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14 Things to do in York, UK

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York is a charming medieval walled city filled with history -- but there's much to do here, as well, for the train lover, the chocolate lover, the ghost whisperer, or the pub crawler. Here are some of the best things to do in York, UK, along with a resource list.

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Things to Do in York , UK

When I first announced I was going to York, a friend asked, “Why York?” Why not York? York is a history and medieval architecture lover’s dream, very walkable, and very charming. Here are some of the top things to do in York during your visit.

14 Things to do in York :

  1. Visit York Minster Cathedral
  2. Walk York’s snickelways and walls
  3. Find hidden cats on the York cat trail
  4. Visit the Shambles
  5. Visit Clifford’s Tower/York Castle
  6. Visit Barley Hall
  7. Take a ghost tour
  8. Have afternoon tea at Betty’s
  9. Visit pubs
  10. Learn more about the history of chocolate in York (and eat some!)
  11. Visit the National Railway Museum
  12. Go Viking at Jorvik
  13. Visit the Yorkshire Museum
  14. Take a Cruise on the Ouse

Things to do In York

I have to admit that one of the things that attracted me to visiting York was that I’m a Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell fangirl. Susanna Clarke’s Hugo-award winning 2004 fantasy has stunning scenes in an early chapter set in York Minster Cathedral.

And, while York Minster tops my list of things to do in York, there’s plenty of other things to love about York whether you’re a train aficionado, a history buff, a chocolate lover, like some gin with your afternoon tea, or like to haunt pubs.
Here’s more about some of the best things to do in York, UK:

Visit York Minster Cathedral

York Minster Things to do in York

You cannot visit York without visiting its magnificent medieval cathedral. I suppose you could skip it…but why would you want to? York Minster has much to offer, whether you’re interested in its history, architecture, or religious iconography.
Its chapter house and kings’ screen, in particular, are my favorite parts of the cathedral. Read More Here

Walk York’s Snickelways and Walls

Things to do in York snickelway

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen I announced I was going to travel to York alone, one of my French classmates asked, “Pourquoi? Why York?” She had been to York and said it was nice but shrugged in a way that said “meh.” Her perplexity likely came from the fact that faced with some time to travel solo, and a world full of possibilities, my first stop was York.

“Beaucoup l’histoire…trés interessant…” my answer in broken French was a half-truth. Yes, York has “lots of history” and is very interesting, but if I had to sum up in one word what attracted me to York, it would be “snickelways.”

Snickelways are basically alleyways between buildings and, while they’re a shortcut for getting around for locals, finding them can be a fun way of seeing the city for visitors.

Perhaps York’s walls are its largest snickelways? York’s walls are some of the oldest medieval intact city walls, and you can walk on them!Read More Here

Find Hidden Cats on the York Cat Trail

Things to do in York lucky cat trail

The cat statues of York aren’t there just to be tourist attractions; there’s a long history behind them. The originals were intended to scare away mice and rats, according to the York Lucky Cat Trail website. The old medieval figures have long been removed, but there have been statues of cats on York buildings going on two centuries.

I learned about the cat trail through a brochure left in my AirBNB and was more interested in walking walls and snickelways than finding cats…but I’m a fan of things that get us to look UP — and I’m sure there are things I missed by not actively cat-hunting.

This would be a great activity to do with kids. Or cat-loving adults.

The cat trail starts at the Shambles at York Glass and leads you on a 22-cat-finding mission. You can get a pdf map by clicking here.

Visit the Shambles

things to do in York the shambles

The Shambles is one of the best-preserved medieval streets with overhanging timber-framed buildings…but among some (who shall not be named) its claim to fame is as the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter.
As I mentioned previously, there are now no fewer than THREE Harry Potter themed shops cashing in on that claim to fame on this little street. (And, again, no Learned Society of York Magicians — Jonathan Strange reference here — t-shirt to be found).
You can visit The Shop that Must Not Be Named, The World of Wizardry or The Boy Wizard for the usual assortment of wand holders, robes, and Hogsmeade sweets you can find at any other Harry Potter-themed store with, perhaps, a few more unique items thrown in.

Margaret Clitherow’s House

Amid the pubs, sweet shops, gift shops, and Harry Potter in the Shambles look for some history. The shrine of Margaret Clitherow (sorry about the blurry image) is here, where she used to live. Martyred for her Catholic faith (harboring priests), she was pressed to death on the Ouse bridge for sheltering priests. You can hear a bit more about the horrible aspects of her story in the ghost tour clip later in this post.

If you want to photograph the Shambles sans-crowds, the best time is early in the morning before the shops open.

Visit Clifford’s Tower/York Castle and the York Castle Museum

Clifford’s Tower now stands solo, the lonely remaining part of what was York Castle. It stands on the site of a former tower that burned (along with many Jewish people who had fled to the Tower during an anti-semitic riot) in an 1190 massacre. The present-day Tower was built 60 years later.

The Tower is worth a visit — you can buy tickets from English Heritage (click here to check opening times) at the door; I didn’t have any difficulty getting in. There were few visitors on a rainy afternoon, and I enjoyed the solitude and views from the top.

While you’re there, pay a visit to the York Castle Museum, which you can see from the Tower.

Before or after your trip to Clifford’s Tower (be sure to save time…it was closing by the time I tried to visit) take a trip to the York Castle Museum.  It’s housed inside an 18th-century prison and includes an exhibit on era prisons.

Visit Barley Hall

Barley Hall is a medieval era home, decorated as though residents at the time were living there. Exhibits vary — when I visited, they were displaying costumes from the  Wolf Hall   TV series.

Barley Hall is not large, and visiting doesn’t take long — visit if you enjoy visiting old timber-framed homes and learning more about how people in York lived in the past.

Take a Ghost Tour

Even if you don’t generally do ghost tours, you might want to do one while you’re in York. A few spots near where I live are popular spots to take ghost tours, but the ghosts (or at least the stories about them) are old.

Yorks ghost stories include things like spectral Roman soldiers walking through buried ruins, only their torsos now visible above ground — even if you don’t believe in spirits, the stories are fascinating and fun.

Many pubs in York seem to sport a “most haunted” sign in front. Which one is the most haunted? Most often, it’s said to be the Golden Fleece; at least it was featured in an episode of the show Most Haunted.

While you can register for some tours in advance (like the private ghost tours   or the ghost tours by vintage bus  ), you can just show up for most of the ghost tours in York. You’ll see men dressed in costume roaming the street, handing out leaflets and promoting their tour. However, it’s OK to just show up at the posted ghost tour plaque outside the King’s Arms pub right by the river at the designated time. It’s fun to tour with a lively group, but it can get crowded, especially on a busy weekend (see the video above — more about Margaret Clitherow.)

As an aside, there’s a Kindle book   about haunted locations in York and an English vlogger (Amy’s Crypt) who created a video of the haunted spots in York.

If you’re into ghosts, you might also be interested in visiting the York Dungeons   to get more in-depth on the darker history of York. I didn’t do this one, but it’s another one you might want to see if you’re into the “dark,” side of history.

Have Tea at Betty’s

Betty’s has been a tradition since the 1920s. Sipping tea and eating clotted cream and scones (and other, perhaps healthier, tea sandwiches) was a great way to spend a cold, rainy afternoon in York. Unfortunately, now I’ll always want my tea served with a raspberry gin cocktail.

While you can just drop into their shop or tearoom, I found that lines on a busy weekend were around the block. If you make reservations, you skip the lines and get to have afternoon tea in a quiet tea room with a pianist and plenty of time to enjoy your treats.

Betty’s original location is at St. Helen’s Square, but they are now also booking afternoon tea at their Harrogate location.