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The 19 best things to do in York

Need sightseeing inspiration? Here’s our pick of the best things to do in York right now, from ghost tours to historical museums.

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A regular on ‘best places to live in the UK’ lists, the historic city of York has been wowing tourists since Roman times, and gives the inquisitive visitor lots to be getting on with. Overlooked by the iconic York Minster Cathedral is a delightful selection of quirky tea shops, brilliant restaurants and great bars. In many ways not too dissimilar from Bath – surely its southern sister – York is great for a day trip because you can walk from one side to the other in just under half an hour. Personally, we love to make a weekend of it, but if you are short on visiting hours, check out our guide to perfect day in York. You can thank us later. 

Best things to do in York

What is it? Roman fortifications that once protected the city.

Why go? The Romans did a lot for us. They built roads, thermal baths and left York with the longest walls barrier in the country. Walking the full length of York’s city walls will take a couple of hours, especially if you stop to read the many plaques on the way.

Don’t miss: 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 excursions cut out any possibility of stragglers.

Climb up to Clifford’s Tower

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

Why go? Like lots of this city’s history, this tower’s name has rather gruesome roots: Roger de Clifford was hanged for treason on this site back in 1322. Today the tower offers some pretty spectacular views. At the hill’s summit, you’ll be rewarded with unparalleled panoramas over York Minster and the city centre, and, on a clear day, you can see as far as the North York Moors National Park.

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What is it? A guided tour through 3,000 years of chocolate history and York’s role in it. 

Why go? To learn about some of the most beloved confectionary items that stem from York, such as Terry’s and Rowntree’s. And of course to sample some from the shop. 

Don’t miss: 2021’s hottest exhibition: the history of the Kit-Kat.

What is it? Quite possibly York’s most famous street and a firm favourite with Harry Potter fans.

Why go? Take a stroll down this winding road and you’ll be overcome with its quaintness. But wait: The Shambles has a darker past lurking behind its pretty façade. In fact, its very name is the Old English word for slaughterhouse. And those cute hooks on the front of the shops? Originally used for hanging meat. Yum. More fun facts? The wonky-looking timber-framed buildings, many of which date back to the fourteenth century, were built like that so the overhang would protect the ‘wattle and daub’ walls and help keep the meat from going rancid in the sunshine. Scone, anyone?

Don’t miss: Grab a pint at Ye Old Shambles Tavern or go shopping for a new wand at one of the many Harry P-themed stores.

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What is it? Award-winning gardens just on the edge of the city.

Why go? For the 20 acres of gardens packed with over 7,000 different varieties of flowers, shrubs and trees.  

Don’t miss: The adjoining specialist nursery, which stocks many rare plants you can buy and take home.

What is it? A stunning cathedral dating back to the seventh century.

Why go? Pretty much everywhere you go in York, you can catch a glimpse of the splendid Minster soaring over the city. But make sure you go to see it close up. Step inside the cool interiors and admire medieval stained-glass windows, carved stone and sparkling artefacts. We particularly like the underground chambers – you’ll leave with a whole lot of new knowledge on the area’s history.

Don’t miss: Strap on some sensible shoes and climb all 275 steps to enjoy the view from the highest point in York. If you’re lucky you might just spot a peregrine falcon nesting peacefully next to a gargoyle.

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What is it? York’s river, which cuts a path through the city before winding up at the Humber Estuary. 

Why go? The Ouse is a picturesque delight with riverside walking routes that are perfect for post-lunch strolls. Follow the river and you’ll catch some of York’s best sights, from the Millennium Bridge to Clifford’s Tower. You can also take regular boat tours or cruises down the river.

Don’t miss: Take the early evening cruise and you’ll be treated to sunset views that’ll give you pause for thought (and photos). The boat comes with a fully stocked bar should you fancy an evening tipple and there’s lively onboard commentary. 

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What is it? A beer-filled tour of local brewery Brew York 

Why go? To sample a delicious variety of local beers fresh from the place they are brewed. 

Don’t miss: If you love the beer so much you want to take it home with you then no problem: sign up for Brew York’s monthly subscription box.

What is it? A giant maze made from maise.

Why go? Not only is there a giant maze to lose yourself inside - made from over one million, living, growing maize plants - but there’s also a whole host of other rides, attractions and activities to take in. 

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What is it? A trip back in time to the days of York under Danish rule.

Why go? This is a chance to delve into York’s Scandi past – and no, we’re not talking hygge here. In 866 (yes, York really is that ancient) the city was invaded by the Danes; this attraction gives a snapshot of what Viking life would have been like. With its moving carriages, life-size dioramas and ancient artefacts it’s a real trip back in time. Be warned: they even replicate the smells of the ninth century. We can confirm they’re pretty bad.

Don’t miss: Look out for an actual fossilised Viking poo on display. 

What is it? Walking tours run by local homeless people.

Why go? Invisible York Tours is the best way to see the city and give something back while you’re at it. Each tour is shaped by the particular experiences of your allocated guide. All money raised helps fund practical and employment support for the homeless.

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What is it? A thrilling, immersive journey through York’s grizzly past.

Why go? Just like its sibling venues in the UK and other parts of Europe, York Dungeon delves into the murkier parts of the city’s past. With a boatload of (terrifying) actors, live shows, special effects and truly horrifying sets, it’s not for the faint-hearted. As you shuffle bravely through the dungeon you’ll come face to face with some of York’s most notorious characters, before heading to the tavern to calm your nerves.

Trainspot at The National Railway Museum

What is it? The perfect excuse to get in touch with your inner trainspotter.

Why go? Anyone with a passion for period dramas, history or design will revel in a trip to the National Railway Museum – the biggest railway museum in the UK, no less. Here you’ll find more than a million pieces of memorabilia, including actual trains, mock-up stations, and perfectly (and stylishly) restored carriages.

Don’t miss: You can also take a ride on the miniature railway outside.

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 What is it? Piglets Adventure Farm

Why go? To meet pigs, cheeky goats, cows and donkeys. There’s also a variety of activities such as mini golf, a fairy tale trail, rock pools and a beach. 

Don’t miss: The piglet maternity ward, where you can see expectant mums and their piglets.

What is it? York’s full of ghoulish stories, and a ghost tour’s the best way to find out about them.

Why go? To set your heart racing. Wander along narrow passageways and dark streets to investigate bloodcurdling tales of scandal and death, or jump aboard the Ghost Bus, on which the creepy conductor will fill you in on the city’s grimmest tales. There’s a wide variety of ghost tours running daily here, so if you’re after some scares, York’s the place for you.

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What is it? A relic of York history from the days of the Iron Curtain and the fear 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 begin every hour on the hour.

What is it? A Grade II-listed theatre that was lovingly restored in the ’80s.

Why go? As well as all its historic sights, York also boasts some pretty cool live entertainment venues. Following its ’80s revamp, which saw the theatre’s layout returned to its original period style, the Grand Opera House now puts on an excellent programme of live music, comedy and musicals. 

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What is it? Award-winning modern racecourse and gig venue with grandstands and characterful listed buildings.

Why go? For any of the 17 joyous race days between May and October. Not a racing fan? No problem – the racecourse also puts on music concerts, fashion events and even a vintage clothes festival. There’s a decent car boot sale here on Saturday mornings, too.

Don’t miss: The Yorkshire Ebor Festival and its smartly-dressed vibe is the season highlight.

And if it’s top-notch food you’re after?

The 17 best restaurants in York
  • Restaurants

Visit Castlegate for bistros and modern restaurants right next to the castle, stop for lunch on Fossgate and Walmgate, or go to Bishopthorpe Road or Gillygate for good restaurants away from the crowds.

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