Step back to bygone days in York! As a time capsule of Britain’s Roman, Viking, and mediaeval past, there are innumerable things to do in York for history buffs.
This captivating city is full of gorgeous green spaces, kooky independent shops, and a myriad of “Snickelways” to lose yourself among. There’s a reason why York tourist attractions are always flooded with visitors! Plus, the city is one of the top romantic getaways in the UK.
Here’s the lowdown on the best things to do in York.
Best time to visit York
The best time to visit York is during spring or autumn. Spring sees the arrival of daffodils that blanket the lawns around the York City Walls and Clifford’s Tower – two of the definitive York tourist attractions.
On the other hand, autumn brings glorious golden and amber hues to the city while pleasant temperatures make it agreeable to explore the outdoor spaces.
While the weather conditions during the summer months are warm and sunny, the city can become overwhelmed with guests. If you do want to experience York in the spring, opt to visit in June or early July before the local schools break up for summer.
Although snow is rare, winter in York retains a festive atmosphere and is perfect for a weekend of museum hopping. However, you will need to brace yourself for icy conditions when exploring outdoor things to see in York such as the City Walls.
Getting to York
York is located in the North Yorkshire country in northern England. As the city is located exactly halfway between London and Edinburgh, it benefits from fantastic public transport connections.
Direct trains connect York Railway Station to both capitals as well as major northern cities including Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, and Newcastle. Train travel in the UK is pricey at the last minute. Book tickets in advance via TrainLine and you’ll have more cash to spend on your trip to York.
York is small and heavily pedestrianised with limited (and expensive) parking. Therefore, driving in the centre is not advised. Consider using the Park and Ride service. You will leave your car in a secure car park and then hop on a bus into town. This service is free.
Getting Around York
Once you’re in York, the city is walkable. Most of the York tourist attractions are centrally located and you can get around on foot.
You could hire a bicycle to explore the wider area and riverside paths. Get Cycling provide quality bikes and specialist cycles. They offer delivery and share expert advice on local routes. But, if you do hire a bike, exercise caution in the city centre. Streets and roads are narrow with buses and cars to contend with.
If you stay further afield, a bus system is available to connect you to the city. iTravelYork provides service routes and planning resources. Buses accept payment via cash or contactless credit or debit card; you will pay the driver onboard.
Top Things to Do in York
York is packed with sights and attractions – you’ll need to invest time to plan your perfect itinerary. Get inspired with 17 of the best things to do and places to visit in York.
1. York Minster
York Minster is an emblem of the city and English Gothic architecture.
The minister is the seat of the Archbishop of York, the third-highest post in the Church of England. It was built during the 7th century during the Anglo-Saxon era, hence why we still refer to it as a minister rather than a cathedral. But in case you were wondering – ministers and cathedrals are the same.
Visiting the most iconic of the York tourist attractions will surely sit at the top of your list.
As the minster is super popular, you are strongly encouraged to purchase fast-track tickets in advance. If you’re travelling on a budget, simply taking a turn around the grounds to admire the exterior is a treat for the eyes.
2. York Minster Gate Bookshop
Before you move on from the minister area, swing by this antiquarian bookshop. The Minster Gate Bookshop occupies five floors of a Georgian townhouse and stocks new books as well as secondhand and rare tomes.
All categories are represented: fiction, poetry, history, philosophy, politics, travel, children’s books, and beyond. Prices are reasonable and you’ll find contemporary bargains in the basement.
Naturally, this is one of the essential things to see in York if you’re a bibliophile. But, even if you’re not a reader, you’ll appreciate the photographic view of the minister from the front of the shop.
3. Clifford’s Tower
13th-century fortification Clifford’s Tower is the largest remaining building of York Castle. It has been used as a royal mint, a mediaeval stronghold, and a garrison in the Civil Wars.
Standing atop a hillock in the centre of town, you’ll not miss this when you arrive. The tower has recently undergone a major conservation project. It now features a wonderful roof terrace that offers the best views ever from one of the top York attractions for panoramic views across the city skyline.
Furthermore, rooms that have long since been closed to the public are now open for the first time. These provide a deeper understanding of the fort’s history.
4. York Castle Museum
Ticking off the various museums in town ranks high as one of the best things to do in York. The York Castle Museum is an immersive exhibition that recreates a commercial street and prison from the Victorian era.
On Kirkgate, you’ll wander past traditional sweet shops, historic pharmacies, and old-worldly toy and clothing boutiques. Meanwhile, York Castle Prison gives you a sense of what life behind bars was like in bygone days. Temporary displays shine a light on pivotal moments from social history.
York Castle Museum is huge and you should expect to spend around three hours exploring the exhibit.
5. Yorkshire Museum
As an alternative for those strapped for time, consider the Yorkshire Museum.
The Yorkshire Museum is located in the Museum Gardens. Permanent displays explore the region’s Jurassic history as well as mediaeval and Roman York. Meanwhile, temporary exhibits cast a spotlight on lesser-known periods.
Although compact in size the museum contains an outstanding collection of archaeological objects, biological specimens, and geological finds – they even have a meteorite behind glass.
As with the York Castle Museum, exhibits are curated to appeal to kids and adults alike.
6. River Ouse Cruise
As you can see, a visit to York demands a lot of your feet! Give them a break and take a river cruise along the River Ouse.
A York City Cruise will educate you on York’s contribution to the confectionary industry, tidbits from its Roman and Mediaeval glory days, and the impact that the flooding has had on the city. Afternoon tea, dinner cruises, party nights, and festive events are also available. Renting a self-drive boat is another option and one of the coolest things to do in York for couples and families.
River cruises depart from the Lendal Bridge Landing and King’s Staith Landing. The former is convenient for the Railway Station while the latter is close to Clifford’s Tower and York Castle Museum.
You can pre-book your City Cruise in advance although it’s usually possible to score seats on the day.
7. JORVIK Viking Centre
JORVIK Viking Centre comprises a recreation of a Yorkshire Viking village. This sensual attraction mimics the sights, sounds, and smells of 10th-century York. What makes the centre unique is that you’ll tour the exhibition in a carriage.
Note that the smell is sometimes a little off-putting, but it truly does add to the authenticity of the experience! After all, JORVIK is an award-winning attraction and one that families return to again and again.
Knowledgeable guides are on-hand to breathe yet more life into the experience. JORVIK Viking Centre is one of the best things to do in York with kids. It’s also extremely popular and advance booking is highly advisable.
8. Treasurer’s House
Nestled behind York Minster, the Treasurers’ House is an elegant townhouse set among a lush plot of garden.
The building housed the treasurers of York Minster during the Middle Ages. Later it passed through the hands of three post-Reformation Archbishops of York before the wealthy collector, Frank Green, purchased and remodelled the home.
Nowadays, the interiors consist of antique furniture, ceramics, textiles, and paintings collected by Green. These are laid out to depict an Edwardian English dwelling. It’s one of the best things to do in York if you love mooching around stately estates and seeing how the other half live.
9. Wine and spirits at York’s haunted pubs
With its dark past, it goes without saying that York has earned the reputation of being one of the UK’s most haunted cities.
Even if one of you is sceptical about the paranormal world, cosying up in a haunted pub is one of the quirkiest things to do in York for couples. Pubs in York wear their resident spooks with a badge of honour so keep your eyes peeled for chalkboards advertising their recent sightings of ghouls.
Best Free Things to Do in York
Although it seems like most of the York attractions carry a fee, the city does offer a decent number of free activities and things to do.
10. Walk around the York City Walls
Back in the day, the city relied upon its status as a walled city for protection against enemy invasion and attack. The original York City Walls, or “Bar” Walls, were erected by the Romans.
Fashioned by wood, these were destroyed during the Viking invasion. What exists today was constructed during the 13th and 14th centuries.
The surviving mediaeval remains are one of the unmissable things to see in York.
A walk around the two miles of preserved walls takes around two hours – granting incredible views over the city. You’ll be up and down steps throughout the walk but it’s clear to follow the route. Several of the gateways contain exhibitions that incur a modest entry charge but the walls themselves remain free to visit.
It makes sense to start at Bootham Bar, next to York Minster.
11. York Art Gallery
York Art Gallery is a thoughtful exhibition space that houses works from as far back as the 14th-century. As well as timeless classics, the gallery showcases pieces from the likes of L. S. Lowry and David Hockney – two of Yorkshire’s most influential artists.
Access to permanent galleries is free while special exhibitions incur a fee.
Temporary exhibitions honour artists from around the world as well as works that promote marginalised creators. Recent shows have included Japanese Ukiyo-e prints and LGBTQIA+ themes.
12. National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum is the home of awe-inspiring locomotives and one of the top-rated free things to do in York for families. Although it equally appeals to anyone who can’t resist the glamour of train travel.
Divided across Station Hall and the Great Hall, the collection exhibits heritage engines from the past 200 years. Peer into luxurious Royal Carriages and get up close with the world’s fastest steam locomotive, Mallard. Climb aboard the Shinkansen, the Japanese bullet train. Look out for special exhibitions that honour railway workers and the prestigious Flying Scotsman.
Access to the National Railway Museum is free but you do need to book a free admission ticket online first.
13. Museum Gardens
The York Museum Gardens is a beautiful riverside park with ample green space, the ruins of a mediaeval abbey, and wandering peacocks. There is no admission fee and they’re small enough to stroll around in less than 20 minutes or you can choose to linger over a sandwich.
Packing an indulgent picnic lunch from a local bakery and finding a quiet spot in the park is one of the things to do in York for couples or families.
14. The Shambles
The Shambles is a short and narrow street consisting of timber buildings erected during the 13th and 14th-centuries. Either side leans in as though they are preparing to touch.
Independent boutiques include fudge shops, dessert cafes, Christmas shops, and gift shops. The Shop That Must Not Be Named sells Harry Potter merchandise and there’s a photo opportunity where you can park your broom and pose!
If you end up spending money at The Shambles then, technically, this won’t count as one of your free things to do in York. But, technically, you can visit them without spending a penny.
15. Rowntree Park
Rowntree Park is a peaceful park located on the left bank of the River Ouse, a short walk out of the city centre. The nicest way to get there is to follow the riverside path from the Tower Gardens, in front of Clifford’s Tower.
After crossing the Blue Bridge, New Walk will lead you through a wooded patch that culminates at the Millennium Fields. Cross over Millennium Bridge and you’ll find the entrance to Rowntree Park.
The park features landscaped flower beds, a lake, and recreation areas. Rowntree Park Reading Cafe serves breakfasts, lunches, and coffee at a great price point.
Rowntree Park is one of the best outdoor places to visit in York away from the crowds. The route described above is cycle-friendly and dogs are permitted.
Best things to do near York
If you use York as a base for a couple of days then you can seize the opportunity to visit a nearby national park.
16. Yorkshire Dales National Park
The Yorkshire Dales is located 30 miles west of York and offers landscapes of rugged moorland, gorgeous waterfalls, and unique limestone formations. You can hire a car and self-drive around the villages and landmarks or join a guided tour.
The best things to do in the Yorkshire Dales include hiking, visiting caves, and pottering around postcard-pretty towns.
17. North York Moors National Park
As an alternative, the North York Moors National Park is around 30 miles northwest of the city. This park comprises glorious moors, coastal bluffs, and some of the most beautiful towns in North Yorkshire.
As the park runs adjacent to the coast, a day out at the North York Moors is one of the best things to do near York for seaside fanatics. Plan to explore the picturesque fishing villages, eat fish and chips on the sand, and hike along the cliffs for views of the North Sea.