York is a beautiful city at any time of year, but its narrow Tudor streets and original old buildings make it feel extra special at Christmas. This ancient walled city has Roman roots and a Viking history, much of which is still visible in its street names, monuments, and museums. The city is situated exactly halfway between London and Edinburgh, in the north of England, and is easily accessible by railway and motorway. The nearest airports are Newcastle and Manchester, and the seaport of Hull is also close by. This is a beautiful and atmospheric city to visit at Christmas with festivities taking place day and night. It will be cold -- this is the north of England -- so be prepared to put on your gloves and scarf, but there’s plenty of Christmas cheer to warm you.
Join A Carol Services At York Minster
York Minster, the awe-inspiring 7th-century cathedral in the center of York, holds Christmas carol services on selected dates in December. The services feature the cathedral choir and a professional band, who perform traditional and modern Christmas songs. When you take your seat in the incredible nave of the cathedral, it feels like you’re attending a concert, which you are, but you are also an important part of that concert. Visitors are encouraged to join in with the carols and to sing along, making it feel like a very grand, yet intimate, carol service. As your voices boom around the ancient cathedral, you can take some time to gaze at the intricate and elaborate interior architecture. There are also celebrity readings in between songs, so you might spot a famous person or two! The services are ticketed and tickets do sell out fast, so be sure to book ahead. Note -- this year’s carol services are being held online due to COVID-19.
Browse The Christmas Markets
The most popular part of York’s Christmas market is St Nicholas’s Fair. Situated on Parliament Street, the market includes traditional wood hut stalls selling arts and crafts and Christmassy food and drink, a cart selling roasted chestnuts, a small ice rink, and a visit from Santa himself if you’re lucky! This market spreads down a few other streets, and it may seem as if it takes over the entire city center. But it isn’t the only Christmas market in York. The market on The Shambles, the medieval cobbled side street, is a permanent fixture in the city, but at Christmas time this is also transformed into a wonderland of Christmas lights and decorations. The famous flower stall at the entrance to the Shambles Market can be found selling mini Christmas trees and poinsettias at this time of year.
Enjoy A Mulled Wine In A Viking Style Tipi
The city of York has a rich Viking history, which you can see and sense at the turn of every street in the city center. Roads have kept their Viking names, such as Swinegate (street of the pigs) and Whip-Ma-Wop-Ma-Gate (Nobody is too sure what this one means!), and you can visit The Yorvik Centre where you can learn all about the city’s ties with the invading Vikings. With this in mind, it’s only fitting that each Christmas, a Viking tipi called Thor’s is erected in the town. Thor’s serves mulled wine and festive hot chocolate, among other delicious drinks, and you can take a seat by the traditional Viking fire pit to warm your hands from the winter cold. Thor’s is popular and does get busy, so you may have to queue for the bar, but there’s always a spot by the Viking fire pit.
Buy Your Decorations In The Christmas Shop
To prove how important Christmas is to the city of York, it has not one, but two permanent year-round Christmas shops. Sitting snugly on the narrow Tudor street, The Shambles, the Nutcracker Christmas Shop welcomes you in with a life-size nutcracker soldier by its doorstep. Inside you’ll find Christmas tree decorations, candles, lights, and of course, a lot of nutcrackers! At nearby Stonegate, you’ll be delighted by the traditional German Christmas shop Kaethe Wohlfahrt. This beautiful store sells the most exquisite Christmas items, from lights and candles, chocolates and candy, to nativity sets and rows and rows of shiny baubles. The store has some of the more unusual and extravagant gifts and decorations in stock, such as elaborate carved wooden alpine scenes that would take up a whole table in your home and an entire upper-floor room just for cuckoo clocks. Items are a little more expensive in Kaethe Wohlfahrt, but you can’t deny the beauty of each piece. Both stores are open all year, but a visit at Christmas time is especially enchanting.
Enjoy The Winter Lights
The festive lights switch-on in the city center is a popular event, and the city’s Christmas lights are truly spectacular. The Winter Lights runs from mid-November until the end of February, so there’s plenty of opportunities to see them. This is more like a mini festival of light than mere Christmas decorations. The city walls have four “wall bars,” which were once the four entrances into the city within the walls, Monk Bar, Micklegate Bar, Walmgate Bar, and Bootham Bar. In winter, each one of these bars is draped in silvery icy white lights that resemble sparkling chainmail. Every small narrow lane is delicately trimmed with lights, and the main squares and shopping streets feature elaborate light designs that hang from one building to another. The trees outside The Minster are all decorated with lights and a dancing light display is projected onto the walls of this great cathedral. Light Up York is a part of York’s yearly light festival organized by business team Make It York. Visitors are encouraged to get involved with the festival, and you can use the hashtag #LightUpYork to share your own Christmas light displays online.
Experience A Medieval Christmas At Barley Hall
Barley Hall is a restored medieval townhouse in the center of York, which was renovated and transformed to its former glory in the 1990s. Sitting in the shadow of the great Minister, Barley Hall can transport you back in time to what life was like here in medieval times. At this time of year, the house is trimmed up just as it would have been in days gone by, and it can give you a glimpse into a stark, but quite beautiful, medieval Christmas. The kitchen is especially interesting with examples of traditional medieval Christmas foods and drinks. If you want to truly experience a 14th-century Christmas, you can book one of the hall’s St Nicholas Christmas Feasts. You’ll get to eat as they did in the middle ages, albeit a little better, as you’re waited on by your servants complete with medieval dress. Note, this event features a medieval-inspired meal, so you won’t be expected to try anything too bizarre!
Take A Christmas Cookery Class At The Grand
On Station Rise, just before the bridge into town, stands this historic five-star hotel, The Grand. The Grand is a stunning Edwardian hotel, originally built in 1906 as a “palace of business” for the North East Railway headquarters. Today it features a basement spa, a cocktail bar, 207 bespoke guestrooms, and a cookery school. It’s in The Grand’s cookery school that, at Christmas time, you can book a Christmas Cookery Class. Taking you through a full Christmas day menu, you’ll learn how to cook the perfect turkey and roast potatoes, and how to expertly light your Christmas pudding. You can book individual classes or go as a group of up to 30 people for some festive fun. The hotel also offers a parent and child Christmas class so you can take the grandchildren and they can learn how to make mince pies and gingerbread. Best of all, when you’ve done, you all get to eat your festive creations in the iconic dining room. You can even spend the night at the hotel to really complete the experience.
Get a map of the city center, either before you go or from the tourist information office when you arrive, to find your way around easily. If you don’t know York and it’s your first time visiting, you may find the streets, and especially their names, confusing. The city center is compact and walled, but it can still feel like a bit of a rabbit warren, with many narrow lanes and small streets to navigate. It’s going to be cold at this time of year, and it might even snow, so be prepared and wrap up warm.