York is packed with historic and cultural attractions that reflect its rich heritage.
Visitors flock to York Minster, the city walls, Clifford’s Tower, the picture perfect Shambles and well known museums such as Jorvik Viking Centre.
But behind these popular, busy York attractions are a number of lesser known – and less visited – things to do in York.
So what are the best hidden gems in York?
Hidden Gems in York
The Roman Baths
You could walk past the Roman Baths, found in the centre of York, without even knowing they are there.
That’s because the ancient baths are located in the basement of a working pub – not many cities can claim to have 2,000 year old Roman ruins housed in a pub!
Head to the timber clad Roman Baths pub (what else would it be called?!) on St Sampson’s Square. Enter the pub and follow the signs to the Roman Baths exhibition in the basement.
Built between 71 AD and 122 AD, the original bathing complex would have covered a large 200 square metre area. Visitors today can view the caldarium (hot room), a section of the frigidarium (cold room), and a small plunge pool.
The small, cramped ruins of the bathhouse are fascinating to visit and the information provided on site gives you an insight into what life was like for Roman soldiers in York – or Eboracum, as it was called during Roman times.
Adult entry costs £3.50 but is free to York Pass holders.
The Multiangular tower is the best preserved Roman remains in York – yet many visitors walk straight past this 2,000 year old attraction assuming it to be part of York’s medieval city walls.
The Roman era tower is tucked into a quiet corner of the popular Museum Gardens, lying between the entrance gates and the Yorkshire Museum.
The Multiangular tower was originally one of two towers built overlooking the River Ouse, on the west side of Eboracum’s huge Roman legion fortress that housed an estimated 6,000 soldiers.
The original, lower half of the Roman tower dates back to the 3rd Century whilst the upper section of the tower walls were reconstructed in the medieval era. Visitors will clearly see the different sections of the walls.
The tower is free to enter and visitors need to go inside the tower to fully appreciate its scale. On most days, you will have the tower to yourself!
You can read about more free things to do in York here.
York’s Edible Wood
As a local, it is a delight to see this hidden gem in York gradually maturing over the years.
The imaginative wood was created in 2015 and can be accessed for free from Museum Gardens or from York Art Gallery.
You are not allowed to pick the edible plants (some may have poisonous components) but you will leave the wood with new ideas for multi-functional plants for your own garden!
The engaging wood is a lesser known thing to see in York and as a result, is a tranquil location right in the heart of the city.
York’s Edible wood is another free to enter attraction.
Dean’s Park is not hidden – millions of visitors to York see the park as it lies directly behind York Minster. But few people visit the park and even fewer explore it!
The park offers fantastic photo opportunities of York Minster but it has historical significance too and has been visited by several Kings and Queens of England.
The Minister’s Cathedral Library is located here in what was once the private chapel for the Archbishop of York.
Lining one side of the park are the 12th century remnants of an arched walkway, thought to be part of an Archbishop’s palace. The arches are now home to a World War Two memorial.
Dean’s Park and the majestic Cathedral Library are free to enter.
Holy Trinity Church
Holy Trinity Church is true hidden gem in York, hidden from view behind Goodramgate, one of York’s busiest streets leading from Monk Bar to the city centre.
The church’s unassuming narrow entrance, an eighteenth century archway, is easily missed and the church itself cannot be seen from the street.
The small, 15th century church contains unusual, old box pews which are the only box pews in the city of York and ornate stained glass windows.
You feel like you have stepped back in time to a smaller, rural York when you enter this church.
Holy Trinity Church is a free to enter attraction and has gained recent popularity as a filming location for the BBC series ‘Gentleman Jack.’
Combine a visit to Holy Trinity Church with a visit to another hidden gem behind the other side of Goodramgate, the tiny Bedern Hall.
To find Bedern Hall, walk towards Monk Bar and keep your eyes peeled for a small sign on the right for Bedern Hall.
The small, 14th century hall is nestled among private homes but was originally used as the dining room, or refectory, for the ‘Vicars Choral’ (choir) of York Minster.
The tiny hall can be viewed in five minutes but is worth visiting for the historical exhibits which describes how this area of York has changed over time. This area was once home to a large religious community but later became a Victorian slum and red light district!
The hall today is currently home to three of York’s ancient guilds. There is a lovely cafe on site serving delicious homemade cakes.
Bedern Hall is free to enter but donations are welcome towards the upkeep of the building.
The Shrine of Margeret Clitherow
This tranquil hidden gem in York is found in the middle of one of York’s busiest tourist attractions, The Shambles.
Among The Shambles cafes and shopfronts is a plain wooden door which is the entrance to the shrine and chapel dedicated to York born saint, Margaret Clitherow.
Margaret lived on The Shambles in the 16th century, in a butchers shop owned by her husband.
She was martyred in York in 1586; a small plaque on York’s Ouse Bridge marks the spot where Margeret suffered her grisly death.
The free to enter chapel offers a peaceful respite from York city centre and visitors are welcome to join the catholic mass held every Saturday at 10 am.
Arrive early as the chapel only holds 30 people.
I lived in York for ten years before I learnt about Goddard’s House!
The National Trust owned property lies just outside York city centre and backs onto York Racecourse.
The elegant house was the home of the Terry’s family who owned the famous Terry’s Chocolate Factory in York (makers of the Chocolate Orange)!
The house was built in the Arts and Crafts style and several rooms are furnished in the style when the family lived here in the 1930’s.
Visitors to York with kids will enjoy the schoolroom where children can play a selection of old games. Adults may prefer to relax in the lounge flicking through historical information about the house whilst sipping on a glass of sherry (provided via an honesty box)!
The 4 acre, landscaped gardens are beautiful; in addition to colourful borders there is an overflowing kitchen garden as well as a wilderness garden.
The gardens also contain a croquet pitch, bowling green and a tennis court. Visitors can borrow playing equipment free of charge from the ticket desk.
Finally, there is an excellent cafe with a lovely outdoor terrace. Be warned, you will not resist the chocolate orange cake…
Entry is £8.50 for adults, free to National Trust members. Check seasonal opening times before your visit.
The house is a 1 ½ mile walk from the centre of York or you can catch the number 4 or 13 bus from outside York train station.
York Cold War Bunker
History fans should visit York’s Cold War Bunker in the York suburb of Acomb.
The bunker cannot be seen from the road and sits incongruously amidst residential flats.
This cold war relic was in use between the 1960’s and the 1990’s and is a sobering reminder of an era which will hopefully never return.
Visitors can tour the engine room, operation room and staff quarters and learn what life was like for the local volunteers who were prepared to give up everything in order to monitor the fallout of a nuclear explosion.
Entrance to the bunker is by guided tour only. Though the tour will include steps and some cramped rooms, there is accessibility for wheelchair users.
If you are visiting with children, the sombre video at the start of the tour contains graphic images of war but you can choose to wait outside the room if you do not wish to see the film.
The informative guides provide a fascinating tour and, as everything has been left as it was when the bunker ceased operation, it really feels like you are stepping back in time.
Entrance costs £9.90 for adults, free to members of English Heritage. Tours run every hour but are limited to 20 people.
The bunker is 1 ½ miles from York rail station or you can catch the Number 1 bus from the centre of York.
The Bar Convent
The Bar Convent, opposite Micklegate Bar, is the oldest working convent in England, founded in 1686.
The original nuns who lived here had to live and worship in secrecy under the guise of a school. Visitors can learn about the convent’s history through an engaging interactive exhibition.
Don’t miss the convent’s beautiful, ‘hidden’ chapel with its multiple secret exits, built in case the nuns needed to make a quick escape. The domed roof of the chapel cannot be seen from the street – due to the secret nature of the convent, the domed roof is cleverly hidden under a pitched roof on the exterior.
The exhibition costs £5 per adult to enter.
Tourist and locals are invited to attend a weekly mass in the chapel every Friday to which visitors are always warmly received.
The convent has a fantastic cafe (which is well worth a visit on its own!) and also offers affordable bed and breakfast accommodation.
All Saint’s Church
All Saints Church is an unassuming church on North Street, on the outer edge of the River Ouse between Skeldergate Bridge and Lendal Bridge.
The church is home to an outstanding collection of 13, high quality stained glass windows which date from the 14th and 15th Century.
Some of the windows depict rare and unusual images not usually found in medieval era stained glass.
The free to enter church is well worth the ten minute walk from the city centre.
Monk Bar and Walmgate Bar
Unlike some of the York attractions above, York’s iconic city ‘bars’ are not hidden!
But, surprisingly, many visitors to York simply the ‘bars’ to access and walk the walls.
Few visitors complete the wall circuit on foot and fewer still take the time to explore the bars themselves.
Take five minutes on your wall walk to explore Monk Bar, the largest and most ornate of York’s four bars.
In the four storey, 14th century fortress you can see the original portcullis and the arrow slits used by medieval archers. Look out for the gruesome murder holes which were used for dropping boiling water and other nasty substances onto unwitting invaders.
Walmgate Bar is the least visited bar in York as it is the furthest away from the centre of the city.
Walmgate Bar as it is the only bar in York to retain its original barbican section so visitors can create an accurate picture of how the original city centre entrances looked.
Plus, you can rest weary feet at Walmgate Bar’s excellent Gatehouse Coffee whilst soaking up the views of York from the cafe’s rooftop terrace.
Barley Hall is a timber framed medieval townhouse accessed by a narrow snicket from the busy shopping street, Stonegate.
It has made it onto the hidden gem in York list as until recently, the hall was completely hidden under the framework of a more modern building!
The 14th century house was only uncovered in the 1980’s during extensive renovations to the modern building that covered it.
The house gives an excellent insight into what life was like in medieval York. The rooms in Barley Hall have been authentically decorated and furnished to reflect the life of a merchant of York.
The highlight is the tiled banqueting hall.
Adult entry costs £6.50, children cost £3.50.
The House of Trembling Madness
The House of Trembling Madness is a pub but is worth a look even if you cannot be lured by its hearty, homemade food and craft ale!
After visiting the medieval Barley Hall, cross Stonegate to visit this medieval ale house, located above the beer shop of the same name. The ale house cannot be seen from the street and is one of the quirkiest of York’s hidden gems.
Visitors sit on communal tables and benches under a high, beamed ceiling. You cannot pre-book or secure private tables – visitors must be prepared to budge up and share a pew.
This convivial atmospheric pub is unlike any other in York.
Baile Hill loses out to it better known and much more visited contemporary Clifford’s Tower.
When William the Conqueror seized York in 1068, he ordered the construction of two defensive sites, one on either side of the River Ouse.
Both were originally timber frame buildings that were built on top of artificially constructed hills.
One fortress was eventually fortified in stone – The Clifford’s Tower that visitors flock to today.
The second site on the other side of the Ouse fell into disrepair. All that remains of the fort today is Baile Hill, a portion of the artificial mound, or motte, that the castle was built on.
Do not expect any ruins or artefacts, Baile Hill is simply a hill but history buffs will still love it!
Baile Hill lies on the other side of Ouse Bridge from Clifford’s Tower and can be viewed from the city walls.
Have you discovered any hidden gems in York to add to this list?