A long history and a location midway between London and Edinburgh combine to make York a convenient and popular destination for visitors to Britain. And excellent rail links add to its popularity and help make it a short break magnet for visitors from other parts of the country. For its size, the city contains a startling number of attractions and sights and these are close together. The great advantage for the visitor is that they are just about all easily accessible on foot. This video gives an impressionistic sense of some of York’s special experiences.
Here are four reasons why York has become a must-see place for so many visitors:
Listed as the favourite attractions, most visitors favour the Jorvik Centre, the Minster, National Rail Museum and the Castle Museum. This is no doubt in part because they offer well-curated, interesting hands-on experiences rather than just historical sights.
The historic architecture and compact medieval layout of York are well preserved, so that there is something to appeal to a wide range visitors, from school groups with clipboards to visitors navigating using smartphones.
As you’ll soon see in York, the city is a jumble of architectural styles. You may arrive at the grand Victorian station, exiting the building opposite imposing medieval city walls. You’ll find lots of narrow streets and houses from the middle ages in the core of the city (such as Stonegate, Shambles). But you will also see imposing 18th-century buildings like the Assembly Rooms or the Georgian Fairfax House.
Present-day York is very protective of its architectural heritage. (Though there are a few modern additions which may seem surprising to the visitor.) As recently as Victorian times, however, the city pulled down part of the wall to improve traffic flow, and a few decades back, the city narrowly avoided major alterations simply to make it more car-friendly.
Over the centuries, the city of York has expanded in roughly concentric circles.
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At its core, there is the area where the two rivers, Ouse and Foss, join. The Ouse made York accessible from the North Sea and the wider world.
Over the last three hundred years York spread beyond its walls. In the late twentieth century it was surrounded by an outer ring road, beyond which the city now continues to grow outwards.
But York remained relatively compact for many centuries. So that for visitors (and in this Bindu destination guide) York can be neatly subdivided for exploration using smallish neighbourhoods:
(There are a few locations beyond this, such as the Knavesmire and its horse-racing, which it would be churlish to omit.)
1. The city walls form a handy point of reference for the visitor to York. The area within covers the historic centre of the city, with the Minster, Cliffords Tower, and attractions such as Jorvik.
This guide uses this as its key neighbourhood. Most locations mentioned are inside the walls.
2. The pedestrianised footstreets within this area form another key area. The footstreets area is the easiest area to explore on foot, with all the narrow, medieval streets.
3. An area referred to as Just outside the walls covers few locations (such as the Rail Museum, or the Knavesmire) are included, and for accuracy are in . (Though, strictly speaking, the horse racing on the Knavesmire is a bit further.)
A wide variety of restaurants and cafés caters for the needs of both locals and visitors. A plethora of different kinds of accommodation offers overnighters a place to stay from budget to luxury.
And finally, a helpful information office complements friendly Yorkshire people, making York a highlight of many people’s UK itinerary.
York is a popular destination throughout the year, perhaps because of its mix of indoor and outdoor activities which means that even rainy weather will not ruin the experience.
Groups of visitors from overseas include a visit at any time of year. In the summer holidays it is perhaps at its busiest for independent travellers.
UK visitors come at any time of the year. Even during school term there are many school groups moving around the city (usually armed with clipboards).
Though it is never uncomfortably crowded for very long, during the days of the race meets at the Knavesmire the city can be full of racegoers before the day’s racing, and of merrymakers (or those drowning their sorrows) after the races of the day.
An enjoyable one-day visit to York is perfectly reasonable to get your bearings and take in one or two of the main sights.
However most visitors tend to stay for a few days for a more leisurely experience.
Even after two or three days there’s no lack of things to do and see.
And if you are here for longer, then the excellent transportation means that a number of day trips nearby are in reach:
• The seaside (Whitby, Scarborough, Flamborough Head and Cliffs)
• Nearby towns and cities (Hull, Leeds, Thirsk, Malton, Bradford)
• Places of Interest (Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors)
• Stately homes and gardens (Beningborough Hall, Castle Howard, Harewood House)
The information office has leaflets and suggestions, can advise on transport queries and make bookings.
People visit York throughout the year.
In summertime there are more people on the streets of course. But even winter weather doesn’t make it a bad idea to spend time in the city.
There are plenty of sights, museums and venues that are indoor and not subject to the vagaries of the Yorkshire weather. Most guided tours run throughout the year.
And local tourism staff, together with the city council, make every effort to add seasonal events to enrich the visitor experience throughout the year.
A Viking Festival is a popular annual event each February, for example.
Illuminating York provides a memorable late autumn experience, when York’s historic buildings are imaginatively and spectacularly illuminated.
The St Nicholas Fayre at Christmastime brings many December visitors to the city too.
And a Yorkshire Food and Drink Festival is now also an annual fixture in the city.
The local tourist information office is well worth a visit to find out about seasonal events. It has details of current events, such as concerts, theatre performances and festivals in the city.
It’s England. It’s Yorkshire. So be prepared.
Whilst the climate is temperate and generally without extremes the weather can throw almost anything at you, but rarely for very long.
An umbrella, whilst not essential, can be useful.
One peculiarity in York is that (usually in wintertime) some limited parts of the centre of the city are prone to flooding. This comes from the rivers, draining snow melt or heavy rainfall from higher ground through the low-lying, flat city. But even then almost all the footstreets areas in the city centre are away from the Ouse and Foss and unaffected. For the pubs on Kings Staith and other riverside venues this is an occasional, if not unexpected event that they have learned to live with.
There’s a host of events in the York calendar. Some, like the Mystery Plays, are held every few years. Others, like the horse races, happen several times a year. But York now has a large number of special festivals and weeks designed to interest both locals and visitors
The Viking Week with costume re-enactments (February) and the York Rivers festival , culminating in dragon boat races, have become popular annual events.
And St Nicholas Fayre with its nostalgic street market has become a regular fixture in November/December each year.
There are now a number of regular specialist markets throughout the year.
York’s festivals and special events have grown in number with the promotion by the city council of “York – City of Festivals”, and now cover every month, including the spectacular nighttime Illuminating York (October), Festival of Food and Drink (September) and in July a renowned Early Music Festival (video) .
It has to be said that York, even for a day trip, can be an expensive place to visit because of the admission charges to venues which can add up, particularly for a family. But it needn’t be.
With a bit of planning, it is possible to balance pricier attractions by also chosing interesting activities which cost little (or are free), or using one of the two passes available.
Also, once in then city, most visitors don’t need to pay for transport to get around. Visitors coming by car will find that the cost and hassle of car parking in the city centre can be avoided by using one of the excellent park and ride facilities on the approach roads from all directions to the city
There are two passes on offer for visitors, giving reduced price entry to attractions.
You can get this at the tourist information office. If you intend to visit several top price attractions or more a day, a York Pass may be for you. It gives entry to 30 places in York (and elsewhere in Yorkshire, too).
Its price depends on whether you choose 1, 2 or 3 days.
The pass includes a guide book and special offers for a number of shops and cafés. Available in advance online, or at the tourist office. However, it isn’t cheap and probably only worthwhile if you plan on visiting several pricey attractions in a day.
Tip Before buying, check out the alternative, but more limited, YAT (York Archaeological Trust) Pastport for Jorvik etc. It may be more useful (and cheaper!), depending on your plans.
Tip The YorkPass can be bought online in advance. (There are sometimes online discounts on the website.) You’ll find current details at the dedicated website.
The Pastport is a bargain ticket giving entry to all the York Archaeological Trust attractions in York:
Buy it at any of the museums, and it gives you repeated admission for repeated entries for a whole year (unlike the York Pass). The Pastport also gives a discount on purchases at the Yorvik gift shop. You’ll find details of current pricing at the Jorvik group website.
Tip A great idea is to go round Jorvik (with your Pastport) any of the other YAT attractions more than once: You always get more out of a second ride round the Viking village …
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in £.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than £10 per person
$$ => Tickets £10 – £20 per person
$$$ => Tickets £20 per person
Sleep — Out of town/rural
$ => Rooms less than £45 for a double
$$=> Rooms £45 – £75 for a double
$$$ => Rooms £75 for a double
Sleep — Large Cities
$ => Rooms less than £75 for a double
$$ => Rooms £75 – £110 for a double
$$$ => Rooms £110 for a double
$ => £4 – £8 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => £8 – £20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => £20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than £20 per person
$$ => £20 – £40 per person
$$$ => £40 per person
One of the great virtues of York as a visitor destination is that it has good transport links to get here, and once here, visitors are able to discover most of the city on foot. During the day, the centre of the city is largely given over to pedestrians and footstreets.
This can be take the form of a self-guided tour, or alternatively there are a number of guided tours on foot. Some are general, others themed (such as ghost tours, or historical tours).
For convenience in getting around the city, there are also guided bus tours, which are hop-on, hop-off.
And to add to the choice, a local firm also offers regular boat tours with commentary on the River Ouse.
Most people travel to York by rail or by car.
Many visitors travel to York by rail because of the good rail connecitions. The city is located roughly midway on the main east coast line between London and Edinburgh, with a journey time in either direction of around 2 hours. There are also regular trains east-west on the transpenine route to Leeds and Manchester, including a direct service to Manchester Airport.
In York the station is just outside the city walls, which you will be facing when you leave the building. There are taxis at the front of the station if you need to take luggage to accommodation which is not nearby. (There are also bus stops at several points in the street in front of the station.)
Tip Current live train information is available here.
If your visit is for a day only, you’re best leaving a car on the outskirts at one of the park and ride sites. (No overnight parking). A dedicated website has current details.
Park and Ride offers free parking, and regular shuttle bus services to the centre of town (around £2.80 return, with up to two children free). All buses are wheelchair accessible. Cycling in from the car park is another convenient (and free) option.
There are currently six p r sites, dotted around the outer ring road (see map). All are signposted as you approach York.
Tip For satnav convenience just enter the postcode of the right location:
• Askham Bar (South West, White Line, Bus 3) YO24 1LW
• Designer Outlet (South, Red Line, Bus 7) YO19 4TA
• Grimston Bar (East, Yellow Line, Bus 8) YO19 5LA
• Monks Cross (North, Silver Line, Bus 9) YO32 9JU
• Rawcliffe Bar (North West, Green Line, Bus 2) YO30 5XZ
• Poppleton Bar (West, Turqoise Line, Bus 59) YO26 6QF
Tip For mobile phones there is a free York p+r app with live bus times available. Details here.
During the day, the centre of the city is largely given over to pedestrians. This is the easiest way to get around York.
Both short- and long-stay car parks are signposted around the city, but these aren’t cheap.
If your visit is for a day only, you’re best leaving a car on the outskirts at one of the park and ride sites. (No overnight parking)
Tip Both short- and long-stay car parks are signposted around the city, but these aren’t cheap.
York is one of England’s most popular cycling cities, perhaps because it has almost no hills. It also has a number of interesting areas in the countryside around with quiet roads or cycle paths (including Sustrans routes) which make for ideal cycling experiences. Routes along the river will take you out of town away from the traffic.
If you don’t have your two wheels with you, there are two possibilities:
Good, flat and largely traffic-free rides run along riverside cycle paths, crossing the river by the Millenium Bridge cycle route. Sustrans long distance routes lead on further afield
Unusually for a city of its size, York has no bus station as such.
Other bus stops are scattered over town. There are free bus timetables and maps at the Tourist Information Centre or at the office in Rougier Street. The city transport website provides details of all local bus services.
NB: Normal bus tickets are not transferable between operators. If you intend to travel within the city using different services or operators, ask for an “All York” day ticket (around £4.50, families of up to 5 people £9).
Detailed journey planning by bus is possible online at a special website. Self-service information points are in the station and Rougier Street.
Tip Realtime information at a bus stop is available via various apps. Or text the 8 digit stop number on the sign to 64422 (text charge applies).
Long distance buses leave from in front of the station or Rougier Street.
As in other English cities, there are two kinds of cars for hire.
An official taxi (officially called a “Hackney Carriage”) is clearly labelled with a taxi sign. It can stop to pick up passengers in the street, be called by phone, or wait at public taxi ranks around the city (such as in front of the station). Their fares are fixed by York city council.
Station Taxis serves the cab rank at the station and accepts phone bookings (Tel. 44 1904 623332).
The main city centre ranks by day are at: York Station, Tower Street (near Clifford’s Tower), Exhibition Square (Art Gallery), St Saviourgate (by Whipmawhopmagate), Duncombe Place (Minster), Rougier Street.
Private hire cars are also licensed, but have to be booked in advance by phone, and are not allowed to pick up passengers in the street. There are many local companies, such as Fleetways (Tel. 44 1904 645 333).
Tip For a ride with a difference, there is a special pick-up point for a horse-drawn carriage in front of the Minster (Duncombe Place).
Current standard rate taxi fares are shown on the station taxis website are around £2.50, plus 10p per 90 metres.
York is not only a centre of tourism: It’s a busy working city and community. Yet 2000 years of history are also here, too. And this physical jumble of Roman, Viking, medieval, Norman and Victorian contributions can be overwhelming or confusing to a visitor.
The different reincarnations of the city are overlayed on one another, with thriving shopping areas criss-crossed by much older alleyways, snickelways and rights-of-way in a seemingly chaotic maze of throroughfares.
Busy city streets with serious traffic problems surround the largely traffic-free walled core. Inner city slums in that area have long been cleared away.
Beyond that centre, satellite villages (such as New Earswick, the model community founded for workers at Rowntree’s chocolate factory) and more modern suburban areas have grown outwards to the area within, and now beyond, the outer ring road surrounding the city.
A more coherrent understanding of the odd mixture really only emerges with some knowledge of the city’s history.
“The history of York is the history of England.” (King George VI)
Traces of many phases of York’s history can still be found in the present-day city.
In pre-Roman times the area now known as Yorkshire was home to celtic tribes known as Brigantes. There are no written records of them prior to the Roman invasion, however.
ROMAN YORK They came, saw and conquered.
A military base was founded by the Romans in AD 41. In 71AD the Roman governor of occupied Britain sent the Ninth Legion north to subdue the rebellious Brigantine tribes. They made their base at the strategic area between the Rivers Ouse and Foss and called it Eboracum. Their main military camp, with 5000 men, was on the site of York Minster.
In 209-11 the imperial court was based here. The emperor Constantine visited (and died) in York in 306. His son Constantine, founder of Constantinople and the first Christian emperor, was proclaimed emperor here. The Romans left in 410, and York was ready for the next invaders – the Anglo Saxons.
There are Roman remains dotted around the city. In 1920 remains of the legion’s bath were discovered (now under the Roman Bath pub). Parts of the walls are Roman, as is the original Multangular tower. The Yorkshire Museum has some fascinating artefacts, and the Undercroft of the Minster records some finds.
Archaeologists are aware that there are still many remains below the surface waiting to be uncovered.
ANGLO-SAXON YORK Eboracum becomes Eoforwic
The Angles settled here in 5th century. The settlement became part of Northumbria, centre of Christian church in 6th century. The town was known as Eoforwic in the Anglo-Saxon period. Relatively little is known of York in this time, from the departure of the Romans in the 5th century to the arrival of the Vikings in the 9th century. The Northumbrian king Edwin was baptised here in 627, when a first wooden church was built on the site of the Minster. The city became a centre of Christianity, renowned for its learning and enlightenment, and for its poet and scholar Alcuin, who lived in the 8th century.
VIKING YORK Eoforwic becomes Jorvik
The Vikings from Scandinavia attacked the anglo-saxon settlement for the first time in 866, sailing up the River Ouse, led by Ivar the Boneless and Halfdan. Over the years, following further attacks, a Viking settlement grew up around the rivers and was known as Jorvik. It flourished up until the arrival of the Norman invaders in the 11th century, and it’s thought that the city’s population grew to 30,000, making it a major city of its time.
Archaeologists have been able to establish many details of their lifestyle, with its cramped housing, fishing, trade and argriculture, with exciting finds made before the construction of the Coppergate shopping centre in the 1980s. Every February, the city now celebrates its Viking history with a Viking Week involving Viking dress, and culminating in battle re-enactments and the burning of a Viking ship on the River Ouse. Viking life is the theme of the Jorvik centre, one of York’s most popular attractions. The Yorkshire Museum also has a number of artefacts.
NORMAN YORK 1066 and all that
Following the Norman conquest of England in 1066, William the Conquerer’s armies marched north, arriving in York in 1069. York became a centre of resistance against the invaders. Thousands of people were killed in the surrounding villages in the genocide of “The Harrying of the North” as the Normans asserted their power.
To secure his position in York, William built two motte and bailey castles in York, on opposite sides of the river. Motte and bailey castles consisted of a motte (mound) and a bailey (surrounding fortification). Cliffords Tower now stands on the site of one. (The original was burned down in 1190, and initially rebuilt in wood.) The only reminder of the other castle is now Bailie Hill across the river, next to the walls. The Church was also used to strengthen Norman dominance in York. William permitted the location of a large abbey on lands where Museum Gardens are now. St Mary’s Abbey played an important part in the economic life of the area until its destruction in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
MEDIEVAL YORK The town becomes a city
In the Middle Ages York was an thriving centre of trade. Local merchants became rich and influential. In 1212 King John (for a price) gave the town a city charter, which allowed it to govern itself, instead of by his sheriff. It paid tax directly to the crown, and had a mayor. The city was dirty, noisy and crowded and housed not only people, but pigs and other animals.
The importance of medieval trade can be seen from the impressive Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. There’s still a number of medieval streets in York, many with buildings of the time, such as Stonegate, High Petergate, Shambles and Walmgate (with the crooked houses and little shops of Lady Row). Much of the present walls also dates from this time, as do the bars which were there gateways. Reconstructed Barley Hall, off Stonegate, gives an idea of the life of a wealthy medieval family. Every four years, local residents recreate some of the medieval mystery plays at various venues around town. Medieval York was home to many large religious communities, who lived and farmed the land here. Many of the historic churches in York date from this time. A small, free new interactive exhibition in Micklegate gives a glimpse of Benedictine monastic life of the time. But of course the greatest visible achievement of Medieval York must be the Minster, which like other great cathedrals reflects the mindset and skills of the age.
GEORGIAN YORK A centre of fashionable pursuits
The period of the reigns of the first kings of the House of Hanover, George I – George IV, between the early eighteenth and early nineteenth century is generally known as the Georgian period. In York, this was a prosperous era and the city rivalled Bath in its popularity. The upper classes such as the aristocracy, the landed gentry and the wealthy merchant class adopted their own highly developed social life, fashions and etiquette. Venues such as the new Assembly Rooms were known for their lavish balls and fashionable evening card parties. This was the era of York’s first theatre and newspaper. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the city had grown to just under 17,000. And with the new wealth of these classes came new crime: highwaymen and footpads plagued the routes to the city and the city streets. One of York’s most sons, the highwayman Dick Turpin gained national infamy and is remembered in the Castle Museum, where he was imprisoned before being hanged at the Knavesmire.
Architecturally, the period was known for a neo-Classical, Palladian style. Examples of Georgian architecture include Fairfax House, the Assembly Rooms and the Mansion House (residence of the Lord Mayor in St Helen’s Square). Roads such as Gillygate, Bootham and Colliergate have many Georgian buildings. Micklegate developed into an important thoroughfare with town houses, leading out towards the sporting venue of the Knavesmire with its horse-racing.
Tip The art gallery has an interesting selection of Georgian paintings, including portraits of York people of the time.
VICTORIAN YORK Inventions help the city re-invent itself
With the nineteenth century, York began a new era in its development and rediscovered itself as a key centre for two of the new industries: railways and chocolate.
The railway age saw York booming. The first train to London ran in 1840. By the 1850s there were 13 trains a day. This set the direction for the popularity of the city as a tourist centre. The first heavy industry also came to the city, serving the railways, for example, though York never became a major industrial centre. The new cocoa and chocolate industries such as Rowntree’s and Terry’s flourished in the city. Rowntrees developed a new kind of enterprise of social responsibility for the community, developing a model village (New Earswick) for its workforce.
The city itself attracted migrants from other parts of the country. Parts of the city centre housed desperately poor people in appalling, overcrowded slums. Their conditions were meticulously described and recorded in 1899 by the Quaker Seebohm Rowntree in ground-breaking social science research.
Legend has it that Queen Victoria herself was no great friend of York, avoiding it after the Royal Station Hotel charged the royal party for tea when passing through.
With a large number of visitors, the centre of York is packed with food outlets, restaurants and cafés, including familiar large chains. Of necessity, this guide limits itself to a few selected recommendations of local establishments.
If you would prefer somewhere to sit down and eat, use the Café Guide, or for full meals check out listed restaurants or pubs.
If al fresco is more your thing, perhaps for a picnic in Museum Gardens, Dean’s Park or by the river, local suppliers include Henshelwood’s, Goji, The Hairy Fig. And the market often has fresh food items at a good price. Hidden ice-cream parlour LICC offers another kind of on-the-hoof treat.
As to what local foods to try, here are a few ideas:
In Yorkshire, as elsewhere in the UK, this is a popular meal. Sold in dedicated chip shops to eat in or as takeaway food to eat from paper or tray (such Drake’s, Mr Chippy or Wackers). Or perhaps try a more refined restaurant version (like at The Royal Oak pub, or Betty’s).
In Yorkshire chip-shops, chips (the thicker cousins of french fries) are usually fried in beef dripping, giving them a stronger flavour. In the light of diminishing North Sea stocks, locally-caught cod is now largely replaced now by haddock or hake. Mushy peas are usually available (known locally as Yorkshire caviar). And the whole is generally eaten with salt and vinegar on it. The full sit-down Monty usually includes bread and butter, and is washed down with lots of tea.
Tip In a York chip shop, you may be asked if you’d like scraps (left-over fried batter) with your chips. It’s a free bonus, if you want an extra loading of crunchy calories.
Cheese in Yorkshire is often equated to Wensleydale, though in truth there are many other local cheeses. (As a visit to Henshelwood’s will show.) Try Shepherd’s Purse or Jervaux, for instance. Classic Wensleydale is a mild, white, crumbly cheese with a tangy note, and has been made in the rural Yorkshire town of Hawes since the twelfth century.
Don’t be surprised at a café in York if you’re asked if you’d like cheese with your rich fruit cake or apple pie, instead of cream. It’s a local custom; hence the Yorkshire saying:
Apple pie without the cheese.
Is like a kiss without the squeeze.
There are many family recipes for this popular local dish, as Yorkshire people will be keen to show you. This is not a pudding in the normal sense, it’s customarily eaten with roast beef. (Non-Yorkshire people have been rumoured to eat it as a desert, with sugar or syrup, but this is considered heresy hereabouts.)
Around these parts, it’s actually often a first course, before the meat course. It’s claimed to help fill you up and cut down the amount of expensive meat you’ll then want. (Outsiders see this practice as another sign of Yorkshire over-frugality.)
In the nineteenth century York grew to be a major centre of the new chocolate industry, initially in making ingredients for that health-giving drink, cocoa.
Rowntree’s became the largest company, and the city was home to brands such as the legendary KitKat, Smarties, After Eight and of course the newer Yorkie bar. Local rivals Terry’s on the other side of the city near the racecourse, made the Chocolate Orange and All Gold assortment.
York still has a sweet tooth, as evidenced by many shops, several micro chocolatiers and the addition to visitor attractions of York’s Chocolate Story.
Here are some of the sources of information that can help make your York trip go smoothly:
Tip For current train information, you can view the station departure and arrivals board online.