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The best things to do in York

Our guide on things to do in York

From Roman settlement to Viking territory to confectionary connoisseur, York is a beautifully preserved cathedral city with an extraordinary story that never gets old. Whether you’re a history buff wanting to explore York’s bizarrely named streets and snickelways (we’ll explain what those are later), a foodie hungry to try its chocolate goodies, or a mystic wanting to hunt down the city’s paranormal past, York is a must-visit city on a staycation in England. To help you plan your city break, we’ve put together a whole heap of ideas on things to do, places to eat and where to stay while in York.

With restrictions easing across England, please continue to follow government guidance and remember to plan ahead and check attraction websites before travelling. Take a look at our top tips on how to escape the everyday responsibly to see how you can make the most out of your day trips and breaks. 

1

Peruse York’s most famous shopping street

The Shambles

Woman wearing trench coat and pink hat walking through narrow historic street of York, North Yorkshire, England.

Said to have been inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films, The Shambles in York are the beating heart of the city. They date back as far as the 14th century where, during that time, streets of that name were typically sites of butcher shops and meat markets (the streets were actually made narrow by design to keep the meat out of direct sunlight). Today, the overhanging timber-framed buildings house charming tea rooms, boutiques and indie stores. Take a stroll down the higgledy-piggledy lanes to discover quirky shops like Potions Cauldron, The Shop That Must Not Be Named and Monk Bar Chocolatiers.

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Just around the corner is Shambles Market, home to York’s largest group of independent traders. Here you’ll find all sorts of goodies across 70+ stalls, from flowers to handbags, crafts to vintage clothing, as well as fresh produce and street food delights. Or get your fashion fix at McArthurGlen’s York Designer Outlet, just 10 minutes outside of the city centre. Have your fill of over 120 high-street brands and designers, all with super savings.

Find more shopping in York
2

Walk in the footsteps of Vikings

Coppergate

Experience the recreated Coppergate on the Jorvik ride experience

Step back in time to AD975 to experience the sounds, sights and smells of the Viking city of Jorvik. Standing on the site of one of the most famous modern archaeological discoveries, the Coppergate Dig, Jorvik Viking Centre tells the story of the city of York as it stood nearly 1,000 years ago. See a recreation of the excavation in a glass-floored gallery alongside accounts from the archaeologists who helped piece everything together; journey through reconstructions of Jorvik streets – then a prosperous trading hub – to experience life in the 10th century; and explore the state-of-the-art galleries filled with Viking artefacts, from delicate earrings to frying pans and even fossilised Viking poo!

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York Castle Museum, set in 18th-century prison buildings is another historic icon to add to your list. Stroll down the oldest recreated Victorian street in Britain, take a trip back to childhood to rediscover favourite toys and get a flavour of what life was like for the former inmates of the prison.  For train buffs old and young, nothing beats the National Railway Museum, which is home to 400 years of railway history and iconic locomotives. See over a million railway-related objects in one place, including the world’s fastest steam engine and the only bullet train found outside of Japan.

Find out more about York’s museums
3

Tuck into tantalising tasting menus

Marygate, York

Chef in kitchen next to Roots restaurant sign

York is the ultimate destination for foodies, with a hefty selection of quality cafes, restaurants, pubs and street food options to choose from. But for a night of utter indulgence, book a table at the Michelin-starred Roots. A relaxed tasting menu restaurant in the heart of the city, Roots (just like its sister restaurant, The Black Swan, in Oldstead) embraces a farm-to-fork ethos, using seasonal ingredients grown and foraged in the owner’s Oldstead farm. The menu evolves throughout the year to reflect each of the growing groups – The Preserving Season, The Hunger Gap and The Time of Abundance – so expect a smorgasbord of delicious dishes like lamb with Jerusalem artichoke and black garlic or scallops with honey and pickled mussels. Is your mouth watering yet?

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For the more budget-conscious, pick and mix your meal with a feast of food stalls at Spark:York, with everything from Colombian cooking to hand-stretched pizzas. For dessert, satisfy your sweet tooth with a visit to York’s Chocolate Story to celebrate the city’s chocolate heritage. Join a guided tour through 3,000 years of chocolate history, unwrap the secrets of York’s famous brands and learn to taste chocolate like an expert. And no visit to York would be complete without a trip to Betty’s Tea Room. With interiors inspired by the Queen Mary ocean liner, this famous cake shop is the perfect place for afternoon tea.

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4

See one of Europe’s largest cathedrals

Deangate

Interior architecture of York Minster

Step inside a masterpiece of stained glass and stone, renowned as the largest medieval Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. York Minster was completed in 1472 after several centuries of construction. Its vast spaces, vaulted ceilings and overall epic architecture are a sight to be seen, particularly the Great East Window, which is said to be the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. Once you’re done admiring its aesthetics, discover the Minster’s Roman roots and its role in Viking York in the Undercroft Museum. If you’re up for it, you can also climb the 275 steps of the stone spiral staircase to reach the top of The Tower, where you’ll be rewarded with views across the historic city.

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Another great viewpoint can be found at the top of Clifford’s Tower – this English Heritage site is all that remains of York Castle, built by William the Conqueror. Learn more about York’s past and present at Mansion House (instagrammable on the outside and fascinating on the inside), the former home of the city’s Lord Mayor and civic heart of York for almost 300 years. Or fast forward to the mid-20th century with a visit to the most modern and spine chilling of English Heritage properties, the York Cold War Bunker. On a guided tour you’ll uncover the secret history of Britain’s Cold War and how the bunker was designed to monitor fallout in the event of a nuclear attack.

Find more of York’s top landmarks and attractions
5

Unearth terrifying tales of Europe’s most haunted city

York

Mad Alice tour guide on The Bloody Tour of York

York has been called ‘Europe’s most haunted city’ many a time, so it’s no surprise that there’s a huge selection of ghost walks and tours to guide you through tales of scandals, deaths, phantoms and famous ghosts. Many of York’s ghost walks are suitable for all ages, including The Bloody Tour of York. On this tour, you’ll wander through streets and snickelways (like Mad Alice Lane, where a local woman was hung after murdering her husband), as your guide (coincidentally also called Mad Alice) tells spooky tales of the Plague, the famous Highwayman Dick Turpin and of torture and execution. Or join the famous Original Ghost Walk, which departs nightly from the King’s Arms Pub, and embark on a night of history and mystery, exploring the haunted spots of York.

More walks and tours in York

York city walls are the longest medieval town walls in England. Beautifully preserved, the two-and-a-bit mile route is free to access throughout the year and is a great way of seeing the city from a different perspective. Also take time to scour out York’s ancient snickelways – alleys, ginnels and lanes that run between York’s streets. While some are wide enough for cars, others are little more than an archway, though all reveal lots about York’s past. If you need something to keep the kids engaged, take on the York Cat Trail – this self-guided tour challenges you to find all the cat statues hidden around the city. Or give your legs a break and embark on a sightseeing cruise along the River Ouse. With entertaining and informative commentary delivered by local skippers, you’ll come away with a ton of new fun facts.

Find more walking trails in York
6

Drink mead at a Norse-themed bar

York

The inside of Valhalla Viking-themed bar

If you’re fascinated by the city’s heritage, why not drink like the Vikings do at Valhalla? The bar is named after the Norse legend, Valhalla – a type of Nordic heaven where dead warriors are free to drink and feast to their hearts’ content. York’s Valhalla bar carries that same ethos, with plenty of craft beers, wines, spirits and even mead, which is widely regarded as the drink of the gods. If you get peckish, order the Thor platter, made up of ham, pork pies, cheddar and chutney. Hungry yet?

More staycation ideas

Continue your drinking journey through history at the House of Trembling Madness. On face value, you’ll think it’s just a beer shop, but if you explore a little further you’ll discover the first-floor medieval drinking hall. The ancient timber-framed room, complete with taxidermy animals, is a great place to sip and savour their impressively huge collection of beers. Or have a pint in Brew York’s unique taproom, riverside beer garden or 200-seat beer hall. This local brewery also offers tours, which (if you’re wondering) include tastings.

Find more pubs and bars in York
7

Become the captain of your own boat

River Ouse

Keeping the kids entertained on city breaks can sometimes be a struggle, so what better way to get them involved than by letting them take the helm (with help from the grown-ups!) on a self-drive boat? City Cruise boat hire lets you ride along the River Ouse, taking in the sights and sounds of York’s riverside at your own pace. They’re super easy to drive and fit up to eight people, making them perfect for trips with family or with a group of friends. You can hire them for a half-hour sail, or for a leisurely hour-long ride to make the most out of your time on the water.

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When it’s nice and sunny, take a picnic in York Museum Gardens found within the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. Explore the fern garden, bulb bank (where thousands of daffodils flower in spring) and butterfly border before finding somewhere to settle down and dig in. If you’re visiting over the summer holidays, be sure to stop by York Maze – the largest maze in the UK, created from over one million living maize plants. A brand new design is carved out each year and there are tons more puzzling mazes and family-friendly attractions to enjoy onsite too.

Find more things to do with kids in York
8

Book a room at Yorkshire’s only 5-star hotel

York

Booking a romantic city break to York? Well you’ll be guaranteed impeccable service and a good night’s sleep at The Grand, Yorkshire’s only 5-star hotel. Whether you stay in an exquisitely designed suite or opt for a classic room – with stylish Edwardian décor, high ceilings and large, bright windows – you’ll have something to boast about when you get home. Treat yourself to the Gourmet Package which includes a delicious meal for two at the hotel, and breakfast the following day, or the Spa & Stay Package which includes a one-hour spa treatment and access to the secluded, tranquil hotel spa. The Grand even has an award-winning cookery school on site, if you fancy improving your culinary skills.

More staycation ideas

Tucked away in a secret courtyard, the Judges Court Hotel is a Grade-II listed building that once provided lodges for judges, but now has individually designed bedrooms decked out in deep colours and bespoke furniture. Another historic hotel is the Guy Fawkes Inn, located on the site where Guy Fawkes was born back in 1570. His grandmother’s cottage still stands at the back of the garden, and because the inn used to be owned by Fawkes’ family, the hotel is prohibited from celebrating Bonfire Night! Looking for camping in York? Although there aren’t any campsites in the centre, you can escape to Jollydays Glamping – a 20-minute drive from the city. Set in beautiful woodland, the campsite has 11 safari tents and four woodcutter huts to choose from.

Find more places to stay in York
9

Get the giggles at a comedy show

York

View of the stage at the Grand Opera House in York

Once things get back to normal and theatres have opened their doors again, round off a day exploring York with some live entertainment at North Yorkshire’s biggest theatre, the Grand Opera House. From West End musicals to stand-up comedians, live bands to family shows, this theatre in York hosts an irresistible mix of productions for all patrons. So put on your finest garments and prepare to laugh, cry, applaud and admire on an evening of pure artistry.

More staycation ideas

Other theatres in York include the York Barbican and the York Theatre Royal. The former is a huge venue that plays host to the biggest names in music, comedy and live entertainment, even hosting the annual UK Snooker Championships. The latter was York’s first theatre and is now known as one of England’s leading producing theatres, famous for its wide variety of performances and events, including the much-loved annual pantomime – oh, no it isn’t. Oh, yes it is!

Find more theatres in York
06 Aug 2021(last updated)

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  • 1

    The Shambles

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    Coppergate

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    Marygate, York

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    Deangate

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    York

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    York

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    River Ouse

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    York

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    York

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