21 Incredible Things To See in York, England
Updated: Apr 22, 2022
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If you're a bit of a historic geek like me, no trip to England is complete without making a stop in York. It's considered a cathedral city, and sits at the midway point between London and Edinburgh, in North Yorkshire. The city is famous for not only its cathedral and historic streets, but also its Roman walls, which have stood protecting York for centuries. With York being one of the oldest cities in the UK, you can just imagine how incredible it is to walk around its streets. Plus, if you're on the hunt for romantic getaways near York with hot tub then you're in luck too. You certainly won't run out of things to see in York (or around it), that's for sure!
York was founded by the Romans in the year 71 AD, and was later controlled by both the Anglo Saxons as well as Danish Vikings. By the middle ages, York had grown into an important trading centre for wool, and it was also used as an important stronghold for Edward I during his war against Scotland. York is a fascinating city to stroll around, and well worth spending at least a couple of days in so you can explore all of its narrow streets and historic sites. Most of the top attractions in York are easily accessible by foot too, and there are plenty of things to do in York with the family as well. It's difficult to write about York without wanting to include every single interesting spot in the post, so I've focused on the historic aspects of the city instead. Here are my recommendations for the best things to see in York if you love history:
1. York Minster
Without a doubt, one of the main things to see in York is its cathedral. York Minster was built on the site of an important Roman basilica, and was completed in the 15th century, but took over 250 years to build. There was actually an earlier church built on this site in the 7th century in order to baptize Edwin, King of Northumbria. The minster is very impressive to look at from the outside, being one of the tallest in northern Europe, but it's equally as impressive inside too, with a lot of beautiful stained glass windows dating from the medieval period. It costs £12 to enter the minster, or you can pay £17 which will also give you access to the tower (definitely do this if you're able to). The minster is one of the best historic sites in York to visit, whether you go inside or not.
2. St William's College
Sitting just behind York Minster is this beautiful medieval building known as St William's College. It was originally built in the 15th century in order to provide accommodation for the priests of the minster. It's a great example of a timber-framed medieval building, and is a charming hidden gem in York to pass by. If you're coming here after visiting the minster, I would recommend walking through Dean's Park which sits at the back of the minster and is pleasant to walk through on a sunny day.
3. The Treasurer's House
Almost directly beside St William's College, sitting in the shadows of the minster, is the Treasurer's House. This National Trust site is one of the more unusual places to visit in York, since it looks more like a country mansion than a townhouse. There are remains of the original house dotted around the gardens that date back to the 11th century, but the majority of the house you see today is from the 17th century, and underwent restorations in the 19th century. The house was built directly over an ancient Roman road, and during renovations they uncovered a number of Roman pillars, which they repurposed. This house is also one of many in York that are haunted - so keep your eyes peeled!
4. York Mansion House
Another interesting building to see in York is the York Mansion House, which is located in the same area as Betty's Tea Room. Since 1732, it has been the home of the Lord Mayor of York, and it also holds one of the largest civic collections of silverware in England. If you're interested in taking a look inside, tickets cost £6.50, but if you're short on time you can always just take a photo of it from the outside like I did! While it may not be one of the most exciting things to see in York, you'll no doubt pass by it as you make your way to the city's main attractions.
5. St Mary's Abbey
One of my favourite things to see in York is St Mary's Abbey. This ruined Benedictine abbey sits within the grounds of the York Museum Gardens, next to The Yorkshire Museum. and dates back to 1088. It was once one of the most powerful monasteries of its kind in England, and was started by William the Conqueror to help reinforce his hold on the north. Like many monasteries and religious buildings in England, it was destroyed on the orders of King Henry VIII as he sought to end the uprisings that came as a result of his break from Rome. The museum gardens and the abbey are two beautiful free attractions in York to add to your itinerary, and they are only a short walk from the minster too.
6. Jacob's Well
Jacob's Well is an often overlooked attraction in York which I only came across by chance as I was making my way to one of the city's main gates. This building can be dated to the 15th century, and would have been used as a house for the priest of the nearby prior. By the 1850's the building was being used as an inn, which is when the name Jacob's Well began to be used. Although you can't go inside of the building, if you're in the Micklegate area of York it's worth taking a look at.
7. Micklegate Bar
Micklegate Bar is the name given to the most important of York's four main entrance gates, and translates to great street. This entrance gate was once the focus of main events, and has had at least six monarchs pass through it. In fact, up until the 18th century, you would often see the heads of rebels and traitors displayed above the gate, such as Sir Henry Percy and Richard, Duke of York. It's definitely a must-see in York, and once you're done here you can climb up to the top of the city walls and make your way back into the city centre.
8. York's city walls
There are plenty of historic attractions in York to choose from, but something you simply can't miss are the city walls. As you've probably guessed, York is one of England's walled cities, and since the time of the Romans it's been defended by walls in one form or another. There are more miles of city walls here than in any other walled city in England, and you can walk all the way around them too! York's city walls are a major tourist attraction, and are completely free to walk along, though you can join one of the many walking tours in York that will teach you more about the history of them. They're one of the best things to see in York, so make sure you walk along at least a small part of them and take in the city views!
9. The Grand, York
Just a short walk from the train station, as you make your way towards York Minster, is a gorgeous Edwardian building dating to 1906. Today, it's home to the only 5 star luxury hotel in York - The Grand, York. The building was originally used as the headquarters for the North Eastern Railway Company, which at the time was one of the wealthiest businesses in the country. The Grand is one of the most photographed hotels in York, and I would say that the best view of it comes as you walk along the city walls that sit opposite it. If you're not staying here, you can always pop in to use the spa or grab something to eat at their restaurant, The Rise. You can read more about my stay here further down this post.
10. Merchant Adventurers' Hall
One of the most impressive buildings in York to visit is the Merchant Adventurers' Hall. Most of the guildhall was built over 660 years ago in 1357, and it's one of the finest examples of a medieval guildhall in the world. The hall is still in use today by its 160 members, and is open to the public if you fancy taking a walk around this incredible piece of history. It's practically been unaltered since the medieval period, making it one of the more unique places to see in York.
11. Fairfax House
If you're a fan of 18th century architecture, you'll want to stop by Fairfax House. This impressive townhouse offers a glimpse into what life would have been like in the very centre of York during the Georgian period. Although it was closed when I walked past it, it's a very popular place to visit in York outside of the usual tourist attractions.
12. Clifford's Tower
Does anyone else have really bad luck when it comes to scaffolding around attractions you want to see? This happened to me in St Petersburg quite a bit, but now I just see the humour in it. The structure sitting behind the scaffolding in this photo is Clifford's Tower, one of the key things to see in York. The tower is all that remains of York Castle, which was built by William the Conqueror 1068 in the form of a motte and bailey castle. The castle has a tumultuous history behind it, including being burned to the ground twice, but it was eventually rebuilt in the 13th century. Climbing to the top of the tower and taking in the view of the city is one of the best things to do in York, so maybe you'll have better luck than me when you visit!
13. York Castle Museum
Facing Clifford's Tower is the York Castle Museum, which stands where part of the larger complex of York Castle would have been. The building itself was originally used as part of a prison, and today stands as one of the most popular museums in York. If you're wondering what to do in York with the family, there are plenty of interesting exhibitions and events on at this museum which are worth looking into.
14. All Saints' Church
As you make your way through the streets of York, you'll realize that there are a lot of historic churches dotted around the city. Due to York Minster's popularity, a lot of these churches are often skipped over by visitors, which is a shame because many of them are very impressive in their own right. All Saints' Church, for example, has a history dating back to the 14th century and sits in the heart of York's historic centre. If its doors are open, it would be worth your time to take a quick peek inside!
15. The Three Tuns
Opposite All Saints' Church is a popular little historic pub called The Three Tuns. The pub originally opened in 1782 and is popular with both locals and tourists who are passing by. It's a very traditional pub and retains much of its original features, so don't expect anything fancy if you plan on visiting. Still, it's a lovely historic building to take a photo of from the outside!
16. The Golden Fleece & Sir Thomas Herbert's House
Fancy visiting the most haunted pub in York, and one of the most haunted pubs in the UK? The Golden Fleece dates back to the 16th century, with a pub on the ground floor and four guest bedrooms upstairs. It claims to be haunted by at least 14 spirits (including a Canadian airman from WWII) and has been featured in the TV show Most Haunted as well. The pub sits next to Sir Thomas Herbert's House, which dates to around the 16th century and is one of the most recognizable Tudor houses in York. Charles I is said to have dined here with Thomas Herbert on more than one occasion too!
York is full of historic streets to explore, such as Fossgate, which was first mentioned in the 1130's. This medieval street is said to follow one of the original Roman roads leading out of the city, and was an important industrial and commercial street during the Viking occupation of York. Fossgate is only a short walk from the famous JORVIK Viking Centre too, which is an absolute must-see in York if you haven't been already.
One street in York that you simply need to walk along is Petergate. The street is mostly lined with quaint shops and restaurants, and leads from one main city gate to another. It would have been a major road through the city for the Romans as well as during the medieval period, and you can still see a number of medieval buildings popping out from between the Georgian ones. For a great view of the minster, head to Low Petergate - a very popular photo spot in York. Petergate is one of the best places to go in York so remember to add it to your itinerary!
19. Barley Hall
Barley Hall is a great example of the many hidden gems in York that you can visit. This reconstructed medieval townhouse was originally built in the mid-14th century by the monks of Nostell Priory. It was purchased by the York Archaeological Trust in 1987, and after a major restoration project was opened as a museum. To find it, you'll need to pass through a very narrow alleyway until you come out into this small courtyard. Visiting Barley Hall is an ideal activity to do in York if it's raining!
20. Roman Bath
A very interesting thing to see in York, and one of the city's oldest attractions, is the Roman Bath. The bathhouse itself sits under a pub, and the remains of it weren't found until the 1930's during construction work. Judging by the tiles found in the bathhouse, archaeologists have determined that it would have been used by military personnel. There's a small fee to enter, but it's worth it.
21. The Shambles
Any Harry Potter fans out there? The Shambles is one of the oldest shopping streets in Europe, and was the inspiration for Diagon Alley, so it may look familiar to you even if you haven't been to York! Today the street is lined with all sorts of shops, including quite a few Harry Potter ones, but originally The Shambles would have been home to butchers, with each shop selling a different type of meat. If you only have a short time to visit the city, The Shambles is by far one of the best things to see in York and shouldn't be missed. As you can imagine, this street is very busy during the day, so if you want a photo without people in it you'll need to get up at sunrise, like I did!
Where To Stay In York
York is a truly magical city, especially if you're a fan of history and enjoy strolling around medieval streets. While you're in York, why not treat yourself? During this trip, we spent two nights at The Grand, York which is the city's only five star hotel, and is only a stones throw from York Minster and other main tourist attractions in York. The history of this hotel is an interesting one. The building that The Grand, York now occupies was built in 1906 and used as the headquarters of the North Eastern Railway Company. Inside the hotel you'll still be able to see many of its original features and architecture, from high ceilings to Belgian marble. If you choose the valet service at the hotel, your car will be taken care of and your bags brought right up to your room for you. It certainly makes for a very luxurious stay, right in the heart of York.
The Grand, York offers a variety of different rooms to choose from, including a choice of a more traditional decor in the original building or a modern design in the newly refurbished Roman House. For our stay, we chose to stay in the Roman House, in their Executive Twin Room which on average costs £269 per night or £289 including breakfast. You can also opt for The Gourmet Package which also includes dinner at a cost of £350 per night. The photos of the room don't do it justice - it was incredible. The bathroom had both a walk-in shower and a bathtub to choose from, and even included an overhead speaker so you could hear the TV nice and clear. There was a turn down service each night and a lavender pillow spray was left on our pillows which was a lovely added touch.
Bathrobes, slippers, tea, coffee, hot chocolate, biscuits, and even a hygiene kit complete with sanitizers and masks were all included with the room. There was also a mini fridge stocked with water and glasses, as well as a very unique mirror that pulled up from the desk. I'm not usually one to order room service, but I thought we might as well as give it a try after our drive into York, and we weren't left disappointed. The room service menu is different from the menu you'll find in the main restaurant, and there are a lot of great options on it - including desserts! Coming back to this hotel room was a joy after a long day of walking around the streets of York.
The main restaurant in the hotel is called The Rise, and it's open to the public as well. It's actually a very popular restaurant in York, so make sure you book ahead if you want to dine here, even if you're staying at the hotel. The open kitchen uses locally sourced products to freshly prepare its modern British cuisine. Our meal was incredible, and the dishes were beautifully presented as well. It was my first time trying a Scotch egg and it didn't disappoint! The Rise also has a cocktail menu which I would recommend trying something from.
This is also where breakfast is served, and you'll find a great selection of hot breakfast dishes as well as continental options on the menu. Everything is brought directly to your table and there are vegetarian and vegan options available as well. If you love breakfast as much as I do, I would go for one of the bigger dishes such as the Full Yorkshire Breakfast to help get you through the day. The breakfast service is very smoothly run and the staff are very attentive which promises for a very positive breakfast experience.
Not only does The Grand, York have a stunning room selection and a fantastic restaurant to boast about, but it's also home to a luxury spa as well as a very classy bar. The hotel's spa is located in the former vaults of the building, which makes for a very atmospheric experience. You can hop between the pool, spa whirlpool, Nordic dry sauna, and an aromatic steam room and finish your visit off in the relaxation lounge. Booking for the spa is essential as they are currently only allowing a specific number of people in at a time.
When you’re done here, you can make a stop at The 1906 Bar on your way back to your room for a cocktail (or something stronger). The bar has a great menu selection, and its intimate setting complete with classical music in the background will probably make you want to stay here for the rest of the day. You can still choose to visit the bar even if you’re not staying at the hotel.
The entire time we were at the hotel we felt like royalty. The staff were always on hand to help us, and acknowledged us every time we passed by. They even had umbrellas ready for us to take into the city when it was raining. At checkout time, you simply need to phone down to reception and let them know you’ll be leaving, and someone will come up to your room to take your bags down to the car for you. If you’ve used the valet parking at the hotel, your car will be waiting out front for you without you having to ask. You can’t fault the service here, and it really is the best hotel in York to stay at. Before you check out of The Grand, York make sure you take in the beautiful view of the Edwardian building from the city walls across the street!
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The next time you’re planning a trip to the north of England, if you haven’t been to York already (and even if you have), you definitely can’t leave it off of your itinerary. There are so many things to see in York that you won’t know where to start. There are numerous fantastic day trips from York to choose from as well if you happen to be staying for a few days, such as Castle Howard or even to the city of Burnley. And if you’re really feeling adventurous, you could take a drive to Manchester or Liverpool which are easily accessible by car. I’m sure you’ll be far too busy walking around the medieval streets of York to even contemplate going too far from the city!
I know I missed some places from my list of things to see in York, but I tried to focus on its unique historic buildings more than anything else. I’d love to hear some recommendations on things to do in York during my next trip though, so please leave a comment below! And don’t forget to follow my travels on Instagram too!
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