York is the most charming city I’ve visited in England. It’s like stepping back into medieval times, with its winding cobbled streets, magnificent cathedral, classic shop fronts, and dramatic stone walls surrounding the city. It’s a delight to simply walk around, and is also packed with things to do, making it an ideal place for a city break in the UK. Nearly all the main York attractions are within walking distance of one another, and with over 365 pubs, you’ll never be short of a pitstop.
We worked with Jess from The Travelista to make a video and a guide to all the best things to do in York. Here you’ll find the best of what to do in York and our top picks for the best York attractions. We’ve also included our special Bridges and Balloons’ favourites and a guide to the most hip boutique hotels in York.
The best things to do in York
Bridges and Balloons favourites: our pick of the best places to visit in York
- Head to Brew and Brownie for some of the city’s best cakes and pancakes.
- And don’t miss the little rascal buns at Betty’s tearoom.
- Walk down the Shambles for a taste of real-life Harry Potter world.
- Spend some time browsing five floors of second-hand books at The Minster Gate Bookshop.
- Try some local produce at the York Farmers Market, held on St Sampson Square on the first Friday of every month from 9am – 4pm.
What to do in York, England
Walk the city walls
The centre of York is surrounded by a magnificent 3.4km circuit of medieval stone walls, the best preserved city walls in England. Walking along the walls is a great way to orientate yourself and get a sense of the city. It takes around two hours to cover the whole circuit, or you can just choose to walk along a section at a time, joining at one of the many gates along the way. There’s a great view of the Minster from the section between the River Ouse and Mickelgate.
Climb Clifford’s Tower
The imposing Clifford’s Tower is the last remaining structure of York Castle. It sits on a small hill overlooking the city, and while there’s not a lot to see inside the tower itself, the view from the top is worth the climb. A symbol of the power of England’s medieval kings, the tower was originally built by William the Conqueror before being burned to the ground twice and rebuilt in the 13th Century by Henry III.
Visit York’s museums
The York Castle Museum is the best place to delve into hundreds of years of York’s history, all under one roof. From recreated Jacobean dining rooms to toy exhibits from the 20th century, there’s an impressive array of collections the are likely to cater to most tastes. I was impressed beyond my expectations. A highlight is a convincing reconstruction of a Victoria street where you can walk into different shops, or simply sit and take in the atmosphere as the scene changes from day to night. Another popular option is the Yorkshire Museum, which has some of the finest archaeological and geological collections in Europe. From the underwater creatures that swam when Yorkshire was beneath the sea to a genuine Roman mosaic floor, the museum covers centuries of history.
Marvel at York Minster
York Minster is the biggest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe, and considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful Gothic buildings. It took over 250 years to build and the craftsmanship is breathtaking; you can’t help but stare and wonder about how they managed its construction nearly 900 years ago. If you have the energy and ability, do climb up the central tower, which will reward you with the highest view in all of York. But do be warned that there are 275 steps, up a narrow and fairly steep spiral staircase.
Experience viking life at Jorvik Viking Centre
History in York isn’t all about the medieval times. In the 1970s, excavations uncovered a Viking settlement beneath the streets. The site of that settlement now houses Jorvik (the Viking name for York), an interactive exhibition that brings to life the 9th-century village. A ride takes you through a smells-and-all reconstruction of the village, complete with disarmingly life-like animatronic characters and an audio guide that describes Viking life. It’s very popular, so book your tickets online if you want to avoid the queues.
Go to the National Railway Museum
Even if you don’t geek out over trains, York’s National Railway Museum, which houses more than 100 locomotives, is so well presented that most will find it interesting. Famous trains you can see include the record-breaking Mallard and the only Shinkansen bullet train you’ll find outside of Japan. There’s also an impressive collection of royal trains, including those used by Queen Victoria and King Edward VII. The museum is free to enter.
Visit York’s Chocolate Story
York has a long history of chocolate making, with both Rowntree’s (now Nestlé) and Terry’s starting there. Six million Kit Kats are produced in York every day – that’s over one billion every year! The best way to explore this history is by visiting York’s Chocolate Story. As well as sharing York’s story of chocolate, the fully guided tour takes you on an interactive journey where you discover the origins of chocolate, how to make it and how to taste it like an expert. You even get to make your own white chocolate lollipop. The venue makes their own chocolates on-site, which you can but in the downstairs shop. And don’t forget to order a hot chocolate at the cafe – it’s been voted the best in York.
Wander the Shambles
The Shambles is York’s prettiest street; it even won the title of most picturesque street in Britain in the Google Street View Awards. The 15th-century sloping buildings nearly touch at the top and the cobbled street is often described as a real-life Diagon Alley. There’s even a Harry Potter shop, but when we were there the queue was an hour-long to get inside!
Explore York’s shops
The Shambles isn’t the only place with cute little shops. There’s also places like Stonegate where you can find the upper-end of high street stores, and Blake Street, home to the colourful Yorkshire Soap Company and an Alice-in-Wonderland-style boutique, The Imaginarium. Just wander around the city centre and you’ll stumble across many unique finds.
Stop for a coffee or afternoon tea
York has plenty of cafes where you can take a break from your wandering. Try the modern Brew & Brownie, well-known for it huge pancake stacks and excellent coffee. Or head to the classic Betty’s Cafe Tea Rooms where you can get a traditional afternoon tea, complete with one of its famous fat rascal scones – it’s a cross between a scone and a rock cake, and is seriously delicious!
Explore York’s 365 pubs
York is well known for having more than 365 pubs, one for every day of the year. Two of the most famous ones are The Guy Fawkes Inn, where Guy Fawkes was born and The Golden Fleece, said to be the most haunted pub in York. There’s also a good selection of cocktail bars, including Evil Eye Lounge, which is hidden behind a speciality gin store. And don’t forget to go for a Sunday Roast and try a famous Yorkshire pudding! The Lamb & Lion was Jess’s recommendation, and we can attest to its greatness.
Drive your own boat down the river
Finally, for a fun way to see the city, you can hire your own little red boat and drive it down the river. The boats cost from £20-40 for one hour, depending on the season. The weather wasn’t great when we hired ours, but it was still good fun, and great to see the city from a different perspective.
Where to stay in York – The most hip hotels in York
We stayed at Hotel Indigo, just a five-minute walk from the city centre, The modern, hipster-style hotel is beautifully designed with plenty of creature comforts that make for an enjoyable stay. We especially enjoyed the plate of deserts bought to our room on the first evening, plus the extensive breakfast buffet that filled us up every morning. I highly recommend it if you’re visiting York. Rooms start at £ 68. Find the best deals here.
The Parisi Hotel
The Parisi Hotel is a colourful, homely inn, run by two ethically-minded sisters. The breakfast features ethically-sourced produce and eco-friendliness is part and parcel of the hotel. Rooms start at £130. Find the best deals here.
The Black Swan at Oldstead
If you fancy staying in the surrounding countryside, The Black Swan at Oldstead is an ideal choice. Housed in a Michelin Star pub just 30 minutes from the city, the rooms are tastefully decorated in a simple but sumptious style, complete with dramatic freestanding bathtubs and beds you’ll sink into. Rooms start at £250. Book your stay now.
North Star Club
One of our favourite places in Yorkshire is the North Star Club where you can stay in luxurious cabins amid the woodland. It’s just 30 minutes from York and we’ve written a full review of the Yorkshire glamping site here.
Let us know if there’s anything else you’d add to the list.