York has to be one of our favourite cities in the United Kingdom. It’s absolutely filled with fascinating history and beautiful nature, and the food here is, in our opinion, among the best you’ll find in the UK.
York is a fantastic destination for families, friends, and romantic getaways alike. In fact, on our recent Northern UK trip, York was equal parts family holiday and friendship group reunion! Several of us flew to the UK to attend a school mate’s wedding in Yorkshire, and York really provided a fantastic backdrop for so many fun times.
If you’re also considering York as a holiday destination, or you’ve booked and you’re now planning your days, look no further. Below is our list of all the best things to do in York, with some broader Yorkshire experiences too.
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1. Wander along the Shambles
The Shambles is a mediaeval street, with many buildings dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. As one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and one of the world’s most famous streets, it’s not a place you can miss!
With charming cobblestones, overhanging historic buildings, and a fantastic atmosphere, wandering along this street is one of the top things to do in York.
Better yet, there are tons of shopping opportunities along The Shambles. You’ll find a variety of unique stores here that sell everything from fudge to Harry Potter memorabilia. Our kids loved buying Bertie Botts’ Every Flavoured Beans from The Shop That Must Not Be Named!
In fact, If you’re a Harry Potter fan, then The Shambles is believed to have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the movies.
In my opinion, it’s important not to rush your time here.
2. Head out on a ghost tour
York is notable for its ghost tours, and it’s no surprise really, with over 2,000 years of invasions, murder, torture, and executions. Not to mention the ghost and witch stories. As you can see, there’s a lot to learn.
This Deathly Dark Ghost Tour is a popular option as you’ll get to learn all about the city’s fascinating (and very dark) history. This includes everything from the plague to murder!
There’s also the Bloody Tour of York, where you’ll follow your costumed guide – Mad Alice. This tour will teach you about the city’s top landmarks, as well as its gruesome past.
There are several fantastic ghost tours in York, so make sure you do some research, and choose the one that’s most suited to you. If you’re travelling with kids, also exercise your parental judgement as to whether this is suitable. We went on a tour advertised as “ages 0 to 99!” and our 8 and 6-year-olds were pretty scared.
3. Visit the York Minster
The York Minster is one of the world’s most impressive cathedrals. Dating back to the 7th century, this cathedral has always been at the centre of Christianity in Northern England and is still a very important religious site to this day.
Famous for its Gothic architecture and mediaeval stained-glass windows, the beauty of this building is unparalleled. The Great East Window is a highlight for sure as it’s the largest mediaeval stained-glass window in England.
For the best experience, I’d suggest taking a guided tour as you’ll get to learn so much about the building’s history. You’ll also want to walk up the Central Tower as you’ll be treated to panoramic city views from the top!
Just make sure you check the cathedral opening times, as these are subject to change.
4. Have fun at York’s Chocolate Story
If you’re a big foodie like me then heading to York’s Chocolate Story is a must. This award-winning attraction will take you through the 4000-year history of chocolate, so what’s not to like?
While here, you’ll learn all about the origins of chocolate, the process from ‘bean to bar’, and Yorkshire’s most famous chocolate brands. Not to mention, you’ll get to do some tasting which is of course the best part!
If you have the time, check out the ‘Chocolate Masterclass’. You’ll get to create your very own chocolate, and you’ll be given a ‘Choc’tail upon arrival.
There’s also a cafe and shop on-site if you want to purchase some sweet treats. Don’t forget about the delicious hot chocolates on offer!
5. Head out to Castle Howard
Castle Howard is the ancestral family home of the Howard family (the family of two doomed wives of Henry VIII – Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard). These days, Castle Howard is open for visits, both for the home itself and the spectacular gardens. For history buffs like me, this is a must-see.
If history is less your thing but you like the TV show Bridgerton, this will be your jam. You’ll recognise Castle Howard as the Duke of Hastings’ home. In fact, you can even do a Bridgerton-themed Castle Howard tour!
Castle Howard is a particularly good option for children actually, because they have a children’s adventure playground. Skelf Island is a delightful play area with picnic tables and a kiosk, and our kids particularly loved the suspension bridge. There’s also a little tram that circles the property so little legs don’t get tired.
Castle Howard is about 20 minutes out of York, near the beautiful village of Sheriff Hutton (worth a visit in its own right).
6. Learn about the city’s history at The York Dungeon
There are plenty of fantastic things to do in York but visiting the York Dungeon should be right at the top of your list. It’s one of the city’s most popular attractions, and there will be a scare at every corner!
Full of immersive experiences, live actors, and fantastic special effects, this place offers an epic way to learn about York’s gruesome history.
While here, you’ll also get to ‘meet’ some of the city’s most notorious characters including Guy Fawkes, who was involved in the infamous gunpowder plot of 1605.
Children over the age of 5 can visit the York Dungeon so it’s still a family-friendly activity, however, it’s not recommended for children who are younger than 8. Just keep this in mind!
7. Take a day trip to the Yorkshire Dales
Yorkshire Dales National Park is around an hour’s drive from York so it’s easily accessible. Covering over 772 sq miles (2,000 sq km), as you can imagine, there’s a lot to see in this area.
Popular spots include Malham Cove, the Ribblehead Viaduct, and Aysgarth Falls.
If you can, I’d highly recommend spending some time here during the evening too. The Yorkshire Dales are home to some of the darkest skies in England, so they’re a great spot for stargazing.
If you’re not planning to rent a car during your stay, then check out this day trip from York. It lasts for around 8 hours and will take you to some of the area’s best spots including Kettlewell Village, Bolton Castle, and the world’s oldest sweet shop!
8. Visit JORVIK Viking Centre
Visiting the JORVIK Viking Centre is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in York. This allows you to travel back in time to 975 AD, where you’ll get to learn about the city’s Viking legacy.
At the JORVIK Viking Centre, you’ll go on a world-famous ride which will take you through a reconstructed Jorvik (York in the Viking age). The sights, smells, and sounds of this experience, will make you feel like you’re there!
After the ride’s finished, make sure you visit the centre’s gallery. Here, you can admire rare Viking artefacts, including everything from earrings to frying pans.
As this is a popular attraction, I’d recommend booking your spot in advance. You can do this online or by ringing the centre’s number.
9. Wander around the National Railway Museum
York is full of quirky attractions and the National Railway Museum is certainly one of them! It’s the largest railway museum in the world and is home to over 100 locomotives, so is the perfect activity for keen train-spotters.
Two highlights of this museum include the Mallard (the fastest steam locomotive in the world), and a Japanese bullet train. There’s also The Bramall Gallery which is a fantastic interactive experience.
However, the most popular attraction has to be the Flying Scotsman exhibition. As the first steam engine to travel past 100 mph, this train played an important role in the country’s locomotive history.
To make the most of your time here, the museum recommends that you allow around 1.5 hours for your visit.
10. Admire the views from Clifford’s Tower
Walking up to Clifford’s Tower is one of the best things to do in York. A remnant of York Castle, this tower was originally built by William the Conqueror.
However, it had to be rebuilt in the 13th century by Henry III as it was burned to the ground twice by rebels. Clifford Tower has seen its fair share of historic events, including the execution of Roger de Clifford (which is where the tower gets its name).
At the top of Clifford’s Tower, you’ll find a roof deck. From here, you’ll be treated to jaw-dropping views of York’s skyline including its historic buildings.
Not to mention, you’ll get to explore parts of the tower that have been inaccessible for centuries. This is due to new walkways and staircases that have been built.
11. Go on a foodie tour
York is known for its variety of tasty dishes, so take some time to try out the local cuisine.
A must-try is the Yorkshire pudding which is best enjoyed with a roast dinner. If you’d prefer something less traditional, then opt for a Yorkshire pudding wrap (also known as a ‘British burrito’).
Fat rascals are another great thing to try as it’s a traditional Yorkshire cake. Don’t forget about the variety of cheeses either, including Yorkshire Wensleydale, Abbot’s Gold, and Yorkshire blue cheese.
This hidden gems foodie tour lasts for around 3 hours and will take you to some of the best spots in the city! You’ll head off the tourist trail with this tour, and sample a variety of delicious foods.
12. Walk along York’s city walls
The city walls of York are very impressive and better yet, they’re free to visit. Covering a distance of around 2 miles (3.4 km), they’re the longest mediaeval city walls in England, so are a must for any York itinerary!
Also known as ‘Bar Walls’, these city walls date back to the 13th century. For the best experience, I’d recommend taking a walk along them. This way, you’ll get to appreciate some unique features including fortified gateways, sculptures, and arrow-slits.
To walk the whole 2-mile route, you’re looking at around 2 hours. Of course, if you stop along the way (which you’ll want to), then it will take longer. Especially as the city views from here are striking!
York’s city walls are open from 8 am until dusk.
13. Have some fun at the York Maze
If you’re after a unique (and very family-friendly) activity then head to the York Maze. It’s just a 15-minute drive from the city centre and is the largest maze in the United Kingdom.
The York Maze is created from over 1 million maize plants so it’s quite the sight. As it’s made from live plants, the maze isn’t open all year round so you’ll need to check the website to see if it’s open.
Aside from the maze itself, there are over 20 other rides and attractions on-site. With so much on offer, you could easily spend a full day here.
If you’re heading to York during Halloween then even better, as you can take part in the terrifying Halloscream event! There’s even a teen-friendly option.
14. Visit York Castle Museum
Offering over 400 years of history, visiting the York Castle Museum is a no-brainer. This award-winning museum is known for its immersive and interactive galleries, along with fascinating displays, which offer a great way to learn about York’s past.
Now, there are a few displays and exhibitions that stand out above the rest. One of these is Kirkgate, a recreated Victorian street full of authentic stores.
There’s also the York Castle Prison, once home to thieves and murderers. While here, you’ll get to ‘visit’ the residents and hear all about their stories. Don’t forget about the infamous criminal – the highwayman Dick Turpin!
While at the museum, I’d also suggest prioritising these exhibitions; Shaping the Body, The Sixties, Toy Stories, and When the World Changed Forever (the latter is about WWI).
15. Take a day trip to the North York Moors and Whitby
Although you’ll find plenty of things to do in York itself, there are lots of awesome day trip opportunities too!
The North York Moors is thought to be one of the UK’s most beautiful national parks with its ancient woodlands, dramatic coastlines, and colourful landscapes. It’s under an hour’s drive from York so is easily accessible.
You’ve also got the popular seaside town of Whitby, which is around a 75-minute drive from the city. It’s most famous for Whitby Abbey, a key landmark that helped to inspire Bram Stoker’s iconic novel, Dracula.
16. Head down to the York Cold War Bunker
Finally, you’ll want to visit the York Cold War Bunker. It’s around a 15-minute drive from the city centre of York or you can hop on public transport to get there.
This bunker was used between the 1960s and 1990s and was designed as a monitoring centre in the event of a nuclear attack. Here, you can admire the blast-proof doors, original communications equipment, and control rooms.
First, you’ll watch a short 10-minute film and then you’ll be taken on a guided tour of the bunker. These tours last for around an hour and you need to pre-book your space. This can be done through the English Heritage Website.
Visiting this quirky bunker is one of the best things to do in York so don’t miss it. It won’t take too much time out of your itinerary either!
17. Cruise along the Ouse River
18. Go on a York Pub tour
York has so many pubs, which makes for good fun – but the key is knowing which ones have the best stories. That’s where this Hidden York Pubs Tour comes in!
From modern brew houses, to pubs linked with famous bands such as the Rolling stones, to one of the oldest pubs in the whole of England, this is a pub crawl with a difference.
We absolutely love that this activity combines two great loves – the intricacies of beer brewing, and history!
19. Take in a show at the York Opera House
The Grand York Opera House is a beautiful historical venue that’s worth a look by itself. However, taking in a show here is a delight.
You’ll find all kinds of performances here, from ballet productions, to plays, concerts, and stand up comedy gigs (our favourite!).
The Opera House is located on the corner of Clifford Street and Cumberland Street, so it’s the perfect spot to make a night of it by grabbing dinner before the show and heading out for a drink after.
20. Have afternoon tea at The Grand
Indulge in a fancy afternoon tea at The Grand in York. Located in the heart of the city, The Grand offers a luxurious and classy setting for a memorable experience.
Step into the gorgeous Grand Lounge, with its chandeliers and plush furnishings, for a truly enchanting time.
Enjoy a variety of delicious treats made by skilled pastry chefs. From tasty finger sandwiches to freshly baked scones topped with cream and jam, every bite is pure culinary bliss. Sip on a range of tea blends, from English Breakfast to exotic flavors, that perfectly complement the scrumptious treats. It’s the ultimate way to unwind and immerse yourself in the tea tradition.
While you indulge, take in the stunning views of the hotel’s surroundings. The Grand’s location near York’s famous landmarks lets you soak up the city’s rich history and lively atmosphere.
21. Go on a Food Foraging Tour
This York food foraging tour is a great way to explore a different side of York foodie culture.
Go foraging with an expert forager, learn about the different foods growing in the wilds of Yorkshire, and sample lots of different foods as you go.
This tour will also give you a different perspective of the city itself as you walk along parts of the Ouse that have much less traffic.
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