York is a stunning walled city situated on the northeast side of England that offers a perfect weekend or weeklong getaway for visitors. York is often referred to as one of the most haunted cities in the world, with apparently upwards of 500 Roman and Viking ghosts roaming its streets. It also has a long, interesting history and plenty of things to see and do. The city was originally founded by the Romans in 71 CE. They named it Eboracum, but to the Saxons, it was known as Eoforwick. In 866, the city was invaded and taken over by Vikings, who renamed it Jorvik. Today, there are plenty of attractions where visitors can learn about the history of these invasions, the importance of the city as a rail hub, and much more. To ensure you don’t miss any of the amazing sights this city has to offer, we here at Road Affair have carefully crafted a list of the best things to do in York. So what are you waiting for? Starting scrolling to plan your vacation to York!
Visit York Minster
York Minster, one of the largest cathedrals in the world, is a must-see attraction in York. In fact, along with St. Peter’s, it is one of the only churches in the world that has its own police force.
This stunning medieval Gothic church took about 250 years to construct, but the result was well worth it. Visitors can marvel at its gorgeous stained-glass windows, enormous cavernous nave, and large vaulted ceilings. In the Chapter Room, there are fantastic stone carvings to gaze upon, and in the north transept, visitors will find the Five Sister Windows, which is the only British memorial dedicated to the women who lost their lives during World War I. The cathedral is also home to the Undercroft Museum, the only accredited museum in a church in all of Britain. Here, visitors can explore Roman and Viking artifacts and learn about the history of York. There is also a treasury with many historical and religious artifacts, as well as a crypt that is home to the only saint buried in the church, Saint William of York.
York Minster is open every day to visitors and holds guided tower tours, stained glass tours, and other interesting tours throughout the day. To see what’s on and at what time, check out their website here.
Wander Through the Exhibits at the National Railway Museum
If you’re looking for fun things to do in York that are unique, then you should definitely make your way to the National Railway Museum.
This is a really great museum that boasts the largest collections of historic trains in the world. There is an impressive collection of train vehicles here, like the Japanese bullet train, the Mallord (the fastest steam locomotive in the world), the Duchess of Hamilton, and the Sterling Silver. Visitors can learn all about how York was an important rail hub and the importance of trains for society throughout the ages. Afternoon tea is also available on the gorgeous restored rail carriage, the Countess of York. Kids will love riding on the mini train, and there is an outdoor play area and an indoor play area where little ones can run around and get some energy out. This is a great York attraction for families, couples, or railroad enthusiasts!
Discover the Haunted History of York
While visiting one of the most haunted cities in the world, you may be looking to seek out some ghosts, and the best way to do this is with a haunted tour of the city!
There are many tours and tour guides who will tell you gruesome tales and lead you down back alleys. If you’re skeptical about the supernatural but enjoy the spooky vibe, then you should check out this Comedy Horror York Ghost Bus tour. Visitors will learn all about York’s dark past while seeing some of the city’s top attractions. Your guide is also an actor and will have you laughing at some of the fables and stories. Another great tour option is the Witches and History Old Town Walking Tour. Follow your tour guide, who is also dressed up as a witch, through narrow cobblestone streets, including Shambles, while hearing spooky tales on this witch-themed tour.
Wander Down Shambles
While many people believe Shambles was the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter, JK Rowling stated in 2020 that she had never been to Shambles and that it has no relation to her invention. Still, this street has an eerie darkness to it, with incredible 14th-century buildings and smooth stone paths that form one of Europe’s best-preserved medieval streets. Wandering this magnificent area is one of the best free things to do in York – if you can resist the urge to buy any of the unique and cool trinkets.
Visitors can wander past the gorgeous timber-framed buildings, popping into some of the Harry Potter-themed shops and boutique stores. There are also lots of souvenir shops to grab a gift for someone back home or a little something for yourself. At the end of the street, visitors will find the Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate Sign on the wall of St. Crux. This is a plaque that announces the shortest street in York. In the 16th century, the street was known as Whitnourwhatnourgate, which translates to “What a street!” One street over from Shambles is Shambles Market, where tourists can browse the stands for unique jewelry or other trinkets.
Learn About the City’s Viking Heritage at the Jorvik
One of the top-rated tourist attractions in York is the Jorvik Viking Centre, a state-of-the-art museum highlighting the city’s Viking history.
This is a must-see attraction for history lovers but also a great immersive museum for families. One of the coolest things about Jorvik is how you learn. Visitors will hop into one of the carriages (time machines) and be taken on a ride with a guided tour through speakers around different dioramas with scarily realistic life-size animatronics. They will learn all about how the Vikings invaded York, their way of life, and what York used to look like. Many of the animatronic faces are based on skulls found in the area from that time period. The tour will engage all your senses, including smell! After a journey back in time, visitors can roam through the gallery and see over 800 artifacts.
With so much to see and learn in an incredibly immersive environment, it’s no wonder the Jorvik Museum was named the Attraction of the Year 2022 by the Visit York Tourism Awards. The museum is open every day except for certain holidays. It is highly recommended you book your ticket in advance as time slots tend to sell out quickly. If you don’t book in advance, you most likely will have to stand in line outside and wait for availability.
Walk the City Walls
York is famous for its well-preserved Roman city walls, and one of the best ways to explore them is by walking them! This is a great attraction for anyone who wants to do some thorough sightseeing in York.
The wall runs about six feet wide and upwards of 13 meters high, offering quite spectacular views of the city at certain points. It is the longest-running intact town wall in all of England and is roughly 3.4 kilometers long. Visitors are welcome to walk the wall path from 8 a.m. to dusk every day, but do be aware that sometimes portions of the wall can be closed for repairs or the whole wall path can be closed due to icy or rainy conditions. A walk around the wall path usually takes around two hours, and there are many attractions to see along the way. There are four fortified gateways, with one of them housing a gorgeous café with a rooftop patio, so you can stop in for a cup of joe along the way. Other attractions along the wall include smaller gateways, towers, a postern, and gardens. During your walk, keep an eye out for postings with QR codes to scan and get more information about the wall.
Visit the Yorkshire Museum
If you don’t have a lot of time to spend in the city and are looking for a place to visit in York that covers an array of topics, then you should definitely make your way to the Yorkshire Museum.
This incredible museum has five different exhibitions, including Jurassic World, where visitors can see fossils and skeletons of animals that roamed the area over 150 million years ago. There is even a dig zone where kids can claw through the dirt, searching for fossils. Another great permanent exhibit is the Medieval York exhibit, where visitors can see incredible artifacts like a Gilling sword, a rare silk cap, and the Viking Ormside Bowl and discover the history of York as the capital of the north during medieval, Viking, and Anglian times. Other exhibitions are temporary and constantly rotating, so make sure to check the official website to see what’s on.
The Yorkshire Museum is also on the same grounds as the Museum Gardens, which is a stunning botanical garden that spans over 10 acres. Entry to the gardens is free. The Museum Gardens are home to the site of Roman ruins and an old abbey for visitors to explore. Much of St. Mary’s Abbey still remains, and visitors can marvel at the stonework and archways. Also located in the gardens are the ruins of the old Roman fort of Eboracum, which includes an Anglian tower, the Multangular Tower, and parts of the old fort wall. The gardens are also often the spot for festivals and open-air theater performances.
Wander the Recreated Victorian Street at York Castle Museum
York Castle Museum is an absolute must-see in York for those who want to dive into history.
The museum is most well-known for its recreated Victorian street, Kirkgate. Here, visitors can wander through the replica street and stroll past shops that actually once existed in York. At each shop, there is a costumed guide who will tell you more about the former business and the role it played in the city. Another fantastic attraction in the museum is the old Georgian prison. Visitors can tour the cells and learn more about the harsh punishments and criminals who were once locked up there. One of the coolest exhibits for both kids and adults is the Toy Stories area. Here tourists can explore the toys of their childhood and those of the last 150 years. Some of the other permanent exhibits include period rooms with antiques and artifacts from the 17th century, the Sixties exhibit, and the Shaping the Body: 400 Years of Fashion, Food and Life exhibit.
With so much to see and learn, it’s best to block off a full day to best experience the museum and all it has. Visitors are encouraged to book their tickets in advance online, which also turns out to be cheaper.
Learn About the history of Chocolate Making at York’s Chocolate Story
Calling all chocolate lovers! Are you looking for an activity in York that is both educational and tasty? Then you can’t miss out on York’s Chocolate Story.
Visitors will embark on a guided tour during which they learn about the 3,000-year history of chocolate! Enjoy free samples along the way (yummy) while hearing about the art of being a chocolatier and gaining insights into some of the world’s top chocolate brands like Kit Kat. The tour also includes a guided walk through the famous Rowntree factory, which first opened its doors in 1890 and then was purchased in 1988 by Nestlé. Visitors also get to see step-by-step how a cocoa bean turns into a tasty bar of chocolate. Afterward, tourists can head to the café and gift shop for a sweet treat and a cup of luxury hot chocolate.
You can book a guided tour of York’s Chocolate Story here.
Enjoy Panoramic Views at Clifford’s Tower
Perched on top of a hill in the center of York sits the round building known as Clifford’s Tower. Tourists can climb to the top roof deck and enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of the city. However, great views aren’t all this attraction has to offer.
Clifford’s Tower has quite an incredible past. It was originally constructed by William the Conqueror in an attempt to capture the city from the Vikings. The site was once a great Norman castle, and today tourists can tour the inner rooms of Clifford’s Tower while hearing stories of the building’s past. This was also the site of many sad and horrific stories, such as the tale of York’s Jewish community. In 1190, a mob chased members of the community into the tower and many of the people chose to commit suicide rather than be murdered. Visitors can learn all about this and other historical events through sounds and readings located in the tower.
Go on a Pub Crawl
Did you know York has roughly 365 pubs? Talk about the ultimate pub crawl – that’s a different pub for each day of the year! While there is no way you can hit up every single one of the establishments, it’s no wonder why the city is popular for bachelor and bachelorette parties.
A pub crawl is a great way to get a feel for the city while getting a bit loose with a drink. It’s also a fantastic way to meet other travelers, which is ideal if you are traveling alone. There are many ways and routes to do a pub crawl through the city. Here are some prerouted maps that will lead you on different routes and to different pubs throughout the city. Just because you do a self-guided pub crawl doesn’t mean you won’t meet friends along the way. If there is one thing you can be guaranteed it’s a friendly face in almost every pub! Occasionally, there are guided pub crawls in the city from the Great British Pub Crawl. To see when its next York pub crawl is, check its events calendar here.
Discover Incredible Artworks at York Art Gallery
If you are wondering where to go in York to view stunning European artwork, then York Art Gallery is for you.
The museum boasts an extensive collection of works ranging from 14th-century to contemporary pieces. Visitors can stroll through the exhibits marveling at art under the well-lit skylights from the high, arched ceilings. In the York Art Gallery, there are roughly 3,000 decorative art pieces of ceramics, pottery, and glassware, along with over 1,000 paintings from across Europe and over 17,000 drawings on display. After a stroll through the museum, visitors can head over to the on-site café for lunch prepared fresh and sourced locally. On a nice day, the outdoor patio is open to enjoy a cup of coffee in the sunshine.
Explore a Medieval Townhouse
As already mentioned, York has well-preserved medieval architecture. Barley Hall is one example.
Barley Hall was a medieval townhouse that was abandoned and fell into disrepair. It was originally built by the monks of Nostell Priory around 1360, and in 1987, the York Archaeological Trust purchased it, restored it, and transformed it into a museum. Large exposed timber frames, high ceilings, and a horn window help to create the air of stepping back in time. Long wooden benches line the walls of the great hall, where visitors can roam about and take in the splendid scene that looks as if a great feast is about to take place.
Tour the York Cold War Bunker
If you have an interest in war history, then this is a can’t-miss York attraction for you.
The York Cold War Bunker is located in the Holgate area of York. It is a subterranean, two-story bunker built in 1961 for use during the Cold War and would have served as the operational headquarters to monitor the aftermath of a nuclear attack. The bunker would have served as the Royal Observer Corps headquarters and would have been able to house 60 men. Upon entering the museum, tourists can enjoy a short audio-visual film that introduces the bunker. Afterward, tourists get to tour the bunker, including the contamination room, with an expert guide. The tour lasts about one hour, and tourists are encouraged to book their tickets in advance as tour groups max out at 15 people.
Take the Kids to Jorvik DIG
A great educational attraction in York for kids is Jorvik DIG, an immersive archeological experience during which visitors will learn how to conduct field research and learn about dig techniques that field archeologists use today. There are four different sections where kids can dig for replica treasures from the medieval, Viking, Roman, and Victorian eras. For toddlers, there is a sensory dig area that is smaller in scale.
While the main attraction is geared toward children aged 5–12, there is also an adult tour that takes place every afternoon. This tour uses an approach appropriate for adult visitors to give them a deeper knowledge of the important finds from the York Archeological Trust. Adults also get to dig using more realistic tools and find replicas of some of the most impressive finds from Yorkshire and the surrounding area. It is highly recommended you book a ticket for the adult tour in advance.
Go on a Hike
There are many nature walking trails in and around York that are perfect for enjoying the rolling countryside and lush English nature.
One of the most popular hiking areas is Moorlands Nature Reserve, located just north of York. The park is about seven hectares in size and offers lovely wooded walking paths through Edwardian gardens and tall trees. Another popular walking area is Askham Bog, which offers visitors a chance to see one of England’s most diverse ecosystems. Homestead Park and Rowntree Park also offer plenty of walking paths and grassy areas to enjoy a picnic within the city limits. Knavesmire Park is also a lovely open space with plenty of walking trails to enjoy on a nice day.
Venture Outside the City to Castle Howard
Castle Howard is one of the most popular attractions in the area, and for a good reason. It is a stunning estate house set on about 8,800 acres of land. Today, the house is privately owned, but visitors are still welcome to come and roam the grounds, house, and gardens. The walled garden is quite a hit and the woodland garden, managed by an arboretum team, looks to be out of a fairy tale. Visitors are welcome to tour the exhibits in the house, which highlight local history and artworks, including antique sculptures. If you’re a fan of the Netflix show Bridgerton, you might also recognize this large estate as Clyvedon Castle. The walled gardens and the house were also briefly used in Episode 1 for the scene in which Daphne and Nigel Burbank get into a fight, resulting in Daphne punching Nigel in the face.
There are many more attractions at the estate, including a chapel, lakes, and temples. Tourists can book a guided tour of the estate in advance or wander the grounds on their own. There are also cycling paths to enjoy.
Dive into History at the Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Air Forces Memorial
Another fantastic attraction in York for those who are interested in military history is the Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Forces Memorial.
Here, tourists can get up close and personal with massive machinery at the former Royal Air Force Elvington airfield, which served as an RAF Bomber Command station during World War II. There is an array of vintage planes on display, including a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer, a Blackburn Mercury Monoplane, a Port Victoria P.V.8 Eastchurch Kitten, and a Cayley Glider. The museum’s collection of World War II planes ranges from a Spitfire replica to the Hawker Hurricane I, a Douglas Dakota IV, and more. Not only does it have an impressive independently owned collection of aircraft but the whole base is now a museum that visitors can tour around to learn how the complex functioned. Also found on the base are a women’s memorial and a memorial garden. After wandering through the various exhibits, hangars, and buildings, visitors can head over to Café 77 for a bite to eat and a drink.
This is the only memorial in Europe dedicated to Allied Air Forces. The Yorkshire Air Museum & Allied Forces Memorial is open every day, and we recommend setting aside a few hours to make sure you get a chance to explore every inch of this incredible museum.
Take a Boat Cruise
Last on our list of the best attractions in York is a relaxing tour of the River Ouse, which runs directly through the city.
You can opt to rent your own boat and explore the river yourself or sit back and relax with a boat tour. If you like the sounds of driving your own boat, then check out this private boat rental from GetYourGuide. If you fancy instead having a drink and being driven around, there are a few different options. For an evening/night cruise, check out this one-hour evening tour or this three-hour party cruise with a DJ, both from GetYourGuide. If you’re looking for a cruise during the day, then book this 45-minute cruise with a guide.
York is such a unique city with incredible attractions and architecture. If you are planning to visit multiple attractions, then consider purchasing the York City Pass, which gives visitors access to some of the city’s top attractions. It’s also worth mentioning that York is home to the largest food festival in the UK. The festival is held for 10 days in September every year. Other great festivals to attend include the Beverley Early Music Festival held in May, the Viking Festival held in February, and the York Early Music Festival held in July.
Now that you know all the amazing things the city has to offer, you should no longer be asking what to do in York but instead asking what you can fit into your schedule while visiting the city!
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