you’re not a budding train spotter. Try out the excellent simulation of what it would have been like to travel on the Mallard, the steam train that set the speed record in 1938. You can also expect to see George Stephenson's Rocket, the first modern stream locomotive, and Japan’s extraordinary 1960s Shinkansen bullet train. All aboard! Visit the website here.
Jorvik Viking Centre
When you descend the stairs to the below-ground Jorvik Viking Centre, you are greeted with an exhibition that explores the 1970s excavation that led to the extraordinary discovery of the Viking settlement. If you can, linger over it; it is fascinating. However, the main draw for most visitors is the monorail ride through a recreation of 9th-century Jorvik (the Viking name for York) – smells and all. When you disembark, do linger a while to take in more of the exhibition, which includes items on loan from the British Museum. One of the more fun museums we’ve ever visited and an ideal activity with kids of all ages. Visit the website here.
One of the most atmospheric streets anywhere in the world, The Shambles is lined with 15th-century Tudor buildings that overhang precariously above pedestrians’ heads. Today the shops may be chiefly populated with Harry Potter memorabilia, tea rooms and sweets, but originally, some 26 butchers were resident on the street. In fact, the word Shambles comes from the Saxon ‘shamel’, meaning ‘slaughterhouse.’ (The city abounds with excellently named streets; wander down the road and you’ll stumble across the glorious Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, one of the shortest streets in England.)
If, after tearing around all the excellent museums on offer, you are craving a moment in the fresh open air, then head immediately for Museum Gardens. Situated right in the city centre, from amid the well-kept lawns and borders rises the Multangular Tower, a part of the City Walls that was once part of the Roman garrison’s ramparts. But what’s one historical ruin when you can have two? On the other side of the gardens you’ll find what remains of St Mary’s Abbey, which dates to the 13th-century. The ideal combination of history and horticulture. Visit the website here.
Richard III Experience
Housed within the best-preserved of York’s gate houses, this fun museum looks at the impact that Richard III had on the city, inviting visitors to decide whether the princes in the tower really were murdered by their uncle. Visit the website here.
Gray’s Court Hotel
Could this be one of the most overlooked hotels in the country? It is certainly one of the oldest, having welcomed its first guests in 1091 (it is also the oldest inhabited house in York). They say, ‘Archaeologists believe the remains of a Roman gate - the Porta Decumana – lay buried just inside the grounds. The house has passed through the hands of many famous York residents including Lord Fairfax, John Aislabie (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and the Squire family. Eventually providing home and sanctuary to the illustrious Gray family for two hundred years.’ Built in the 11th-century by the treasurer to Thomas of Bayeaux, it has played host to the likes of James I and William Wilberforce. In the shadow of the Minster, the courtyard entrance is illuminated to magical effect by string bulbs, while once inside via a pleasingly ancient and hefty wooden entrance, fires roar and the welcome is warm. Its eleven rooms make it a boutique proposition, dripping in old world charm – minus the astronomic prices of comparable hotels. Book it.
The city’s only five-star hotel is every bit as majestic as one might hope for given the allusion to splendour in its name. Housed within a former railway headquarters, it is a busy and bustling operation, with plenty of aesthetic evidence of its former industrial use. But if you do want to retreat from the crowds milling about both outside in the city and inside the hotel’s splendid halls, do make for the lovely spa in the bowels of the building to unwind. Book it.
EAT & DRINK
The Bow Room, Gray’s Court Hotel
Back to Gray’s Court Hotel for another serving of lavish praise. For housed within its elegant dining room, replete with floor-to-ceiling sashed windows which look over the walled garden, is a sublime restaurant. The Bow Room, under the auspices of chef Adam Jackson since summer 2021, is doing exciting things and is currently in possession of three AA rosettes; we predict that Michelin stars can’t be far off. There is one sitting per night; five courses; and plenty of ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaaahs’ to be heard reverberating around the room, as diners are served the likes of sea trout with its own accompaniment of sushi. A slice of gastro heaven. Book it.
Mannion & Co
Mannion & Co is our platonic ideal of a café. So good is chef Andrew Burton’s east London-reminiscent venture that you’ll probably need to queue; locals and tourists come for the superior coffee, the exceptional breakfasts (think all the classics right through to the leftfield likes of harissa roasted cauliflower, cauliflower cous cous, tahini, dukkah and yoghurt). The bread is of the highest calibre, the sandwiches show up the limpness we make do with for it is, the cakes are dangerously good and the prices are reasonable. If only we had more cafes like this. Informal, relaxed and cool. Visit the website here.
House Of Trembling Madness
There are plenty of excellent establishments to take an ale in York. None is as wonderfully named – nor as atmospheric – as the two House of Trembling Madness venues. The original, found within a Norman house dating to 1180AD, is every bit as eccentric as you might hope. They say, ‘Famed for its unbelievably small kitchen, impressively huge collection of beers, and its rich and varied history, our medieval ale house will always be associated with its quirky taxidermy animal collection, and the staff who truly embody the spirit of ‘Madness’!’ More recently it has added a second venue, in the somewhat more spacious first floor of an elegant Georgian building. Neither are places you’ll ever want to leave. Visit the website here.
Bettys Tea Room
On your York explorations, you’re bound to stumble across a long, snaking line travelling right around the block. That line leads, inevitably, to Bettys which was established in 1919 by Swiss baker and confectioner, Fritz Bützer. Grab a pew for a full afternoon tea, or come out clutching a box of Fat Rascals, a crumbly scone-cake hybrid studded with fruit or chocolate chips. We can’t quite explain why they’re so good; you’ll just have to try them for yourself in person or order a box online here.
Whether you’re arriving in York or regretfully leaving, you’ll want to say hello or bid adieu in the lovely York Tap at the railway station. Specialists in cask, keg and bottled beer, we’re here for the restored Edwardian interiors (maybe just a little for the beer too). Visit the website here.
By Nancy Alsop
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