The 11 best things to do in York

There are tons of things to do in York, so take a look at our hand-picked selection before you explore this great town
YORK
PHOTOGRAPH: S-F / Shutterstock.com YORK
By Matt Breen and Katherine Lovage |
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Practically as old as the hills themselves, York is the very model of an English historical town. Quaint, pretty and filled with medieval streets, centuries-old fortifications and one behemoth of a cathedral. It’s not hard to see why flocks of visitors from across the world venture this far north to check out all the great things to do in York, but it’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed by everything to see and do. Never fear: we’ve put together a list of the best things to do in York. There's plenty to get your teeth into.

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© Tim Green

The Ouse

What is it? York’s river, which cuts a path through the city before ultimately ending in the Humber Estuary. 

Why go? The Ouse is a picturesque delight. There are riverside routes to walk along which are perfect for post-luncheon strolls. You'll see some of York's local wonders from the Millenium bridge to Clifford's Tower and make sure to amble through Rowntree Park next to the canal. But trust us - the best way to really embrace the river, take one of the regular boat tours or cruises. Take the early evening cruise and you’ll be treated to stunning sunset views that’ll give you pause for thought (and pictures). The boat comes with a fully stocked bar should you fancy an evening tipple and there’s lively onboard commentary, so you know precisely what you’re looking at. 

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© Reuben Flounders

York Minster

What is it? York’s cathedral, and one of the most striking in the country. 

Why go? With its medieval stained-glass windows, glittering artefacts and stone buttresses, York Minster is a marvel, and essential for anyone visiting the city. Down in the underground chambers, you can learn more about the area’s Christian history, which dates back to Roman times. And if you’ve got the stamina, walk the 275 steps up to the Central Tower, which leads you to the highest point in York. Most of the tour guides are local history students so they’re not jaded (just yet) and they know what it’s like to be overwhelmed with superfluous info, so they’ll just fill you in on all the interesting bits.

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© Tim Green

York city walls

What is it? Ancient fortified walls that once protected the city from outsiders.

Why go? The Romans did a lot for us Brits. They builts roads, hot-water baths and left York with the longest medieval barrier in the country. Walking the full length of them will take a couple of hours, especially if you stop to read the odd plaque. Alternatively, you can enlist the help of a guide to save a bit of brainwork. Tailored tours ensure you only get the juicy tidbits, while private tours cut out any possibility of stragglers.

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Anthony Chappel-Ross

The Jorvik Viking Centre

What is it? A trip back in time into the days of York under Danish rule and a centre for historical education.

Why go? This is a chance to delve into York’s Scandi past – and no, we’re not talking hygge here. In 866, the city surrendered to Danish invasion; this attraction gives a snapshot of what Viking life would have been like. With its moving carriages, life-size dioramas and ancient artefacts (including a fossilised Viking poo) it’s a real trip back in time, although be warned: they also replicate the smells of the ninth century here. They’re pretty eye-watering. 

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Image © Tim Green

Clifford’s Tower

What is it? The ruined Norman keep at the centre of York Castle.

Why go? Like lots of history, this tower’s name has rather gruesome roots: Roger de Clifford was hanged here for treason back in 1322. But it offers some pretty spectacular views. Should you brace yourself and walk up to the hill’s summit, you’ll be rewarded with unparalleled views of York Minster and the city of York, and on a clear day, you can see as far as the North York Moors national park.

 

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© Nick Mailer Photography

York Dungeon

What is it? A thrilling, immersive journey through the dark and grizzly parts of York's past

Why go? Just like its sibling venues across the UK and other parts of Europe, York dungeons delves into the murky side of history. With a boatload of (pretty terrifying) actors, live shows, special effects and sets that evoke as much horror as history, it's not for the faint-hearted. As you bravely shuffle through the dungeon you'll come face to face with some of York's most notorious characters (and criminals) before heading to the Tavern to calm your nerves. Plus, if you're a fan of furry rodents, you can have a cuddle with some of the little guys at the Dungeon's Rat Cafe.

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The Shambles
Image © John Robinson

The Shambles

What is it? A narrow, winding, astonishingly quaint street that attracts visitors in their droves in York’s historical quarter.

Why go? The Shambles – the Old English word for slaughterhouse, FYI – is the perfect example of just how well-preserved York is. Many buildings in the street date back to the fourteenth century, and still have butchers’ hooks out front. At first glance, you might wonder which idiot erected these wonky, top-heavy timber-framed buildings but the overhang actually had a practical purpose: to protect the  ‘wattle and daub’ walls below and stop the butcher's meat from going off in the sunshine. Clever stuff.

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The National Railway Museum

What is it? The UK’s largest museum on the subject of its railways.

Why go? Ok ok,so The National Railway Museum sounds like somewhere you’d only visit with your granddad – but actually, the National Railway Museum is a brilliant experience. It houses a staggering million different objects, spanning 300 years. There are plenty of locomotives and other carriages to wander around. But the NRM knows stationary trains might have limited appeal for some – that’s why on certain weekends visitors can hop aboard a road train that'll take you from the museum and through the town to the Minster. Visiting with little ones? Take a ride on the adorable miniature railway in te South Yard for some small-scale fun.

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© Dario Sušanj

York Cold War Bunker

What is it? A relic of York history from the days of the Iron Curtain and the dread of the ever-ticking Doomsday Clock. 

Why go? If you’re tired of learning about Romans and Vikings, then lose yourself in another chapter of history. The semi-subterranean York Cold War bunker was built in case of a Soviet nuclear attack, and, with its blast-proof doors, perspex maps and decontamination areas, is described by English Heritage as ‘the most modern and spine-chilling’ of their properties. Tours are led by friendly guides who know their stuff and tours begin every hour on the hour so time your arrival right to avoid waiting around. 

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© Tripp/Flickr

Comedy shows at the Grand Opera House

What is it? A Grade II-listed theatre which was lovingly restored in the 1980s (for a whopping £4 million). The theatre has a maximum capacity of just under 1,000.

Why go? As well as all its historical attractions, York also boasts some pretty cool live entertainment venues too. Following its ’80s rejuvenation, which saw the theatre's design returned to its original style complete with period features, the Grand Opera House now plays host these days to a lively programme of gigs, stand-up comedy and musicals keep the punters coming. With some of the best names in the business appearing here, you’re guaranteed a good night out.

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© Chris Waywell
Hotels

Stay in a top hotel

What is it? Lots of lovely, beautifully preserved hotels for all needs and budgets.

Why go? Looking for a roof over your head while in York? The city has some spectacular places to stay – from remarkable Victorian behemoths to 900-year-old boutique hotels and even a cosy convent. Whether you’re after budget-friendly options or looking for a splash of luxury, we’ve done the scrolling so you don’t have to. And if you’re heading this far north from London, it makes sense to stay somewhere really lovely, right?

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