Great British Escapes’ tips for a short break in York
Beautiful architecture; history from across the ages; well preserved medieval buildings; great eating and drinking options; interesting museums, and a variety of independent shops...all wrapped up in magnificent city walls: York certainly has a lot to offer. Whilst it is possible to keep yourself occupied for several days here, as it’s quite a small city, it is also easy to take in a lot of York’s highlights in a single day – here is our guide on how to get the most out of a short break in York.
Get your bearings
The city is easily explored on foot so ditch the car. The best way to start your visit is to spend some time just wandering around the city to soak up all the fantastic architecture and history. First up, climb the stone stairs at one of the ‘bars’ (gates) onto the city walls that still surround most of the centre (and which follow the line of the original Roman walls).
From the walls you can’t miss the impressive Minster, dominating the city, and the tangle of medieval streets that wind between it and the river. For those interested in history, stop in the small museums inside the gatehouses to learn about Richard III (and the Princes in the Tower) and Henry VII’s associations with York. If time is short, limit your stroll round the walls to the most intact section between Bootham Bar and Monkgate bar, which also offers the best views of the Minster and its gardens, then drop down to street level to wander through the network of ending lanes and alleyways.
No visit to York would be complete without a wander down York’s most famous Medieval street, the ‘Shambles’, lined with overhanging 15th-century Tudor buildings, but many of the other lanes are equally atmospheric. Many of the old timbered shops and houses are now filled by a range of cafes, restaurants and boutiques.
Rather than settling in for lunch, it is a day for grabbing something quick so you can explore more of York. There are some great options for quick food fixes but a couple of our favourites are the Shambles Kitchen (not surprisingly, found on the Shambles itself) - healthy fast food is the ethos here and, although there’s only a very simple menu, you can’t go far wrong with the pulled pork sandwich! – and ‘Little Italy’, a great little Italian delicatessen a few steps from Monk Bar – not exactly a traditional Yorkshire offering but the Italian meats and pastries make it well worth a stop.
Don’t miss the Minster!
Suitably refreshed, it’s time to visit the main attraction - York Minster. The incredible gothic architecture of what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful medieval cathedrals in the world looms over you from the newly spruced up ‘Minster Piazza’.
The Minster is not only an architecturally immense building but is also a good place to discover the history of York over the centuries (there has been a chapel on this site since the year 627). If you have the energy, climb the tower for great views over the city.
You can also see the master stonemasons at work in their open air workshop on the piazza, as they are currently doing some fantastic restoration work on the Minster.
If you have energy left for anything other than trying out one of York’s famous pubs, you can take your pick from one of a number of excellent museums.
The National Railway Museum tells the story of rail transport in Britain and its impact on society - this is an interesting stop which has a much wider appeal than you first might imagine! There are over 100 locomotives on show, including the famous ‘Mallard’ steam-engine and a replica of George Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’. The royal carriages used by Queen Victoria and Edward VII are also on display. Other options include the Yorkshire Museum, offering a thorough history of the area since Viking times; the Jorvik Viking Centre, which focuses on what life was like in York and further afield in Viking times (and is complete with the noises and smells of a Viking town – great for kids!); and DIG, a hands on archaeology museum, where you can find out about excavation still taking place around the city.
If time allows, also try to fit in a visit to Clifford’s Tower. Set on a tall mound in the heart of Old York, this circular structure is almost all that remains of York Castle, which was originally built by William the Conqueror. In its time, the tower has served as a prison and a royal mint, as well as the place where Henry VIII had the bodies of his enemies put on public display. Inside, not much of the original castle remains so some imagination is needed to recreate its former glory but it is an atmospheric place and the wall walk gives some good views back over the city towards the Minster and out to the surrounding countryside.
Out on the town
With apparently one pub for every day of the year, you aren’t going to be short of somewhere to have a relaxing drink in York! There are also plenty of places for a good dinner including one of our favourites, Nineteen, set in a cosy, timbered medieval building on Grape Lane in York’s historic centre. It serves up excellent quality food using local Yorkshire ingredients. There aren’t many tables so booking is recommended. For something a bit less formal, head just across the road from the Minster to the Guy Fawkes Inn, which is a characterful pub built on the spot where Guy Fawkes himself was born (or say they say!).
York has a reputation as a haunted city so, in the evening, consider one of the many guided ghost tours around the city. With a mix of traditional tales, marching Roman legions, Victorian tragedies and true accounts of modern day ghostly phenomena, these evening tours around the ancient heart of York are great fun (as long as you don’t take them too seriously!). A walking tour leaves from 7:30pm every evening from the West Doors of York Minster (beneath the twin bell towers) as well as other locations around the city.
Settle in for the night
Once adequately fed, watered and spooked, it’s time to get a good night’s sleep. Our pick, for a bit of luxury and for one of the most characterful spots in the city, is Gray’s Court, an impressive 900 year old townhouse that has had many royal and aristocratic guests over the centuries - including several kings and queens - and enjoys a wonderful location set within York’s city walls, just a stone’s throw from the Minster.
Wake up refreshed to an excellent breakfast before heading on to your next stop!
If you would like any help in planning a trip to York or Britain generally, please get in touch here.