Founded over two thousand years ago by the Romans, York has a rich history and heritage for you to unpack. Many of its museums and monuments shine a light on the Viking and Victorian eras, while others relate instead to the Industrial Revolution, World War II and the Cold War.
Although surrounded by the picturesque moors of North Yorkshire, most of the things to do in York can be found in the attractive Old Town which is encircled by sturdy city walls. As well as being home to amazing medieval streets and townhouses, it encompasses countless shops and restaurants, plus many of the city’s main tourist attractions.
Of these, York Minster is undoubtedly the standout sight due to the Gothic cathedral’s striking size and splendor.
12. Castle Howard
Located half an hour’s drive to the northeast of York is Castle Howard which boasts some exquisite architecture. Set amidst picturesque grounds and gardens, the massive stately home has 145 rooms to explore, each more lavishly decorated than the last.
Now one of England’s finest country estates, the beautiful Baroque building took over a hundred years to complete with work having begun in 1701.
While it is still the private residence of the Howard family, visitors can take tours around its endless halls and ballrooms adorned with classical antiquities and artworks. Besides its extravagant, treasure-filled interior, the estate’s gigantic grounds are also worth wandering around for their landscaped lawns, lakes, and fountains.
11. Yorkshire Air Museum
One of the largest museums of its kind in the UK, the excellent Yorkshire Air Museum can be found just twenty minutes drive to the southeast of the city center. Once an RAF bomber base during the Second World War, its huge hangars now house over fifty vintage aircraft and vehicles, as well as interesting exhibitions on the history and evolution of aviation.
Founded in 1986, its collection has expanded considerably and now includes everything from replicas of pre-WWII planes and Cold War-era jets to big bombers, biplanes and interceptor aircraft.
In addition to its ground vehicles and memorabilia, the museum is also the only Allied Air Forces Memorial in Europe with fascinating exhibits looking at the flying French Squadrons that were based in Britain during the war.
10. St. Mary’s Abbey
Once one of the richest abbeys in the North of England, St. Mary’s used to rival York Minster in terms of its size and splendor. Nowadays, its extensive and impressive ruins are protected as part of the York Museum Gardens that lie just on the edge of the city center.
Founded in 1088, the abbey prospered for centuries until Henry VIII’s edict in 1536 that dissolved and disbanded monasteries, priories and convents. As their assets and income instead went to the crown, abbeys like St. Mary’s slowly fell into ruin and disrepair.
Visitors can now enjoy strolling about the lovely green gardens that are dotted within the crumbling walls and arches of what were once churches, chapels, and cloisters.
9. York Cold War Bunker
Just a short drive from the city center you can find the York Cold War Bunker which is unlike any of the other historic attractions in the area. Wonderfully well-preserved, it dates to 1961 and is the only Royal Observer Corps bunker of its kind that you can take tours around.
Once one of around thirty such sites in the UK, it was in this semi-subterranean two-storey bunker that members of the Corps and a scientific warning team would have sheltered in the event of a nuclear war. Behind its blast-proof doors, they could have survived for months, logging explosions and the radioactive fallout in Yorkshire. Thankfully, it was never used and tourists can instead take tours around the facility to see its living quarters and fully equipped operations room.
8. York Maze
A fun and family-friendly place, York Maze is not only the largest ‘maize maze’ in the UK but the whole of Europe too. Each year over a million individual maize plants are laid out in a different design, with various challenges and puzzles to complete as you navigate through the towering cornfields.
Sprawled over a huge area, the ‘Giant Maize Maze’ covers more than eight football pitches in total with past designs, including the Statue of Liberty and Jurassic Park. While this is certainly the site’s main attraction, the massive maze is only open for a few months each summer. There are, however, numerous activities on offer with corn-themed rides, crazy golf, and quad biking to enjoy alongside ‘Cobstacle’ courses and pig racing.
7. York Castle Museum
Offering a fascinating look into the everyday life of the English over the ages is the superb York Castle Museum. Built on the same site where the original York Castle once stood, the museum is in the south of the city center and has countless artifacts and exhibits to explore.
While the museum was founded in 1938, its colossal collection is housed in various buildings that used to serve as a prison. Besides wandering around its old cells, visitors can also check out perfect recreations of Edwardian and Victorian streets which are lined with era-appropriate shops.
As well as perusing its innumerable objects and exhibits, costumed re-enactors are also on-hand to shed a light on life in the city for everyday people over the centuries.
6. National Railway Museum
Located just a short stroll from the city center is the National Railway Museum, which tells the story of rail transport in Britain. Home to more than a million artifacts, as well as over a hundred shiny steam trains, locomotives, and wagonway vehicles, it is remarkably the world’s largest railway museum.
Established in 1975, the museum now occupies a series of gigantic railway sheds that were once the North York locomotive depot. While most of its trains and railway-related objects hail from Britain, locomotives from as far away as America, China, and Japan are also on show.
Even if you’re not at all interested in trains, the museum is well worth checking out for its extensive exhibits and engines that document the history of train travel and its impact on society.
5. Clifford’s Tower
Perched atop a grassy motte is Clifford’s Tower, which is one of the last remaining parts of York Castle. Originally built out of wood by the Normans, it was reinforced and rebuilt out of stone in the thirteenth century and the sturdy keep is now a popular tourist attraction in York.
Wrecked by a massive explosion in 1684, its hollow, gutted interior was later used as both a prison and treasury. Dotted about are informative panels that document its interesting and, at times, dark past. Besides learning about the history of the castle and the keep, visitors can venture upon the battlements to enjoy fine views out over the city, York Minster and the moors surrounding them.
4. Jorvik Viking Centre
An absolute must for anyone interested in history, the fantastic Jorvik Viking Centre sheds a light on what life was like in the city during Viking times. Located in the city center, the state-of-the-art museum has a reconstruction of a Viking settlement to explore and is built atop archaeological excavations.
Opened in 1984, the center is one of York’s most popular attractions as it does succeed in transporting you back over a thousand years into the past. This is because its life-size dioramas and moving mannequins are embellished by high-tech elements that replicate the sounds and smells of a Viking settlement.
Besides wandering around the wooden dwellings and workshops, visitors can see an astounding array of ancient artifacts and archaeological findings in its museum.
One of the most picturesque streets in the UK, the Shambles is lined by beautiful old Tudor-era buildings whose second-storeys overhang the cobblestones below. So named for the numerous butcher shops and meat markets that once bounded the route, the narrow road now boasts countless cozy cafes, unique boutiques, and restaurants.
Remarkably, many of the charming timber-framed buildings date to the fourteenth century with some shops still displaying meat-hooks outside. Besides taking photos of the attractive architecture and streetscape, you can stop off for a coffee, shop for souvenirs, and explore the daily Shambles Market. In addition, five ‘snickelways’ – small, winding alleys – snake their way from the Shambles with each having yet more tantalizing treasures to uncover.
2. York City Walls
Completely encircling the old town are the York City Walls which impressively stretch over 2 miles in length and are a treat to stroll along. While the city has been defended by walls since Roman times, most of the current fortifications date to between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries.
Counted among the best-preserved city walls in the UK and Europe, York’s sturdy stone defenses are punctuated at various points by barbicans, gates and towers, with the latter numbering 45 in total. Besides marveling at the architecture and engineering, visitors can learn about the history of the walls and the city through the informative displays that dot the battlements.
Additionally, the wall walking loop offers some incredible views over many of York’s main attractions.
1. York Minster
The undoubted highlight of any trip to the city, however, is the massive and majestic York Minster, which exhibits some exquisite architecture. The largest Gothic cathedral in all of northern Europe, it sports an ornately decorated facade and three tall towers that dominate the city’s skyline.
Completed in 1472 after several centuries of work, the beautiful building boasts the largest number of medieval stained glass windows in the world, with innumerable statues and sculptures also on show. Inside is just as alluring as its chapels and transepts are decorated with elegant arches and arresting artworks.
Not to be missed is the Undercroft Museum below the Minster that displays interactive exhibits and archaeological findings. It is also well worth heading to the top of the 72 meter-high central tower for breathtaking views across the Yorkshire countryside.