There are so many great things to do in York no matter what your age, interest or budget may be.
York is a small city packed with historical attractions, quirky architecture, charming lanes and fascinating sights. I guarantee you will leave York planning to return.
This is my list of the 12 best things to do in York which will show you the very best the city has to offer.
12 Best Things to do in York
1. Explore York Minster
York Minster was built between the 12th and 15th century and is the largest Gothic style cathedral in northern Europe.
The Church of England cathedral dominates the city skyline of York – no building inside the city walls is permitted to be higher than York Minster.
It is a beautiful, ornate building so take some time to stand and stare!
A permanent team of 16 stonemasons work on this York cathedral to maintain the detail and craftsmanship of its rich toned magnesian limestone. Look carefully and you may just spot a mason’s mark on one of the exterior stones.
All visitors are welcome to attend one of the daily religious services but the cathedral is not open for sightseeing during these times.
Outside of service times, visitors can join regular guided tours led by knowledgeable guides to discover the stories and fascinating details of this magnificent building.
Handle historical artefacts in the immersive Undercroft Museum or sit in a bishop’s seat in the highly decorated Chapter House.
York Minster has more stained glass than any other religious building in England and the magnificent Great East Window is the largest expanse of stained glass in the world.
Weather permitting, visitors over 8 years old can climb the 275 winding steps of the Minster’s central tower for an incredible bird’s eye view of York city centre.
York Minster is one of the best things to do in York and is a great place to visit at any time but I would highly recommend catching a service when you will hear the thundering Minster organ and fantastic singing by the Minster choir.
After your visit, visit Dean’s Park at the back of the Minster for perfect photos of the Minster.
Tickets cost £11.50 for adults – purchase tickets in advance online to avoid the queues.
2. Walk the medieval City Walls
York’s medieval city walls are the longest city walls in England; it takes around two hours to walk the full circuit.
The walls are accessed by four imposing medieval gateways, called ‘bars’, that were once used as the main access to the city of York.
Monk Bar is the largest and most ornate bar where a set of steep, narrow and cramped steps bring you to the city walls. Using the Monk Bar access makes you feel as if you are stepping back in time. The 14th century, four storey fortress retains it’s portcullis, medieval arrow slits and murder holes.
Monk Bar hosts a small museum dedicated to Richard III, the last Plantagenet King.
Micklegate Bar houses a museum about Henry VII whilst Bootham Bar is the closest bar to York Minster.
Walmgate Bar is the most complete of the medieval gateways as it is the only bar to retain its barbican section.
The oldest part of Walmgate Bar dates from the 12th century and it is the only bar to have a cafe!
The museums are fee paying but the bars and the walls are free to enter and walk.
Walking the walls provides fantastic views of York and is a chance to escape the hustle and bustle of York city centre.
The most scenic section of the city walls is from historic Monk Bar to Bootham Bar as it winds around the back of York Minster.
York residents use the walls as access from one part of the city to another or for a jog or stroll – it is one of the best free things to do in York.
The historic walls are a living, breathing part of our modern city.
3. Amble The Shambles
The Shambles is a short, narrow, cobbled shopping street lined with tightly packed lopsided buildings. It has been voted the ‘Best Street in Britain.’
The overhanging first floors of these buildings block out light making The Shambles appear dark and gloomy.
Strolling along the medieval Shambles feels like stepping back in time. It is said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter novels and, as such, this unusual street is a popular York attraction.
The Shambles is lined with independent shops and cafes (and a few Wizarding shops)! But in its medieval past, it was the site of the butchers shops for the city of York.
Today, you can still see the wooden ledges on the shop fronts where the meat was once displayed with dangling metal hooks overhead used for hanging meat.
4. Taste a Yorkshire Pudding
No one can come to Yorkshire without trying a Yorkshire Pudding.
A Yorkshire Pudding is not a sweet dessert, it is a savoury accompaniment to a meaty roast dinner – usually roast beef, though we eat Yorkshire Puddings at anytime!
A pudding is a baked batter made from flour, eggs, milk or water. Cooked correctly (and it is not easy to do so!) a Yorkshire Pudding is a deliciously chewy, juicy, calorie laden treat.
Many restaurants and pubs in York city centre serve a traditional roast dinner trimmed with Yorkshire Puddings but for something different, try a take away roast dinner from the popular York Roast Company.
The York Roast Co, found on Low Petergate near The Shambles, offers customers ‘The YorkyPud Wrap’ – a full roast dinner, wrapped like a fajita in a mouthwatering, giant Yorkshire Pudding.
5. Snickets and Gates!
York is a city made for wandering whose pedestrianised city streets are an attractive blend of old and new.
The ancient streets of York are called ‘gates’ with the medieval gateways to the city of York called ‘bars.’
Stroll through charming Stonegate and admire the ornate architecture of its buildings such as the Tudor frontage of the The Golden Balls pub.
Visit the independent shops and boutiques along Fossgate, located opposite York’s smallest street – the virtually non existent Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate.
Walk beside the colourful Georgian and Victorian buildings of Low Petergate and High Petergate to the lively restaurants of Swinegate.
Many of these gates/streets can be accessed by a series of ‘snickets’ which criss cross the city. Snickets – or to give them their proper name, snickelways – is Yorkshire slang for alleyways.
Venture down Mad Alice Lane, the allegedly haunted Lady Peckett’s Yard or the narrow Pope’s Head Alley, just 790 mm wide.
Take a snicket and see where you end up!
6. Climb Clifford’s Tower
Clifford’s Tower is an iconic York landmark.
Originally a Norman Keep built in the motte and bailey style, Clifford’s Tower is today a roofless, circular set of remains built on the only piece of high ground in flat York (albeit an artificial mound)!
A set of steep stone steps lead to the open keep where exhibits portray the history of this ancient building.
Climb a further set of winding steps to the circular open parapet for a fantastic 360 degree view of York city centre. But be warned – it is always windy up here!
Clifford’s Tower looks spectacular in Spring when it’s steep grassy slopes are covered in yellow daffodils.
The English Heritage owned York attraction costs £6.50 for adults and £3.90 for children.
7. Devour a Fat Rascal at Betty’s
Betty’s Tea Rooms is a York institution which is much loved by York residents. A trip to Betty’s is a real treat.
The elaborate, vintage style, glass fronted tea room lies at the heart of the city centre on the corner of St Helen’s Square.
There are two floors to this 100 year old tea room as well as an additional bakery shop section which always has creative and enticing window displays.
Enjoy a cup of Yorkshire Tea served by bow tied waiting staff whilst listening to a classical pianist.
Betty’s serves fantastic breakfasts, lunches and dinners but their cakes and desserts are the main attraction.
You will not be able to leave Betty’s without purchasing a signature Fat Rascal – a large scone type cake made with cherries and almonds.
Betty’s Tea Rooms cannot be pre-booked – you will have to turn up and queue, but it will be worth the wait.
8. Enjoy the River Ouse
The River Ouse flows through York city centre and its paved, leafy riverbank path is popular with exercising York residents.
Stroll along the pedestrianised riverbank in either direction for a tranquil break from the city centre.
Alternatively, enjoy a 45 – 60 minute sightseeing cruise on the river with City Boat Cruises.
Or, a fun thing to do in York, is to hire a self drive ‘little red boat’ from the Red Boat Company. Prices start at a reasonable £30 for a one hour hire.
9. Visit a museum
York has several excellent city centre museums ranging from the sprawling York Castle Museum to the tiny Quilt Museum.
The most popular museum for visitors to York are the Jorvik Viking Centre and the York Castle Museum.
Jorvik Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre (called Jorvik for short) is one of the busiest York attractions.
The small museum creatively displays Viking era artefacts found during a four year dig on this very site.
Learn how the Vikings lived and died in York and see the remains of Viking streets and homes beneath the glass floor of the museum.
The highlight of the museum is a slow travelling historical ‘cab’ ride through a life size Viking settlement.
There is always a queue to get into the Jorvik Viking Centre so book your tickets in advance online.
Entry is £12.50 for adults and £8.50 for children.
York Castle Museum
York Castle Museum is found opposite Clifford’s Tower and charts the history of York through the ages.
View recreated homes from the past and reminisce in the toy gallery. Learn how York was affected during the First and Second World Wars.
Explore the museum’s full size replica of a Victorian street (Kirkgate) complete with dim lighting and cobblestones. Wander into Kirkgate’s shops, schoolroom and police station to meet the people who ‘live’ there.
York Castle Museum used to be the courthouse and prison for the city of York and today, visitors can enter the eerie Victorian era prison cells.
Hologram actors describe the harsh conditions suffered by prisoners. Make sure you see the information board as you leave the prison section which tells you what happened to the real life individuals you met in the gloomy cells.
Admission is £12.00 for adults and £4 for children.
Other niche museums in York include the York Army Museum, York Chocolate Story, Henry VII Experience, York Dungeons, Richard III Experience, Merchant Adventurers Hall, Holgate Windmill, York Cold War Bunker, The Roman Bath, The Bar Convent and the York Observatory. You will not be bored in York!
Art lovers should visit York Art Gallery, The Quilt Museum and York St. Mary’s.
For a free museum in York, visit the world class National Railway Museum.
You can read about the best museums to visit in York with kids here.
10. Tour a Historic House
In a city with such a diverse and rich cultural history, it is no surprise to learn that there are a number of historic houses to visit in York.
Barley Hall is a timber framed medieval townhouse lying behind Stonegate, accessed by a narrow snicket.
The 14th century house was concealed under the framework of a more modern building and was only discovered during renovation work in the 1980’s.
Barley Hall, particularly its recreated banqueting hall, will provide visitors with an accurate experience of what life was like in medieval York.
Entrance costs £6.50 for adults and £3.50 for children.
This pink facade building on St. Helen’s Square (near Betty’s Tea Rooms) is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of York and has only recently opened to the public.
The grand, 800 year old house showcases collections of silverware and ceramics, ceremonial items used by the Lord Mayor as well as recreated 18th century bedrooms and dining rooms.
The downstairs kitchen has interactive exhibits and equipment to learn about Georgian cooking . Interestingly, this is still a working kitchen which hosts live cooking displays twice daily.
Admission is £6.50 for adults, £3.50 for children.
Fairfax house is a grand, immaculately presented Georgian townhouse.
Visitors can explore the elaborate dining room, elegant drawing room and the richly decorated bedrooms, though I think the museum’s highlight is the excellent basement kitchen.
An adult ticket costs £7.50 with £3.00 for children.
The quirky Treasurer’s House lies directly behind York Minster and was extensively renovated in the late 19th century.
However, the renovations were not of their time but were designed to emulate historical houses of different eras so that the owner, Frank Green, could ‘authentically’ house his collection of historical artefacts.
From the timber frame medieval feel of the grand entrance hall to the Victorian bedrooms, this is a house that will keep you guessing!
The Roman road beneath the cellar of the Treasurer’s House is allegedly one of the most haunted locations in York.
The National Trust owned property costs £8.90 for an adult ticket and £4.90 for children. The Treasurer’s House is free to National Trust members.
11. Relax in a garden
York is a green city lucky enough to have several accessible city centre parks such as Dean’s Park at the back of York Minster and Rowntree’s Park by the river.
If you are looking for a playground, skate park or tennis courts Rowntree’s Park is the place to go.
The most central park in York city centre is the gorgeous landscaped grounds of the Museum Gardens.
This lovely park is used as a cut through for city centre workers and is a popular lunchtime picnic spot. It is a lovely place to visit in York and is one of my favourites!
But there are several attractions in the Museum Gardens to warrant a longer stay.
The excellent Yorkshire Museum charts the Roman history of York. It also has an excellent dinosaur section with additional interactive displays about Yorkshire’s jurassic past.
Visitors to the gardens can view the black and white medieval building, The Hospitium, explore the 13th century remains of St Mary’s Abbey and see the best preserved Roman remains in York, the 3rd century Multiangular Tower.
At selected times, visitors can enter and tour the tiny 19th century Observatory in the middle of the gardens which is the oldest observatory in Yorkshire.
12. Enjoy pint of locally brewed beer
York is a city of pubs; it is said that wherever you stand in York you can see a pub!
Many pubs in York City Centre offer a twist or an added attraction. From the grand Harkers to the underground Lendal Cellars there is a pub to suit everyone.
For history, head to the Roman Baths Pub on St Sampson’s Square. There is a small museum under the pub where you can view the remains of a Roman bath house!
Or the historic Ye Olde Starr Inn on Stonegate which got it’s pub licence in 1644. Their cellar is believed to have been used as a mortuary in the English Civil War.
The Black Swan Pub on Peasholme Green is the oldest pub building in York, built in 1417.
The Kings Arms by the River Ouse is famous the ‘pub that floods.’ Markings on the bar of the pub show the different flood levels each of the numerous times the unfortunate pub has flooded.
For a scenic view of York Minster enjoy a pint in the attractive garden at The Lamb and Lion or on the rear balcony of The Judge’s Lodgings.
Alternatively, visit the Keystones at Monk Bar to sit alongside York’s medieval city walls.
Beer aficionados should visit The Maltings on Lendal Bridge and the excellent York Tap at York rail station, an ideal stop if you are visiting York by train.
For opulent surroundings, I like the art deco feel of The Cosy Club and The Hop, both of which are found on Fossgate.
For something unique, visit the original House of Trembling Madness on Stonegate. The small upstairs pub is accessed at the back of the beer shop of the same name.
As the pub is located in an original medieval building, the owners have created a ‘traditional’ medieval ale house.
Excellent craft beer is on offer with homemade hearty food served to long, communal wooden table and benches.
You cannot pre-book so be prepared to budge up and share a pew.
The House of Trembling Madness is always busy with a lively, convivial atmosphere.
York is a lively, friendly and fascinating city to visit.
How many 12 best things to do in York can you fit into your trip?