York is a fantastic city to visit on a budget – there are several free things to do in York city centre as well as budget friendly accommodation and eating options.
Plus, it is a small, compact city so you can easily visit the major York attractions on foot. You will not need a costly hire car, taxis or public transport.
Free Things to do in York
York city walls and bars (not the drinking kind)!
York’s impressive, medieval city walls are the longest city walls in England – a full circuit of the historic walls takes around two hours to walk.
The walls are a tranquil place offering visitors the chance to escape the bustle of York city centre. They also provide a glimpse into life in York today and in the past.
The city walls are free to enter and walk and can be accessed (or exited) by any of the four imposing medieval gateways which are called ‘bars’. These bars were once the main entrances to the city of York.
The bars are Monk Bar, Bootham Bar (the closest bar to York Minster), Walmgate Bar and Micklegate Bar.
If you travel to York by train, Micklegate Bar is the closest bar to York rail station.
Monk Bar is a short walk from York Minster along Goodramgate and is the largest and most ornate of the four historic bars.
The 14th century, four storey fortress still has it’s portcullis, the arrow slits used by medieval archers and the elevated murder holes which were used for dropping boiling water (among other nasty things) onto invaders below.
Behind a simple wooden door to the side of Monk Bar, a set of narrow, cramped steps bring you level with the city walls.
Monk Bar has a small, fee paying museum dedicated to Richard III, the last Plantagenet King.
The section of city walls from Monk Bar to Bootham Bar is the most scenic section of the medieval walls. This section passes behind York Minster, Dean’s Park and the Treasurer’s House.
Walmgate Bar is the most complete of the four medieval gateways as it is the only bar in York to retain its original barbican section. Part of Walmgate Bar dates back to the 12th century.
It is also the only bar to have a cafe so it is an ideal spot to take a break on your walking tour around York city walls.
York city walls are popular with York residents so it is not uncommon to see office workers or shoppers using the walls as a shortcut home or joggers attempting the full circuit.
Sections of the walls were restored in the Victorian era with the questionable addition of round towers and alcoves for seating.
Robin Hood’s Tower, between Monk Bar and Bootham Bar, is one such addition. The tower was constructed alongside the original medieval walls which were themselves built upon Roman era walls!
Unfortunately, York’s city walls can only be accessed by steps so they are not wheelchair user or pushchair friendly. There are also several steps along the wall path so watch your footing whilst admiring the views.
The walls are not fenced on the open side so keep young children close.
York city walls are one of the best things to do in York for free and are well worth the effort to walk.
Attend a service at York Minster
The Minster is free to enter if you are attending a service.
Please note however that the Minster will NOT be open before or after the service for sightseeing and you will not be permitted to walk around.
York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe and contains more stained glass than any other English cathedral.
The magnificent Great East Window is the largest expanse of stained glass anywhere in the world.
You cannot fully explore the cathedral if you attend a service but you will have the chance to hear the spine tingling Minster organ and incredible choir.
To fully explore this magnificent building you will need to return outside of service times and pay for entry. Once inside you can join one of the regular, free, one hour tours of the cathedral.
National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum (or NRM for short) is a favourite of York residents and is a fantastic free day out if you are visiting York with kids. It is the best free museum in York.
The enormous museum consists of two huge halls packed with shiny trains , engines and carriages, of every age, size and colour. I love the smell of wax in this museum!
For example, in The Great Hall section of the museum, there is a Eurostar nose cone under a section of the Channel Tunnel. You can board a Shinkansen carriage which is the only Bullet Train outside of Japan. The fastest steam engine in the world, Mallard, is here as is a working replica of Robert Stevenson’s famous engine, ‘The Rocket.’
There is an outdoor balcony so visitors can wave at the trains entering and departing York railway station or watch the engineers and restorers at work in the workshop.
There are free, daily science shows, a small playground and miniature railway on site.
This free attraction in York is a short, cobbled shopping street lined with tightly packed together medieval era buildings. Strolling along the medieval Shambles feels like stepping back in time and The Shambles was recently voted ‘Best Street in Britain.’
Some of the buildings are lopsided and many have overhanging first floors which make the narrow street feel dark and gloomy.
The Shambles is said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter movies which makes this unusual street popular with visiting fans.
The street is lined with independent shops and cafes (plus a few ‘wizarding’ shops) but in the medieval era, The Shambles was the site for the butchers shops in York.
Wandering down The Shambles today, you can still see the wooden ledges on the shop fronts where the meat would have been displayed with dangling metal hooks overhead that were used for hanging meat portions.
Clifford’s Tower is an iconic and incongruous York landmark sat on an artificial hill on the perimeter of a city centre car park!
The roofless, circular stone tower is the remains of Norman Keep which was built in the motte and bailey style.
There is a fee to enter the English Heritage owned tower, but visitors can climb the set of steep stone steps which lead to the open keep and are able to walk around the base.
Clifford’s Tower looks spectacular in Spring when it’s steep, grassy slopes are covered in bright yellow daffodils.
Stroll along the River Ouse
The River Ouse flows through York city centre and its paved, leafy riverbank is a popular meeting and exercise spot. There are several restaurants, pubs and cafes that provide lovely riverside views and outdoor seating.
A family friendly walk starts at The Kings Arms, known locally as ‘the pub that floods’. Turn left from the pub and walk with the river on your right along the shaded riverside path to the pedestrianised Millenium Bridge.
Cross over the bridge to return to York on the other side of the river, passing Rowntree’s Park on the way.
Soak up York city centre architecture – and hidden gems.
York’s pedestrianised city centre streets are an attractive blend of old and new buildings, though mostly old!
The historic streets that lead from the entrance ‘bars’ are called ‘gates’.
These ‘gates’ offer the best of York architecture.
Stroll the stone flags of charming Stonegate and admire the ornate architecture of buildings such as the Tudor frontage of the The Golden Balls pub or the elaborate designs of the 15th century building, ‘Mulberry Hall’ which is home to the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop.
Take a left turn into Coffee Yard snicket (alleyway) to see the exterior of the timber Barley Hall, a medieval era townhouse.
At the end of Stonegate lies St. Helen’s Square where you can drool at the window displays of Betty’s Tea Rooms, an iconic and much loved tea room or view the pink Mansion House, home to the Lord Mayor of York.
High Petergate starts at Bootham Bar and is a short street lined with black and white Tudor buildings, independent book shops and traditional pubs. Look out for Guy Fawkes Inn, the birthplace of the infamous plotter. The pretty beer garden of ‘The Lamb and Lion’ pub has a great view of York Minster.
Low Petergate features on many York postcards. The colourful fronts of the Georgian and Victorian buildings, plus eclipsed views of York Minster, create perfect photo opportunities.
Behind the shops and pubs of Goodramgate, the Holy Trinity Church is one of York’s hidden gems.
Pass through the eighteenth-century archway and cross a tiny, green courtyard to reach the historic 15th century church.
Holy Trinity Church is known for its beautiful stained glass windows and unusual box pews, the only box pews in the city of York. The church has gained recent notoriety as a filming location for the BBC series ‘Gentleman Jack.’
Goodramgate leads to Monk Bar.
Across the road from York’s shortest street, Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate, is Fossgate leading to Walmgate Bar.
Cobbled Fossgate is lined with independent shops, cafes and restaurants and is a lively venue after dark.
Look out for a doorway on the right side of Fossgate which leads to the Merchant Adventurers Hall. The grounds of this 660 year old timber building are free to enter though you have to pay to enter the hall.
The Merchant Adventurers Hall was built in 1357 by members of the Company of Merchant Adventurers. It was used to hold company meetings, for worship and to carry out charitable works for the poor citizens of York and is still used by the Company for these purposes today.
Explore York’s snickets
A labyrinthe of ‘snickets’ or alleyways criss-cross the city of York. These snickets – or snickelways – are used as shortcuts but many have their own character and charm.
Wander down Mad Alice Lane, through the allegedly haunted Lady Peckett’s Yard or squeeze down the narrow Pope’s Head Alley,which is just 790 mm wide.
Pick a snicket and see where you end up!
Enjoy a free walking tour of York
One of the best things to do in York for free is to join a walking tour.
York is a city made for wandering and a walking tour not only helps you navigate the city, it will allow you to discover the city’s stories and history.
The comprehensive tour from White Rose Tours lasts three hours and includes a break half way through the tour. Visitors are welcome to join the tour for as long or as little time as you like.
This tip based tour runs year round starting at 11 am from outside the west entrance of York Minster. There are more frequent tours during the summer months.
Alternatively, the Association of Voluntary Guides to the city of York offer free, no tip tours starting from Exhibition Square, in front of York Art Gallery (opposite Bootham Bar). The tours are led by knowledgeable local guides and run year round starting daily at 10.15 am and 1.15 pm.
The Museum Gardens is a beautiful landscaped park in York city centre and is home to the fee paying Yorkshire Museum. But the parks also offers options for anyone looking for free things to do in York.
Relax among the winding paths and flower beds watching boats and rowers on the River Ouse.
View the black and white medieval era building, The Hospitium, or explore the extensive 13th century remains of St Mary’s Abbey.
See another hidden gem of York, the 3rd century Multiangular Tower, which is one of York’s best preserved Roman remains. The tower is tucked away in a quiet corner of the gardens and is often missed by visitors and residents alike.
Time your visit to enter the oldest observatory in Yorkshire, a tiny 19th century Observatory located in the middle of the Museum Gardens.
As you explore the gardens, take part in the online, interactive ‘Squirrels Trail’ to discover the hidden treasures of this lovely park.
Visit one of York’s historic churches
In addition to Holy Trinity Church on Goodramgate, there are several other free to enter churches in York that are worthy of a visit.
The historic Holy Trinity Church on Micklegate was listed in the Domesday Book as one of five great northern churches.
The Monks of Micklegate exhibition shows visitors what life was like for the Benedictine monks who lived at Holy Trinity Priory. Visitors can also see the building’s cloisters, gardens and ponds.
All Saints Church, North Street
Another hidden gem of York, the unassuming All Saints Church on North Street, houses an outstanding collection of high quality stained glass dating from the 14th and 15th Century.
Some of the 13 impressive windows in this church contain rare and unusual images not usually found in stained glass windows.
Don’t forget to up at the ceiling as well as at the windows; the chancel ceiling is beautifully decorated.
St Margaret Clitherow
This tiny chapel on The Shambles is a shrine to York born saint, St Margaret Clitherow, who lived here with her husband in a butchers shop.
Margaret Clitherow was martyred in 1586 – a plaque on York’s Ouse Bridge marks the spot where she was killed.
The chapel does not look like a chapel from the outside and is easily missed. It is free to enter and is a peaceful spot in the middle of one of the most popular York attractions.
Mass is held here every Saturday at 10 am though the chapel can only hold around 30 people.
The Cat Trail
The free Cat Trail starts at The Cat Gallery on Low Petergate. The walking trail can be downloaded online before your visit or pick up a free copy from the gallery.
The one hour trail leads you around the major sights of York to spot 20 cat sculptures, sitting on rooftops or climbing walls. Some of the scultpures date back 100 years. I
The Cat Trail is a fun, free thing to in York and is ideal for visiting families whose kids may be reluctant walkers!
All these fantastic, free attractions in York – plus the abundance of budget friendly eating options and great budget accommodation – make the city of York a perfect destination for anyone visiting the U.K on a budget.