Cathedral city York has its roots in Roman times (when it was known as Ebor) and was also a favourite of the Vikings, who called it Jorvik. It's a charming and compact place, layered with historic buildings, and plenty of quaint streets and alleys to explore with names like Nether Hornpot Lane, Coffee Yard and Lund's Court (formerly Mad Alice Lane).
Getting to and around York
Pick a fast train and you can be in York from King's Cross in under two hours. The station is just outside the city walls, around a five-minute walk to the centre. Once in the centre, you're unlikely to need any other transport — it's a petite metropolis — in fact you can walk from one side of the centre to the other in 10 minutes.
If heading further afield, there are plenty of buses, though their routes tend to skirt round the centre rather than through it, due to the narrow streets and pedestrianised areas. Anyone familiar with the York of a decade or more ago may be sad to learn that those bendy buses are no longer in use here — last we heard they were employed on routes between Leeds and Bradford.
Where to stay: hotels in York
Blow the budget: The Grand York is a 5* hotel, located just inside the city walls, less than five minutes' walk from the station. It's a high-end, luxury stay, with its own spa and cookery school, plus restaurants and bars. One to book if you're trying to impress, though not for the average weekend tourist.
For something with character, The Guy Fawkes Inn claims to be the birthplace of the infamous plotter, and has a surprising 13 bedrooms tucked away above the pub. Waking up in a four poster bed to the pealing of bells from York Minster, right across the road, is a memorable experience. We've heard good things about the roast dinners here too.
York has plenty of the usual chain hotels too, though check exact locations before you book if you're looking for a central location, as several are further out, towards the racecourse.
York need to know
Watch the weather. York is generally colder than London and tends to get more snow in winter, so pack appropriately. You'll also want to check the forecast for rain, as the River Ouse has a tendency to burst its banks, particularly south of Ouse Bridge in the town centre — Tower Gardens park is often completely submerged, and one of the first things students are told in freshers week is to only drink bottled beer from the riverside pubs and bars as their cellars, including barrels within, often get flooded.
If you notice a sweet smell permeating your senses as you wander, that'd be the Nestlé factory located just north of the city centre, and releasing its cocoa-based aromas across the city when conditions are favourable.
You may notice that many York street names end in 'gate' — Gillygate, Goodramgate, Marygate, Stonegate, High Petergate, Micklegate and Davygate are some of the main streets in the centre. This stems from the Viking name 'gata' meaning 'street'.
One more thing — York's a very cycle-friendly city, so keep an eye and ear out for bikes when crossing roads.
Getting your bearings in York
York is blessed with impressive city walls, the most complete medieval ones still standing in England today. They're open to the public and make a handy route around the city centre. You can head in either direction, and access the walls via several points, known as 'bars' — former gateways to the city. Here's a map of the route, and you can learn more at the tiny museum inside Micklegate Bar.
Unfortunately, the city walls aren't wheelchair or pushchair accessible, and no bikes or dogs are allowed. You'll also want to keep a tight hold on the kiddies, as there are a few unfenced drops along the way, like the section pictured. The walls are closed in icy/snowy weather for safety reasons.
You could do a whole loop of the walls in around 90 minutes. If you've less time/energy, the clockwise section between Micklegate Bar and the Memorial Gardens offers breathtaking views towards the Minster as you round the corner by the station.
The other way to get your bearings is to visit York Minster and ascend the Central Tower (age 8+), the highest point in York. It's a climb up 275 narrow, spiralling, uneven stone steps to get to the top... but on a clear day, it's rumoured you can see for 60 miles.
Museums in York
The National Railway Museum is one of York's biggest museums, and, according to one Londonist staffer, possibly the best museum in the country. It's free to visit, tucked away around the back of York station, and packed with all manner of railway memorabilia. Queen Victoria's private train, and steam locomotive Mallard are among the collection's highlights, and the Flying Scotsman makes regular appearances between tours. There are quite a few London links too, including the ornate iron gates from the old Euston station, a painting of Waterloo station, and a model carriage made from wood salvaged from the Princess Alice wreck.
Jorvik Viking Centre is another of York's cultural highlights, particularly if you've got kids — it'll take you around an hour to view the archaeological artefacts on display and learn about the Vikings in York, as told through items discovered in a mass excavation on the site in the 1970s. They often have staff members dressed up like Vikings too. Make time to visit the lesser-known Jorvik Dig a few minutes away — a family-friendly attraction where you can take part in mock excavations.
For more recent history, head to York Castle Museum, located in the former Georgian prison buildings where Dick Turpin was held. These days, the museum's main attraction is a recreation of a Victorian street, with each shopfront based on a real business that operated in York between 1870 and 1901.
As for York Castle itself, much of it was destroyed, but the Norman keep survives in the form of Clifford's Tower, managed these days by English Heritage, as is the little-known York Cold War Bunker, used in the 1960s-90s, and open for tours a couple of days a week.
Another important part of York's history is chocolate — as mentioned above, Nestle has a factory just outside the city centre, while Terry's, Craven's and Rowntree's were all once prominent in the area. Explored the city's sweet past at York's Chocolate Story, where you get to become a chocolate tasters, and turn your hand to chocolatiering.
Lunch spots in York
Oscar's Wine Bar & Bistro is often overlooked for lunch, but swing by for a midday snack of some of the best nachos we've ever had, topped with chilli, guac, salsa, sour cream and cheese. Similarly, Cosy Club is thought of as more of an evening venue, but visit at lunchtime to admire the gorgeous former cinema building with fewer people around, and tuck into brunch, small plates, mains and sides from the lunch menu.
Indecisive? Head to SPARK, a shipping container mall home to several street food traders. At time of writing, fried chicken burgers, seasonal pizzas, Greek street food, bodega sandwiches, plant-based Mexican, and Sicilian cuisine are all on menu, with outdoor and covered seating, and a few independent shops to browse too.
Shopping in York
For a city of its size, York does well for quirky, independent shops. An absolute favourite of ours is Give The Dog A Bone, a two-floor gift and homewares shop that remains largely undiscovered by many tourists, and somewhere we've never left without parting with a few quid. Right across the road is Bowler and Betty, a reproduction vintage shop to keep fashionistas happy.
The Shambles is a famously narrow and cobbled pedestrian street right in the centre of town, beloved by tourists. It's rumoured to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series, something it plays up to these days with boy wizard-inspired gift shops such as The Potions Cauldron and The Shop That Must Not Be Named. Gift, chocolate and fudge shops also feature, along with the perennially festive Nutcracker Christmas Shop.
Where to go for dinner in York
Peckish after all that exploring and shopping? The culinary scene in York is vast, whether you're after a quick bite or an evening of fine dining, bouncing through Thai, North African and Sichuan cuisine, to name but a few.
Restaurant and bistro Ate O'Clock is one for date night. It's a Mediterranean restaurant, secluded down a discreet alleyway, with interior and courtyard decked out in fairy lights. The a la carte menu touches on all the favourites — pork belly, salmon, chicken, burgers — while the set menu features various steak dishes.
Delrio's is a family-run Italian restaurant with Sardinian chef Giovanni at the helm. It's located in a cellar with plenty of cosy, candlelit booths where you can tuck into pizza, pasta, risotto and fish dishes.
Toto's is a kitsch little Italian on the ring road near York Barbican — think green, white and red exterior, and photos of Italian landmarks plastered on the walls. The food's always been decent, though service was admittedly hit and miss on our last visit (that was a few years ago, so it might have picked up).
For a blowout meal to leave you stuffed, Fancy Hank's is inspired by the deep American South — think burgers to make you drool, served up with loaded pickles and mac and cheese, and washed down with State-themed cocktails and indulgent milkshakes.
Nightlife in York: pubs, bars and live music
Two words: Evil Eye. The mere mention of the name is enough to induce a hangover in those in the know. This boozy heaven is not your usual cocktail spot — think North African-style decor rather than disco balls and shiny dance floors. It's accessed via a bottle shop on York's oldest street, and spread across multiple floors of an historic house, with window booths and even wooden four poster beds to sit on, on the upper floors. The bar staff can work wonders with any spirit you can think of, though we do miss the tube map-themed cocktail menu they had a few years ago.
For a cocktail bar at the other end of the spectrum, Sora, the rooftop bar at the Malmaison hotel, is an upmarket Asian fusion tapas and cocktail joint with outdoor terrace seating and Minster views — dress to impress if you're heading here. And for the novelty factor alone, Jalou is a cocktail bar in a Grade-II listed church.
There's a persistent rumour that York has a pub for every day of the year within the city walls (and the equivalent in churches, too). Given the recent demise of local boozers across the country, we can't be sure this is true anymore (if it ever was) but York does have some fine pubs. Many of them will claim to be 'York's most haunted pub' — it's up to you which you choose to believe, but wherever you end up, most pubs around these parts have plenty of olde worlde, wooden-beam-and-roaring-fireplace charm.
For a city of its size, York punches well above its weight for serious beer options, and has been doing so long before craft beer gained the following it has today. Begin your hoppy odyssey at York Tap, found on the platform at York station since 2010, when the long-derelict former tea room building was brought back to life. Sister venue Pivní has been around a little longer, occupying a three-storey, 16th century building in the city centre. The Brew York beer hall pours a staggering amount of its own brews (plus equally staggering hoisin duck-loaded fries).
It wouldn't be fair to discuss alcohol options in York without a nod to The House of Trembling Madness. The original Stonegate site is fashioned as a medieval ale house — go through the street-level bottle shop to get to the bar, and share a table with strangers. Round the corner on Lendal, the newer Craft Beer Mansion is a lot more spacious, with different keg beers available at the bars on each floor. The Blue Bell is a marvellous little hidey-hole, with excellent real ale and friendly conversation on tap.
In terms of nightclubs and live music venues, York is perhaps not as well-endowed as other nearby cities such as Leeds, preferring small-scale gigs in local pubs to huge arena tours. York Barbican is the city's biggest venue, hosting an impressive roster of live music, comedy and theatre shows.
The Vaults is a pub/grassroots music venue showcasing new musical acts, and The Stone Roses — with its Britpop memorabilia caking the walls — hosts regular live music nights, popular with students. Tribute act nights are a speciality at The Grand Opera House York.
There's something of a tradition among York students. When they've done their final exams in summer term, they finish a night out by climbing the grassy hill of Clifford's Tower (pictured earlier) and sitting up there until the sun comes up, normally before 5am in the summer months. These days there are signs all around the hill warning people not to do this, so if you're still going strong in the small hours, don't. No sir. Absolutely not.
With such a layered history, from Roman Ebor to Viking Jorvik, it's no surprise York has picked up a few quirks along the way. If you've got time to spare on your trip, hunt down some of these spots:
We've already mentioned The Shambles, that narrow, twisty-turny pedestrianised street with half-timbered buildings jutting out overhead. Head here very early in the morning, if you're keen to get a people-free shot of the picturesque thoroughfare. Stonegate — apparently York's oldest street — is another charming pedestrianised photo op, with views towards The Minster.
Despite its lengthy name, Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate, at the bottom of The Shambles, is one of the shortest streets in England, barely taking up the width of a church, and giving the OG Games company the best street address we've come across: 1 1/2 Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. Plenty of tourists pose for photos with the street sign.
The grave of notorious highwayman Dick Turpin can be found in St George's Churchyard, while up on Lord Mayor's Walk, the 'Nightly Bile Beans' ghostsign is an attraction in its own right. Then there's Holgate Windmill, bizarrely located in the middle of a roundabout in a residential area to the north of the city centre, receiving visitors on occasional open days.
York cafes and coffee shops
Honestly, we could spend a whole weekend eating and drinking our way around York, sightseeing be damned, and we have a few favourite spots that we return to again and again.
The Perky Peacock is a popular coffee shop located inside a medieval stone tower right next to the river — handily located close to the station, and for a pitstop if you're walking the city walls.
LICC (Luxury Ice Cream Company) on Back Swinegate is worth hunting down. The pretty, independent ice cream shop whips up unique flavours (Guinness, Kellogg's Crunchy Nut...) on site, and had the 'Instagram look' nailed years ago, before Instagram even existed. Expect queues around the block in summer though.
Not ice cream weather? Head back to the legendary Evil Eye, but swerve the cocktail menu this time and order a Candy Swamp. It's a fantastically decadent hot chocolate, served in a huge cup, with Galaxy Minstrels melting within, topped with whipped cream, marshmallows and Maltesers.
In need of more sugar? Doe Bakehouse is a fairly new addition to the York food scene, but unfailingly attracts queues along its candy-coloured shopfront — and it's a queue worth being in. Donuts are the speciality; eye-catchingly decorated treats with unique flavours including 'tea and biscuit' and 'English summer garden'. Brownies, cannoli, milkshakes, decorated croissants and other items make the occasional appearance, but the donuts are where it's at.
You may have heard of a little place called Betty's, York's famous tea room. It's not uncommon for queues to extend along the road and around the corner into St Helen's Square, as you can only book for afternoon tea — otherwise it's a case of waiting for a table. Worth it? Based on our visits we *whisper it* can't see what the hype is about. If you do make it in, Fat Rascals — fruity scones — are a Betty's speciality.
On the list for next time...
- York Art Gallery, The Yorkshire Museum, Treasurer's House, Merchant's Hall and Barley Hall are just a few of the excellent attractions in York also worth a visit, at any time of year.
- The St Nicholas Fair is the biggest annual event in York; this a huge Christmas market taking over the centre of the city, usually kicking off over one very busy weekend in November, and these days many of the stalls stay in situ right up until Christmas.
- Every February, Jorvik Viking Festival takes place, celebrating the city's Norse heritage through battle re-enactments and plenty of other events. Plus, the Eboracum Roman Festival celebrates that particular slice of the city's past each summer.
- One more event worth mentioning is York Races. On race days at York Racecourse, the whole city centre gets very busy from lunchtime onwards, with racegoers decked out in their finery, making the most of the city's restaurants, pubs and bars before heading to the racecourse, often a little worse for wear. Whether that's one to attend or avoid is down to you.
- Further afield, the neighbouring city of Leeds can be reached on a direct train from York in about 25 minutes, while Harrogate is about 35 minutes. In the opposite direction, the seaside town of Scarborough is under an hour away. If you're willing to explore by bus, the towns of Malton, Ripon, Selby and brewery mecca Tadcaster are all within easy reach of York. Or head to Pickering, about 25 miles away, and catch the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.