It may be a small city, but there are countless things to do in York. You’ll find stunning parks, interactive museums, delicious food, haunted pubs, river cruises and more, all packed into an extraordinary historical setting.
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I’ve never been anywhere quite like York. It’s actually hard to believe that such a place even exists outside of a museum or film set! Surrounded by Roman Walls, you don’t have to walk far down York’s cobbled streets to find evidence of Viking influence, Medieval reconstructions and beautiful Victorian and Georgian buildings.
Most of the things to do in York are within walking distance of each other so it’s very easy to find your way around. And with over 365 pubs (yep, that’s more than one for every day of the year!), stunning parks, and countless cafes and restaurants, you won’t struggle to find somewhere to take a rest after a busy day of sightseeing.
York has been a favourite destination of mine since I visited on a school trip aged 10. Bowled over by its mystery and charm, I’ve been back countless times since then. But with so much to cram in, it can be difficult to know where to start. To help you out, I’ve put together a comprehensive guide on the best things to do in York – including some free options too!
- 1 VENTURE UP NORTH’S TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN YORK
- 2 THINGS TO DO IN YORK
- 2.1 Browse the many museums in York
- 2.2 Drive your own little red boat
- 2.3 Cruise on the River Ouse
- 2.4 Marvel at York Minster
- 2.5 Take a Walking Tour
- 2.6 Explore Haunted York
- 2.7 Make a Chocolate Lollipop
- 2.8 Mix your own magic potion
- 2.9 Eat, Drink and Be Merry!
- 2.10 Take Afternoon Tea aboard a restored rail carriage
- 2.11 Take a day trip outside of York
- 2.12 Stay in a historical hotel
- 3 15 FREE THINGS TO DO IN YORK
- 3.1 Walk the walls
- 3.2 Explore the snickelways
- 3.3 Visit the shambles in the early morning or late evening
- 3.4 Take a free walking tour
- 3.5 Discover how chocolate is made
- 3.6 Enjoy views of York from the top of Clifford’s Tower
- 3.7 Go trainspotting at the National Railway Museum
- 3.8 Wander the streets of York
- 3.9 Follow the York Cat Trail
- 3.10 Browse the independent shops
- 3.11 Gaze at the night sky at the University of York’s Astrocampus
- 3.12 Attend a festival
- 3.13 Relax in York’s Parks
- 3.14 Visit York’s Christmas Markets
- 3.15 Take a walk along the river
- 4 THINGS TO DO IN YORK WITH KIDS
- 5 YORK ITINERARY – PLAN YOUR TRIP
- 6 WHERE TO STAY IN YORK
- 7 NEED MORE YORK INSPIRATION? CHECK OUT THIS VIDEO
- 8 WHAT WILL YOU CHOOSE TO DO IN YORK?
- 9 BOOKING RESOURCES
VENTURE UP NORTH’S TOP 5 THINGS TO DO IN YORK
- Walk the walls
- Cruise the River Ouse on a little red boat
- Explore Haunted York
- Take Afternoon Tea on a restored rail carriage
- Bring history to life in one of the many interactive museums
THINGS TO DO IN YORK
I’ve split this guide up into two sections. The first section highlights the best things to do in York that may have a cost attached to them, whilst the second part details 15 things to do in York that are all completely free!
You will most definitely find things to do in York to suit every budget. Have a read and let me know in the comments what you decide to do when you visit York!
Browse the many museums in York
York is a city with a pretty colourful past so it probably comes as no surprise that there are over 10 museums in York to choose from. Choosing which ones to go to very much depends on what you’re interested in – you can learn about almost any historical era from the dinosaurs right through to present day!
There is an entrance fee to almost all of York’s museums so if you want to visit a few during your stay, it’s worth investing in The York Pass. Even the basic pass allows you free entrance into all museums, leaving you with more money to spend on coffee or cocktails afterwards!
I didn’t buy the York Pass when I went to York. Do I regret my decision? Read my honest thoughts on whether or not I think the York Pass is worth the money.
To make your decision a little easier, I’ve put together a handy summary of what you can expect to find in each of the museums in York.
- Jorvik Viking Centre – a full-on sensory experience of York during the Viking Age. Sit back and take a ride around a Viking Village, experiencing the sights, sounds and even the smells of a time gone by.
- The York Dungeon – delve into York’s gruesome past in this fully interactive experience. Not for the faint-hearted, this fun guided tour is sure to make you jump!
- York Castle Museum – a whistle-stop tour through hundreds of years of York’s history. My favourite part is exploring the Victorian street and meeting the local characters.
- York Army Museum – the regimental museum of The Royal Dragoon Guards and The Yorkshire Regiment, both of which have strong connections with York.
- Yorkshire Museum and Gardens – a vast collection including artefacts from the Jurassic Period, as well as Roman and Viking treasures. And if you’re looking for somewhere to relax, the Museum Gardens are free to enter and well worth a visit.
- Clifford’s Tower – originally built by William the Conqueror, this tower has a pretty gruesome history as well some of the best views over York and beyond.
- Barley Hall – hidden away until its discovery in the 1980s, this beautiful medieval townhouse was once home to a Lord Mayor of York. Decorated as it would have been in around 1483, visitors are invited to interact with objects to get a feel for life in medieval Britain.
- York’s Chocolate Story – York is known as the Chocolate City. Visit this museum to find out why and have a go at making your own chocolate lollipop!
- Richard III Experience – located in the Monk Bar within York’s city walls, you can learn all the gory details about Richard’s rule.
- Henry VII Experience – learn about the life and rule of the first Tudor King, all housed within Micklegate Bar, the magnificent gateway to the City of York.
- DIG – Have a go at being a real archaeologist and see what treasures you can unearth from one of the four excavation pits. A great one for the kids.
- National Railway Museum – I surprised myself by really enjoying this museum! You can read more about it in the ’12 Free Things to do in York’ section below.
- The Undercroft Museum – hidden beneath The York Minster, entrance to this museum is free with a ticket to the Minster. You can find more on this museum below.
- York Cold War Bunker – learn about a more modern side to York’s history. Used between the 1960s – 1990s the Cold War bunker was used to monitor fallout in the event of a nuclear attack.
Drive your own little red boat
Hire one of the self-drive little red boats and spend an hour cruising up and down the River Ouse at your own leisure. They’re so easy to steer and children will love having a go (under adult supervision of course!). Food and (non-alcoholic) drinks can be taken on board, making it a pleasant change from the traditional picnic in the park. And if the Two Hoots Ice-cream boat is moored up by Millennium bridge, you can pull your boat up alongside it and buy an ice-cream to enjoy on your travels!
There can be long queues for boats during peak seasons, so I would suggest booking your little red boat online in advance, allowing you to skip straight to the front!
Cruise on the River Ouse
If you’d rather someone else steer your boat down the river whilst you kick back and relax, there are a number of different cruising options to choose from. Decide between a basic sightseeing cruise with a live tour guide, treat yourself to a spot of lunch or afternoon tea, or enjoy a glass of wine onboard the floodlit evening cruise.
Marvel at York Minster
Built on the site of an old Roman Fortress, York Minster sits atop layers of history. And if you go on the tour (it’s free with your ticket so you may as well!), not only will you experience a whistle-stop tour through English history, but you’ll also learn some of the secrets of the building such as the story of the unfortunate candle maker who destroyed the cathedral roof, and why there are several headless statues.
If you don’t have a York Pass, it might seem a little pricey to get in the Minster, but I would argue that it’s well worth the money. Not only is your ticket valid for a year, but the price includes entrance to The Undercroft Museum where you can see a copy of the ‘Wicked Bible’, and a free guided tour (tours run Monday – Saturday between 1pm and 3pm). Tickets to the Cathedral Tower, offering amazing panoramic views across York, cost a little extra and can are only available on the day (weather dependant). Money made from ticket sales goes towards the upkeep of the Minster.
Take a Walking Tour
I like to do a walking tour in every city I visit no matter where I am in the world. I find it helps me orientate myself when I first arrive somewhere and it’s useful to get a good overview of the history of a place. It’s also the perfect opportunity to get some insider information from your local guide about the best places to eat and drink during your stay.
There are a number of walking tours in York that you can get involved in, including a Harry Potter themed tour! Or, if you fancy doing something a little different, you could check out a guided cycling tour of York instead.
For a guide to ALL the walking tours in York (including free options and spooky tours too!) check out my complete guide to walking tours in York.
Explore Haunted York
York is said to be one of the most haunted places in Britain and, with such an eclectic and often gruesome history, I can fully believe this to be true! If a traditional walking tour isn’t your thing, a ghost tour offers an alternative way to learn about the history of York and visit some of the main sights, all whilst giving them a slightly more sinister slant!
There are many different ghost tours available to choose from, but we opted for the Original Ghost Tour. Without trialling any of the others, I can’t actually vouch for whether the original really is the best, but it was without a doubt, entertaining, theatrical and just the right amount of spooky.
Make a Chocolate Lollipop
When visiting the chocolate city, it seems only fair that you should have a go at making your own chocolate, right? If you visit the Chocolate Museum, you can have a go at making your own chocolate lollipop there. However, if you fancy checking out an independent chocolate shop, specialising in delicious artisan chocolates (including gin flavoured chocolate!), check out the chocolate workshops hosted by York Cocoa House.
Mix your own magic potion
The Potion Cauldron, situated at 9 ¾ The Shambles, is a shop like no other. Remedies on offer, such as the Invisibility Potion and the Elixir of Love, are guaranteed to work…. IF you happen to be a wizard. But perhaps the best bit of the shop is the secret room. Buy any of the magical concoctions from the shop and you will be granted access to a special potion making room where you can spend time mixing up your own secret spell!
Eat, Drink and Be Merry!
If there is one thing for certain, York really is a foodie’s idea of heaven! York is packed with places to eat and drink to suit every budget, and it’s a known fact that York has over 365 pubs. Yes, that’s one for every day of the year and then some! Rest assured you’re not going to go hungry or thirsty during your stay.
Many of York’s pubs, cafes and restaurants are housed within buildings that have a story or two to tell. Some even have a resident ghost! It’s fun to try and stay away from the chains and hunt out the quirky, independent places that are unique to York. Check out my guide to the best independent cafes and coffee shops in York or perhaps treat yourself to a craft beer tour of Yorkshire.
Take Afternoon Tea aboard a restored rail carriage
In Yorkshire, mention afternoon tea and chances are it’s Betty’s Tea Rooms that springs to mind as the ‘go-to’ place. And whilst Betty’s do put on a lovely spread, whilst you’re in York, why not consider doing something a little bit different?
Within the National Rail Museum is a stunningly restored old fashioned rail carriage – The Countess of York. Step inside and enter a bygone era; a time when first-class rail travel meant silver teapots and restaurant style waiter service. Food is delicious and plentiful and the whole experience just feels a little bit special.
Top Tip: You will definitely need to book if you want to be sure of a table on The Countess of York. The carriage seats a maximum of just 28 people.
Take a day trip outside of York
There are many amazing places to visit within easy reach of York. Fancy checking out another city? Yorkshire based Leeds and Sheffield are definitely worthy of your time. Or if you’d rather spend some time in the fresh country air, brush off your hiking boots and take a trip to the Yorkshire Moors or even The Lake District!
Click below to find out which day trips from York you really shouldn’t miss!
Stay in a historical hotel
If walls could talk you’d probably never get any sleep in a York hotel! Thankfully, there’s plenty of places to get some rest after a busy day.
Put your head down for the night in a Grade II Listed former orphanage, a Roman bathhouse, the oldest inhabited house in York, or the place where the Judge who convicted Dick Turpin of horse stealing stayed in 1739. And that’s just for starters!
We stayed in The Judges Court Hotel. Click here to read an honest review.
15 FREE THINGS TO DO IN YORK
I’m always pleasantly surprised at just how many free things there are to do in York. It can be tempting to think that we have to pay for the best experiences, but that’s simply not always the case!
Even if you’re not on a strict budget, I highly recommend checking out these 15 free things to do in York. Look at it this way, the more money you save on activities, the more money you have to spend on delicious food and drink as you explore the city!
Walk the walls
The walls that surround York boast the title of the most complete medieval city walls in England. However, they actually date back much further than that. Beneath the medieval stonework are remains of walls dating back to the Roman period.
Other major cities in England, including London, removed their city walls as they were falling into disrepair and were no longer required to protect the city from intruders. However, in York, the decision to demolish the walls was met with immense opposition. As a result, what remained of the walls has been carefully preserved and restored so that we can still enjoy them to this day.
The walls are now a Grade I listed building and there’s around 3.5k of them to explore. They don’t circle the entire city but three large sections remain offering stunning views of the River Ouse and York Minster. We enjoyed the pleasant, easy walk and there’s plenty of places to hop on and off if you need a rest.
Explore the snickelways
One of my favourite things to do in York is to leave the main roads behind and dive into the little ancient alleyways to see where they might lead. Known as Snickelways, these tiny passageways and lanes are often difficult to find but look hard enough and you’ll soon discover that York is full of them.
Some snickelways provide shortcuts across the city, some lead to dead-end cul-de-sacs and some offer secret views of York landmarks such as the Minster. They’re great fun to explore and see a hidden side of York.
Visit the shambles in the early morning or late evening
Wow, just look at this street! Many of the buildings here date back to 1350 – 1475 so it’s little wonder they’re a bit on the wonky side.
The Shambles was once a street full of butchers’ shops. Walking down here in the 1300 – 1400s, you would likely have been met with a floor awash with blood from recent slaughterings and the stench of raw meat. You can still see the meat hooks outside some of the shops.
These days, a walk through the shambles is much more enjoyable. Rather than butchers shops, you’ll find jewellery shops, delicious fudge and quirky gifts. This little street was also the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series, so it’ll come as no surprise that there are now not one, not two, but three Harry Potter shops in residence here.
Being one of the best preserved medieval streets in the world, you can probably imagine how busy it gets. My advice? Get there early morning or late evening if you want to appreciate The Shambles in all its wonky glory before the rest of the tourists start to pour in.
Take a free walking tour
Like I mentioned above, a walking tour is one of my favourite things to do when I visit a new city. There are usually a mixture of free and paid walking tours on offer (see above for paid options). If you’re on a budget, a free walking tour can be a great option.
That being said, many of the guides who run these free walking tours are volunteers whose only payment for giving up their time is the donation that you provide at the end of the tour (top tip – always make sure you have some cash on you for the donation!). The guides certainly know their stuff, but there’s often no guarantee as to how good their presentation style will be. I’ve been on some good tours and some not so good tours – it really is a bit of a gamble!
There are a few free walking tours in York that are worth a look:
Discover how chocolate is made
Did you know York was once known as The Chocolate City? Some of the big players in the chocolate world (Terry’s, Rowntree, Cravens, Lazenby) once had their factories in York and most York families had a relative who worked in the chocolate industry.
It seems only right then that any chocolate loving visitor to York should indulge themselves and discover how their favourite treat is made.
The official York Chocolate Story can be found on Kings Square, but whilst this promises a 90 minute fully guided tour, it’s certainly not free at £12.95 for an adult ticket.
Instead, visit York Cocoa House. This independent chocolate emporium has been making delicious chocolate on its premises since 2011 and the story of how they make their tasty treats can be found on display around the shop. The working machines are fully visible from inside and the friendly staff will gladly give you an explanation of the chocolate making process. There are even some free samples on offer too!
Enjoy views of York from the top of Clifford’s Tower
Clifford’s Tower is almost all that remains of York Castle, built by William the Conqueror between 1068 – 69. Whilst you have to pay to get into the tower itself (£5.70 for an adult) you can climb the steps for free and enjoy views over parts of York.
Go trainspotting at the National Railway Museum
I’ve got to admit, this is not a museum I thought I would enjoy, but it’s actually great fun!
The large hall houses many actual life-size trains, both old and modern, and it’s pretty impressive to see them up close. Turns out the history of some of these trains is quite interesting and it’s easy to spend a good hour or more in here exploring a Japanese Bullet Train or a Mallard, and having a peek inside the Royal Carriages.
There’s lots more to do in this museum, although some of the experiences such as the steam train ride and the Mallard simulation experience do incur a small cost. It’s completely free to roam around the main exhibitions however and well worth a visit!
Website: National Railway Museum
Wander the streets of York
If there’s one thing you do have to do during your visit to York, it’s simply to wander the streets with no particular agenda and enjoy the beauty of this stunning city.
Don’t forget to look up or you’ll miss some of the best quirky little features such as the Stonegate Devil. Legend suggests that every printshop was haunted by a type of demon and this little guy can be found perched above the corner of number 33 Stonegate, an old print shop. Just don’t look into his eyes – it’s said to be bad luck!
Follow the York Cat Trail
Another great way to explore the city is to take the York Cat Trail. Starting at York Glass in The Shambles, you can collect a map of the trail from inside the shop or download one here.
Cat statues have been placed on top of buildings in York for around 2 centuries, although it is thought that there were older statues dating back to medieval times that have since rotted or been removed.
It’s believed that the statues were originally placed there to frighten off disease carrying vermin, but there’s also the more superstitious version that the presence of cats helped to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck to the people of the city.
Whatever the reason, it’s a fun way to find your way around the city, taking in some of the historic buildings, parks and pubs along the way!
Browse the independent shops
Of course, this is only free if you can refrain from buying something!
My favourite places for some good independent shops include Blake Street (The Imaginarium and The Yorkshire Soap Company are worth a look) and Fossgate (home of Lucius Books and Fossgate Books).
Gaze at the night sky at the University of York’s Astrocampus
Open to the public once a fortnight from October until March, events are suitable for people of all ages. Although it’s free, booking is essential via the Astrocampus website.
Each event offers a tour of the observatories and the chance to view the night sky using telescopes and binoculars. It’s a fully interactive, educational and fun experience. Sadly, we visited at the wrong time of year for this, but it’s definitely on my wish list for when we return.
Attend a festival
From the York Ice Trail and Jorvik Viking Festival to The Fossgate Festival and York’s Festival of Ideas, there really are an eclectic range of festivals, street parties and events taking place in York, many of which are free!
Relax in York’s Parks
Let’s face it, sightseeing can be exhausting! If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for a while, why not take a picnic and escape into one of York’s beautiful green spaces.
You’ve got the choice of Museum Gardens, Dean’s Park and Rowntree Park within easy reach of the city centre. Each park offers something different but all are equally perfect for catching a bit of respite after days packed full of sightseeing.
Visit York’s Christmas Markets
York Christmas markets are usually open between mid-November until just before Christmas Day. They’re free to enter and roam around, but if you’re anything like me, it’ll be difficult for you to resist buying a cup of mulled wine to warm your hands! Browse the quirky handmade goods on offer, grab a bite to eat and use the opportunity to pick up some unique Christmas gifts and stocking fillers for family and friends.
Take a walk along the river
Take some time out and go for a walk along the River Ouse. This is a nice easy stroll that’s perfect if you just want to stretch your legs and get out of the city centre without straying too far.
THINGS TO DO IN YORK WITH KIDS
There are plenty of things to do in York for people of all ages, and children are no exception! As well as many of the museums being very hands on, ensuring a fully immersive and fun learning experience, York is brimming with Harry Potter-esque magic, beautiful parks, adventure playgrounds and incredible cake shops. For more inspiration on how to keep the children entertained, read Things To Do in York With Kids – A Guide to York Family Attractions.
YORK ITINERARY – PLAN YOUR TRIP
Wondering how on earth you’re ever going to pack everything in on your trip to York? Let me help!
WHERE TO STAY IN YORK
There are plenty of places to stay in York to suit every budget and taste. My top tip would be to book in advance if you want the pick of the accommodation options as places get full, particularly on weekends. I’ve put together a guide to my favourite quirky stays in York and you can check out some other accommodation options here and here.
NEED MORE YORK INSPIRATION? CHECK OUT THIS VIDEO
WHAT WILL YOU CHOOSE TO DO IN YORK?
I’m certain you’ll love York as much as I do. It really is such a unique city – I’ve never been anywhere quite like it!
What are your favourite things to do in York? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear from you!
- WHERE TO STAY: Compare prices on booking.com, hotels.com and expedia.com to find the cheapest hotel deals. For cottages and other accommodation, we use holidaycottages.co.uk. Don’t forget to check the reviews on TripAdvisor before booking!
- WHAT TO BOOK: we use Viator and GetYourGuide. Between them they have a HUGE selection of fun activities!
- HOW TO TRAVEL: we use thetrainline.com for all rail travel. For car rentals, check out travelsupermarket.com and for stress free parking use JustPark to book your space before you arrive!
- WHAT TO READ: The Rough Guide to Yorkshire. I take my Kindle with me everywhere I go – no more bulky books taking up space in my luggage! Try Kindle Unlimited – you’ll never be stuck for anything to read again!