Best things to do and how to spend a weekend in York. If you’re planning to spend some time in York, England, check out my recommendations on how to make the most of a weekend in York, including using the York Pass, where to stay, what to eat and the best free attractions in York!
Table of Contents
- 1 How to spend a weekend in York
- 2 Free Attractions in York
- 3 Top York Attractions with York Pass
- 4 Ghost Tours
- 5 York City of Festivals
- 6 Where to Eat in York
- 7 Where to stay in York
- 8 How to get to York
- 9 Like this post? Pin and save for later
How to spend a weekend in York
I’ve lived in the UK most of my life, mostly in London, and during this time I’d heard repeat recommendations to visit York and how beautiful a city it is. So I added it to my list. But life and other plans always managed to get in the way – opportunities to visit other parts of the UK and abroad. So it wasn’t until recently that I finally managed to fit a weekend in York and I can’t believe it’s taken me over 20 years to finally discover why so many people love it. And it so makes me wish I had visited earlier!
So to help you avoid making the same mistake I made waiting to go for so long, here is a guide of how to make the most of a weekend in York, so you can get planning your York adventure right now.
Free Attractions in York
One of the best-preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe, the Shambles is the first thing that everyone visiting York should go and see. It’s my favourite part of the city and I’m pretty sure it will be yours too, so don’t delay and go straight there as soon as you arrive.
With its cobbled lane and overhanging medieval houses, the Shambles is a picture perfect street right in the heart of York. It used to be York’s butchers’ street, and even though none of the original shop fronts from medieval times have survived, you will still find some properties with exterior wooden shelves, reminders of when cuts of meat used to be sold from the open windows.
Fun Fact: The street was made narrow by design to keep the meat out of the direct sunlight, and it was so narrow at one point that you were able to shake hands from the highest window with someone in the house across the street! Also, the Shambles is said to be the inspiration for J. K. Rowling’s Diaggon Alley – although there’s another claim to that for a street in London.
Free Walking Tour of York by AVG
There are plenty of York walking tours, but this is a free walking tour with a difference, as it does not accept any sort of tips or payment at the end of it. It is run by the Association of Voluntary Guides (AVG) to the City of York, an association of more than 80 trained local guides who are passionate about their city, who want you to explore it and love it as much as they do.
This free walking tour of York will take you through the most important historic monuments in the city, spanning from Roman times featuring the Multangular Tower, to the Medieval period such as the King’s Manor and St William’s College.
These tours run every day of the year except for Christmas Day. Tours depart from outside York City Art Gallery at Exhibition Square at 10.15am and 1.15pm every day, with an additional tour at 6.15pm from 1stJune to 31stAugust.
Fun Fact: The Association of Voluntary Guides has been offering truly free walking tours of York since 1951!
Explore more of Yorkshire with Walking Holidays for Foodies
St Mary’s Abbey
St Mary’s Abbey was once the richest and most powerful abbey in the North of England and it’s highly significant from a historic point of view. It is linked to two of the most important events in English history – the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066, who ordered its construction to assert his power in the North, and the Reformation of the Church by Henry VIII, who turned it into a palace for his visits to York but it eventually fell into ruin.
Now all you can see is the remains of the walls of the nave and crossing of the abbey church, where the monks prayed, and also the cloister, where the monks washed their clothes and were allowed to speak.
Fun Fact: All the monks had a job within the abbey, and one of those jobs was to keep the other monks awake during mass by hitting them with a stick.
City Walls Walk
York’s old town is surrounded by 3.4 kms of medieval walls, the longest town walls in England. Built mostly in the 13thcentury, it incorporates the best surviving stretch of the Roman fortress wall and the Roman Multangular Tower, which can be found in the Museum Gardens. There are four main ‘bars’, or fortified gateways, two smaller gateways, and one postern (a very small gateway defended by a tower), as well as towers, and details like windows and arrow-slits amongst other features.
The best way to get your bearings in York is by walking around the famous medieval walls. You can circumnavigate the city as you enjoy some of the most stunning views. Walking the full length of the walls will take approximately two hours and offer the opportunity to see the main features. If you don’t want to finish the circuit or want to climb down to explore a nearby attraction that catches your eye, there are plenty of chances to do so.
The York City Walls are open daily from 8am to dusk.
Fun fact: Much of Bootham Bar was rebuilt during Victorian times, but it hides a little faux pas. Arrow-slits, which have the ultimate function of helping defend the town, were rebuilt facing the town, instead the outside. Oops!
National Railway Museum
Train travel is my absolute favourite mode of transport, and even though I don’t understand the engineering side of trains, I absolutely geeked out here. If you love train travel as much as I do, then this is an attraction that you must not missed.
The National Railway Museum is the largest railway museum in the world and it houses legend engines such as a replica of Stephenson’s Rocket, an early steam engine, the Mallard, which was the world’s fastest steam locomotive, and a Japanese bullet train.
Within its giant Station Hall, you will also find the world’s finest collection of royal carriages. And you can even treat yourself to a Yorkshire afternoon tea in the comfort of the Countess of York railway carriage, a Victorian-inspired ‘dining car’.
Fun fact: Make sure you visit ‘Laddie’, the railway collecting dog. Laddie is an Airedale Terrier who was born in 1948 and worked at Waterloo Station in London for seven years collecting money for the Southern Railway Servants Orphanage. Today he’s on display at the museum and he’s still working – all the money he collects now helps support the museum.
York Cat Trail
Lover of cats? You’re in luck! York has a Cat Trail! The history of the cats in York goes back to 1920, when Sir Stephen Aitcheson placed two cat statues on a building that he owned. Some say it was to scare rats and mice but it’s likely that it was just for decorative purposes. Others copied his idea so cats started appearing on buildings across the city. Then in the late 70s, an architect that drew a black cat as his signature decided to place them on buildings he designed with the help of a local sculptor. And this is how the York Cat Trail was born.
Pick up a leaflet at the York Glass store in the Shambles, and follow the trail spotting the lucky cats. This quirky self-guided York tour starts at the store itself and it’ll take you through the Shambles, Clifford’s Tower, the Museum Gardens and York Minster.
Fun fact: The first cat in the trail is somewhat ghostly. Don’t be afraid and see if you can spot it!
Top York Attractions with York Pass
Now you can visit York’s top attractions with York Pass, which can last 1, 2 and 3 days. In addition to free entry to over 35 attractions in the city and beyond, York Pass includes a free guidebook and plenty of discount vouchers for tours, restaurants and shops.
Here are my top picks:
York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. It took 250 years to be built and it was finally declared complete in the 15thcentury. The Minster counts the largest concentration of medieval stained glass in Britain, including the Great East Window, the largest single expanse of medieval stained glass in the country. The Great East Window spent the last 12 years under wraps going through restoration, but it has finally been unveiled in all its glory for everyone to admire. And it’s a thing of beauty!
Make sure you climb the 275 steps all the way to the top of the Central Tower, the highest point in York, to enjoy the view of the city and beyond. It’ll take your breath away… literally! Don’t forget to stop half way up to enjoy close up views of the pinnacles, gargoyles and carvings of the Minster.
Another highlight of the Minster is the Undercroft, where you can find the exhibits of historical artifacts, the ‘Revealing of York Minster’ exhibition, and the remains of the Roman Fortress and of Saxon and Norman York.
Admission without the York Pass is £16 (~ 21 USD), including access to the Central Tower. You can save £1 by booking online in advance.
Fun Fact: After an electrical storm that set fire to the Minster in the 80s, a British children’s TV show invited its audience to contribute designs for bosses (connecting medallions that join the ribs in a vaulted ceiling). So now the ceiling of the South Transept features Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. See if you can spot them – although you may need binoculars!
JORVIK Viking Centre
JORVIK was a real surprise to me. And a very pleasant one! I was really looking forward to learning all about Viking York, but some attractions with acting characters can be a bit overdramatised, so I was kind of preparing for disappointment. And how (happily) wrong I was! It was the best historical journey I’ve ever been on.
The JORVIK Viking Centre is a vision of York in the 10thcentury, built over what was the Viking city of Jorvik. The experience is divided in three parts, where the first one is an exploration of the Coppergate archeological dig that helped piece together the story of the Vikings of Jorvik. You walk around on glass panels over the area where the dig took place, and underneath you can see a mixture of real remains and replicas of the settlement.
The second part is a journey back in time on state-of-the-art capsules, from which you will experience what it was like living in the city, visiting the houses and workshops, and experiencing the sounds and smells of the Viking Age – not always that pleasant.
The third and last part consists of an exhibition of incredible artifacts that include some of the most beautiful and rare Viking items in the world, from delicate earrings and shoes to combs and padlocks.
Admission to JORVIK without the York Pass is £11 (~ 14 USD) plus an additional £2 if you want Fast Track.
Fun fact:Vikings were very big on hygiene and looking after their appearance. Despite that, they used to bury their rubbish and feces in their backyards. One of the curiosities displayed is a fossilised Viking poo!
Explore other UK destinations: NewcastleGateshead
This imposing tower is almost all that remains of York Castle, which was built by William the Conqueror to assert his power in the region. The castle was decimated by fire, wind and water – it sunk into the moat in the 1350s causing the walls to crack. It has been used as a prison and as a royal mint over the times, and after being threatened by neglect and demolition, it still stands proud as a monument to York’s turbulent past.
Climb to the top to enjoy some of the best views of the Minster and the city, with its medieval churches and buildings. You can even see as far as the North York Moors, one of the most spectacular national parks in the UK.
Admission to Clifford’s Tower without the York Pass is £4.20 (~5.50 USD).
(Not So) Fun Fact: Clifford’s Tower takes its name from one grisly incident in its history, when Roger de Clifford was executed for treason against Edward II and hanged in chains from the tower walls.
Merchant Adventurers’ Hall
The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall in York was for me perhaps the happiest discovery of my visit. The name for once makes me feel some affinity with it, so I added it to my list without hesitation. However, I hadn’t made it to it on the list when I was on my way to Clifford’s Tower and I saw an impressive yellow timber building that stopped me on my tracks. I walked over to find that it was the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall that I had included in my plans. Of course, I went in.
This timber-framed building is one of the finest medieval guildhalls in the world. It’s been home to York’s entrepreneurs for 660 years and it’s still being used for its original purpose. A Merchant Adventurer was someone who risked or ‘adventured’ his or her own money in overseas trade bringing back goods and wealth to York. Today, the Hall remains the everyday base for the 160 members of the Company of Merchant Adventurers’ of the City of York.
Admission to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall without the York Pass is £6.50 (8.50 USD).
York is known for being the most haunted city in Europe. Stories of ghost sights, poltergeists and permanently cold and damp patches, have given York this reputation. And who doesn’t love a good ghost story? York has plenty of them, so I went on a ghost tour to hear more.
The Ghost Hunt of York
There is plenty of choice when it comes to ghost tours in York, so I went with a friend’s recommendation for The Ghost Hunt of York.
The meeting point is at the Shambles at 7.30pm every evening. When I arrived, a large group was congregated at the top of the street, and everyone was facing towards the bottom of the Shambles, as if expecting something to happen. This is when I heard the bell and a deep loud voice calling all ‘ghost hunters’ to congregate. I turned around to see a man dressed in Victorian attire with a top hat, looking gaunt and ringing the bell. I thought it was a great start!
The guide took us through the old town to spots where ghosts had been seen, heard or felt, telling us the stories with a spooky level of details. The stories had the right balance of dark content and a bit of fun and entertainment that included audience participation and the odd practical joke. It was a great night out and something that should be included in everyone’s visit to York.
The ticket to The Ghost Hunt of York was £6 (~8 USD).
Here are other ghost hunts in York that you can join:
York City of Festivals
With an event for every month of the year, and with brand new festivals coming to the city all the time, York is known as the City of Festivals, so make sure you don’t miss out when you visit. From York Food and Drink, through JORVIK Viking Festival to York Christmas festivals, this exciting city has something for everyone. Make sure you check Visit York’s website to see what’s on during your visit.
Where to Eat in York
York is home to a whole host of eateries to enjoy throughout the day and in the evening, and one of the reasons I wish I had more time was because of this. There were so many places that I wanted to try! But there is only so much you can eat in a weekend in York, so with a few recommendations from friends and a few last minute decisions, here are my recommended places to eat.
Tea and cake at Betty’s Tea Rooms
6-8 St Helen’s Square, York YO1 8QP
Betty’s opened its doors in 1936 and is a bit of an institution in York, so this was a must visit, whether I was hungry or not. I was. I always am when I travel! With interiors inspired by the Queen Mary ocean liner, it exudes elegance, so it’s the perfect place for their famous afternoon tea. I did, however, just order tea and an incredibly delicious giant macaroon – I saw it on display and I just couldn’t resist.
Betty’s is also well known for its savoury menu, which is a fusion of English and Swiss cuisine.
Make sure you go and see the mirror next to the ladies bathroom downstairs. During the war Betty’s became a favourite place to hang out for the servicemen from nearby bases, who inscribed their name on to the mirror.
Street food at the Shambles Food Court
Shambles Market, 5 Silver Street, York YO1 8RY
Inside the historically famous Shambles Market, the Shambles Food Court offers delicious street food every day of the week and it’s the perfect spot for a lunchtime treat. From North African dishes to French galettes and Italian pizza and arancini, you will find food from all over the world. There are plenty of vegetarian and vegan options too, so there is something for everyone here.
We ended up going back to the Food Court twice as we wanted to try a couple of different things. I had an incredibly indulgent klobasa-style hot dog one day, and a delicious pineapple-infused pork burrito the next.
I loved the buzzing atmosphere here too, everyone was enjoying their food and company and there was always live music playing in the background.
Sunday Roast at the Bistro at Walmgate Ale House
25 Walmgate, York YO1 9TX
Being in York on a Sunday only means one thing when it comes to food – Sunday roast. We asked locally for a good Sunday roast place and we were recommended the award-winning Bistro at Walmgate Ale House. Housed within a 17thcentury listed building in the centre of York, there is a lot of history and it comes with a few ghost stories too!
I ordered a roast pork with a Yorkshire pudding, which normally only comes with beef, however they serve pudding with all the meats at the Bistro. It was absolutely delicious – the roast potatoes were nice and fluffy, the gravy was really tasty and the crackling was a real treat.
French fare at Cave du Cochon
19 Walmgate, York YO1 9TX
Finding this was a bit of a stroke of luck. We failed to book somewhere for dinner for Saturday night and everywhere we tried was fully booked. We were kind of resigned to grabbing a sandwich somewhere when we found Cave du Cochon on our way to the hotel. It was more a wine bar and a food-on-the-bar kind of place, but with the quality you would expect from a good French restaurant.
I had the confit guinea foul leg in game broth with roast spiced carrots in buttermilk. It was mouthwateringly good! The barman was a great talker too so he kept us entertained for the evening, and he introduced me to the most delicious dark rum I have ever tried. I even drank it neat!
Thai food at Khao San Road
50-52 Walmgate, York YO1 9TJ
We wanted something with a bit of spice that evening, so we picked Khao San Road as it was very close to our hotel. A small Thai restaurant located in Walmgate, it has a very cosy atmosphere, although the back section is a little bit more intimate. We enjoyed sitting by the window.
I was super excited to see that they had Kow Soi on the menu, a dish that I’ve only ever found in Northern Thailand and one of my Thai favourites, so I didn’t hesitate and ordered one. Kow Soi consists of egg noodles in a red curry broth with pickled mustard, red onion, boiled egg and crispy shallot. And I was so happy when it didn’t disappoint! It was just as I remembered it back in Thailand.
Where to stay in York
The Parisi Hotel
I stayed at The Parisi Hotel, a tiny boutique hotel with plenty of character right in York city centre. It only has 11 rooms, so it feels very intimate and the service is very personal. In fact, The Parisi is well known for its service and I can say it truly stood out in this regard. Run by two sisters, the hotel is set within a converted Victorian rectory which has been renovated in an eclectic English style with a mixture of modern, retro and antique elements.
For other accommodation options in York, check the best deals on Booking.com.
How to get to York
Getting to York by Train
York is on the East Coast mainline, and it takes less than two hours to get to York from London. Check the best deals on train travel on GoEuro.
Getting to York by Coach
There are lots of direct services to York from many UK cities. You can check routes and the best deals on GoEuro.
Getting to York by Air
The closest international airports to York are Leeds Bradford, Manchester and Doncaster. From Leeds Bradford, get a taxi to Horsforth, then a direct train to York, which takes one hour. From Manchester Airport there is a direct train to York.
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Disclosure: A big thank you to Visit York who hosted me on this trip. As always, all views are my own. This post may contain affiliate links, that earn me a small commission but come at no extra cost to you. Thanks as always for your support!