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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 :
- Visit York Minster Cathedral
- Walk York’s snickelways and walls
- Find hidden cats on the York cat trail
- Visit the Shambles
- Visit Clifford’s Tower/York Castle
- Visit Barley Hall
- Take a ghost tour
- Have afternoon tea at Betty’s
- Visit pubs
- Learn more about the history of chocolate in York (and eat some!)
- Visit the National Railway Museum
- Go Viking at Jorvik
- Visit the Yorkshire Museum
- Take a Cruise on the Ouse
At the end of the post is a long list of related resources that were in the sidebar of the original post before I pared it down a bit — but I left these in just in case they might be useful for someone.
This post or page may contain affiliate links. That means if you click on a link that is an affiliate link, and then make a subsequent purchase, I get a small commission, at no additional cost to you, which helps me support this website.
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
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.
Walk York’s Snickelways and Walls
When 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!
Find Hidden Cats on the York 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
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 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.)
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.
Have a Pint at a Pub
Even for someone like me, who isn’t a beer lover, it can be fun to visit old pubs. But, traveling solo, my focus wasn’t really on pubs. In fact, over a busy holiday weekend, it was hard to find a seat at many of them. York is a place I want to return to with my husband — this time focused more on food and drink (his thing).
While The Olde Starre Inn claims the title of the oldest licensed pub in York, with the Old White Swan possibly running a second, I didn’t visit either of them– I’ll put them on my list for next time.
Here are a few of the favorites that I did visit, or at least pass:
The House of the Trembling Madness
The trembling madness is an old name for delirium tremens (the “DTs”), and I knew I had to visit this pub when I heard the name. While I’m not a big fan of animal heads, I am a fan of funky, unusual places and rustic old spots.
The House of the Trembling Madness is in an old timber-framed building, downstairs is a beer shop, and the seating areas seem like a cozy place to sit and have a pint — but it’s not huge, and there was minimal seating available when I was there.
Next time I go to York, I’ll plan farther in advance so I can stay in one of the two Trembling Madness apartments, which were already booked for part of my time there. The Haunted Chamber looks more old-style charming than haunted to me, and the Old Gallery is decked out with retro 60s/70s kitsch.
The Golden Fleece
As I mentioned previously, the Golden Fleece claims (along with some other York pubs) the title of “most haunted” and boasts fifteen ghosts, so it’s a stop on all the ghost tours in York.
As with several of the pubs here, they offer lodging as well. Stay here and, perhaps, you’ll see the ghost of Lady Peckett.
The Kings Arms
The Kings Arms is a historic pub situated right by the river Ouse — and one of its claims to fame is being “the pub that floods” when the river rises. It’s also the meetup location for one of York’s ghost tours.
The Snickelway Inn
I’ll admit I like the Snickelway Inn for how they adopted the term “snickelway” even though, to my recollection, it wasn’t really on a snickelway,
This is another pub that claims to be one of the most haunted in York. This post describes one of the entities here as “a creature of great age and intelligence, surrounded by utter evil.” I like to think I was at the next table when they sensed this entity. It sounds like me on a bad day.
The Guy Fawkes Inn
The Roman Baths Inn
The Roman Baths Inn is included here both as a pub and on my things-to-do list. I wish I had actually eaten at the pub.
The reason I made a stop here was for what’s in the basement. Instead of going up the stairs to the pub, turn right and go down the stairs. Here you’ll find a desk and, possibly like I did, a lengthy private lecture on the history of the Roman baths if you pay the small entry fee.
When you think about Roman baths, you might think about the large tubs in Bath. Here the ruins don’t look that impressive (and I saw a few people peek their head in the door and leave) — until you think about how old they are and that they’re under a pub.
Learn More about York’s Chocolate History (and Eat Some!)
Just in case you were wondering, the York Peppermint Patty did not originate in York, UK, but in York, PA.
However, York has a long history of chocolate making, and you can learn more about it (and, of course, taste it) at York’s Chocolate Story.
Though the peppermint patty did not originate here, I found it interesting that one staple of confectionary goodness did: the Kit-Kat bar (though I’ve never seen so many varieties of Kit-Kat as I did in Japan.)
When I was there at the end of March, the York Chocolate Festival was even going on. However, York absorbed me in its history and architecture (and ghost walks) that I missed it.
Visit the National Railway Museum
I must confess that the picture here is not of the train museum, but of the North York Moors Railway, which turned out to be a long and wet adventure to Whitby on a frigid and blustery day.
So I didn’t visit the National Railway Museum, but people told me that I should have.
If you have an interest in trains, add this one to your list (it’s supposedly even enjoyable for those of us with no particular interest in trains.)
Go Viking at Jorvik
I live in a town that calls itself “Little Norway,” and, while we may have the descendants of Vikings, York (Viking name: Jorvik) had actual Vikings in their history in the 9th and 10th centuries.
Get tickets early for Jorvik Viking Centre. You can’t miss it — it’s the place with Vikings trying to keep the people in the long lines entertained. Is the wait worth it? That depends. For the kids, there’s an animatronic ride that shows how Vikings used to live. Having done Disney many times, I could do without another animatronic ride.
However, the display with a glass floor showing Viking artifacts on entry is impressive, and they have skeletons and other actual Viking artifacts, which may be worth the wait (and the ride) for a history buff.
Visit the Yorkshire Museum
By Anne-Lise Heinrichs on Flickr under Creative Commons 2.0 License, as I don’t have my own for this one.
Take a Cruise on the Ouse
York sits on the River Ouse (as well as the river Foss.) It was tempting to hire a boat to take a cruise on the river here (but I did take a river cruise much later in my trip on another river — the Seine.)
River Ouse cruises are offered on plenty of boats here.
There are, of course, many other things to do in York. But these items top the list.
I can’t recommend restaurants as I mostly lived on groceries and pub fare while I was in York. This post has some dining recommendations. My AirBNB host recommended Skosh, but they were not open on a day that I could go. My AirBNB was right above Partisan — and I can vouch that they have an excellent breakfast.
If you like trains, have time, and can either rent a car or have the patience to take the bus — which is what I did — you can get out of York and take a ride through the moors on the North York Moors Railway. The train route includes a station used for filming in the Harry Potter movies and ends in Whitby — which claims fame as both the place where Dracula washed ashore (you can see his “castle ruins” on the hillside) and as having the best fish and chips.
Whitby was precisely the kind of seaside town I would have loved except that the day was so cold, windy and blustery that Dracula himself would have rowed his coffin away had he landed that day. And I’m from Seattle and used to the rain.
But the fish and chips were good.