With more attractions per square mile than any other UK destination, there’s always something exciting just around the corner in York. Our comprehensive guide to the city’s best things to see, experience and do takes you from towering York Minster, one of the largest of its kind in Europe, to the newly refurbished Jorvik Viking Centre, stunning art galleries and walking tours that highlight the city’s history.
For more York inspiration, check out our guides to the city’s best hotels, restaurants, shopping and nightlife.
Experience the historic Gothic heart of the city up close
A Gothic beauty, York Minster is the largest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe. From the Roman columns in the crypt to the view of the city from the central tower, this is an impressive site. The jewel is the Great East Window, completed by John Thornton in 1408, which is the country’s earliest named work of art – it’s the stained glass equivalent of the Sistine Chapel.
Insider tip: For the full atmospheric effect, approach the Minster via The Shambles, an ancient cobblestone street mentioned in the Domesday Book, where the upper floors of 14th-century timber houses stretch almost to within touching distance.
To go for a walk
Would you like to enjoy some culture during your walk at the same time? Then follow one of the Trust Trails set up by the York Civic Trust. Since 1946 they have celebrated the great and good with ties to York, placing plaques on notable buildings across the city. The four self-guided walking tours – Literary York, Artistic York, Scientific York, and Radical York – last up to an hour and use a plaque as the starting point. Number 35 Stonegate, for example, marks the site of John Hinxman’s bookshop, long gone and where Laurence Sterne’s seminal novel Tristram Shandy was first published in 1759, the ‘first modern lesbian’ brought to life in the BBC historical drama Gentleman Jack , attended an Easter Sunday service with her mistress Ann Walker in 1834.
Fall through a social history time tunnel
A social history time tunnel that takes visitors back through three hundred years of life in York. Best known for its ‘real’ Victorian street with salvaged shop fronts, the eccentric York Castle Museum is based on a Victorian hoard collection of everyday objects, recreating the city’s living rooms and shops from the Georgian era through the 1980s.
Insider tip: For a panoramic view of the city, visit Clifford’s Tower (restoration work is planned so check the website before visiting) opposite the museum. This ancient fortified mound and keep has a gruesome history and is all that remains of the Norman castle.
Walk in the footsteps of the first Tudor king
Learn more about Henry VII at the Henry VII Experience at Micklegate Bar (formerly Micklegate Bar Museum), located in the southern gatehouse of the city walls. The museum explores the life of England’s first Tudor king, who reigned for 24 years after defeating Richard III.
Insider tip: Micklegate is the most impressive and atmospheric of the museums along the two and a half mile City Walls Walk, whose battlements were once regularly adorned with the heads of famous ‘traitors’ such as William Wallace and Richard, Duke of York.
Journey through a railway retrospective
You don’t have to be a train anorak to appreciate the National Railway Museum’s superb collection of mechanical wonders, which sheds light on the historical importance of Britain’s railways. It is located behind York’s impressive Victorian railway station; Just follow the kids and adults as they rush to iconic locomotives like Mallard and The Flying Scotsman, or take a seat on the futuristic Japanese bullet train.
Insider tip: The museum can get busy on weekends, so visit during the week and outside of school holidays if you can.
Let us guide you through the bloody side of York
Spend 90 minutes with a trip Discover York’s winding streets and monuments in the company of “Mad Alice” and learn about the blood and guts spilled on the city’s streets for over 2,000 years. Based on a character from local folklore and thought to have been hanged at York Castle in 1823, “Alice” will narrate – and reenact – the grisly details.
Insider tip: The plaque at the foot of Clifford’s Tower (the royal castle where the tower now stands and where some of the tours end) commemorates the 1190 massacre of the city’s 150-strong Jewish population, following an 11 wave of anti-Semitic riots.
Venture back into York’s Viking past
The olfactory experiences of the Jorvik Viking Center (some more pleasant than others) have always brought to life an important and thriving Viking town of the 9th century. Now, after a multi-million pound refurbishment, the interactive Jorvik exhibition is back with even more insight into one of Britain’s most exciting archaeological discoveries, unearthed 30 years ago when construction of the adjacent shopping center began.
Insider tip: Look out for the old woman on crutches (replica of a skeleton unearthed on site and displayed in a display case) and the crying baby in its mother’s arms. Very lifelike – and just a little creepy.
A sweet story for chocolate lovers
Chocolate’s journey from the raw cacao bean in the jungle to the treasure that became York’s most profitable export, chocolate story uses stunning, immersive set pieces to uncover the manufacturing of York’s famous confectionery families – Terry’s and Rowntree’s – and provide a fascinating insight into the city’s rich social history.
Insider tip: Yes, tasting is allowed, you can even try to create your own chocolate bar. But besides the obvious appeal of such a hands-on experience among kids and chocoholics, there’s a lot to elevate this place over a long tasting session.
Beautiful art and al fresco dining
The York Art Gallery (which reopened in 2015 after a major refurbishment) houses an impressive collection of paintings, prints, watercolors and ceramics from the 14th century to the present day. The gallery first opened in 1879 for the second Yorkshire Fine Art and Industrial Exhibition. It also has a great cafe with an outdoor seating area overlooking the beautiful fountain in the exhibition square.
Insider tip: CoCa (the Center of Ceramic Art), which opened as part of the gallery’s refurbishment, houses the UK’s largest collection of the British studio ceramics movement. Consisting largely of gifts from important private collectors, it underscores the personality and passion of its creators.
Experience an alternative to the Minster
Holy Trinity Church is a medieval gem tucked away behind busy Goodramgate shopping street. The Grade I listed monument is easy to overlook in favor of the Minster looming behind it, but as you walk through the small, secluded, leafy churchyard, you’ll find wonderful 15th-century stained glass, a honey-colored stone interior, and the original Georgian coffered pews.
Insider Tip: Outdoor benches make the churchyard the perfect place for reflection or a quiet lunch. On sunny days, fleeting rays of colored light are scattered off the walls, making it appear as if medieval faces are staring out of the windows.
Walk the halls of a Regency masterpiece
Arguably the finest Georgian town house in England, Fairfax House is an architectural masterpiece of Regency architecture that was Viscount Fairfax’s town house and features a rich interior designed by John Carr. It survived as a gentlemen’s club, offices, cinema and dance hall, and its beautiful plaster ceilings have been lavishly restored. It also houses some of the collections of the late chocolate magnate Noel Terry.
Insider tip: A grant of £100,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund helped the House acquire a wooden panel from 17th St Paul’s Cathedral.
Try your luck at the “Ascot of the North”
York’s historic Knavesmire Racecourse dates back to 1730, but racing has been central to York since Roman times. Ladies in plush dresses and lads in pinstripe suits sipping mugs of Pimms may have replaced Kaisers in togas, but on sunny race-season weather York is packed to the gills with seriously glamorous race-goers.
Insider tip: Forget trying to park and get there early and on foot; From the train station it’s an easy, flat walk of around 20 minutes through Rowntree Park. Alternatively, take a taxi – most drivers will be happy to give you insider tips.
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Discover the history of a historic house in York
The elegant Treasurer’s House, a National Trust property, is just a five minute walk from York Minster. From the Roman road running through the basement to the Edwardian servants’ quarters in the attics, its history is perfectly preserved. 13 period rooms tell the story of the house and its most famous owner, the eccentric Frank Green, whose collection of furniture, ceramics, textiles and paintings is well worth seeing. It’s also the sight of a famous ghost sighting.
Insider tip: Be sure to visit the gardens. Winner of multiple Gold Awards for Yorkshire in Bloom, they contain a wide range of plants and flowers including (depending on the season) irises, crocuses, tulips and fuchsias. The Avenue of London Planes leading to the Garden Gate was planted in June 1900 for the royal visit of the Prince and Princess of Wales.