I’ve lived in the British Isles most of my life and Yorkshire has been my home for the last five years. Lucky for me, the beautiful City of York in North Yorkshire is not far away, so I visit often. I’ve used my local knowledge of ‘God’s Own Country’ here to help you make the most of a weekend in York.
What to Do on a Weekend in York
The best things about visiting the ancient City of York are that it’s compact, chock-full of history and perfect for exploring on foot. York is also very easy to reach by direct trains from London and Edinburgh, and it’s a real foodie destination.
The Best Way to Explore York
Many of York’s attractions are free; however, the best way to
Pro Tip: Your weekend is precious! Skip the lines and buy your York pass online or queue up and wait with the travelling hordes at the train station when you arrive.
Best Things to Do in York For Free
If you’re on a tight budget, there is plenty to do and see in York for free. Grab your sturdy walking shoes and a coat (always expect rain in Yorkshire!) before heading off to explore.
National Railway Museum
This is the biggest railway museum in the world. It’s packed with engines and railway memorabilia from the earliest days of train travel right up to the latest innovations.
Check out Stephenson’s Rocket, the world’s fastest steam locomotive (the Mallard) and the Japanese bullet train experience.
The National Railway Museum also holds the biggest and best collection of royal carriages in the world. Discover Queen Victoria’s lavish ‘palace on wheels’, King Edward VII’s smoking saloon and the oldest preserved railway carriage in Europe – Queen Adelaide’s sumptuous saloon. One even has a bath in it!
See how the focus of royal travel changed from luxury to protection in World War II, with the Blitz-era saloon built for King George VI.
Pro Tip: Check out the daily Royal Carriages Talk in the Station Hall (check on arrival for times).
How to get there: The National Railway Museum is moments from York station, and it’s well signposted from the city centre too (a 10-minute walk).
York City Walls
York’s enormous stone city walls date back two thousand years, to the time of the Vikings and Romans. Encircling the old city, the 3.4 km wall you see today is the longest city wall in England. If you’re travelling to York by train, you’ll see part of the old city walls the moment you step outside the train station.
Walking the walls is one of the best ways to get your bearings in York. About 2.5 million people walk the City walls every year. The complete circuit takes about two hours to complete, but it’s worth the effort for the fantastic views.
Pro Tip: There are plenty of points where you can join and leave the wall, so you don’t have to feel like you’ve spent half of your weekend in York hiking the city walls!
Most of the wall you see today is medieval (built in the 13th century), but there is a surviving stretch of the Roman fortress wall and the Roman Multangular Tower in the York Museum Gardens, is a must-see. Check out the four fortified gateways (known as ‘bars’), two smaller gateways, and one postern (a small gateway defended by a tower).
York City Walls are open daily from 8 am to dusk, but are closed in icy conditions, for safety reasons.
Pro Tip: Book a weekend in York in March/April to see the ramparts ablaze with swathes of daffodils.
How to Get There: There are 12 access points for the walls around the city. From the train station, cross the road, then turn right and follow the wall for two minutes to find the steps up to the wall.
Accessibility: Sadly, the walls are not suitable for wheelchair users due to the number of steps and the narrowness of the paths.
With narrow, cobbled lanes, snickelways (tiny passageways between buildings) and overhanging medieval houses, The Shambles is one of the best-preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe. It’s the perfect place to stroll and explore shops you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Originally a butchers’ street, the name of the street derives from the shables (wooden shelves) where butchers displayed their wares. Today, some properties still have old wooden shelves, as a reminder of the days when butchers sold freshly butchered meat from the open windows.
The street was deliberately made narrow, to keep fresh meat from spoiling in direct sunlight. In some points, the buildings are so close and overhanging, it looks like you could reach out and shake hands from the top floor with someone in the house across the street!
Pro Tip: The Shambles claims to be the inspiration for J. K. Rowling’s Diaggon Alley in the Harry Potter series and many shops sell Potter memorabilia. Make sure to check out The Shop That Must Not Be Named, where you can park your broomstick outside while buying a new wand!
Free Walking Tour of York
York has more than 80 local guides who run free walking tours, every day (except Christmas Day).
These free tours are the perfect way to find your way around, as they include York’s most important historical monuments. Learn about York’s Roman history with a visit to the Multangular Tower and Medieval history at the King’s Manor and St William’s College.
How to Get There: Tours start outside the York City Art Gallery in Exhibition Square at 10.15 am and 1.15 pm.
Pro Tip: These walking tours of York are completely free! The guides don’t even expect a tip; they just want you to enjoy your weekend in York!
St Mary’s Abbey
Once the wealthiest and most powerful abbey in the North of England, St Mary’s Abbey has links to two important events in English history. Victorious from the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William the Conqueror built the abbey to assert his power over the North of England. Centuries later, King Henry VIII turned the abbey into a palace for his visits to York.
Today, the only parts of the monastic abbey that remain are remnants of the walls of the nave and crossing of the abbey church, and the cloister.
York Cat Trail
If you love cats, you’ll enjoy the rather curious York Cat Trail. The first cats in the trail appeared in 1920 when Sir Stephen Aitcheson decorated one of his properties with two cat statues. Cats, however, have been used to decorate buildings in York for much longer.
Pro Fact: There are 22 cats in total to find on the York Cat Trail. Download the cat trail guide here for clues on where to find all of the cats.
How to Get There: The trail starts at the York Glass store (34 The Shambles).
Top York Attractions Included in the York Pass
As well as free entry to over 50 attractions in the city and beyond, the York Pass comes with a free guidebook and discount vouchers for city tours, restaurants and shops.
Explore more of Yorkshire with 16 Of The Best Day Trips From York, UK.
Here are my top picks for your weekend in York:
York Minster is the colossal magnesian limestone cathedral whose spires dominate the York skyline. When the 12 bells in the tower ring, the chimes carry across the whole city.
The biggest Gothic cathedral church in Northern Europe, York Minster was completed and consecrated in 1472, after over 200 years of construction work. The Minster’s site has been a sacred one for at least 2,000 years; Romans, Danes and Normans all worshipped here.
The Stained Glass at York Minster
Regardless of your religious beliefs, consider visiting The Minster to see the incredible Medieval stained glass. It’s one of the most remarkable collections in the world.
From the southern tower, look for the Rose Window which commemorates the end of the thirty-year War of the Roses in 1485. The Rose window was severely damaged in a fire in 1984 after a lightning strike destroyed the Minster’s South Transept; however, it is now fully restored.
Pause to admire the beautiful 15th century Great East Window, the biggest single expanse of medieval stained glass in the country. Twenty-three metres tall and the size of a tennis court, this window depicts the beginning and end scenes from the Biblical books of Genesis and Revelations. Incredibly, when World War Two broke out, the Great East window was among 80 windows removed from York Minster and safely stored elsewhere!
The Tower Trip
One of the highlights of a trip to York Minster is the Tower Trip. It’s a challenging climb up 275 uneven, narrow, spiralling medieval steps to the top of York Minster’s Central Tower, the highest point in York. It takes about ten minutes to ascend, so you’ll need to be fit; however, the view from the top is breath-taking.
One of the best parts of the tower trip is the half-way point! It’s where you can stop for a breather and get a close-up view of some of the Minster’s gargoyles, carvings and flying buttresses.
Pro Tip: The free tour included with the entry charge highlights features you might not notice otherwise. Learn the purpose of the gold dragon’s head high up in the nave, hear the history of the sculpted choir screen featuring 15 English Kings, from William I to Henry VI. Listen out for the chimes of medieval pikemen Gog & Magog just under the astronomical clock in the nave.
The York Pass includes admission to the Minster; without the pass, it’s £16, including the Tower Trip and the Crypt (Undercroft). Buy the York Pass here.
Pro Tip: Visit for full choral Evensong on Sundays and sit in the choir stalls (in the chancel) for a peaceful, musical treat. Evensong is usually at 5.15 pm (arrive early to secure a seat) and typically lasts for 40 minutes.
The York Chocolate Story
3-4 Kings Square, York YO1 7LD
While other cities in the North of England built their wealth on textiles after the 19th century Industrial Revolution, York became one of the leading centres of chocolate making in the UK.
The York Chocolate Story experience takes you on a fascinating and entertaining 60-minute journey through the history of chocolate in York. Learn about the thousands of workers the chocolate industry employed, and how they were well treated, at a time when workers’ rights were slim to non-existent.
There’s plenty of chocolate to try along the way, and the guides and chocolatiers are very knowledgeable. The tour ends with a chance to make and decorate a chocolate lolly and to taste the delicious chocolates!
Admission to the York Chocolate Story without the York Pass is £12.95 per adult.
Pro Tip: When the guide offers you some of Montezuma’s chocolate drink to taste, be sure to take a tiny sip! It’s pretty vile!
Jorvik Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre brings to life what it was like to live in the 10th century Viking city of Jorvik. Walk over the place where the settlement was discovered to see real remains and replicas of the settlement through the glass floor.
Then, journey back in time to visit where the Vikings lived and worked, and experience the sounds and smells (!!) of the Viking Age. (Watch out for the Viking poo!)
Lastly, enjoy the exhibition of some of the most beautiful and rare Viking items in the world, including delicate earrings, knitted shoes and combs made from bone.
Admission to JORVIK is £11 if you don’t have a York Pass.
York Castle was one of the many built by William the Conqueror to stamp his mark on the region. Fire, wind and water destroyed the castle in the 14th century and Clifford’s Tower is all that remains. Over the years it’s been a prison and a royal mint. Despite being threatened by neglect and demolition, it stands proud as a monument to York’s turbulent history.
Pro Tip: The views from the top of Clifford’s Tower are among the best in the City. Climb to the top to see the Minster and the city, with its medieval churches and buildings. On a clear day, you can see across the North York Moors national park too.
Without the York Pass admission to Clifford’s Tower £4.20. Buy the York Pass here.
Merchant Adventurers’ Hall
The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall in York is an impressive half-timber medieval guildhall on the banks of the River Foss, moments from the Shambles. For more than 660 years it’s been the home for York’s entrepreneurs, men who risked or ‘adventured’ their own money in overseas trade, so they could bring back goods and wealth to the city of York.
There are three main areas in the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall. Firstly, the splendid Great Hall, where merchants met to conduct trade and to socialise. Next, the Undercroft was an almshouse to tend the sick and help the poor until as late as 1900. Lastly, the Chapel offered spiritual care to the merchants and the folks looked after in the almshouse. The Hall is still the base for the 160 members of the Company of Merchant Adventurers’ of the City of York.
Pro Tip: Don’t forget to see the Medieval ‘Evidence Chest’ which is even older than the Hall itself.
Admission to the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall is free with the York Pass; otherwise, it’s £6.50.
York is famed as the most haunted city in Europe, with well-documented reports of ghostly sightings, poltergeists and crying phantom children. I couldn’t wait to join a ghost walk to find out more.
The Ghost Trail of York
York has lots of choices when it comes to ghost tours, with tours starting from different points across the city. I chose the award-winning Ghost Trail of York, which runs every evening from the West Door of York Minster. In the dark and gloom of a winter evening, I was confident I’d be able to find my way there!
I was a little disappointed that the guide (Greg) wasn’t dressed up in Victorian or medieval costume like many other guides. However, what he lacked in dress, he made up for in knowledge and fabulous theatrical presentation.
The tour started on the steps of the Minster, with ghostly tales coming thick and fast right from the first minute. As we wound our way through creepy, narrow streets, Greg kept the large group very entertained, and it was a rewarding way to spend an hour out in York. I highly recommend taking a ghost trail tour as part of your trip to York.
The ticket to The Ghost Trail of York was just £4 for a 70-minute tour.
Where to Eat in York
York is a haven for foodies with a wide variety of eateries to enjoy. You will be spoiled for choice! Here are my recommended places to eat.
Simple, Delicious Street Food: Shambles Food Court
Shambles Market, Silver Street, York YO1 8RY
Tucked away inside the famous Shambles Market, the Shambles Food Court is the place to go for delicious street food every day of the week. Revel in the choice on offer from exotic North African and Levantine treats to tasty, freshly made French crepes and galettes, delicious Turkish wraps, wood-smoked pizza and so much more. You’ll find heaps of vegetarian and vegan options, so there is something here for everyone.
Afternoon Tea: Betty’s Tea Rooms
6-8 St Helen’s Square, York YO1 8QP
Betty’s is a Yorkshire institution! Steadfastly refusing to open anywhere outside of Yorkshire, Betty’s is THE place to go for a very splendid, very traditional afternoon tea. If you yearn for starched white linen tablecloths and silver service tea with finger sandwiches and delectable little cakes, it has to be Betty’s!
These tearooms have been delighting visitors since 1936. The elegant interiors inspired by the Queen Mary ocean liner are glorious, and the menu is both extensive and exquisite.
Betty’s was a favourite place haunt for servicemen from nearby bases in the Second World War. Don’t forget to check out the mirror next to the ladies loos to see their names inscribed on the mirror!
Pro Tip: Betty’s is always packed, with visitors queueing around the block to get a seat. Skip the lines and book your afternoon tea in advance.
Dinner: Lucia Wine Bar
13 Swinegate Court East, York YO1 8AJ
This family-owned restaurant serves Italian, Spanish and Mediterranean dishes with awesome cocktails and it’s always buzzing. The menu caters well for meat lovers and veggies, and there are vegan dishes too. While you can’t book, waiting in the lounge for a table, with a cocktail or two is no hardship.
We ate outside on the terrace where we were as warm as toast thanks to the patio heaters. We couldn’t fault the attentive service where nothing was too much.
I had very naughty, utterly delicious pork belly to start. For the main dish, I ordered fillets of a bass, served with gnocchi, cherry tomatoes, broccoli spears and a delightful lemon and green pesto dressing. Every bite was bursting with flavour.
Where to Stay in York
York has plenty of the bland chain hotels you’d expect in a city; however, it also has beautiful boutique hotels, offering real Yorkshire hospitality.
Pro Tip: York gets very busy at weekends, with some noisy drunkenness (it’s a haven for hen and stag parties). Pick one of the York hotels away from the Shambles if you want to get a sound night’s sleep!
Marmadukes Town House Hotel is a characterful boutique hotel with luxurious, individually styled rooms and fabulous deep baths. Perfect for sinking into to relax after a long day walking around York! A 10-minute stroll from the city centre, there’s free on-street parking from 4 pm to 10 am, or onsite parking at a bargain £7. My favourite room is the double deluxe Toile de Jouy room.
Check availability at Marmadukes Town House Hotel.
How to get to York
Getting to York by Air
The closest airports to York are Leeds Bradford (30 miles), Doncaster (45 miles), Teesside (47 miles) and Manchester (83 miles). Here’s how to get to York from the closest airports:
- Leeds Bradford: take a taxi to Horsforth station, then a direct train to York (60 minutes)
- Doncaster: take a taxi to Doncaster station, then the Newcastle bound train calling at York (22 minutes)
- Teesside: take a cab to Darlington, then the Southampton bound direct train to York (26 minutes)
- Manchester: regular, direct trains run to York, taking between two and two and a half hours (the views are beautiful).
Getting to York by Train
Getting to York from London takes about two hours by direct train and about two and a half hours from Edinburgh. Here’s where to get the best deals on train travel and here’s where you can discover the truth about train travel in the UK.
Getting to York by Coach
York has excellent connections to cities across the UK. Find route information and the best deals on Omio.
Pro Tip: Only drive to York as a last resort! Like many cities, York has congested traffic and limited, expensive parking in the city centre. Choose accommodation with allocated parking or take advantage of one of the six park and ride schemes around the city. Note though that you can’t use the park and ride services for overnight parking. If you’re planning a weekend in York, public transport is the best option.
Have we included your favourite places in York? Let us know in the comments if you’ve got more recommendations!
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