24 Hours in the city of York
An unbiased guide to spending a day or two in York, by Chris
I’m a Yorkshireman, a York resident and a Yorkshire guide. I was born and raised in York and Yorkshire – here is my completely unbiased guide to exploring York in a day or two.
However you plan to get here and where you choose to stay, this is my guide to getting the most out of a visit to the ancient city of York. For advice on where to stay, where to eat and where to get a drink, you can read my separate posts using the links on this page.
Get ready to walk…but never that far
York is a small city and just about everything you’ll really want to see and do is found within easy walking distance of wherever you are in the city.
There’s about 2 miles of city walls to explore (see below) and almost everything worth seeing is within the walled area. A big part of the city centre is pedestrianised from 10:30am each day, so you can wander down the historic streets and charmingly named roads free from traffic, pollution and noise.
York’s cathedral, known as York Minster, was built from 1230 and not finished until 1472. It is visible from just about everywhere in York and is absolutely worth visiting. You can join a tour while you are in the cathedra, giving you a guided tour of the underground vaults and crypt. However, for those who don’t fear heights or enclosed spaces, the chance to climb up through the arteries of the Minster to the top of the Tower shouldn’t be missed. It is a truly spectacular experience, offering unrivalled views across York, its suburbs and miles of beautiful countryside surrounding York.
However you choose to discover York Minster, you’ll have to pay (prices from £16 for adults/seniors) unless you just want to pop in, light a candle and leave…or if you are attending a service. Evensong is everyday at 5:15pm and details of weekend services can be found here: www.YorkMister.org
There is no charge to attend a service in the Minster and it is a great way to witness the Minster doing what it built to do.
York is home to one of the UK’s most iconic streets – Shambles – which today is probably most famous for its connection with Harry Potter. Whether or not there is any actual connection between Shambles and Diagon Alley, there is undoubtedly a likeness between York’s former butcher’s row and the street where wizards go to buy wands and magical supplies.
Shambles is a narrow, cobbled street that derives its name from the meat shelves of the many butcher’s shops which were located here from the 14th century onwards; the name ‘shambles’ is literally ‘flesh shammels’ – meat shelves.
Today Shambles is dominated by touristy shops – particularly wizarding shops selling Harry Potter memorabilia – but it is still definitely worth visiting to see the higgledy piggledy nature of its old buildings which appear to lean in towards each other.
Get there in the evening, after you’ve had your dinner, for chance to see and photograph Shambles without crowds of people.
York Castle Museum
It would be hard to choose ‘the best museum in York’ as there are several candidates for the accolade, but you can’t fail to be impressed by the Castle Museum. It provides an amazing history of York with fascinating recreations and replicas from the city’s long and varied history.
The Castle Museum is located next to York’s iconic castle – Clifford’s Tower – on the site of a former prison. You can learn about the history of York from the Romans to the present, find out about the proud tradition of chocolate making in the city and spend money in actual shops located on an authentic Victorian street.
The Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre is a fascinating animated museum that offers a unique insight into life in a Viking settlement in Britain. York was a vital trading post for the Vikings in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries (Jorvik, the Viking name for York, was the Viking capital of Britain) and many of the artefacts on display in the museum were found in the city.
The highly popular museum is sometimes referred to as somewhere “aimed at school children”, but it is still worth spending your time and money here. The main feature of the museum experience is a ride that transports you through a life-like Viking settlement, where the sights, sounds and smells of the Viking the village bring Viking Britain to life.
There can be big queues for the Viking Centre, so make sure you pre-book a slot in advance to save yourself time – you’ll be able to walk straight past the big queue. www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk
National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum (NRM) in York is the world’s first railway museum and still remains the biggest museum in the world dedicated to trains. And it’s FREE.
Everything at the NRM is big – the museum is packed with retired steam engines, historic Royal carriages and famous trains from across the world, including Japan’s Bullet train and the Eurostar. There is an amazing collection of railway memorabilia and artefacts from Britain’s railway history. Railway enthusiasts could spend all day at the NRM, but you don’t need to be a trainspotter to enjoy the museum – it is a fascinating experience for everyone from small children to great grandparents!
There’s a good café at the NRM, whether you are there in time for coffee and cake, afternoon tea or a full lunch.
You’ll need to fill in an online form to enter the museum – do this in advance to save time (www.railwaymuseum.org). You will definitely be asked to make a donation when you visit the NRM, but there’s no obligation; the museum is absolutely free for everyone.
Walk the Walls
York’s historic centre is surrounded by approximately 2 miles of city walls. The Walls date back to 79AD and the Roman occupation of Britain, although most of the Wall standing today are from the medieval period and were built in the 13th and 14th century.
You can download a map of the Walls online (www.yorkwalls.org.uk) and there is even a free audio guide you could follow. Most of the city walls are easy to explore without instruction or guidance, but there are a couple of places where you could easily get a bit lost.
If you only have a limited amount of time then the section of Wall between Monk Bar and Bootham Bar is where I would walk; you’ll enjoy great views of the Minster and its gardens on this well-preserved section of Wall.
York is famously ‘haunted’ and there are a number of ghost walks you could join to learn more about it. I can’t promise you’ll see any ghosts, but you’ll be entertained by your ghost-walk guide and it’s a great way to see York when most people have left the city and you’ll be taken to hidden parts of the city you probably wouldn’t have found on your own.
The Bloody Tour of York is my favourite evening tour – it isn’t actually a ghost walk at all, but instead is an elaborate retelling of some of the more gruesome tales from York’s history.
Mad Alice, the guide, is genuinely entertaining – book early to avoid disappointment: www.thebloodytourofyork.co.uk
Merchant Adventurers Hall
York Chocolate Story
York Army Museum
Anything to avoid?
I don’t really like advising you not to go anywhere, but I would probably avoid taking a river cruise. Although you’ll get a pleasant ride down the River Oose, almost all of the interesting stuff in York can’t be seen from the river. This, in my opinion, makes river cruising in York a bit of a waste of time and money.