York is one of England’s most picturesque and historically rich cities. Situated halfway between London and Edinburgh in Yorkshire, York has more miles of intact medieval city walls than anywhere else in England and also boasts what is said to be the oldest shopping street in Europe. The Romans, the Saxons, and the Vikings all left their mark on York, and now it’s also one of England’s biggest university towns with a plethora of pubs as well. Budget two days to delve in and explore this dynamic city.
Top Sights in York
The Victorian railway station is grand and will most likely be your starting off point, from which you’ll cross the River Ouse into the old part of town along the old city walls. Evenings in York are perfect for exploring pubs, or taking ghost walks through the city center.
The city’s top sight is York Minster, the largest gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, housing the largest concentration of medieval stained glass in Britain. The cathedral took 250 years to build and is over 500 feet in length and over 200 feet high, boasting the best city views of York.
The Shambles & Old Town (free)
York’s most iconic sight is simply the cluster of old buildings and crooked alleyways in the city center. Evocative of York’s medieval era, these narrow streets and small footpaths called “snickleways” wind haphazardly through the city center and are now home to trendy boutiques and cafes. Some of the most famous streets are Coffee Yard, Swinegate, Grape Lane (formerly Grope Lane), and Mad Alice Lane, with the most famous of all being The Shambles. This picturesque narrow street was once home to butchers and many of the store fronts still feature the wooden shelves and hooks where cuts of meat were once displayed from open windows.
Detour: Yorkshire Soap Company
There are lots of cute shops along York’s main shopping streets, but one of my favorites is the Yorkshire Soap Company. Inside you’ll find delectable soaps that look just like cupcakes, delicious sweets, and fancy cakes and treats.
York Castle Museum
In the mood for a little English history? The York Castle Museum may be just the place for you. This family-friendly museum is filled to the brim with over 100,000 historical items and covers everything from social history, costumes, and military history, to exhibits featuring the Beatles, fashion in the 60’s, and the space race. There’s also a reconstructed Victorian street where you can wander in and out of historically re-created shops and check out workshops of saddlers, weavers, and candle-makers. The museum also houses period rooms featuring Jacobean, Georgian, and Victorian home interiors and in the former prison building you can wander through prison cells where video stories of various prisoners are projected onto the walls.
Detour: Clifford’s Tower
Right across from the York Castle Museum, you can climb the small hill up to Clifford’s Tower, which is the only part of York Castle that remains standing. Originally built by William the Conqueror, the tower has served as a prison, a royal mint, and the place where Henry VIII publicly displayed the bodies of his enemies. Today it’s a great place for taking in panoramic views of the city.
Old City Walls (free)
York boasts the longest medieval city walls in all of England, stretching just over 2 miles. A walk on these walls will give you a chance to soak in some great views and doing the entire circuit takes only two hours. There are 45 towers along the walls and five main gateways where you can climb up.
With More Time: 3 More Fun Museums
If you blow through all those sights and are still hungry for more, York is full of museums that can keep visitors busy for days. Train enthusiasts won’t want to miss the National Railway Museum (free) which houses the only Shinkansen Bullet train displayed outside Japan, and where you can check out the design of the Eurostar, which speeds though the Chunnel on its way from England to France. For sweet tooths, York’s Chocolate Story museum is a must see stop. Here you can learn about sweets originating in York—the most famous being Kit Kats—and sample the delicious goods too. Love Viking culture? Then head to the Jorvik Viking Center, a theme-park like attraction featuring flying capsules that take visitors over and through the city.
Perfectly situated a short walk from the train station, beside the old town walls, and just across the river from York’s historic core, is the Cedar Court Grand Hotel & Spa. This hotel is unique because it’s housed in the former North Eastern Railway Headquarters building dating from 1906, which was recently renovated in 2010. As a result, the hotel is filled with iconic touches like hanging vintage lamps, big picture windows framed by wrought iron, and high, sweeping ceilings.
The hotel also has a large spa housed below ground in the former vault, with a heated pool, jacuzzi, steam sauna, and dry sauna. If you’re hungry after the spa and don’t feel like leaving the hotel, the Grill Room restaurant serves up fancy international cuisine in the evenings. For breakfast they also have a big continental buffet spread accompanied by a full English breakfast.