York is one of England’s most famous cathedral cities. Located in the county of Yorkshire in Northern England, York has a varied and rich history that encompasses Viking rule and invasion and Roman settlements. So it’s not surprising that the best things to do in York involve delving into its past. York gets its name from the Vikings who settled there, naming the area Jorvik. Since Viking times, the city has developed its stunning architecture to its current appearance today. The city incorporates Georgian townhouses, a Victorian railway station, and a cathedral that dates back to the 7th century. Despite York originally being settled as a Roman city, only 2% of the Roman city has been discovered, with new finds appearing regularly.
Aside from York’s historic past, the city is famous for its street markets where you can shop regularly throughout the year. The Food Festival sees local artisans travel from across the area fill the main streets with stalls selling delicious food and drinks. Its Christmas market is simply a winter wonderland, and its regular street food stalls are the envy of many larger cities. York is also a popular shopping destination, with a wide variety of high street favourites and quaint, independent stores nestled down its ancient side streets.
Om the evenings, York is a vibrant place to have fun its pubs and bars open their doors, and ghost walks and nighttime river cruises get into full swing. York’s railway station offers excellent connectivity to the rest of England and Scotland, with regular trains departing for big cities such as London, Leeds and Newcastle and trains heading over the border to Edinburgh. Whether you’re visiting for a weekend with family or day-tripping from a nearby city or coastal town, you’ll find plenty of tourist attractions to enjoy in this ancient town. Here are 20 things to do in York to get you started.
- 21 Things To Do In York
- 1- York Minster
- 2- Treasurers House
- 3- Betty’s Tea Room
- 4- Jorvik Viking Centre
- 5- York City Walls
- 6- National Railway Museum
- 7- Ghost Walks
- 8- Clifford’s Tower
- 9- The Shambles
- 10- York Castle Museum
- 11- River Ouse
- 12- York Cold War Bunker
- 13- Grand Opera House
- 14- York Racecourse
- 15- Yorkshire Museum
- 16- York’s Chocolate Story
- 17- Yorkshire Museum Gardens
- 18- Beningbrough Hall
- 19- Rare Book Trail
- 20- Dick Turpin’s Grave
- 21- York Dungeon
- 21 Things To Do In York
21 Things To Do In York
1- York Minster
York Minster defines the city of York. Towering over the Georgian houses surrounding it, the Minster is one of the first sights of the city you see as you arrive.
The Minster has been around since the 7th century and today, despite its lure for tourists, remains a functional church offering daily prayer and worship services.
York Minster features intricate hand-carved stone detailing covering almost every inch of its exterior.
Other notable features of the Minster include the stained glass windows, which tell the story of Christ.
There are regular efforts to keep the Minster a functioning place of worship and symbol of the city.
Climbing its central tower is one of the best things to do in York if you’re looking for a view but keep in mind there are 275 steps going up a steep spiral staircase.
Local craftspeople can be seen outside of the Minster carving fresh stone blocks by hand, and areas of stained glass requiring a little TLC are repaired before being discussed through interactive exhibitions open to the public.
York Minster is at York Minster, Deangate, York, YO1 7HH.
2- Treasurers House
Treasurers House has more than 2000 years of history running through its walls and the land it stands on.
This National Trust property is undoubtedly a must-visit when in York city.
The house primarily shares the life of Frank Green, an industrialist and collector who renovated Treasurers House before giving it away to the National Trust.
The house’s gardens are tiny, however, they have won many local and national awards for their beauty and landscape design.
The main allure of the house is not Green’s incredible historical collection of artefacts, nor its tranquil gardens, but the land it sits on.
The house was built above a Roman road and stories of spirits from this era were passed down through the generations.
Ghosts were known to the house’s occupants but were first brought to a broader audience when a heating engineer was working in the cellar.
He saw Roman soldiers armed with swords and shields marching through the cellar with horses but the soldiers appeared only from the waist up.
Further excavations in the cellar revealed the Roman road, sitting approximately 18 inches below the cellar floor.
Treasurers House is at Minster Yard, York, YO1 7JL.
3- Betty’s Tea Room
Betty’s has been a firm favourite with visitors to York since it opened in 1936.
Betty’s is one of six tea rooms of the same name, with the first opening in nearby Harrogate in 1919.
Betty’s has two locations in York.
The smaller of the two, a quaint spot on Stonegate, frequently has queues stretching along the street as eager patrons wait for either a table or simply the opportunity to purchase delectable cakes and other delicious treats to take away.
Visitors braving the long queue of the central York location are in for a treat.
The shop sits in the basement, below a traditional-looking bakery, and its interiors were inspired by the lavish interior of the Queen Mary ocean liner.
Pre-book for afternoon tea in Betty’s luxurious Belmont Room for delicate finger sandwiches, small tarts and cakes, and fluffy and fruit-filled scones, all served on fine china.
Betty’s Tea Room is at 6-8 St. Helens Square, York, YO1 8QP.
4- Jorvik Viking Centre
Celebrating York’s Viking history is the Jorvik Viking Centre.
Unlike other tourist attractions across England, Jorvik Viking Centre was built on the site of the most significant and famous archeological discoveries linking to Viking rule.
Archeologists discovered houses, workshops and other aspects of a Viking city underneath York between 1976 and 1981.
Jorvik was built atop this site to protect it and to share it with visitors.
Visitors to the Viking centre are transported back to the 10th century, complete with sights and smells.
Actors take you through important aspects of what life was like in Jorvik, and state of the art galleries show off the myriad of artefacts found at the site.
The York Jorvik Viking Centre is at Coppergate Shopping Centre, 19 Copergate, York, YO1 9WT.
5- York City Walls
The 13th-century City Walls surround the centre of York and were designed to protect the city’s inhabitants and control who entered.
The walls are the most complete ancient city walls within England and one of the world’s best.
It’s possible to walk around the entirety of the walls, either from their base or onto the walls.
A typical loop takes two hours and allows visitors to see the entirety of the historic city from a new vantage point.
During spring, the grassy banks are covered in daffodils and in summer with wildflowers.
York City Walls is at York, YO1 7HB.
6- National Railway Museum
National Railway Museum is an incredible free attraction that celebrates the railway industry’s historical past both in the UK and abroad. It even has the best Japanese bullet train on display outside of Japan!
The museum preserves some of the most important trains and artefacts from railway history and is one of the top tourist attractions to explore on your York visit.
Must-see exhibits include the Mallard, a record-breaking train, and Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’, which paved the way for rail travel and infrastructure.
Head to Station Hall, where trains from Britain’s royal history are carefully preserved.
Make sure to donate to Laddie as you leave the hall. Laddie, an Airdale terrier, once worked as a collection dog for orphanages in London.
The dog was stuffed and placed in a glass case following his death, allowing him to carry on his charitable work through donation collections.
National Railway Museum is at Leeman Road, York, YO26 4XJ.
7- Ghost Walks
Like many cities in the UK, York has several ghost walks taking place each night.
A ghost walk guides visitors through the city under the cover of darkness to reveal a grizzly and mysterious past not always discussed in the day.
These spooky walks are carried out by a local historian, sometimes sharing their stories in costume.
They walk visitors through the cities mysterious past.
The stories they weave come to life as guides stop at key locations to reveal the hidden historic gems.
Particularly active locations often visited on the walking tours include Clifford’s Tower, the sight of a horrific massacre in the 12th century, and the grave of infamous highwayman Dick Turpin.
Night walks start at numerous locations across the city centre.
8- Clifford’s Tower
Another excellent location for spectacular views across historic York is Clifford’s Tower, which was part of York Castle and has stood in its current form since the 13th century.
Master Henry the mason and Master Simon the carpenter designed and built it to strengthen the castle’s defences.
This medieval architectural marvel was built onto a mound where a previous wooden tower stood, offered excellent vantage over the surrounding area.
The previous castle was one of a series of castles built by William the Conqueror when he marched north in 1068 to quell a rebellion against his rule.
Clifford’s Tower is at Tower Street, York, YO1 9SA.
9- The Shambles
In York’s city centre, ‘The Shambles’ is a delightful shopping street filled with independent boutiques and traditional pubs, dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.
The street is narrow and cobbled and is lined with overhanging timber-framed buildings.
In the 13th century, the street was filled with butchers, with each store specialising in different meat.
Only one butcher still resides on the street today, however many of the stores have meat hooks hung up outside to signify where the street began.
These days, one of the attractions of ‘The Shambles’ is to wander down this picturesque street and explore its trendy and independent vibe.
Fans of Harry Potter will love it for the specialty shops selling Harry Potter paraphernalia and some even say that Diagon Alley looks similar to The Shambles.
Two locations in York starred in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone.
The famous scene in the first film where Harry and Hagrid go in search of Platform 93/4 was shot in York’s railway station while Goathland Station in the North Yorkshire Dales was dressed up to be the station in Hogsmeade and the North York Moors railway line.
The Shambles is at Shambles, York YO1 7LZ.
10- York Castle Museum
York Castle Museum documents more than 400 years of the history of York and within the museum, streets from York’s past come to life.
The streets replicate key areas of the city’s past, such as Kirkgate in its Victorian style, to the cells of prisoners in the castle dungeons.
On the streets within the museum, actors in period costume talk visitors through key events that happened within the city at the time and offer samples of traditional sweets from its shops.
Other exhibitions at the castle museum include 1914: When the World Changed Forever, which shares, among other things, how the people of the county assisted in the war effort and a detailed exhibition into life in Britain during the 1960s.
York Castle is at Eye of York Tower St, York YO1 9RY.
11- River Ouse
The River Ouse cuts through the centre of York and stretches for 52 miles (84 kilometres), so it’s not surprising that some of the best things to do in York are centred around the river.
However, when combined with the River Ure, which feeds it, the river becomes the sixth-longest in the UK at 129 miles (208 km).
Boat trips regularly depart the city on short trips to longer cruises that take in some of the cities most beautiful landscapes.
Some cruises even offer dinner on the water or visitors can also rent a self-drive boat to explore the river and the city’s outskirts in more detail.
River Ouse cut through the centre of the city.
12- York Cold War Bunker
York’s Cold War Bunker was in active service from 1960 until the 1990s.
The bunker is semi-subterranean and was referred to as ‘No. 20 Group Royal Observer Corps HQ’ when in active duty. During the Cold War, the bunker was used to monitor the activity of any potential nuclear explosions or fallouts across the region.
The bunker, which can be entered through sealed blast doors, features decontamination rooms, air filters and supplies to sustain the workforce should anything happen to the outside world.
As the bunker is relatively small, entry is only through guided tours that run hourly.
York Cold War Bunker is at Monument Close, off Acomb Road, York, YO24 4HT.
13- Grand Opera House
Unlike many opera houses and theatres across the world, York’s Grand Opera House was not originally built to be a place filled with drama and music.
The opera house began life as two separate buildings, a warehouse and a corn exchange.
G. A. Dean designed the opera house to combine the buildings in 1868.
The opera house opened its doors in 1902 with a performance of the pantomime adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood.
The opera house’s interior is lavish and features gold detailing and red velvet curtains and seats.
Its small size adds an intimate vibe to every performance.
Grand Opera House hosts a wide variety of theatrical performances, including musicals on tour from the West End in London to comedians and live bands.
Grand Opera House is at Cumberland Street, York, YO1 9SW.
14- York Racecourse
Horse racing in York has been a popular spectator sport since Roman times.
Today, York Racecourse is home to one of the biggest horse races in England.
The racecourse has award-winning grandstands which contrast with the listed buildings, making it a unique architectural structure.
The racecourse also features perfectly manicured lawns and intricately designed flowerbeds which are always in bloom on race day.
The flagship meeting at the racecourse is the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival, held every August.
This week of racing includes large prize pots, fashionable Ladies Day, and some of the best racing around.
York Racecourse is at The Racecourse, Knavesmire Road, York, YO23 1EX.
15- Yorkshire Museum
Opened in 1830, Yorkshire Museum is one of the first purpose-built museums in England.
The museum was built to house the collections from the Yorkshire Philosophical Society on the grounds of St Mary’s abbey.
Construction took in some of the abbey’s ruins, which can be seen within the basement of the building.
The museum is filled with archeological findings and scientific discoveries, which reflects how the museum began its life.
The archeological exhibits predominately feature artefacts found within Yorkshire.
Yorkshire Museum is at Museum Gardens, Museum St, York, YO1 7FR.
16- York’s Chocolate Story
York has a long history tied to chocolate and sweet making dating back more than 300 years.
York’s Chocolate Story celebrates this historic past and the lives and inventions of the Rowntree family, who lived and made chocolate within the city.
The chocolate story takes visitors through the life of chocolate, from its time on trees in the tropics to its process from bean to bar as you explore a virtual chocolate factory.
York’s Chocolate Story is at King’s Square, York, YO1 7LD.
17- Yorkshire Museum Gardens
As within any city, a garden is a welcome and tranquil oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the busy city streets. This one is no different.
Nestled in the land surrounding the museum and on the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, Museum Gardens was established at the same time as the museum.
The museum’s founders intended the gardens to be the location for their collection of trees and perennials.
With the abbey’s ruins nestled amongst the trees, its location makes the perfect place for a picnic or relaxation after a busy day.
Museum Gardens is at Museum St, York, YO1 7FR.
18- Beningbrough Hall
Another must-visit location in York ran by the National Trust, is the stunning Beningbrough Hall.
The current hall has stood since 1716, however, a house has existed on the land since 1556.
Beningbrough Hall was inspired by Italian baroque architecture John Bourchier who designed and built the hall.
William Thornton, a local craftsman, designed the incredible cantilevered staircase surrounded by intricate woodworking.
Outside the home are beautiful grounds and parkland to explore.
The National Portrait Gallery’s collaboration with the hall, following years of careful planning so as not to harm the building itself, now features a gallery filled with incredible works of art.
The Salon Gallery features regularly chaining exhibits from galleries across the country and showcases both portrait and landscape art and occasionally more modern pieces.
Beningbrough Hall is at Beningbrough, York, YO30 1DD.
19- Rare Book Trail
York is filled with history and intriguing nooks and crannies to explore and plenty of different kinds of shops selling all sorts of things.
Within its streets are several book shops filled with rare and ancient books.
The cities book stores have devised a trail across it, which takes in 12 book stores ranging from charity shops specialising in books to books featuring antiquarian books from centuries ago.
You can find details of the Rare Book Trail in any of York’s rare book shops.
Head to Minster Gate Bookshop, an excellent place to start.
With the York Minster right outside, this bookshop is filled with incredible rare texts, prints, and more modern additions, all packed into a narrow and tall Georgian building.
Minster Gate Bookshop is at 8 Minster Gate, York, YO1 7HL.
20- Dick Turpin’s Grave
The grave of infamous highwayman Dick Turpin lies in the city of York.
Thanks to Turpin’s violent life, the grave is a lesser-known attraction within the city but often pointed out on spooky ghost walking tours.
Opposite St Georges Church is a forgotten cemetery that now serves as a park. Only a few gravestones remain intact.
Following his execution at York Tyburn, Dick Turpin, whose real name was John Palmer, was buried in the cemetery in 1739.
Ghost walk guides will tell of a shadowy figure on horseback roaming around in the area.
Dick Turpin’s Grave is at 6 Leadmill Lane Corner George Street, York, YO1 9QH.
21- York Dungeon
Another fun way to discover York’s dark past is to go on a York Dungeon tour, which is a staged performance acted out by infamous characters including a local witch Isabella Billington, Vikings and Guy Fawkes.
York is the birthplace of Guy Fawkes, a Catholic who was involved in the ‘Gunpowder Plot’ that was a failed attempt to assassinate James I in 1605.
It’s one of the tourist attractions in York to put on your list as an entertaining way to learn more about the things that shaped the city.
York dungeon is at York Dungeon, 12 Clifford St, York, YO1 9RD.