Things to Do in York
Nestling in the embrace of York’s miraculously preserved wall is one of the great medieval town centers of Europe. You can walk the wall itself and then descend to the winding streets including the narrow Snickelways and the Shambles, now considerably cleaned up since the days when its rivers of blood and offal made it a synonym for chaotic mess.
York offers architectural marvels at every turn, the most impressive being the enormous York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, renowned for its outstanding stained glass. Climb the tower for an unparalleled view of the city.
Elsewhere, York's days as a Viking stronghold are brought to life in Jorvik, a reconstructed village. Other must-see sites are the Norman fortifications of Clifford’s Tower, the medieval Merchant Adventurers’ guild hall and the gruesome thrills of York Dungeon, which recreates some of the most violent episodes of the city's history.
This cavernous medieval cathedral is a Gothic masterpiece. Focal points include the 16th-century stained glass Rose Window, which was painstakingly pieced back together following a fire in 1984, and the soaring central tower, the top of which offers panoramic views of York.
Castle Howard is one of Britain’s grandest stately homes. Built over the course of 100 years and still home to the Howard family, the castle was famously used as a filming location for Brideshead Revisited. Its 1,000 acres (405 hectares) of elegant grounds are located in the Howardian Hills—an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
This historic site was discovered by accident, when it was scheduled to be destroyed. The oldest parts of Barley Hall date from about 1360, but until the 1980s the house was hidden under a more modern brick façade.
The medieval house was once home to the Priors of Nostell and the Mayor of York. The building has been fully restored to replicate what it would have looked like around 1483. A living museum, many volunteers work in costume to help recreate history. Visitors are allowed to touch objects, even sit in chairs to get a true feel of life in Medieval England.
Having never been widened to accommodate cars, The Shambles has retained its picturesque medieval form. Timber-framed Tudor buildings host tea rooms, taverns, and souvenir shops, and project out at the upper levels—a medieval building technique used to create extra living space.
Clifford’s Tower, a semi-ruined 13th-century remnant of York Castle, is also one of the few Norman relics in a city dominated by Viking influence. Nowadays, Clifford’s Tower is one of the most popular and emblematic sights in York, and the panoramic views from the tower’s ramparts make it an excellent starting point for first-time visitors to historic York.
Set on the site of a major Viking settlement, Jorvik Viking Centre whisks visitors back in time to ninth-century England. Glass floors reveal remnants of the original village uncovered by archaeologists in the 1970s, while a train ride takes passengers past detailed diorama-style displays that recreate typical scenes from Viking life—complete with animatronic figures, a soundtrack, and more.
With a history dating back to 1835, the North Yorkshire Moors Railway is England’s most popular heritage steam railway. The 18-mile (29-kilometer) route winds through the North York Moors National Park, stopping at historic railway stations and affording magnificent views of the rugged moorlands.
Once built to protect the medieval city of York, the well-preserved York City Walls have since become an emblematic landmark of the region and an easy-to-access point of introduction for historical York. While only three main sections of these 13th- and 14th-century walls are still connected, following the footpaths and scrambling up the ramparts remains a popular pastime.
Prepare to be whisked into a glamorous past at the Treasurer’s House. The two story, washed brick mansion set amid landscaped gardens was the first home to be donated to England’s National Trust and came complete with opulent furnishings handpicked by its final resident, wealthy industrialist collector Frank Green. Green originally purchased three buildings that comprise the present day manor in the late 1800s. Its rooms are a reimagining of history with fancy wallpapers, fine woods, ceramics, ivory works, and textiles. Artifacts span a 300-year period leading up to the late 1900s, a setting fitting enough to entertain royalty; King Edward VII visited prior to his reign.
Today one of the few remaining great houses in York, visitors can wander through 13 period rooms with a guide. Highlights include a scale model of a Napoleonic gunship, and ebony an ivory checkerboard from India, and a Queen Anne period bedspread. A second floor room has been transformed into a theater, which shows a looped film highlighting York’s iconic buildings and homes, many lost to time.
In the cellars, which can be toured separately from the house, learn about area archeology and the land’s 2,000-year history of occupation. Some claim to have seen Roman ghosts walking through its walls. Complete your tour on a garden path past the still-maintained apiary, or in the Below Stairs Café housed in the former servants’ quarters.
Step back in time with York Castle Museum, an informative, interactive destination that will charm history-buffs and families alike. Unique in its depictions of everyday life, both past and present, York Castle Museum is best-known for period reconstructions of historic streets—like the Victorian Kirkgate—and costumed actors who help bring the past to life.
More Things to Do in York
As the name implies, York’s Merchant Adventurers were merchants. They traded along the English coast, northern Europe and sometimes as far as the Baltic and Iceland, bringing back an assortment of desired goods to York. The city was an important river port and the wealthiest city in Northern England, second only to London for most of the Middle Ages, allowing the merchants to make enough money to build the Hall between 1357 and 1361.
It was ahead of the time, built before craft or trade guild halls were common in Britain. There are three rooms in the Hall, and each served a specific purpose. Business and social gatherings took place in the Great Hall, the Undercroft served as an almshouse caring for the sick and poor, and religious events were conducted in the Chapel.
The Hall has a number of collections; everything from paintings, to furniture and silver. The Company of Merchant Adventurers still use the Hall for meetings and events and hold services in the Chapel.
Some cities are built on industry, but few have the sweet distinction of being built on chocolate. York’s Chocolate Story, a three-story interactive museum, details the city’s 300-year relationship with the confection. Regularly-scheduled guided tours highlight the three major chocolate companies that got their start in York: Terry’s, Rowntree’s, and Craven’s, as well as some of the most popular creations to come out of York including the Chocolate Orange and Kit-Kat. The city’s industry sparked a love for the chocolate that ultimately enveloped the globe: a tin of Rowntree’s even traveled with Shackleton on his Antarctic voyage in 1908.
In addition to York’s history as a chocolate town, museum displays detail its origins in the far-flung jungles of Central America. Interactive exhibits illustrate the process of turning cacao beans into bars, candies, powders, and more. Sampling stations at the end of each section allow all visitors to taste freshly formed sweets, and onsite confectioners hold lessons in professional chocolate tasting, and even guide visitors in creating their own treat at the end of the tour. The museum also has a chocolate-themed café and gift shop.
York’s Chocolate Story is the culmination of York’s Chocolate Trail, a self-guided walking tour in York’s historic downtown that includes chocolate attractions — Terry’s Shop & Tea Room, Terry’s Mansion House, Rowntree Park, Goddards House and Gardens — and several chocolate-y dining locations.
Located at Micklegate Bar, one of the four principal gateways of York’s medieval city walls, the Henry VII Experience transports visitors back to medieval era York, following the fascinating story of Henry VII. Housed in the restored 14th-century gatehouse, the museum features exhibits on the legacy of Henry VII, England’s first Tudor King, who defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and went on to rule for twenty-four years.
Highlights of the experience include interactive exhibitions on the Battle of Bosworth and the Tudor ascent to the throne, and a special Tudor Camp for children, with costumes, props, and narration by Horrible Histories author Terry Deary.
The York Army Museum takes visitors on a journey through history, following Yorkshire's historic cavalry and infantry regiments—The Royal Dragoon Guards and The Yorkshire Regiment—from 1685 to the present day. Recently reopened after a £1 million renovation, the small museum is a fitting tribute to the British Army, and now ranks among the most impressive military museums in the UK.
Visitors can learn more about the regiments and their soldiers through a series of interactive exhibits, audio-visual displays, and a collection of artifacts dating back more than 300 years. Highlights include a sizable display of army memorabilia, including weaponry, uniforms, medals, and photographs; personal accounts from serving soldiers and army personnel; and a dress up area for kids to try on the army uniforms.
Located in the center of the city, the Mansion House is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of York. But along with being a home, this historic house is popular with visitors. The Mansion House exhibits an impressive collection of paintings, silver and furniture.
It was designed to entertain distinguished guests and host ceremonies, so a bit of grandeur was a must. Built in Georgian style, the first brick was laid in 1725. But just like building projects today, costs grew. A few craftsmen worked for free in return for citizenship. The Mansion House was completed in 1732, seven years later.
The Mansion House offers a variety of tours tailored to guests’ interests, including a Silver Tour. The Candle Light Tour shares spooky stories and secrets of the house as you explore. Book in advance if interested in a specialized tour.
The expansive collections of the National Railway Museum fill galleries, halls and brick warehouses — designed to look like train depots — on two sides of Leeman Road in York. Over a million artifacts bring the nostalgia and necessity of 300 years of rail travel to life: giant clocks, postcards, piles of vintage luggage, tickets, toys and models, as well as 300 carefully restored rail vehicles.
In the gallery attached to the glass-topped Station Hall, the former main goods station in York, exhibits showcase train art. Rotating exhibits at the museum detail how rail lines were installed, and videos alongside stalled salon cars bring passenger travel to life.
In the Great Hall, step inside the Shinkansen — the world’s first bullet train, reaching speeds of up to 130 miles per hour, and built in Japan in the 1960s — and peer in on the ornate interior detailing of the art deco-styled Dutchess of Hamilton, built in the 1930s. The hall is also home to the power car of a Eurostar, a black and blue shiny laquer Mallard steam locomotive popular in the mid 1900s, and a second class carriage from an early 1800s passenger train. Most afternoons after 3pm, museum staff conduct tours and share stories from inside several of its most popular vehicles.
This 18th-century townhouse offers a glimpse into the tastes, fashions, and daily life of Georgian-era nobility. It began as the home of Viscount Charles Gregory Fairfax and then enjoyed brief stints as a gentlemen’s club, cinema, and dancehall before being restored to its Georgian-era glory.
Aided by spooky special effects and eerie sets, the costumed actors at York Dungeon recount terrifying tales of torture, terror, and murder. Expect laughs, scares, and shrieks as you learn about Viking invasions, witch hunts, and lawbreakers from centuries past.
Like a moment frozen in time, York’s Cold War bunker takes visitors back to an era where the threat of nuclear explosions prompted the construction of this space. The partially-underground bunker is a glimpse into the recent history of the British Cold War, built in 1961 to monitor fallout. It was decommissioned in the 1990s, but remains a reminder of what it is like to live under the threat of nuclear war. Today it is an English Heritage Scheduled Monument and the only ROC control building that can still be seen in operational condition.
With protected rooms across three levels, the air and water filter rooms and decontamination facility are particularly interesting. There are living quarters, a kitchen, and bathrooms, as well as a communication and control room and radiation detectors. Designed to fit up to 60 people and to operate completely separate from the outside world, it’s a fascinating look at an often overlooked period in British history. It’s a worthwhile addition to any tour of the city of York.
With its impressive collection of aircrafts the Yorkshire Air Museum and Allied Air Forces Memorial is a must for aviation enthusiasts, located on the old RAF base and WWII bomber command station of Elvington. More than 40 aircrafts are on display at the museum, including highlights like a rare 'Friday the 13th' Halifax bomber, the UK’s only Dassault Mirage Mk.III, an early Avro Anson, and others including a Lightning F6, a Victor K2 and a Nimrod MR2.
As well as housing some of Britain’s most impressive historic aircrafts, the Yorkshire Air Museum features a series of exhibitions chronicling the history of aviation and the role of the RAF during the Second World War. Visitors can learn about life on a wartime bomber station, and admire the collection of RAF uniforms, weapons, and memorabilia, while kids can peek into the wartime control tower, hide out in camouflaged huts, and climb up into the cockpits of Canberra and Jet Provost airplanes.
Located at Monk Bar, one of the four principal gateways of York’s medieval city walls, the Richard III Experience transports visitors back to medieval era York, following the fascinating story of Richard III. Housed in the 14th-century gatehouse, the museum features exhibits on the legacy of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenet Kings, chronicling his short rule from 1483-1485, and his defeat by Henry Tudor.
Highlights of the experience include an impressive collection of medieval arms and armor; multi-media presentations on the War of the Roses and the Battle of Bosworth; and a children’s area complete with costumes, props, and narration by Horrible Histories author Terry Deary.
Beningbrough Hall, an 18th-century former family home occupied by the Royal Air Force during World War II, is one of York’s most important historical highlights. Linger in front of the 100+ portraits that hang inside, courtesy of a partnership with the National Portrait Gallery. Then stroll through the gardens, where staff sometimes offer growing tips to interested visitors.
The Yorkshire Museum chronicles millions of years of Yorkshire history, from the Jurassic period through to Viking and medieval times. Highlights of the eclectic collection include a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite that came crashing to Earth in 1881, the hair bun of a Roman teenager, and a Viking sword.
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