Discover the best things to do in York, from beautiful architecture, cute cobbled streets, museums and galleries to pubs, cafes and restaurants.
The historic city of York has been welcoming visitors for generations, from Roman times to the present day and is a must-visit destination for all history enthusiasts! But with so many worthwhile places to visit, it can be hard to know where to start.
This list draws together some of the best historical, cultural and tourist attractions in the city all in one place, perfect for anyone planning a trip to this historic northern town. Visit the famous York Minster and admire the exquisite collection of stained glass windows and then discover hidden corners of history at York Castle Museum or the Jorvik Centre. Walk along the river Ouse and take in the sights of fabulous boats moored along King’s Staiths before enjoying an indulgent meal at one of York’s nearby pubs or restaurants
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In This Post
12 Best Things To Do In York:
1. Visit York Minster
York Minster is one of the largest Gothic buildings in Europe with soaring stained glass windows and an impressive vaulted ceiling. It took around 250 years to build this iconic landmark and it sits proudly in the centre of York.
If your visiting York then a visit to this incredible building is a must! Inside you can admire the stunning architecture and beautiful stained glass windows as well as the crypt which contains dozens of tombstones dating back to Roman times when York was called Eboracum.
The Cathedral also has an interesting museum housed in its undercroft where you can discover 2,000 years of York’s fascinating history.
It also has some unusual features, hidden in the north transept is the astronomical clock. This grand clock depicts the motion of the sun and navigational stars as would have been seen by a pilot flying south above York Minster. The clock designed by R Atkinson was built in 1955 to commemorate the thousands of airmen from Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland who were killed in action during WWII. The clock strikes every quarter hour and chimes on the hour with music from Handel’s ‘Messiah’.
Entrance to York Minster is free to York residents and children (with a fee-paying adult), however, for others, it costs £12.50 which includes the entrance to the museum and crypt.
For those of you feeling energetic then a trip up the tower is a must! York Minster’s central tower is the highest point in York and has unbeatable panoramic views of the city and surrounding area. Be warned though the 275 steps are up a narrow staircase that is only 24cm wide in some places! The entrance to the tower is £6.
2. Walk The York City Walls
York’s stunning city walls are one of the best things to see in York. The walls were built in the medieval period to protect the city from attack. They were constructed between 1170 and 1244 and were extended in 1485. The majority of the walls are still intact today and stand as a reminder of York’s long history as one of England’s most important cities.
The walls are 3.4km in length and circle the city of York and are one of the most complete city walls in England. If you have the time, it takes around 2 hours to walk the complete circuit but don’t worry if you don’t, there are plenty of places to hop on or off around the city.
As you walk along the walls you will be able to take in many of York’s famous sights as well as some of the fortified gates known as bars. The most famous gate is Micklegate Bar, which dates back to 1385 and was built by Richard II. This was the main entrance to York until 1829 and was used as a gaol until 1872.
The walls are open daily from 8 am and close at dusk. Dogs are not allowed on the City Walls, except for assistance dogs. Unfortunately, wheelchair users and pushchairs are not recommended due to the narrow staircases and narrow walkways along the wall.
3. Climb Clifford’s Tower
Clifford Tower is one of York’s best-loved attractions and one of my favourite things to do in York! Now owned by English Heritage Clifford’s tower is a wonderful place to visit. It may be small compared to other nearby attractions but it makes up for it with fabulous views and the recent £5 million upgrades to inside the tower transform this 800-year-old landmark!
The Clifford tower you see today was built during the reign of Henry III on the site of the previous motte and Bailey castle. Construction began in 1246 and wasn’t completed till 17 years later costing £3700, around £4 million at current value.
The castle had a turbulent history and was almost destroyed in 1684 when a gun salute was fired from the top of Clifford’s Tower, the resulting fire reduced the tower to the shell you see today. The castle remained in the hands of the crown and was used as storage until 1699.
The castle exchanged hands many times over the years and was later turned into a prison with extensions added to the exterior. In 1929 the prison was eventually closed and the building was sold to the City of York for £8000. Archaeological works were then carried out and a decision was made to demolish the outer walls of the prison and restore the castle to its original profile. Steps leading up to the entrance were also added at this time with works completed in 1936.
Today the castle has been restored giving visitors a unique way to enjoy this historic landmark. Valuable conservation work has repaired and repointed the stonework. New steel walkways and a staircase have been installed suspended from a timber canopy that now protects the interior from the elements giving visitors panoramic views from its roof.
Inside you’ll find new installations of words and images that tell the story of York Castle, its tower as well as the people who lived in and around it. It’s a fascinating place to visit, if you love history then a visit to this place is a must!
Entrance is free to English Heritage members, non-members are £8.10 for Adults, and £5.40 for Children.
4. Visit The York Castle Museum
Opposite Clifford’s Tower you’ll find the York Castle Museum. This museum is a great place to learn about the history and culture of York. The museum features exhibits on Roman life, Viking invasions, medieval times in England and more.
One of my favourite parts of the museum is Kirkgate, the Victorian street. This street is one of the oldest recreated indoor streets of its kind in the world and was the first to be opened in Britain. Named after the founder of the Castle Museum, Dr John Lamplugh Kirk, it formed the centrepiece of the museum when it opened in 1938.
In 2012 the street was reopened after extensive restoration and redisplay project. Not only were the displays updated but all the shops and businesses were renamed. Today each shop is now based on a real York business, all of which operated here between 1870 and 1901. Costumed guides are also on hand to give more information whilst you’re there.
This museum is a wonderful place to visit, for adults and children alike. I still remember visiting when I was a child almost 40 years ago, I was in ore then and it was just as good if not better this time around! Don’t forget to check out the old street entertainment machines in the square, they will defo give you a giggle!
The entrance is £14 for Adults, and £7 for Children, If you book online in advance you can get a small discount.
5. Visit The Yorkshire Museum & Gardens
The Yorkshire Museum is meant to be one of the finest museums in England. Its collections include archaeology, art, botany, geology, history and technology. Unfortunately, when I visited York in April 2022 the museum was closed but I’ve been told that it’s worth a visit so hopefully, I can update you on that next time I visit.
However, the gardens are open all year round and are beautiful! Not only will you find fantastic collections of plants, flowerbeds and wildlife, but you’ll also find some historical treasures as well.
Apart from the museum building itself, the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey are a dominant feature in the park. Built-in 1088 St Mary’s Abbey was once one of the most wealthy Benedictine monasteries in England.
After the reformation in the 1500’s the abbey buildings were used as a palace, over time falling into disrepair. During the 1820’s the abbey ruins were excavated and the land bought by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society. The land around the abbey was turned into a botanical garden which became the museum gardens as you see them today.
Also in the museum gardens, you will find the remains of St Leonard’s Hospital which was founded shortly after the Norman Conquest.
Entrance to the museum is £8.75 for Adults and £4.40 for Children, again if you book online in advance you can get a small discount.
6. Explore The Shambles
The Shambles is one of the oldest and best-preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe and was designated as a Conservation area in 1968 to protect it from development. It dates back to the medieval period and has a lot of historical significance. In total there are 27 listed buildings mostly dating back to the 14th-17th centuries.
These unique timber-framed buildings were designed with merchant stalls on the ground floor and an overhanging living space above. This design served two purposes, to help shelter the produce on display from the elements and two, to provide large living quarters without needing to pay for a bigger plot.
This unique street is also thought to be the inspiration for ‘Diagon Alley’ in JK Rowlings’s Harry Potter books making it a popular haunt for Harry Potter fans. A few wizardly shops have also popped up since the movie’s release including the famous The Shop That Must Not Be Named and The Potions Cauldron.
Today the Shambles is usually bustling with tourists and can get extremely busy in the summer months so if visiting during this time I recommend visiting early in the morning or the evening.
7. Treasurer’s House
The house originally housed the treasurers of York Minster from 1100 until the office was abolished by Henry VIII. Over the years that followed the house was rebuilt by Thomas Young, a post-Reformation Archbishop of York, however, by the 19th century the building had fallen into decline and split into 5 separate properties.
The house you see today was shaped by Frank Green, a wealthy industrialist from Wakefield. Frank loved to travel and used his wealth to collect antiquities from around the world. Frank bought 3 separate dwellings in the late 1800s and turned them into the fascinating house you see today.
Entrance to the house is by guided tour only, although you can turn up on the day and join the next tour, I recommend booking tickets in advance. As always National Trust members can join a tour for Free, for non-members it’s £9.00 Adult £4.50 Child. Entrance to the tranquil garden is free for everyone on open days.
8. Step Back In Time At Barley Hall
Barley Hall is one of the largest medieval buildings in York dating back to the 14th century. The hall was originally founded by monks from the nearby cathedral, who felt it was important to create a place where people could live and learn. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the hall had been rebuilt and substantially altered but by the Victorian era the hall had been broken down into smaller units, becoming a series of tradesman workshops and then eventually falling into disrepair and forgotten about.
In 1980 the hall and its surrounding buildings had been identified as a dangerous structure and due to be demolished. In 1984 it was sold to make way for flats, however, archaeological work found that within the layers of brick additions, there were the remains of a 14th-century house.
A few years later the York Archaeological Trust bought the property to start a full restoration and have painstakingly bought this medieval building back to its former glory!
Today Barley Hall looks like it would have done when it was home to the Lord Mayor of York, Alderman William Snawsell (1416-95). Visitors can now admire its many features including its stunning stained-glass windows and its impressive Great Hall.
Entrance is £7.50 for Adults and £4.50 for children (Gives free entrance for the next 12 months). You can also buy multisite tickets which also include entrance to Jorvik Viking Centre and The Jorvik Dig.
9. Check Out Yorks Viking Heritage At The Jorvik Viking Centre
If you’re looking to learn more about the Vikings, the Jorvik Viking Centre is an excellent place to start. The centre is a reconstruction of an actual Viking settlement in York, which was discovered during an archaeological dig in the 1970s. The model village on display at the museum recreates what York looked like during that period and gives visitors a detailed account of what life was like for these seafaring people.
There are 3 different zones within the Jorvik Centre. The first is a reconstruction of an area of the dig as it appeared to archaeologists who worked on it. As you walk along the glass floor you can make out the remains of two houses, various artefacts such as jewellery, glass and cooking utensils as well as real 1000-year-old timbers that had been preserved within the waterlogged soil. As you explore this part of the centre you can read some of the stories and recollections from some of the archaeologists as they uncovered these treasures.
The second area takes you on a journey on a suspended car through a detailed reconstruction of the city as it would have looked in the year AD 960. Along the route, detailed state-of-the-art animatronic characters tell the story of life during this period. Many of the characters are based on real-life people whose remains were found at the dig and are dressed in handmade costumes that were based on real archaeological evidence. Throughout the journey, you will also be met with some of the smells and sounds of the time making this a truly multi-sensory experience.
The final area, the galleries allows you to view some of the amazing artefacts found at the dig.
10. Visit The National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum in York is a must-visit for any train enthusiast. The museum has over 300 locomotives and railcars on display, including the world’s fastest steam locomotive. The museum also houses Royal carriages used by Queen Victoria and King George VI as well as other rare artefacts such as the world’s first steam locomotive built by Richard Trevithick in 1804. Entry to the museum is free though donations are welcome.
11. Take A Trip Down The River Ouse
What better way to enjoy York than a boat trip on the River Ouse?
You can take a boat trip on the river by booking your ticket with City Cruises who operate boats along parts of the river, or you can take a walking tour along its banks. Boats leave from York’s King’s Staith and Parliament Street, which are both located very close to York Minster and St Mary’s Tower.
There are several different tours available including ones that last for 25 minutes. Longer cruises are available if you wish to extend your experience with options to add afternoon tea or enjoy an evening dinner cruise.
The 25-minute tour will take you from King’s Staith up to Coppergate Bridge where you can see some historic buildings such as Clifford’s Tower or Micklegate Bar. If you want to extend your tour then there are also options for going further upriver towards Coney Street where there are more historic sights such as York Castle Museum and The Shambles.
12. Fairfax House
The Georgian splendour of this 18th-century house is the work of Thomas Robinson, a York architect. The house contains an impressive collection of furniture, much of which is on display in the house itself. The Fairfax family have lived here since 1759 and many generations have added to the collection.
The exterior facade has been restored to its original design while inside you can see how life was in Victorian times with all its elegance and grandeur but also hear some tales from more recent years.
Fairfax House offers plenty for families too with an extensive walled garden for children to play in and enjoy (and there’s even a small playground)
General admission to the house is £7.50 and guided tours £9.00, however, this also gives you 12 months of complimentary admission to Fairfax House and repeat entry to the museum’s changing exhibitions.
Where To Stay In York
Although you can enjoy a visit to York in just a day, it’s well worth spending a few days in this lovely city. Spending a few days gives you a chance to see all that York has to offer and a chance to visit some of the surrounding areas such as Beningbrough Hall or Castle Howard.
A few great accommodation options include:
$$$ Jorvik House – This boutique hotel dates back to the 1750s and overlooks the 11th-century church of St Olafs and the remains of St Mary’s Abbey, Jorvik House has a 24-hour front desk and a bar and free Wifi.
$$$ The Grand York – This 5-star Grand Hotel & Spa offers stylish rooms and a luxury vaulted spa. Set in the iconic Grade II listed former railway headquarters, it has bedrooms that feature free WiFi, a flat-screen TV, bathrobes, slippers, Molton Brown toiletries and an evening turn-down service.
$$$ B&B York – Situated on a quiet tree-lined cul-de-sac, B+B York is a 10-minute stroll from York city centre and offers en-suite rooms, bar/lounge facilities and a free on-site car park. The main building dates back to the late 1800s and B&B York still has some charming original features, such as a splendid grand staircase and patterned windows.
$$ Number 34 B&B York – A 12-minute walk from York Minster, Number 34 Bed and Breakfast York provides comfortable guest house accommodation less than 1 mile from the train station. Stylish rooms with free Wi-Fi are complemented by home-cooked breakfasts. Parking is also available.
$$ Skipbridge Farm Glamping – Set in Green Hammerton in the North Yorkshire region, Skipbridge Farm Glamping offers accommodation with free private parking, as well as access to a hot tub.
$ Safestay York – Set in a Georgian townhouse, Safestay York offers spacious rooms and shared hostel accommodation with original features, free WiFi and views across historical York. York Railway Station is 350 yards away.
For booking accommodation, I recommend using Booking.com. This website offers the best-priced accommodation catering for all budgets and styles. Just pop in your requirements and it will give you a list of available accommodation. Perfect for picking out the best hostels, B&B or even some luxury escapes.Booking.com
There are many things to do in York from visiting the famous Shambles street, the cathedral and also the Jorvik Viking centre. Of course, there is also the Yorkshire museum, castle grounds and the historic castle itself. There are also plenty of shopping streets for you to browse around with a variety of stalls and shops to visit. So what are you waiting for? Go ahead and have some of the best fun that York has to offer.
Thanks so much for stopping by, I appreciate every one of you who takes the time to read and make it to the end! I have lots of exciting new content coming in the next few weeks so make sure you pop back to catch up!