A weekend in York, England, will transport you back to medieval times, with all the charm of that world on life-size display. Explore York’s twisting, narrow cobblestone lanes shaded by tall timber-framed buildings. Climb up to the 13th-century wall that still encircles the old town. And wherever you wander, look above the town, and you’ll find the twin towers of the York Minster presiding calmly over the hustle and bustle below.
Historic pubs and inns fill York. And inside, modern kitchens offer mouthwatering food and drink. Museums highlight York’s Viking and Victorian days. A ruined abbey decorates a garden, and a staunch stone tower, all that survives of an old castle, rises from a hill.
All this awaits you in York, just a 2-hour train ride from London. If you’re lucky enough to spend a weekend here, you’ll easily be able to take in many of the highlights.
Things To Do In York
The main attractions in York all lie in the center of the old town. You can easily walk to these, since it takes only about 20 minutes to get from one end of town to the other through the center. If you get tired, local taxis can whisk you around. And the many pubs and cafes that dot the town make it easy to take a break to sip on a drink or order a snack.
Here are some of the most fascinating things to do in York.
Visit York Minster
The crown jewel of this historic city is the stately York Minster, the largest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe. The Gothic cathedral that stands today was built between 1220 and 1480. Admire the beautiful stained glass windows and listen for the bells of the tower ringing out throughout the day. Climb the 275 steps up to the tower for spectacular views over York.
While you will need tickets to go inside, you can walk around the outside of the cathedral and take in different perspectives of this massive landmark free of charge.
If the weather is good, watch the sunset on the towers and ornate walls of the cathedral. The changing light on this centuries-old minster is breathtaking.
Amble Through The Shambles
York is known for its maze of narrow and twisted streets known as the Shambles. A lane at the center of the area is actually called the Shambles; it is possibly the best-preserved medieval street anywhere in the world. William the Conqueror mentioned the Shambles in the Domesday Book of 1086. The crooked, leaning Tudor-style buildings that line the street today date to the 14th and 15th centuries.
The cobblestone streets of the Shambles were once filled with butcher shops. Meat hung outside the shopfronts. Look closely, and you’ll see some of the meat hooks still attached to these buildings.
Harry Potter fans will recognize the Shambles as the inspiration for Diagon Alley. Several stores offer Harry Potter-themed merchandise including cloaks and wands.
See if you can find sections of the Shambles where you can reach out and touch both sides of the street. This narrow layout helped the butchers shelter the hanging meat from the sun.
Learn About Viking Life At The JORVIK Viking Centre
Led by Ivar the Boneless, Vikings arrived in York in 866 and conquered the town. They lived here for 100 years, farming and tending sheep and making weapons. Archeological digs uncovered artifacts that led to a better picture of village life in the Viking era.
Today, you can visit the JORVIK Viking Centre for a detailed look at Viking York. The museum takes visitors on a fun ride through life in 975. Everything you see displayed comes from the dig, so you know it is authentic. You can also get a peek at the site of the dig.
This museum is popular, so book your ticket online in advance. I would aim to go early in the day if possible to avoid the crowds.
Walk The Medieval City Wall
The medieval wall surrounding York is one of the city’s main sights. The Romans built the first wall around York. The wall that exists today dates to the 13th and 14th centuries. You can walk the entire 2 miles or go between the gatehouses. These are called “bars,” and the wall features five of them. Along the way, you’ll find 45 smaller towers.
If you are short on time, head for the Bootham Bar and walk the wall to the Monks Bar, which takes about 20 minutes. This section will give you amazing panoramic views over the Minster. Allow about 2 hours to walk the entire wall with stops to appreciate the sights.
I took a 2-hour tour of the wall led by a local who knew dozens of stories about the area. He was a retired professor who kept us fascinated the entire time. Line up at least one tour of York with the Association of Voluntary Guides to the City of York. The tours are free and will greatly enrich your visit.
Climb Up To Clifford’s Tower
The York Castle, sadly, is gone except for the notable Clifford’s Tower. This stone tower sits in a dramatic setting on top of a steep hill. Dating to the 13th century, the tower has served as a prison, a royal mint, and a refuge. An explosion in 1684 blew the top off, so only the circular walls remain. Venture up the hill to see the tower and fantastic vistas of the city. For a small fee, you can go inside.
If you are ready to rest your feet, stop here during the day and sit on the lawn for a while.
Reflect On History At The Ruins Of Saint Mary’s Abbey
Take a walk through the ruins of this Benedictine abbey, and you will be among columns and walls that date to the 1200s. The Catholic abbey was destroyed during the religious turmoil of King Henry VIII’s reign. Today, you can relax in the peaceful gardens and picnic in this green space.
Visit the abbey just after sunrise for a close-up look at the ruins. I found myself alone there in the early morning, able to fully soak in the serenity.
Explore 400 Years Of Local Life At The York Castle Museum
For history buffs, the York Castle Museum will satisfy your need to know more about the colorful past of York. Museum displays highlight toys, fashion, and food.
My favorite part of the museum is Kirkgate, a recreated Victorian street with cobblestones and period shops. Guides in Victorian dress will tell you about each place. Sit on a bench and watch as the lights change from day to night in this magical atmosphere.
Take A Tasty Tour At York’s Chocolate Story
How could you pass up a tour all about chocolate, complete with samples? You are in the birthplace of the Kit Kat candy bar, after all. And two of the world’s largest chocolate factories began in York more than 300 years ago.
Take the York’s Chocolate Story tour, learn about Rowntree’s and Terry’s, and taste a variety of candies. Finish the tour by making your own chocolate lolly.
Enjoy An Evening Ghost Tour
York is regarded as the most haunted city in Europe. So, whether you believe in ghosts or not, get into the spirit of the place and book a ghost tour. Spend an hour or so on a dark evening exploring York and its little lanes. Animated guides relate stories of York’s history and point out details of the town you may have missed.
One tour worth taking is the Shadows of York Ghost Walk. Book ahead to ensure you get a spot.
Best Restaurants In York
You will not go hungry in York. This town boasts more than 365 pubs! As you wander, if you see an interesting place, stop in or plan to return at mealtime. Here are a few of the most well known to help you narrow down the choices.
Guy Fawkes Inn
The pub at the Guy Fawkes Inn is popular, fun, and conveniently located right next to the York Minster. With its gaslit dining room and bar, you’ll feel like you’re in medieval York. The food is traditionally British, with menu items such as hand-battered haddock and garlic chicken breast. Top off your meal with the sticky toffee pudding.
The Punch Bowl
This traditional pub located in the Shambles dates back four centuries. The name is a political reference -- the Tories preferred claret, but the Whigs drank punch.
The specialty at The Punch Bowl is pie -- the dinner variety. Choose from many fillings such as chicken, beef, duck, and lentils. Enjoy your pie with sides of mashed potatoes, carrots, greens, and gravy.
Oh -- and The Punch Bowl is said to be haunted, so beware!
If you are a fan of ales, plan to eat at the Shambles Tavern. This pub is famous for its Wall of Ales. Select from cask, keg, or bottled drinks. You will not go thirsty here! And the food is local and award-winning.
Bettys Cafe Tea Room
Bettys is an experience as well as a place to enjoy a fabulous tea. In 1919, a Swiss baker headed to England to set up shop. He boarded the wrong train, ended up in York, and opened his first tea room here. Who is Betty? More than 100 years later, no one knows!
Here, you can indulge in delicious cakes, scones, and cookies. When I visited with my daughter on her birthday, a celebration cake arrived free of charge at our table. So, if you’re here for a special occasion, be sure to mention it.
Best Places To Stay In York
York offers an abundance of places to stay. A place in the center of the city is ideal for walking to all the sights. Bed and breakfasts give you a homey option with tasty food. Top hotels come complete with their own pubs, too. Here are a few popular options. You may want to partake of a pub meal even if you don’t stay in one of these.
Want to feel like you’re living in an English cottage in the 11th century? Grays Court near York Minster is a historic house complete with antique furnishings and lovely gardens. King James I once lived here! With modern conveniences, your stay will be full of comfort and charm.
Lamb & Lion Inn
This Georgian pub and inn claims a prime spot in central York right next to the Bootham Bar, one of the four stone gates in the old wall. Best Western now operates the Lamb & Lion Inn. The beer garden with views of the York Minster is a great place to relax at the end of a day of sightseeing.
Guy Fawkes Inn
The Guy Fawkes Inn is another historic inn and pub in the heart of York. Bedrooms are furnished with antiques and four-poster beds. This was the birthplace of the infamous Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up Parliament in 1605. The restaurant is known for outstanding pub classics.
With all York’s historic sights, classic pubs, antique shops, and ruins of centuries past, you’ll be sure to leave with a treasure trove of memories -- plus all the yummy chocolate goodness you could ask for.