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Top Ten Things to do in York

In North Yorkshire, at the confluence of the Ouse and Foss Rivers, is the medieval town of York.  The city is nearly 2000 years old with a rich heritage.  It was Eboracum, the capitol of the Roman province, Britannia Inferior, and later Jorvik, the capitol of a Viking territory.  For decades it was a major railway hub and an important manufacturing center.  And there are more things to do in York than can seemingly be accomplished in a lifetime.

1. York Minster

The first stop on any visit to York has to be the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St. Peter in York, otherwise known as York Minster.  While Christianity has been in the region for nearly 2000 years, the church you see today was largely constructed between 1230 and 1472.  It is considered the second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe.

There are more things to see and do at York Minster than you can count.  Prioritize seeing the stained glasses (some dating back to the 12th century), shrines, vaults and organ.  There are also hidden tours to see parts of the church normally closed to public access.  A new display recounting the church’s history, Revealing York Minster, is in the Undercroft.  And there are more than 250,000 pieces of silver, stonework, artwork, monuments and textiles scattered throughout the church.

2. Clifford’s Tower (York Castle)

The Romans and Vikings may have dictated the layout of York, but the imposing structure looming over it is Norman.  Clifford’s Tower, the keep of York Castle, is all that remains of a sprawling fortified complex begun by William the Conqueror.  The first motte and bailey castle was built in 1068; rebels and Vikings destroyed it in 1069.  It was rebuilt and reinforced, though over the centuries it fell into disuse.  By the 18th century the bailey and other outbuildings were repurposed for administrative offices and as prisons.

Today, the Clifford’s Tower you visit is the ruin of a stone tower built during the reign of Henry II.  Only the forebuilding still has a roof.  As you wander the ruin, make sure to visit the chapel, which has been richly decorated.  And definitely schedule time for the wall walk to enjoy panoramic views of York.

3. York Castle Museum

York Castle Museum lies at the foot of Clifford’s Tower and was at one time part of the York Castle complex.  The buildings the museum occupies were once the debtors’ prison and the women’s prison.

The museum was founded in 1938 by John L. Kirk to display his collection of social history, reflecting everyday life in the country.  There are a number of collections on display.  Favorites include the automaton clock from the 1780s, a collection of over 100 patchwork quilts and a tin of York-made cocoa that Shackleton took with him, but never used, during his first failed attempt to reach the South Pole.  Also make sure to check out Kirkgate, the reconstructed Victorian street.

4. The Shambles

Fans of Harry Potter will immediately recognize the Shambles as Diagon Alley.  The Shambles, from the Saxon “fleshammels” (street of the butchers), was originally a row of butcher shops.  As recently as 1872 there were 25 butcher’s shops on the street, though none remain today.  But the original buildings, with their timber-framed overhangs are still there, creating one of the finest preserved medieval streets in Europe.  There are places in the Shambles were you can stretch out your arms and touch the buildings on both sides of the street at the same time.

Today the shops and storefronts are occupied by a variety of restaurants and souvenir shops, including one dedicated to Harry Potter.  As you amble through the Shambles, make sure you take time to explore the snickelways leading off of it.

5. Walls of York

Since Roman times, York has been a walled city.  Around 71 AD, when the Roman settlement at York was founded, a fort and walls were built as the first line of defense.  Little of the original Roman walls remain, though there is the Multiangular Tower at the Museum Gardens (see #9 below).  Invading Danish Vikings occupied the city in 867.  They demolished all the towers but one and used the crumbling Roman walls as the foundation for their new and improved walls – earthen banks topped with a palisade.  In the 13th and 14th centuries the wooden palisades were replaced with the stone walls you see today.

There is a three-mile walk along a narrow path that can be completed in about two hours.  Along this path there are four bars (gates), one Victorian gateway, one postern (small gateway) and 45 towers.  The main bars are Bootham Bar, which has some of the oldest surviving stonework; Monk Bar, which has the tallest and most elaborate gatehouse; Walmgate Bar, which has the only surviving barbican; and Micklegate Bar, which was the traditional ceremonial bar for monarchs entering the city.

6. Jorvik Viking Centre

Jorkvik Viking Centre is a recreated 10th century Viking village.  The main exhibition is kid-focused and involves riding something akin to a rollercoaster carriage “through time” above the village, which is a life-size diorama with lifelike mannequins. 

But beyond the ride is an extensive and growing museum area.  There are currently nearly 1000 items on display and the Jorvik Centre recently entered into a three-year special agreement with the British Museum to display some of their artifacts at the Jorvik Centre.

And if you happen to visit in February, make sure to see the citywide Viking Festival.

7. National Railway Museum

The National Railway Museum in York claims to be the greatest railway museum in the world, and the claim has a lot of merit.  The site covers fully 20 acres and has on display over 100 locomotives and nearly 300 other rolling stock items (railroad cars, coaches, etc.) at any given time, as well as a substantial art collection.  While some items rotate in and out, there are several permanent displays that cannot be missed.

The museum houses the Mallard, the fastest steam engine.  Queen Victoria’s favorite carriage, which she regarded as her palace on wheels, is on display.  So is the only Japanese bullet train to be seen outside of Japan.  And finally there is the Chinese locomotive, a machine so big it is too large to operate on the British mainline.

8. York Dungeon

The York Dungeon describes itself as “a 75-minute journey into more than 2000 years of York’s horrible history” and “the black comedy of attractions.”  It explores the darkest corners of York’s history and features its most notorious characters, like traitor Guy Fawkes and highwayman Dick Turpin.  It opened in 1986 and was only the second dungeon show created in England (the first opened in London in 1975).

Visitors travel through 360-degree sets and 10 different live shows with actors.  The shows have pretty gruesome titles and descriptions, like the Vengeance of the Vikings, Plague Doctor, The Torturer and Execution.  Be prepared for lurid lighting, gallons of fake blood and lots of laughs.

9. Yorkshire Museum and Gardens

The Yorkshire Museum is built on the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey in the heart of York.  The museum was opened in 1830 by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society and was one of the first purpose-built museums in England.  The museum was built specifically to house the Society’s geological and archeological collections, and today its four permanent collections are organized around the themes of astronomy, archeology, biology and geology.  Galleries are organized by historical period.  In addition to the scientific artifacts, there are a number of important historical items at museum, including the Cawood Sword, a copperplate helmet and the Middleham Jewel.

But the museum is even more famous for its gardens.  The gardens cover more than ten acres and include a number of important historical buildings, like the Multiangular Tower.  The gardens have a number of planting beds, like the Prairie Border and the Oriental Border.  There is an Edible Wood (forest garden) that was planted in 2015.  There is an Artists Garden where contemporary artwork is displayed for free.  And there is the Mosaic Map, which recreates the Yorkshire section from a famous 1815 map.

10. Yorkshire Moors

No visit to York would be complete without a trip out to the Yorkshire Moors.  25 miles north of York is the North York Moors National Park.  The park covers over 550 square miles and is one of the largest heather moorlands in Britain.  It is bounded on the east by the cliffs of the North Sea and on the west by the Cleveland Hills.  Originally woodland, centuries of sheep grazing have created the large swaths of heather that the moors are so famous for today.

However, there are still a several stands of ancient forest, with Dalby Forest being the crowning glory.  There is abundant wildlife, particularly badgers and birds.  There are towns and villages aplenty.  And loads of walking and biking trails.

There are many, many more things to see and do in York.  The York Art Gallery, Barley Hall, Yorkshire Air Museum and the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall are just a few that come to mind. Be sure to take advantage of all that York has to offer by booking one of our England tours.