Best Things To Do In York England ⋆ We Dream of Travel Blog

Best Things To Do In York England

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Best Things to Do in York blog cover image.  Text overlaying an image of the York city walls with York Minster and the city in the background.

Founded in 71AD by the Romans, York is England’s oldest city. With nearly 2000 years of history, it’s no surprise that there are plenty of things to do in York. From exploring Roman ruins to Viking villages, medieval streets and gothic structures, to chocolate tasting, afternoon teas and cosy pubs – this charming city truly has it all.

Surrounded by the city walls, York is a compact city and all the attractions are easily walkable. A stroll through its labyrinth of cobbled streets and narrow alleyways lined with timbered buildings and classic shop fronts feels like a journey back in time.

York makes for a great day trip from London, with trains taking around 2 hours. It is also a great stopover on your way to Scotland. The best option, however, is to plan a staycation in York and spend a few nights here!

This travel guide details the best things to do in York. Our goal is to help you discover what you should do while in York, no matter how long your visit.

It’s worth mentioning that this post was written at the end of August 2020 and some restrictions were still in place due to Covid-19. Due to this, many attractions currently need to be booked in advance or were not open when we visited.

A couple in front of Castle Howard, a great day trip from York England
Take a day trip to explore the beautiful Castle Howard.

**DISCLOSURE: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links.  This means that at no additional cost to you, we will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.  Affiliate links are a small way that we are compensated for the time invested in providing this free resource.**

York Pass

I will mention the York City Pass and York & Beyond Explorer Pass a lot throughout this post, so you may be wondering what it is and if it’s worth it. It is a sightseeing pass giving you access to some of York’s top attractions. Read below for more info…

York City Pass

The York City Pass costs £48 per adult (£30 per child) and includes entrance to 45+ attractions in York, as well as a free meal at ASK Italian restaurant! It is truly a great value if you plan on visiting many of the city’s attractions.

I’ve included the individual prices of attractions within this travel blog. I’d recommend you keep a pen and paper handy, and jot down the places that you decide you definitely want to visit, as well as their entry price. This will allow you to calculate your total cost and decide whether the York City Pass will provide enough value for your personal interests!

To give you some idea, if you were to visit the York Minster, Clifford’s Tower and York Chocolate Story, the total for purchasing these three tickets individually would be £31.35. In this instance, the York City Pass would not be worth it for you. However, add just one more attraction, such as the York Dungeons and you’re now at a total of £48.30. You can see how quickly you begin saving money by having the York City Pass.

The pass is valid for one calendar day rather than 24 hours. Make sure you plan your days accordingly and begin using it early in the morning to make the most of it.

A girl twirling in a skirt in front of York Minster - one of the best places to visit in York England.
York Minster – included in the York City Pass.

York & Beyond Explorer Pass

The York & Beyond Explorer Pass includes all the same attractions as the City Pass, plus numerous other sights around Yorkshire. Similar to the City Pass, you will need to calculate whether or not the pass will provide you with enough value based on your interests.

It is available with three different options:

  • 2 days – £65 adult (£35 child)
  • 3 days – £80 adult (£45 child)
  • 6 days – £130 (£70 child)

The 2 and 6-day passes are valid on consecutive days. However, the 3-day pass is valid any three days over six days from first activation.

An array of vibrantly coloured flowers at Helmsley Walled Gardens with the ruins of Helmsley Castle behind.
The beautiful Helmsley Walled Gardens are included in the York & Beyond Explorer Pass.

Buying a York Pass

Go ahead and click the York Passes link now so it is open in a second window of your browser. If you decide either pass is worth it after completing your list, you can go ahead and purchase it now or bookmark the page for later!

If you prefer, you can also buy the pass on the day at the York Visitor Information Centre.

It is also worth noting that most attractions require advanced booking at present due to social distancing measures (September, 2020). This is necessary even if you have a York Pass. Therefore, it’s worth booking your pass in advance at the moment and getting all your attractions booked ahead of time.

Map of the Best Things To Do In York

Here’s a map of all the best things to do in York that we mention in this post. It’s been divided up in the same way as this post has to hopefully make it easier to use:

  • Top Things to Do in York
  • Other Things to Do in York
  • Day Trip from York
  • Places to Eat in York
  • Where to Stay in York

Within each colour coded section, you’ll find that places included in the York Pass are marked with a star 🙂

Click here to open the map in a new tab. Or click the image below.

Top 11 Things To Do In York

There are a huge number of things to do in York – with over 35 museums alone! Since we cannot possibly list them all, we’ve picked our top 11 favourite things to do in York.

Before we get into it, a couple of fun facts:

  • In York, streets are known as gates, gates are known as bars, and bars are known as pubs!!
  • As you explore York you may notice some windows bricked up. In 1696 the Windows Tax was imposed, meaning that buildings were taxed based on the number of windows they had. Many building consequently bricked in their windows to avoid the tax. It is believed this could also be where the saying “daylight robbery” stemmed from.
A bricked up window in York from the 1696 windows tax!
A bricked up window from the 1696 windows tax!

York City Walls

For nearly 2000 years (since the Roman times), the city of York has been defended by walls in some form. Today, the remaining walls in York provide the most complete example of medieval walls in England and one of the top attractions in York.

A girl in a skirt on the York city walls with York Minster and the city in the background.
Exploring the York city walls is possibly the best thing to do in York!

The original Roman walls were built in 71AD and were constructed from wood. These were later improved by the Vikings in 867AD then upgraded to stone in 1226 to include 4 large and 2 small bars (or gates). Eventually, they fell into disrepair by the 18th century.

Micklegate bar on the York City walls.
The beautiful Micklegate bar.

In 1800, over 300 yards of the walls, 3 posterns and 5 towers were demolished as the walls were no longer needed to defend the city and were a hindrance to development. However, after much public resistance, a preservation order was enforced and the demolished areas were restored.

View of a garden and the York Minster from York city walls.
The York city walls provide spectacular views.

Today, walking the York City Walls is one of the best things to do in York, providing incredible views of the city. The entire wall walk covers 2.8 miles and it’s worth allowing a couple of hours to casually stroll the walls. It is an easy walk, but it is only accessible via stairs. The walls are open from 8am until dusk each day and are free to explore.

There are a number of places you can start the walk. However, it’s worth noting that at present (Sep 2020), the wall is open with a temporary one-way clockwise system in place to enable social distancing and keep people safe. Additionally, entry and exit are only permitted at certain bars (gates) so it’s worth checking the York City website for the most up to date information.

The Shambles

Another one of the best free things to do in York is explore The Shambles. This narrow shopping street in the heart of the city dates back to the 13th century and is one of the best-preserved medieval streets in Europe. Wandering down the Shambles feels like taking a step back in time with its crooked, timbered buildings oozing with charm and history.

An early morning walk along The Shambles.

Originally the street was home to a variety of butchers specialising in different meats, many of which had slaughterhouses at the back to ensure the meat was fresh. The Shambles takes its name from the word the old English word ‘Shamel’, meaning stalls or benches on which meat was displayed.

A sign about The Shambles seen on a brick wall in York

At first glance, the wonky, top heavy buildings and narrow streets may seem like a strange design choice. However, they were specifically constructed to serve a practical purpose – to protect the ‘wattle and daub’ shop fronts below and to keep the meat out of direct sunlight. Additionally, the pavements were raised each side of the cobbled street to provide a channel where raw sewage could run.

It doesn’t require too much imagination to envision how the street may have once appeared; bustling with people and covered with offal and animal guts. I’m grateful we have better sanitation now and dread to think what the road must’ve smelled like!

Today, no butchers remain. Instead, the timbered buildings are home to an assortment of cafes, boutiques and independent shops.

The Shambles and Harry Potter

Harry Potter fans will particularly love this street as it is believed to be the inspiration behind Diagon Alley.

Along Shambles you’ll find four Harry Potter shops selling an array of Potter themed merchandise. The Shop That Must Not Be Named, The Boy Wizard, and the World of Wizardry are all located near to each other at the Pavement end of Shambles. Further along, you’ll find the Potions Cauldron appropriately located at 9 3/4 Shambles.

A sign for the Harry Potter shop "The shop that must not be named".

York Minster

York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Completed in 1472, it took over two centuries to complete and the resulting architecture is spectacular. As the tallest building in York, the Minster is visible from all over the city. It is also home to more medieval stained glass than anywhere in the UK – there are 128 stained glass windows, comprised of around two million pieces of glass.

The magnificent exterior of the York Minster
The magnificent exterior of the York Minster.

If you have an interest in religious history, it’s well worth a visit to the inside of the cathedral. Here you can learn more about York’s Christian history dating back to Roman times and marvel at more medieval stained glass than anywhere else in the UK!

The magnificent interior of the York Minster - one of the best things to do in York England
York Minster is home to 128 stained glass windows.

At the time of our visit (Sep 2020) the central tower was closed due to social distancing measures. Once that reopens, those with the stamina and ability to tackle the 275 steps to reach the top of the tower will be rewarded with spectacular views of the city from York’s highest viewpoint.

Make sure you also keep an eye out for the resident peregrine falcons that nest among the cathedral’s gargoyles. We were lucky enough to spot them flying overhead early one morning.

Tickets

Tickets cost £11.50 or are included with the York City Pass. All visits currently require pre-booking online on the York Minster website due to reduced visitor numbers for social distancing measures.

Clifford’s Tower

Perched proudly on its mound, Clifford’s Tower is the last remaining structure of York Castle. The tower was originally built from timber in the 11th century by William the Conqueror to dominate the Viking city of Jórvík.

Views over York from Clifford Tower.
Views over York from Clifford Tower.

Like much of the city, it has some pretty dark elements to its history. In 1190, it was the site of a mass suicide and massacre of 150 Jewish people, and the tower itself was burned down. In the 13th century, King Henry III rebuilt the tower in stone. It saw many uses over the years including a jail, royal mint and armoury.

Today, it offers sweeping vistas of York Minster and the city centre. On a clear day (which we didn’t have!) you can apparently even see as far as North York Moors National Park. The tower itself has little to explore, but it’s worth a visit to take in the views.

View over the city to York Minster from Clifford Tower
View of York Minster from Clifford Tower.

Tickets

Tickets cost £5.90 or are included with the York City Pass. Entry is free for English Heritage members. All visits currently require pre-booking online on the English Heritage website due to reduced visitor numbers for social distancing measures.

York’s Chocolate Story

A visit to York’s Chocolate Story should be on everyone’s list of things to do in York. We were pleasantly surprised by this tour (big shout out to our tour guide Charlie). It far surpassed our expectations, and ended up being one of our favourite things to do in York!

York has a history connected with chocolate, originally being home to both Rowntree’s and Terry’s brands. Many famous chocolate products started in York, including the Terry’s Chocolate Orange and globally renowned Kit Kat. Still today, six million Kit-Kats are produced every day in York!

A kit kat display at the York Chocolate Story - one of the best things to do in York
A Kit Kat display at the York Chocolate Story.

The interactive tour will take you through the history of York’s chocolate-making families, as well as chocolate’s origins, how to make chocolate, and how to taste it like an expert! At the end, you even get to make your own chocolate lolly and are given a goody bag of choccies to take home with you.

Chocolate making demonstration at York chocolate story.
Chocolate making demo!

You’ll also find a range of chocolates made on-site available for purchase in their shop downstairs. We didn’t get around to trying it, but the hot chocolate here is also supposed to be amazing!

Tickets

Tickets cost £13.95 and should be booked online in advance.

York Museum Gardens and St Mary’s Abbey

Sprawling over 10 acres, the York Museum Gardens are home to an array of historical buildings, plant species and wildlife. These tranquil public gardens provide an oasis in the heart of York. Enjoy a picnic in the sunshine or a short walk away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

The botanical gardens are set against the spectacular backdrop of the Grade I listed ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. Built in 1088, the medieval abbey was once one of the wealthiest and most powerful abbeys in England. However, it was closed down and substantially destroyed by Henry VIII in 1539 as a consequence of his reformation of the church. The abbots were infamously self-indulgent and St Mary’s Abbot was often featured as Robin Hood’s arch-rival in early medieval ballads.

Remains of St Mary's Abbey in York Museum Gardens
St Mary’s Abbey.

The Hospitium is also found within the York Museum Gardens. Today it is a popular wedding venue, however, it dates back to the 14th century as one of the abbey’s support buildings. Its name is derived from the word ‘hospitality’ rather than ‘hospital’.

The Hospitum in York Museum Gardens
The Hospitum is a popular wedding venue.

Enjoy an Afternoon Tea or Coffee

York is home to a host of independent cafes and coffee shops that provide the perfect excuse to get off your feet and indulge!

There are many to choose from, but my personal favourite that we tried was Spring Espresso. Their cold brew and carrot cake were phenomenal.

The blueberry scone at Lucky Days was also excellent, though the general atmosphere and coffee were less impressive.

Bettys Tea Rooms are a popular place for afternoon tea in York
The only time I saw Betty’s Tea Rooms without a queue – at 7am when they weren’t open!

Both Betty’s Cafe and Brew & Brownie came highly recommended, but we were unable / unwilling to visit due to ridiculously long lines. If food is your thing, you will need to make a lot of time to try at least one of these. For the photographers and explorers reading, however, there are likely better uses of your time.

Have a Pint at One of York’s 365 Pubs

York is rumoured to have a pub for every day of the year within its city walls – a rumour that seems to date back to Middle Ages! During the Middle Ages, it was said that there was a monastery for every day of the week, a church for every week of the year and a pub for every day of the year. According to records, this isn’t far off as there were 7 monasteries, around 45 churches and 200 inns and alehouses. I couldn’t find out how many still exist today, but I can promise you it’s a lot!

If you want to visit the oldest continuously licensed pub, then visit Ye Olde Starre Inn. It has been a licensed inn since 1644 and the building itself is even older, dating back to the mid-16th century.

One of the best things to do in York - have a drink at York's oldest licensed pub - Ye Olde Starre Inn
York’s oldest licensed pub – Ye Olde Starre Inn

Make sure you try a pint from one of the many local Yorkshire breweries. And if you’re a fan of craft beer as we are, pop to Trembling Madness. Although not technically a pub, we’d be remiss not to mention them! They have both a bar and shop in two locations and have an unbelievable craft beer selection. Their range included a huge amount of incredibly inventive British beers.

Go Shopping

Whether you’re looking to treat yourself, find the perfect souvenir, or get a gift for a loved one – York has something for everyone. It is home to countless cute and independent shops, as well as the high street and high end shops you would expect to find in any UK city. While the Shambles may be the most picturesque street in Britain and home to many great independent shops, the shopping experience doesn’t stop there!

Stonegate in York is a great place for shopping
Stonegate a great place for shopping.
Stonegate's Original Teddy Bear Shop store front in York England
Find quirky shops like Stonegate’s Original Teddy Bear Shop!

Meander through Stonegate, where you’ll find upper-end high street stores interspersed with quirky independent shops such as Stonegate’s Original Teddy Bear Shop and Käthe Wohlfahrt -a year-round Christmas shop. Visit Parliament, Coney Street, and Coppergate for high street favourites. Or for more local, independent wares, check out the shops along Petergate or stop by one of the stalls at Shambles Market.

Kathe Wohlfahrt christmas store front in York England
A year-round traditional Christmas shop!
Entrance to the Shambles Market
The Shambles Market.

Take A Tour

Taking a tour in York is a great way to learn a bit more about the city’s extensive (and gruesome) history. Spoiler alert: people died everywhere, all the time… olde England was a brutal place!

There are a few different tours you can take and the best one for you will depend on your preferences. It’s worth noting that the City Sightseeing Bus and Cruise are both included in the York City Pass.

York City Sightseeing Bus

The York City Sightseeing hop-on hop-off bus has 20 stops covering all the major attractions in York. Your ticket is valid for 24 hours so you can jump on and off the bus wherever you fancy during this time. The bus tour offers interesting commentary about the city’s 2000 year history and is a great way to get an overview of the city.

A girl sat at the top of the York City Sightseeing bus in front of Bootham Bar - one of the best things to do in York.
Taking in the sights aboard the City Sightseeing Bus.

I’d recommend taking this tour at the beginning of your stay in York to get a feel for the city before exploring more on foot.

Tickets

Tickets start at £16 and can be booked online. They are also included with the York City Pass.

Cruise Along the River Ouse

As most of the interesting architecture and attractions are located in the city centre, a trip along the River Ouse doesn’t offer too much in the way of views. However, if you’ve bought the York City Pass, the City Cruise is included. It is a nice way to spend an hour learning a little more about York and it’s history with the waterways. It was not our favourite activity, but it was a good way to get off our feet for a bit while still seeing the city from a new perspective.

City Cruises York boat on the River Ouse in York England

There are also a variety of other River Ouse tours, including evening cruises, self-drive boats and afternoon tea options available too that all have excellent reviews.

Tickets

Tickets for the City Cruises York start at £10.50 and are included with the York City Pass. There are also plenty of other River Ouse tours available here.

Walking or Cycling Tours

There are many other tour options if you’re feeling more active. Exploring the city by foot or bike is a great way to see all the sights. However, taking a tour gives you the added bonus of a local guide that’s able to provide a deeper understanding of the history of the city. It also means they’ll do all the planning so you don’t have to!

Bootham Bar, one of the gates along the city walls.
Bootham Bar, one of the gates along the city walls.

York Ghost Tours

York is often heralded as the most haunted city in Europe. And, as such, there’s a variety of ghost tours on offer from walking tours to ghost bus tours! Discover the creepier side of York with one of these ghost tours. There are tours catering to all levels of scare factor, from family-friendly to those only for the bravest!

One of the ghost tour guides on the Shambles.
Explore York’s haunted history with a ghost tour.

Find a wide range of different York tours available by clicking here.

Take a Stroll Around the City

Honestly, one of my absolute favourite things to do in York was just wandering around the winding cobbled streets. And for an even better experience, go first thing in the morning. I got up at sunrise (around 6am in August) and went for a walk, leaving Adam snoozing. There’s something almost magical about watching the city slowly come alive. But realistically, it’s a wonderfully walkable city to explore any time. Plus, it’s completely free!

York Minster at the end of the street reflecting in a puddle.
Reflections after a rainy day.

This is also one of the best times to photograph York without people! Even better if you’ve had some rain and can capture some reflections.

However, if possible avoid doing so on a Wednesday morning as this was apparently the bin collection day. There were, therefore, lots of wheelie bins and black bags of rubbish on the streets… Not so nice for photos!

Half timbered building of St Williams College in York, England.
St William’s College in York.

Other Things To Do In York

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to visit all the places in York we might have liked to. Due to social distancing measures, many were either still closed or required advanced booking and were fully booked when we visited York. However, we felt they should still be included within this guide of things to do in York as we’d have loved to have been able to see them and hope you can 🙂

York’s Museums

York is often considered one of the best cities in the UK to visit with kids and this is at laest in part due to the wonderful variety of museums and galleries to explore. In particular, the York Castle Museum, Yorkshire Museum, York Art Gallery and National Railway Museum all came highly recommended.

York Castle Museum as seen from the top of Clifford's Tower.
York Castle Museum as seen from the top of Clifford’s Tower.
The front of York Art Gallery with water fountain and statue in front.
York Art Gallery.

York Dungeon

This was perhaps the attraction we were most disappointed about missing! Unfortunately, it was fully booked when we visited York. If you are planning a visit, be sure to book well in advance (find the link below.)

The York Dungeon provides a glimpse into York’s darkest history through immersive sets, actor-led shows, and special effects. During your tour of the dungeons you’ll meet some of the city’s most renown and notorious characters, including the Vikings, Guy Fawkes and Dick Turpin. You will also attend an appointment with the plague doctor and discover why The Golden Fleece is considered York’s most haunted pub.

Entrance to York Dungeon.
Get a glimpse into York’s dark history at the York Dungeons.

Tickets

Tickets cost £16.95 or are included with the York City Pass. All visits must currently be pre-booked online due to social distancing measures.

Jorvik Viking Centre

The Jorvik Viking Centre will take you on a journey back nearly 1000 years to 960AD when York was controlled by Norse warrior kings. At this time, York was known as Jorvik, the Norse word for York. You’ll be taken on a ride where not only are the sights and sounds of the Viking Age brought to life but even the smells!

Sign for Jorvik Viking Village - one of the top attractions in York England.
Discover Viking life a Jorvik Viking Village.

Tickets

Tickets cost £12.50 individually, but are included in the York City Pass. All visits must currently be pre-booked online due to social distancing measures.

Fairfax House

Fairfax House is a representation of one of England’s finest Georgian houses. A visit here will transport you back to the splendour of city-living in 18th-century York.

View of Fairfax House from Clifford's Tower
View of Fairfax House from Clifford’s Tower.

Tickets

Tickets cost £7.50 individually but are included in your York City Pass. All visits must currently be pre-booked online due to social distancing measures.

Barley Hall

Barley Hall is a stunning medieval timbered house nestled down a narrow alleyway. It’s easy to miss this hidden gem.

The Hall, the oldest part of the building, was built in 1360 as the York townhouse of a monastery near Wakefield. In around 1430 a new wing was added. Today, the building has been carefully restored to its original splendour and a visit here will allow you a glimpse into medieval life.

14th century timbered building of Barley Hall
Emerge from a narrow alleyway to find 14th century Barley Hall.

Tickets

Tickets cost £6.50 or are included in your York City Pass. All tickets must currently be pre-booked online for social distancing measures.

Merchant Adventurers’ Hall

The Merchant Adventurer’s Hall dates back to 1357 and is one of the finest medieval guildhalls in the world. It was founded and constructed by a fraternity of York citizens to perform its charity, business and worship. The beautiful timber-framed building is a Grade I listed building and scheduled ancient monument.

Today, there are still 160 Merchant Adventurers in York and the Hall continues to be their base. The Merchant Adventurers were business pioneers who risked their own finances in overseas trade to bring back goods and wealth to York. A visit to the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall allows you to discover the 660-year history and many secrets of this guildhall.

Tickets

Tickets cost £6.50 or are included in your York City Pass. All tickets must currently be pre-booked online for social distancing measures.

Roman Bath Museum

Sat below a pub in the centre of York is a 2000-year-old Roman Bath House. In 1930, the remains of the 4th-century bathhouse, from the Roman city of Eboracum, were discovered while digging for a new cellar. The pub was promptly and aptly renamed from the Mail Coach Inn to Roman Bath.

Today it is one of the city’s oldest attractions, allowing you to a glimpse into what life was like in Roman York.

Outside of Roman Bath pub and museum
Roman Bath pub hides a 2000 year old Roman Bath House!

Tickets

Tickets cost £3.50 or are included in your York City Pass.

York Mansion House

York Mansion House has been the official residence of the Lord Mayor of York for almost 300 years. Filled with scandal, decadence and frivolity, the Lord Mayor’s have contributed to the colourful history of York. The Mansion House has been open to the public since 2018 and will allow you to experience this extravagant mayoral life while journeying through York’s Georgian past.

The outside of York Mansion House
York Mansion House.

Tickets

Tickets cost £6.50 or are included in your York City Pass. All tickets must currently be pre-booked online for social distancing measures.

Take a Day Trip from York

While there are plenty of things to do in York’s city, it is also surrounded by some of the England’s most beautiful countryside. As a nature lover, I highly recommend taking a day trip from York to explore the British countryside. We were able to visit all of the following sights on our day trip. It was a busy day, but well worth it! Many of these sights are also included in the York & Beyond Explorer Pass.

You could even go further afield and explore the Lake District, Yorkshire Moors, Yorkshire Dales National Park or visit the coastal town of Whitby. The below tours are great options if you don’t have a car.

If you have more time, this guide also has some great suggestions for even more Yorkshire things to do.

Castle Howard

We started our day at Castle Howard as it was en route to Helmsley. While it may have “castle” in its name, it is, in fact, a stately home – albeit a very grand one!

A girl in a red dress in front of Castle Howard - a great day trip from York
Castle Howard makes a great day trip from York.

Castle Howard sits majestically within the Howardian Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Construction started on the house in 1699 but took over 100 years to complete. The estate also includes over 1000 acres of parkland with a large lake, woodland, temples, and formal gardens.

Atlas Fountain at Castle Howard.
Atlas Fountain at Castle Howard.
A girl amongst flowers in the Walled Gardens of Castle Howard.
Walled Gardens of Castle Howard.

The house itself was not open for visitors when we visited. We spent about an hour and a half exploring the grounds and photographing the exterior of Castle Howard. Personally, we felt this gave us sufficient time to get a feel for the place, and we had a busy day ahead of us still!

Temple of Four Winds at Castle Howard.
Temple of Four Winds at Castle Howard.

Tickets

Tickets for the gardens only are £12.95 or for the gardens and house are £22.00. The house is open on limited days at present and all tickets must currently be pre-booked online for social distancing measures.

Helmsley Walled Gardens

Our next stop was one of our favourites. The Helmsley Walled Gardens far exceeded our expectations. Upon entering the gardens, you are immediately met with a flurry of colours against a backdrop of the impressive Helmsley Castle ruins. The juxtaposition of the kaleidoscopic flowers so alive with colour, against the grey of the ruined castle and cement-coloured skies created a magical, fairytale-like feeling.

While the flowers themselves entranced us, what really made Helmsley Walled Gardens stand out was the staff. Tricia, one of only two full-time employed gardeners, was visibly and contagiously passionate about both the gardens themselves and the work they do there. Beyond providing a pretty place to explore, Helmsley Walled Gardens works to support disadvantaged adults with mental health issues. Through social and therapeutic horticulture, they provide people with mental and physical disabilities the opportunity to develop skills and improve their health through gardening.

As a registered charity, they rely heavily on money from visitors and donations to keep the gardens running. Therefore, by visiting the gardens you’re not only in for a real treat yourself, but you can feel good about helping a great cause.

A drone aerial image of Helmsley Walled Gardens and Helmsley Castle.
Aerial view of Helmsley Walled Gardens and Helmsley Castle
(taken with permission)

Tickets

Tickets cost £7 or are included in the York & Beyond Explorer Pass. At present, it is requested that you book online in advance to ensure social distancing can be maintained.

Helmsley Castle

In contrast to the Walled Gardens, we were somewhat underwhelmed by Helmsley Castle itself. I think perhaps after visiting some of the best castles in Scotland last year and having explored many in England as well, we’ve become a bit spoilt when it comes to castles!

Sun star in the window of the medieval ruins of Helmsley Castle with a girl in a red dress on the rocks in front.
The sun bursts through the medieval ruins.

However, the 900-year history of Helmsley Castle is fascinating. The castle has evolved over the centuries and served many purposes, having been occupied by both private families and royals. The first recorded castle at the site dates back to the 12th century. Since then it has been a mighty fortress, elegant Tudor mansion, a stronghold during the Civil War then later a Victorian ruin.

Tickets

Tickets cost £7.90 or are included in the York & Beyond Explorer Pass. It is also an English Heritage site so is free to enter for English Heritage members. All tickets must currently be pre-booked online for social distancing measures.

Helmsley Village

The picturesque market town of Helmsley made it to our list of prettiest English villages. Surrounding the market square you’ll discover a number of quintessentially English tea rooms, small independent shops and boutique galleries.

The beautiful village of Helmsley makes for a great day trip from York.
Helmsley is one of the prettiest villages in England.

It’s the perfect place to stop for lunch or an afternoon tea before continuing to explore nearby. Helmsley also offers a great range of accommodation and would make the ideal base from which to explore more of the Yorkshire countryside.

Click here to check for accommodation prices and availability in Helmsley.

National Bird of Prey Centre

The National Bird of Prey Centre was our other favourite stop on our day trip from York. The centre is a leader in captive breeding, conservation, and care for birds of prey. All the birds in their aviaries, with the exception of the trained owls, are part of breeding programmes.

A kestrel soaring during a flying demonstration at the National Bird of Prey Centre York
A kestrel soaring during a flying demonstration.

They have the largest collection of birds of prey in the north of England. These include both domestic and exotic species, ranging from the tiny Burrowing Owls to the enormous Steller Sea Eagles.

A barn owl glides just above spectators at the National Bird of Prey Centre.
A barn owl glides just above spectators at the National Bird of Prey Centre.

Each day, the National Bird of Prey Centre offers 2 or 3 flying demonstrations (depending on the time of year). This was definitely the highlight of our visit. We were able to witness a Barn Owl, Kestrel, African Fishing Eagle and other birds flying, often flying just above our heads!

Tickets

Tickets cost £9 or are included in the York & Beyond Explorer Pass. Advanced booking is not currently required.

Rievaulx Abbey

Nestled in a remote valley in the North York Moors National Park, the former Cistercian abbey is one of the most complete of England’s abbey ruins. When open, it is possible to wander the ruins and discover more about how the building would’ve looked throughout its history.

A horse in front of the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey
A horse in front of the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey.

Unfortunately, Rievaulx Abbey was closed when we visited, however, we decided to still drive by it and were able to appreciate its beauty from the roadside.

Rievaulx Abbey and brick houses seen from the roadside.

If you decided to spend longer in Helmsley, there is a popular scenic 7-mile circular walking route that takes you to from Helmsley Castle to Rievaulx Abbey.

Tickets

Tickets cost £10 or are included in the York & Beyond Explorer Pass. It is also an English Heritage site so is free to enter for English Heritage members. All tickets must currently be pre-booked online for social distancing measures.

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Best Places To Eat In York

As with any big city, there is no shortage of options for places to eat in York. We did our best to experience a diverse range of recommend restaurants, ranging from upscale to street eats, and have listed our favorites below.

Fancy Hank’s

Fare: American BBQ
Atmosphere: Casual
Price: Mid Range
Recommended: Buttermilk Fry Shrimp, Chicken & Waffle, Slow Braised Spare Rib

Without a doubt, Fancy Hank’s was our favourite meal in all of York! We loved it so much, in fact, that we nearly changed our departure plans to try and sneak in one more meal there before returning to London.

The outside of Fancy Hanks - the best restaurant in York England
The outside of Fancy Hanks.

What makes Fancy Hank’s so impressive is how well-executed everything was. The soulful art matched the music, all perfectly aligned with the casual but genuine service ethos. Of course, all of this would have been for nought if they failed to deliver on the menu; in fact, they massively exceeded all expectations there as well!

Main meal at Fancy Hanks restaurant York
This food did not last long… and my mouth is watering thinking about this food as I write this caption!

This is not just the best BBQ in all of the UK, but indeed rivals even the best in the US. The portions are generous, the flavours are indescribable, and the experience perfectly complements the menu. Put simply, Fancy Hank’s is the best place to eat in York!

The Rise

Fare: Contemporary Bistro
Atmosphere: Casual Fine Dining
Price: Mid-Upper
Recommended: Grand Scotch Eggs, Rump of Lamb

The entire ethos of The Rise restaurant could be described with their very own Grand Scotch Eggs serving as the perfect metaphor. That is, a traditionally simple thing done exceptionally well.

Due to Covid-19, our 3 year anniversary was postponed until we could be reunited. We chose to celebrate this special occasion at The Grand Hotel and had our anniversary dinner at its restaurant; The Rise.

Adam and Sophie from We Dream of Travel on their 3 year anniversary at The Rise restaurant York
Celebrating our 3 year anniversary at The Rise. We left our cameras behind for this one 🙂

Where many restaurants have felt disorganised and perhaps even panicked since reopening post C19, our experience at The Rise was the most “normal” things have felt in some time… but, in an amazing way.

This restaurant definitely fits into the upscale, fine-dining segment, but manages to avoid feeling pretentious. The service was professional, while still being warm and personal. The same could be said of the decorum and overall vibe of the restaurant.

If you are looking for an elegant, fine-dining experience, whether celebrating an occasion or simply needing a proper night out again, we highly recommend The Rise! It is the perfect balance of fancy and comfortable.

Ate O’Clock

Fare: British
Atmosphere: Casual
Price: Mid-Range
Recommended: BBQ Wings (surprisingly), Sticky Toffee Pudding

We ended up having our final lunch at Ate O’Clock, which is a fun restaurant in a nice area of the city. It feels like a bit of an oasis as you step off the busy street, walk down a fairy-lit tunnel, and arrive at a warm, vibrant little restaurant. The staff were very friendly and it all just felt inviting.

Entrance to Ate O'Clock in York
Pretty entrance to Ate O’Clock.

Adam started with the chicken wings, which he expected to be a guilty pleasure but was amazed by. Even I loved them, and I don’t eat wings! I know that’s just the starter, but it was a good way to start.

A girl standing in the fairy lit tunnel entrance way to Ate O'clock
A fairy lit tunnel brings you to the restaurant.

For our mains, Adam got the sirloin steak with peppercorn sauce and I got a hamburger. These get an 8 out of 10. The steak was cooked perfectly, but the meat itself was very tough. Adam was extremely happy with the flavour and preparation, but he would have gone for the duck or lamb next time.

I was happy enough with my burger. However, I absolutely loved the sticky toffee pudding, which I had after!

A plate of brownies with chocolate decoration.

We both agreed that we were well pleased with the food itself. However, it was the overall level of service and atmosphere that made this a place we would return to the next time we were in York.

Spring Espresso

Fare: Cafe
Recommended: Carrot Cake, Cold Brew

We visited 4 or 5 cafes during our visit to York, and this was the favourite in terms of food, coffee, and service.

Front of Spring Espresso coffee shop in York - one of the best places for coffee in York

I am a cold brew fanatic and loved the one I got from Spring Espresso. In fact, I loved it so much that I made us walk all the way back before we left so I could have one for the drive home…

I take that back; the real reason we had to walk all the way back was for their carrot cake. This is my favourite cake, and neither of us remembers a better one in recent memory.

On top of the incredible food and coffee, the gentleman working the counter was one of the friendliest people we encountered in York. Of the cafes we visited! It was lovely to see someone who seemed to genuinely enjoy the customer-service portion of their job.

York Roast Co.

Fare: Roasts
Atmosphere: Very casual / Takeaway
Price: Cheap Eats
Recommended: Yorky Pud Wrap

There is a lot NOT to like about the York Roast Co; the service was dreadfully slow, the staff seemed young and unhappy to be there, and it’s basically one step above fast food. However, there are a couple of things to love about the place which forces us, begrudgingly, to actually recommend it.

Exterior of York Roast Co
Great fast food – poor slow service.

First off, you have to get a Yorkshire pudding in York, and the Yorky Pud Wrap took things to the next level. Filled with potatoes, stuffing, meats, and cranberry sauce, this guilty pleasure was like a Sunday roast to go.

The other reason it really is a good option is the price and convenience. Let’s face it, we aren’t always in the mood for a lavish sit-down! Having all the best comfort foods stuffed into a Yorkshire pudding without a major time or financial investment is a very nice option to have.

Where NOT to eat in York

Of course, not everywhere we went delivered as wonderful an experience as the restaurants and cafes listed above. Below are those places that we would recommend avoiding.

The Black Swan (Peasholme Green)

Lured in by the promise of haunted history and a strong recommendation, we decided to give The Black Swan a try… and we hope no one else will bother.

Our negative experience began before we even arrived. We attempted to phone the restaurant to explain the cameras and tripod we’d be bringing as we intended to review our experience. However, we were promptly hung up on with the explanation of “I don’t have time for this”.

The Black Swan - One of the worst restaurants in York.
The Black Swan – One of the worst restaurants in York.

We almost skipped it at that, but really wanted to experience one of York’s oldest restaurants. Besides, we considered that this may have been a busy waiter. Times are crazy for restaurants right now, especially concerning staffing, and we are sympathetic to that. We made a reservation online and figured we could explain the gear if they asked at the restaurant.

Though the staff seemed somewhat frantic and stressed, it didn’t feel very busy when we arrived. We were seated in a small room that was exactly what we’d hoped for in terms of aesthetics, in that it had a very olde, haunted atmosphere. There were plenty of empty seats, so capacity was not the issue.

A girl inside a pub in York.
The only good thing about our experience – the aesthetics.

After waiting for 25 minutes, we were finally asked for our orders. The menu was disappointingly uninspired, even by pub standards. However, that would’ve been fine as long as whatever they offered, they did well.

To keep this short, Adam’s first THREE orders were all “out for the day”. Eventually, he settled for the fish and chips… “lucky him”, they said… “last one!”

The food arrived as ill-prepared as the restaurant seemed to be. I received a steak and ale pie so dry the gravy refused to coexist with the meat, seeking refuge at the edges of the plate. The mashed potatoes was more of a solid lump. Adam’s fish and chips were ok… Nothing we would ever go back for, but nothing that would’ve merited a negative review alone. We were disappointed when we asked for ketchup and were given two plastic-packed rations. Even the simple things seemed strained.

This place is neat to look at, but the experience could not have been more frustrating and disappointing. If I were management, it would not be a haunted past I would concern myself with, but the doomed future if things are not addressed.

Plush Cafe

After exploring much of York’s centre for the day, we wanted to tuck in for a moment of warmth over a cream tea. We sought out a cute, independently owned cafe and were delighted when we stumbled upon Plush Cafe. It was exactly that; aesthetically unique and independently owned.

Better yet, the cream tea included lemon coconut scones! Two of Adam’s favourite ingredients. Unfortunately, everything about Plush Cafe was more pleasing to the eye than any other sensory.

This is the cafe version of putting lipstick on a pig. It has clearly been designed with Instagrammers in mind, focusing on appearance with a lack of thought or effort on the actual product.

It took an eternity to receive our food, which came on adorable plates with golden cutlery. Despite throbbing knees and posterior from sitting on a wooden swing for 20+ minutes awaiting our cream tea, I was still excited to try the scones.

Neither of us finished them. That says a lot to those who know how much I like food, and how much Adam loves lemon and coconut. These tasted like something you get in the freezer aisle, warmed up. They were served with a comically small portion of jam and cream. When we asked for more, we were told they were out. How a cafe runs out of one of its most essential items on a Tuesday is beyond me.

Unless Plush Cafe decides they care about the service and product as much as the aesthetic, I can’t imagine this place will exist for long.

Where to Stay in York

Parking is an absolute nightmare in York, so choosing a good, central location to explore the city is paramount. We stayed in two different hotels, both of which we can genuinely recommend for different reasons.

The Grand York

There are not many 5-star hotels in the York, but The Grand York has earned every one of them!

Exterior of the 5-star Grand Hotel in York.
The 5-star Grand Hotel in York.

We loved many things about our stay, but beyond the exceptional location, what set this hotel apart was the way they seamlessly integrated their rich history and heritage with modern comforts. This is not an easy task.

A girl looking back at The Grand Hotel from the York city walls.
Taking in the view of the hotel from the city walls.

We loved how The Grand York felt old and historic in terms of aesthetics and decorum. The service was friendly in an old-fashioned way, which perfectly meshes with the culture.

Adam and Sophie from We Dream of Travel enjoying breakfast in bed at The Grand Hotel York.
An absolutely incredible breakfast – made even better by having it in bed!

However, the actual rooms deviated in all the right ways. Let’s face it, you don’t book a 5-star hotel ready to sacrifice modern comforts. From the moment we entered our room, a sense of relief set in. The view was terrific, the amenities well-appointed, and all the furniture was exceptionally comfortable. It felt cosy as a home but fancy as a hotel.

The exclamation point was when a knock came moments after arriving delivering a chocolate plate and champagne on ice, celebrating our belated 3 year anniversary. These little touches make so much difference!

Oh, and we dare not forget the incredible breakfast. The Full Yorkshire breakfast was divine!

Rates at The Grand, York, a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts, starts from £102 per room per night. For further information or to book, visit www.preferredhotels.com

The Grange Hotel

The Grange Hotel is considered a 4-star hotel but is often priced much more reasonably. Its location is close to central and you can expect a short 15-minute walk to most attractions.

The Grange Hotel is an interesting option for places to stay in York. It has stayed true to its history, which extends to the rooms. Past the faded pink door to our room awaited something frozen in time. The floors creaked with, literally, every step toward the bed.

Outside of the Grange Hotel in York england

There were, of course, some modern amenities. The fridge, TV, and bathroom were all more updated than the rest of the room. The bed was mostly comfortable, though we prefer modern mattresses to box spring, and prefer it to be one unit rather than two sets pushed together forming a hard line down the centre.

As the rooms are often a more affordable option, this hotel does provide a great value at a reasonable price. If you enjoy the historical element and see this is a perk, then that value climbs even higher.

There is one major caveat, that we would be remiss not to mention. As is the case with old construction, we heard every single word and step from the guests above us. This alone was not overly bothersome as we are quite used to hostels and such in our travels. However, it became an issue each night around 1:30am when those guests arrived home. It was very difficult for us to get an enjoyable night’s rest as a result.

If you are a light sleeper, I wouldn’t recommend booking unless you’re able to get a top-floor room or a promise no one will be placed above you at the very least. If noise is not a major concern and the price is right, or if you enjoy something more historic and traditional, strongly consider The Grange for your visit to York.

Other Places To Stay in York

These are the two hotels we stayed in and we would recommend both to different readers. However, as always, there are plenty of options via AirBnB and Booking.com to consider. You will likely find plenty of options to meet most budgets by booking accommodation through these options, though I suspect you won’t find much as centrally located.

Final Thoughts on The Best Things To Do In York

The Shambles at night.
The Shambles at night.

We hope you’ve found this guide to the best things to do in York useful. Thank you again to Visit York for helping us to arrange this staycation, as well as the other businesses that made our stay so enjoyable.

As always, we’ve aimed to provide you with honest feedback on all our experiences in York – the bad as well as the good! We want you to have the best time possible in York.

We’re always looking to improve our guides for you. Let us know what you think – good or bad – or if you think we’ve missed somewhere from this guide!

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8 Comments

  1. September 5, 2020 / 1:41 am

    What a wonderful and thorough guide! You’ve completely sold me on a trip to York and I’m drooling over your photography and all of the charming spots!

    • September 5, 2020 / 4:00 pm

      Thank you so much Elena! I hope you can make it to York, it’s a truly beautiful city 🙂

  2. September 5, 2020 / 1:45 am

    Oh my you had me at the Harry Potter reference but then the Chocolate tour got my fancy and I was wishing to be teleported to York right now. What a fun post to read- thoroughly enjoyed it and its made it to my travel bucket list for sure.

    • September 5, 2020 / 4:05 pm

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the post and really hope you’re able to make it to York. It’s a wonderful city.

  3. September 5, 2020 / 2:33 am

    York is such an interesting place. So much history. Thank you for such a great in depth post. Lots of inspiration of places to visit during a visit to York.

    • September 5, 2020 / 4:11 pm

      Thank you! There’s so much to see and do in York 🙂

  4. September 5, 2020 / 9:42 am

    Wow, Sophie, your pictures are amazing and as always this is a very comprehensive and useful guide.

    • September 5, 2020 / 4:27 pm

      Thanks so much Suvarna. I’m glad you found it helpful 🙂

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**All photos contained in this photography-based travel blog are copyright of Adam Marland & Sophie Clapton. 
They are not to be used for any purpose without the expressed, written consent of their owners.**