York is a history lesson in stone, and quite simply the most complete medieval city in the country. But it’s not just the past that attracts, as this is still a vibrant metropolis and the cultural and artistic centre of the county. Spend a day wandering down medieval streets within the ancient walls of this compact city and discover Roman ruins, Viking archaeology, Norman towers and Victorian shops.
What to see and do
Lendal Bridge over the River Ouse © Jhsteel, Wikimedia Commons
If arriving by train head down Station Road, along the city walls to the banks of the River Ouse. Crossing Lendal Bridge and the 700-year-old tower of the same name, follow this road all the way to the imposing York Minster.
View over the Minster © Amy Laughinghouse, Shutterstock
Marvel at the size and scale of the creamy exterior walls and the hundreds of years of craftsmanship that have gone into creating and preserving them. The Central Tower is open for visitors who can manage the 275 steps and gives an astonishingly grand gargoyle’s-eye view of the city from 230 feet up, allowing you to get your bearings.
The Shambles © Britain on View, Visit Britain
Follow the road down to Low Petergate and on to the minuscule ‘Shambles’, York’s finest medieval street. Despite the name referring to the butchers’ shops that once lined the street, it so aptly depicts the topsy-turvy nature of the top-heavy houses that lean precariously towards one another on either side of the narrow lane.
Cakes at Bettys © Chris Maguire, Welcome to Yorkshire
Continue towards Parliament Street where street markets prevail and if the weather’s fine, pick up something for lunch in the open air. Or, if you fancy a more civilised experience, visit Bettys Café Tea Rooms, a Yorkshire institution, where tea drinkers can look out through the great glass windows to watch the world of York passing by.
St Mary's Abbey © Kaly99, Wikimedia Commons
After sampling the dessert cart and drinking your weight in Yorkshire tea, stretch the legs with a wander around the Museum Gardens. Shrouded with daffodils in spring and multi-coloured blooms in summer, it is the ideal spot to relax. At its focal point is St Mary’s Abbey, or rather a wall of it, blackened by centuries of decay, which once belonged to the largest Benedictine monastery in the north of England.
Clifford's Tower © Fruitsmaak, Wikimedia Commons
Alternatively, if your appetite for history isn’t satisfied by what can be seen cemented in the bricks and mortar of these cobblestoned streets, then York has several memorable museums that dig deeper into its far-reaching past. York Castle Museum recreates social history from the 1800s to the present day with an authentic Victorian street and exhibitions ranging from WW1 to the history of York's chocolate industry. It is situated opposite Clifford’s Tower, which originates from the castle built by William the Conqueror in 1070. Make the calf-pulling ascent for some great views of the city from the top. To go back even further in time, visit the Jorvik Viking Centre, built on the site of one of the largest archaeological digs ever in Britain. Reconstructions, sound tracks and even authentic aromas all bring the Viking history to life in this phenomenally successful musuem.
Where to eat and drink
Stonegate © Chris Maguire, Welcome to Yorkshire
Going back in time is thirsty work, so indulge in a drink on arguably York’s most atmospheric pedestrianised street, Stonegate. Once the route to the main gates of the Roman fortress, it is now home to charming tea shops, inns, small boutiques and the odd busker. No two buildings are the same and the rooflines, window frame colours and decorative iron signs all add to its character. Here you’ll find an unusual pub sign running across the full width of the street, directing you to Ye Olde Starre Inn, hidden down a tiny alleyway. It’s the oldest pub in York and reputedly has a posse of ghosts to alarm punters. Further down, The Punchbowl, also claims to have a good bunch of ghostly goings-on too. Hauntings are big business in York and there are a plethora of evening ghost tours to satisfy your fright cravings if a pint with a poltergeist doesn’t suffice.
For more on York and the surrounding areas, check out our Slow Travel guide to the North York Moors & Yorkshire Wolds: