You could spend a week exploring York and enjoying all the attractions the city has to offer. We see what we can pack into two days.
A taste of York
With more than 2,000 years of history to be discovered within the city walls, beautiful York is a wonderful destination for a weekend. Full of interest, the compact city centre is easy to navigate on foot, with dozens of fascinating museums and exciting attractions. And with the train station just a few minutes away, it's easy to reach the city by public transport.
Here's our roundup of some of the best activities in York. For great value, the York Pass (see below) gives you free admission to most of the activities we feature here, and is recommended if you want to get the most out of the city in a weekend.
Walk the City Walls
The longest medieval town walls in England encircle the historic city centre. Walking along these remarkably preserved structures is a fantastic way to get your bearings – there are 3.4km of walls to walk around, giving great views of the city on every stretch.
To walk the entire length of the walls will take around two hours. For a shorter wall walk, the section between Bootham Bar and Monkgate Bar is perhaps the loveliest – giving spectacular views of the Minster, and a chance to peer down into some really gorgeous gardens.
As well as the walls, there are other wonderful walking opportunities in York – including along the rivers Ouse and Foss. Or just wander through the twisting, narrow lanes and snickleways (tiny alleyways) – including the world famous Shambles, one of the best-preserved medieval streets in the world – and marvel at the historic timber buildings, with their crooked beams, leaded windows and overhanging upper floors.
Above: photo opportunities along the city walls; the view of the Minster from the walls
For another spectacular view over the city, visit Clifford's Tower: built by William the Conqueror, the prominent landmark is almost all that remains of York Castle.
It's a steep climb up to the entrance – and another steep climb up a spiral staircase once you're inside – but your efforts will be rewarded with panoramic views. You can walk right around the circumference walls at the top of the tower, allowing a birds-eye view across historic streets, and to the Minster.
Above: the Shambles; Clifford's Tower; York Minster from Petergate
York Minster dominates the city skyline from every direction. Having admired the Minster from the city walls and Clifford's Tower, it's time to take a look inside. York Minster is the largest medieval Gothic Cathedral in northern Europe, and the interior is magnificent.
The Minster is particularly famous for its spectacular stained glass windows. Don't miss the Great West Window – also known as the 'Heart of Yorkshire', due to its shape – and the Rose Window, which casts a rainbow of colours onto the floor on sunny days.
There's a fascinating museum housed in the Undercroft, where you can find out more about the Minster's history, and view some priceless artefacts – including a 1,000-year-old carved elephant tusk, a gift from a Viking lord.
You can also climb the 275 steps of the central tower for fantastic views across the city.
York's Chocolate Story
If you love chocolate (and who doesn't?) don't miss this superb attraction. York is home to some iconic chocolate brands – including Kit Kat and Chocolate Orange – and is considered by many as the 'chocolate capital' of the world.
The story of the city's chocolate heritage is presented in an exciting and innovative way at York's Chocolate Story – an interactive experience in which you'll learn all about how chocolate arrived in this part of Britain. In the late nineteenth century three families – the Rowntrees, Terrys and Cravens – began to create confectionary that went on to become world-famous. Rowntree's were also one of the first companies in the country to introduce rights for their workers – including good, safe working conditions, paid holidays, pensions and (ironically) free dental care.
During the tour, find out how factory workers were allowed to eat as much chocolate as they liked; how Smarties used to be polished by hand; and how the Terry's Chocolate Orange started life as the somewhat less successful Chocolate Apple.
Throughout the experience there are opportunities to sample different types of chocolate – from the cold, chilli-infused, liquid chocolate drunk by the ancient Mayans to brightly-wrapped Quality Street.
At the end of the tour there's a chocolate-making demonstration (with more samples of delicious, freshly made chocolates) and the chance to make and decorate your own chocolate lolly.
If you're not too sugared-up afterwards, don't miss the shop and café on the way out. The chocolates on sale here are made daily on site and include a mouth-watering and unusual selection of flavours. And the hot chocolate in the café – available in white, milk and dark, with a choice of added flavours and toppings – is the best we've ever tasted!
Another must-see attraction in the city is the Jorvik Viking Centre. The museum can be found on Coppergate, where between 1976 and 1981 archaeological digs revealed an astonishing wealth of finds including bones, pottery and traces of Viking-age timber buildings.
These finds provided evidence that has given us an accurate insight into how people of the time lived: what they ate, how they farmed and traded and how they built their homes.
At Jorvik, you can journey back in time to the year 960. The ride takes you through a reconstructed Viking village – complete with spookily realistic life-sized models that move, and realistic smells of wood smoke and bacon!
After the ride, the fascinating gallery showcases a selection of the artefacts found at Coppergate. Don't miss the near-complete skeleton of a woman – so well-preserved that archaeologists were able to determine her age (45 years old), social rank and state of health at the time of her death.
Other remarkable finds include the only Viking sock, made of undyed wool, found in England; an impressive reconstruction of a huge urn, with a pattern created by the potter's thumb prints; and an array of various glass beads, antler combs and fragments of gold.
York Castle Museum
York Castle Museum is housed in what was once the city's prison – an imposing Georgian building sitting in the shadow of Clifford's Tower.
This is a museum of two halves: the Female Prison and the Debtors' Prison.
The Female Prison wing takes you back in time, exploring the fashions, food and toys of different eras. Try dressing up as a Victorian lady, in a lace dress, complete with bustle. You can also find out more about York's chocolate heritage, gaze into the living room of a Georgian family – one of several period rooms from the last 400 years – and rediscover some of the treasured toys from your childhood.
Not to be missed is Kirkgate – a reconstruction of a Victorian cobbled street, complete with light, sound and smell effects, a horse and carriage, and back streets strung with washing. Visit the schoolroom to find out what life was like for schoolchildren in the nineteenth century, and the police station to sit inside a very grim prison cell.
In Kirkgate there are lots of shops that you can wander into – all based on real York businesses that operated in the city between 1870 and 1901. And in G E Barton's sweet shop you can even buy real Victorian-style sweets, such as apple drops, peppermint twists and sugar mice.
In the Debtors' Prison side of the museum, there's a chance to explore the bare, stone cells of the original prison. In each cell, the stories of some of the most infamous prisoners – Dick Turpin was perhaps the most famous – are brought to life in an innovative and surprising way!
Bus and boat
Two great tours that you should take while in York are the open-air bus and the YorkBoat City Cruise. Both tours are included on the York Pass – and are great ways to continue to explore the city when legs get too weary to walk.
The hour-long Hop on Hop off bus tour with York City Sightseeing gives you the chance to see all the major attractions – such as the city walls and gateways, the Shambles, the racecourse and of course the Minster – from the comfort of the top deck of an open-air bus. The interesting and informative commentary is an added bonus. On a sunny day this is a wonderful way to spend an hour. Or use the tour as an easy way to get from one point to another within the city.
The YorkBoat City Cruise lasts 60 minutes and takes you on a relaxing journey along the River Ouse to see York from a different perspective, and head under some of the city's historic bridges – from Clifton Bridge in the North to the striking architecture of the Millennium Bridge in the south. There's a good value bar onboard, selling hot and cold drinks and snacks.
York is reputed to be Europe's most haunted city – perhaps hardly surprising given the amount of history contained within the city walls. From Roman soldiers marching knee-high through a cellar floor to a tear-streaked child's face at a window, stories of ghost-sightings are common.
The best way to hear some of these stories is to join a guided tour – Visit York has a list of recommended ghost walks and experiences. Some of the more gruesome tales are not for the fainted-hearted – and all the stories are guaranteed to send a shiver down your spine.
Afterwards, you may need to visit one of York's many splendid pubs for a drink to steady your nerves. But bear in mind that both the Black Swan and the Golden Fleece are said to be haunted!
York is just two hours by train from London King's Cross. This is a great way to reach York as the station is just a short walk from the city centre, and the city itself is easy to navigate by foot – so no need to worry about parking spaces and parking charges.
Where to stay
Park Inn by Radisson York City Centre is in a fantastic location overlooking the river, and just five minutes walk from both the railway station and Jorvik. It's been awarded a Green Tourism Silver Award for its excellent green values, so is an eco-friendly option. Guest rooms are bright and modern – and some have sensational river views. The rooms feature unique 'mood' lighting around the beds, with a rainbow of colours to choose from – and the beds are extremely comfortable. A great value buffet breakfast is served in the riverside restaurant, featuring hot bacon, sausages and eggs alongside unusual vegetarian alternatives, such as fried sweet potato and vegetables. Great coffee is served too, as well as a range of cereals, fruits and pastries.
Where to eat
El Piano is a vegan restaurant on Grape Lane in the heart of historic York. Each dish is graded to show how far the ingredients have travelled, with many sourced from within 30 miles. The lunch menu is superb value, with main courses starting at £5.50. Try the Build Your Own Plate option and choose from a range of hot dishes and salads – the eggless Spanish omelette with tomato and red onion salsa is superb!
The York Pass costs from £38 and offers free admission to over 30 of York's top attractions, as well as discounts in shops, restaurants and cafés across the city. A two-day pass represents excellent value (costing just £10 more than the one-day pass) and gives you time to enjoy all the attractions described above (there's an additional charge for the ghost walk).
To buy a York Pass, and for more great ideas on what to see and do in York, see the Visit York website at www.visityork.org. You can also follow Visit York on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram: @visityork.
Green Adventures July 2017