Boasting 2,000 years of history and heritage, the beautiful walled city of York has an incredible array of things to do and see, especially for history buffs. From its unmissable gothic cathedral to the maze of medieval streets, we’ve managed to whittle down the list to just 10. If you are planning to spend a few days, we recommend a York Pass, which will save you money on entry to many of the city's attractions.
1. Get a gargoyle’s-eye view of York
Thrusting up from York’s maze of ancient streets are the 3 muscular towers of York Minster, the largest gothic building in Britain. The cathedral you see today was begun in 1220, took around 250 years to finish and is now widely considered to be one of Europe’s finest medieval buildings. Highlights here include some of the oldest and most beautiful stained-glass windows in Britain (the East Window is the largest area of medieval stained glass in a single window in the world) and the crypt containing some of the original 11th-century church. But it’s the heady 275-step hike to the top of the Central Tower that’s the real show-stopper here. Catch your breath and take in the gargoyle’s-eye view of Yorkshire spread out below just as breathless visitors have done for the last 600 years.
2. Go back in time at a Victorian prison
If you’ve ever wondered what life might have been like 200 years ago, York Castle Museum can enlighten you. Experience the sights and sounds of 18th-century York on a wonderfully recreated Victorian street before exploring the museum’s other social history exhibits, covering topics from World War I to 1960s' pop culture. The museum is housed in a former prison but gets its name from the fact it stands on the site of a castle built by William the Conqueror. Located in central York, entry is free with a York Pass.
3. Go trainspotting
The awesome scale, slick lines and steam-powered appeal of the locomotives housed at the National Railway Museum are enough to turn even the coolest observer into a fervent trainspotter. The vast treasures in the cavernous halls include the only Bullet Train outside Japan, Queen Victoria’s ‘palace on wheels’ and the achingly beautiful Duchess of Hamilton, a 1930s art deco triumph of design and engineering. Open every day, entry is free.
4. Visit one of the world’s greatest mansions
Named 'One of the World's Top Ten Greatest Mansions and Grand Houses' by Lonely Planet, Castle Howard is definitely worth the short bus journey from York city. Like stumbling on to the set of a period drama, the magnificent 18th-century mansion, set amid lush gardens and rolling hills, has been the backdrop to many a film and costumed TV show. There’s much to explore here, along with its movie-star past; after marvelling at the dramatic interiors and world-renowned art collection, you can wander the acres of parkland dotted with lakes and temples, leaving time for tea and cake in the quaint café. Entry is free with a York Pass.
5. See, hear and smell a Viking settlement
Buckle up for a rollicking journey back through time to the days when raiders from the north had colonised 10th-century York. See, hear and even smell a Viking settlement complete with blacksmith, bedrooms and a historically accurate Viking toilet. Jorvik Viking Centre is a fine mix of history and fun that brings some of the astonishingly well-preserved objects excavated from beneath the city to life. If you fancy a more hands-on approach to history, don’t miss DIG, the attraction that lets you play archaeologist.
6. Enjoy a traditional high tea
You've climbed the central tower of York Minster, you’ve been wowed by the steam behemoths at the National Railway Museum and you may even have seen a genuine Viking lavatory. So by now you've probably earned a cup of tea. And the place to have it has to be Betty' Tea Rooms, a Yorkshire institution serving delicious pastries, cakes and restorative tea in gorgeous surroundings unchanged since the 1930s. Decked out by the same craftsmen who fitted out the Queen Mary ocean liner, a cup of tea here is a luxurious experience not to be missed.
7. Taste your way through chocolate history
One of York’s newer attractions is also its sweetest. Chocolate has been made in the city for 300 years and York was once home to 2 of the world’s big chocolate brands – Rowntree’s and Terry’s. Iconic chocs from Aero to Smarties and the mighty Kit Kat began life here so it’s a fine place to learn about the chocolate-making process from bean to bar. At Chocolate – York's Sweet Story you'll taste your way through chocolate history, discover generations of confectionery secrets and end your tour in the Chocolate Bar to enjoy such extravagances as an All Day Chocolate Breakfast and an Ultimate Chocolate Fondue.
8. Ramble down The Shambles
Lying at the heart of a warren of old, twisting lanes is The Shambles, one of the best preserved medieval streets in Europe. Its origins are so old it was once mentioned in the Doomsday Book, while the overhanging timber-framed houses that still stand today are a remarkable reminder of the city’s past. Now the picturesque buildings are filled with quaint cafes and shops selling everything from sweets to handmade soaps.
9. Hear terrifying tales of Roman York
Like a good fright? At the York Dungeon expect to jump with fear and be reduced to laughter as you hear terrifying tales of the city’s gruesome past. With York’s history of Viking invasions, witches, and the plague, there’s many gory legends to tell, and you’ll meet some of the area’s most despicable characters as you are led through a series of scenes in the immersive live action show.
10. Walk England’s best medieval walls
Our favourite free thing to do in York. Circling the city centre, York’s medieval walls are the most complete in the whole of England. You’ll get fantastic views over the picturesque River Ouse and the city itself so don’t forget to bring your camera.