Updated December 3, 2023
When considering a trip to the United Kingdom, London is where most travelers start. But there is so much more to England than London!
Over the past couple years I've had the opportunity to explore a lot of England's smaller towns and cities. One of those smaller cities is York, a gem of a city approximately halfway between London and Edinburgh.
York is made up of a bit of every time period in English history, from the Roman Empire to the Edwardian period of the early 1900s. Each time has left its mark, and made York a fascinating city to explore.
While in York you can view Roman ruins, explore the Viking town of Jorvik (which translates to York), wander streets dating from the Middle Ages, stand in awe in of the stained glass windows in York Minster, walk along the longest still-standing medieval walls in England, tour Georgian mansions, experience the history of the steam train and golden age of rail travel, and even see remnants of the changes the cold war brought to the area.
York is also home to one of the best food scenes in England. Whatever you want, from Spanish tapas to traditional English pub fare, classic Yorkshire pudding to tasting menus in Michelin starred restaurants, you can find it in York.
So how do you decide what to see and do? Let me share a few of my favorite things to do in York, England.
At the top of any must-do list should be York Minster. The Minster dominates the skyline of the city, with its bell towers and chapter house visible from nearly every location.
York Minster (officially the "Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York") was built over the course of 250 years, from 1220-1442. It is also the seat of the Archbishop of York, the third highest office in the Church of England behind the monarch and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
As the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, York Minster it's an art work of stone and stained glass. For the best view in the city you can brave the climb up the circular staircase's 275 steps to the top of the central tower, which is the highest point in York.
For a truly transcendent experience you should experience the music of the minster. The organ refurbishment, which took over two years, was finished in 2021 and the 5,400 pipes can once again be heard in York Minster's summer organ recital series (running through August 18, more details here).
If you prefer choral music you can attend Evensong, sung by the Minster Choir's choristers each evening during the school term.
If you're looking for a street that is overflowing with character and history, that's exactly what you'll find in The Shambles. Many of the buildings date from the 1300s, and they lean towards each other in the most picturesque way.
Formerly the site of the city's butcher shops (some of the meat hooks and shelves used to display cuts for sale can still be seen), the leaning architecture ensured that the meat remained in the shade throughout the day, extending its shelf life in the days prior to refrigeration.
If you're a Harry Potter fan the street is said to have been the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the first film. The producers were spotted scouting the location during the film design and there is a definite similarity to the look and feel depicted in the films.
The Harry Potter series has interested a new generation in the area, and if you need to purchase your own Harry Potter memorabilia in a real-life Diagon Alley you can do so at "The Shop that Must Not Be Named." That's it's actual name, and it's a licensed seller of all things Harry Potter.
While you're in the Shambles make sure to check out The Shambles Market as well. It's a small market with several food options, as well as great options for picking up a souvenir during your travels.
Jorvik Viking Centre
In the 1970's the remains of the Viking town of Jorvik were rediscovered, leading to a resurgence of interest in the Viking settlement that once stood on the site.
The Jorvik Viking Centre is an excellent example of an edutainment (education and entertainment) museum that can keep you enthralled from beginning to end.
I wasn't sure what I was getting into when I went, and I'll admit I was a bit let down at first. We started in a room that had a couple small interactive CGI-type exhibits, but nothing special. Then we went around the corner.
That's when you'll board a vehicle and travel through the recreated Viking settlement of Jorvik. You'll see, hear, and even smell what Jorvik would have been like over a thousand years ago. Some of the people in the town even look as they would have at the time, having been modeled on skeletons discovered at the site.
After the ride through the settlement you can take your time learning more about the life and times of the Vikings who lived there. You'll also have an opportunity to buy essentials like mead and drinking horns in the gift shop. It was without a doubt one of my favorite things to do in York, England.
Keep in mind if you purchase any swords or axes you'll need to make sure you can get them home with you. They're definitely not TSA compliant!
Take a city cruise down the Ouse
The river that flows through the city is called the Ouse. It rimes with cruise. And you can take a cruise on the Ouse.
Along the way you'll see several city landmarks, including the York Museum, the museum gardens and Clifford's Tower (all that remains of the York Castle), as well as several of the city's bridges. It takes about 45 minutes and is a peaceful way to see a bit more of York and go a bit beyond the walls.
Tea at Betty's
Betty's is a York tradition and has been since 1936. While you aren't required to make reservations I would recommend it if you're not planning to go as soon as they open.
There's always a line down the building and around the corner. We didn't make a reservation and walked by about 30 minutes before they opened. A line was already forming, so we went ahead and joined it and were seated quickly once they opened. However, you can end up waiting a long time.
If you don't make a reservation you'll have tea in their dining room on the ground floor. It's lovely, with windows looking out to the people passing through the streets and squares outside and an inside inspired by the Queen Mary ocean liner.
However, if you do make a reservation you'll be served in the Belmont Room on the first floor. This is where you'll find their most exquisite tea, with a selection of dainty tea sandwiches, miniature cakes, and scones with clotted cream and jam.
The National Railway Museum
If you're a fan of trains (or even if you aren't!) the National Railway Museum is the place for you. Not only is it an amazing collection, from the earliest steam engines to modern Eurostar trains, it's also completely free!
The museum is home to an extensive collection of royal carriages, so you can see how the royal family traveled during the golden age of train travel. My favorite is Queen Victoria's saloon car, beautifully and intricately decorated in peacock blue and gold.
The National Railway Museum is also home to one of the most famous steam engines in history, the Flying Scotsman. There's a fascinating exhibit on the history of the engine, which ran the Flying Scotsman route from London to Edinburgh. It was the first steam engine to hit 100mph, securing its place in history.
The Flying Scotsman is still an operating locomotive, the oldest still running in England. That means it may not always be at the museum, but regardless of if it's there or not the exhibit about it is worth checking out.
Walk the city walls
The York city walls are the longest remaining in England and extend over two miles around the historic center of the city. They're completely free to walk and offer some of the best views of the old city center.
There are four main gatehouses, known as bars, in the walls. Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Walmgate Bar, and Micklegate Bar served to both protect the city during times of war and to restrict the flow of traffic through the city to ensure tolls were paid.
The city walls were mainly built in the 13th century on top of an older earthen embankment. That makes them particularly beautiful in early spring when the daffodils begin blooming on the banks below the walls.
As you walk the walls you'll come across one stairway that's gated, and beyond it what appears to be a beautiful house and garden. Which leads us to one of my absolute favorite places in the city...
That beautiful house and garden is Gray's Court, a privately owned and managed hotel and restaurant nestled between the Dean's House and the Minster.
The house dates back to 1080, and is the oldest inhabited house in the city. It's an excellent base to explore the city and is a haven of history and tranquility.
If you're staying elsewhere in the city you should take the time to sit in their garden with a glass of wine and enjoy the many flowers and plants growing there. It's an excellent break on a nice day.
Dinner at The Bow Room
If you're looking for an exquisite culinary experience you'll want to make reservations for dinner at The Bow Room, the beautiful restaurant at Gray's Court. Chef Adam Jackson's 9-course tasting menu was one the most amazing measl I've ever had, and the wine pairings with each course accentuated the meal perfectly.
This is, as they put it, a "leisurely dining experience". You'll start with cocktails in the long room, which is a beautiful wood-paneled room on the first floor. From there you'll proceed to dinner in the dining room overlooking the gardens and city walls.
Each course is a work of art, and the service was flawless. I'll definitely go back.
Should you get a York Pass?
If you're spending a few days in York I would suggest the York Pass, issued by Visit York. It will allow you entry into many of the museums free of charge.
However I do recommend you do the math first, if you're only planning to visit one or two paid sites you're better off paying as you go.
The Bottom Line: The best things to do in York England
York is full of things to do. I still have a list of things I'm planning to see and do on my next visit, like the York Castle Museum, the Yorkshire Museum, Cliffords Tower, York's Chocolate Story (if you like Chocolate Oranges or KitKats they're both from York!), the Yorkshire Air Museum, Barley Hall, the Merchant Adventurer Hall and the York Dungeon.