England is more than just London, and if you are visiting the country, exploring a bit further north can be really rewarding. Located about 3 hours from London by train, York is one of the most historic cities in England. It was founded by the ancient Romans, previously a Viking stronghold called Jorvik, and was home to the 15th century Plantagenet King Richard III, famous for his role in the Wars of the Roses. York has beautiful old buildings, including the 13th Century Cathedral, and city walls which are still in good condition which you can walk all the way around.
I spent a grey and rainy February weekend in York for my 30th birthday (which now feels all too long ago!). Here are my highlights from the trip, detailing how to spend two days in York. If you only have 1 day, I would prioritise 1 to 4 which fit nicely in to a day’s itinerary.
1. York City Walls
York has been protected by city walls in one form or another since Roman times. Very little of the original Roman walls remain, but you can still walk round the later dated walls. The walls are punctuated by four main towers, or ‘bars’, which were defensive and also restricted traffic in medieval times!
Within the Bars are some interesting museums – for example in Monk Bar is the Richard III experience, which talks about the life of the last King of the Plantagenet line. The Henry VII Experience is then inside Micklegate Bar, and tells the story of Henry’s life. For those who don’t know about the Wars of the Roses, these 2 Kings fought from the Crown of England in the 1400s, with Henry ultimately victorious following the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.
Walking the walls, including visiting the Museums takes about 3-4 hours, and so makes for a lovely way to spend your first half day in York.
2. Yorkshire Museum incl. Merchant’s House & St Mary’s Abbey
The Yorkshire Museum has five permanent collections, covering biology, geology, archaeology and the city’s Roman history. It’s also situated in a park which houses the lovely Merchant’s Hall building, as well as St Mary’s Abbey – a grade I listed Benedictine Monastery. This area is well worth spending 2 hours visiting.
Inside the museum, learning about Roman York
3. York Minster
An amazing Cathedral, and one of the largest of its kind in Northern Europe. The church was built in the 7th Century, and developed in the Gothic style in the 1200s. A large part of the Minster was destroyed in a fire in the 1980s, and it was repaired in at a cost of over £2m to it’s current state.
4. The Shambles
This pretty street is a must for anyone who wants some nice Insta shots. We headed to this area for dinner as there are lots of restaurants near by. The street has lots of overhanging timber buildings – some even date as far back as the 14th Century!
5. Clifford’s Tower
The first motte and bailey castle was built in 1068 on the site following on from the Norman conquest of York. The Castle was destroyed by the Vikings in 1069 and was then rebuilt including a moat.
In 1190, 150 local Jews were killed in the Castle keep. Most of them committed suicide to avoid being lynched by the mob who had locked them in there. Henry III then rebuilt the castle in the 13th Century, and during the wars with Scotland in the 1300s, it was a strategic and important military base.
In the 15th and 16th Centuries, the castle was used as a jail and fell in to disrepair, but during the English Civil War the castle was repaired and used by the Royalists. Again in the 18th and 19th centuries, the castle became a jail – eventually demolished in 1935 and turned in to a tourist site. I spent 1 hour at the Tower.
Clifford’s Tower and view from the top
6. York Castle Museum
This Museum tells the story of York Castle through all of its stages of history. It also talks through the history of York itself, and includes a full replica of a Victorian street where you can visit a Victorian school, sweet shop and even prison! It also includes the York Castle Prison where you can learn about the stories of York’s prisoners over the years. It’s great for kids as well, and is worth a couple of hours for a visit.
Inside the museum
7. York Dungeons
The York Dungeons are an interactive experience which tell the story of the city’s history through its macabre stories using live actors and special effects. The experience lasts about 1.5 hours (and the queues get long, so book in advance), and tells the stories of everything from The Plague to the Wars of the Roses to Guy Fawkes.
8. Betty’s Tea Rooms
Betty’s Tea Room was established in the 1960s and serves amazing cakes, pastries and treats. It’s a family owned, Yorkshire business and I really recommend having the English tradition of Afternoon Tea at Betty’s – definitely one of the best I’ve ever had. It was delicious!
9. Jorvik Viking Centre
This centre tells the story of York when it was a Viking city known as Jorvik. The Museum is really interactive and kid focused, rather than educational boards or anything like that. You sit on a ride and it takes you through lots of recreated Viking streets including the smells of the time! Again I recommend booking in advance as the queues outside get long.
York has some great shopping streets so it’s well worth setting aside a bit of money and then treating yourself. The main centre is near the Jorvik Viking Centre and includes everything from main high street shops to unique boutiques.
And that bring a close to a weekend in York. York is a great long weekend destination in the UK (fingers crossed you will be luckier with the weather than us!) and well worth a visit. Hopefully this post will be helpful in planning your trip – stay safe and happy travelling!