York City Guide
York was founded by the Romans in 71 AD, though there had been settlement in the area much earlier. Eboracum, as it was then known, quickly established itself as a key centre of power in northern Britain, even after the Romans departed the country. In 866 Eboracum was captured and settled by Vikings as part of Scandinavian expansion into Britain and remained an important Viking town (called Jorvik) for almost a century.
During the Middle Ages, York established its reputation as a centre of industry and trade, with textile manufacturing in particular providing the basis for a new prosperity. In modern times the focus has shifted to railways, confectionary, and increasingly, to tourism. It has also become a vibrant student town since the establishment in 1963 of the University of York, now a world-class institution.
York is now home to approximately 200,000 people, the vast majority of whom speak English, which is by far the predominant language of business.
As in the rest of the UK, the currency in use is the pound sterling. Other currencies are generally not accepted, but as York is a major tourist centre, there are plenty of locations where you can change money. It is also possible to withdraw pounds sterling from local ATMs or cash machines, which are plentiful in the town centre. While travellers’ cheques can be exchanged for cash at banks (and sometimes at larger hotels), they cannot generally be used to make purchases, so are probably a less useful option than a debit or credit card (all major credit cards are widely accepted).
When to Visit
The city’s relatively sheltered location in the Vale of York means that its residents enjoy an even more temperate climate than that experienced by the rest of Yorkshire.
York seldom gets extreme temperatures – the average daytime summer temperature is around 22 degrees Celsius (although it can drop to around 15 degrees at night), while winter temperatures average around 7 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Celsius at night). On occasion temperatures might reach as high as 30 degrees, or drop below freezing, but this is exceptional. Snow is common in winter, but seldom remains on the ground for long. Instead, the winter months (November through January) can be very wet, with rain or fog nearly every day.
While the summer months are the most pleasant in terms of weather, with the most sunshine and dry days, they are also peak season for tourists; hence hotels, restaurants and visitor attractions get very busy and prices may be higher. If you’re looking to experience York minus the crowds, consider visiting in spring or autumn, when the weather is still comfortable but there are fewer visitors.
York is well-placed for transport – it is easy to get there and away via road, rail or air. The city is within driving distance of both Leeds Bradford Airport and Manchester Airport, although the latter has the benefit of a regular express-train service to York – you can also access it via a number of smaller regional airports. The city also boasts excellent rail connections to other destinations around the UK – book well in advance if you want to secure cheaper fares.
While it’s easy enough to reach York by road, parking can be difficult. There are handy Park and Rides outside the city centre, but you cannot park here overnight, and the last buses leave the city centre fairly early in the evening. Hence, if you’re staying in York overnight, try to find a hotel with parking facilities, as city-centre car parks can be expensive. Alternately, you can travel to York by intercity coach from London or other major centres; this is an inexpensive option and eliminates parking issues.
Another argument against bringing your car is that the medieval street layout of the town centre makes driving is extremely difficult, with many thoroughfares pedestrianized for at least part of the day. Fortunately, York is a fairly compact city and easy to get around on foot, with most of the major attractions within easy reach. Hence you’re better off walking, cycling or using the local bus service for slightly longer journeys.
York is generally quite a safe city, but as in most large urban centres, the usual precautions should be taken. Keep an eye on your money and belongings, as pickpocketing is not unknown, and take care when out late at night (especially if alone).
One major benefit for visitors is that York’s City Council offers free wifi in the area around St. Helen’s Square and Coney Street in the city centre. Free wifi is also available at most public libraries, as well as in many hotels, cafés and pubs.
Visitors should also be aware that since 2007, all enclosed public spaces in England have been smoke-free. Thus, you are not allowed to smoke in restaurants, bars, cafés, or common areas in hotels, or any other enclosed public space. Normally there are designated smoking areas with ashtrays located outside most establishments. If you wish to smoke in your hotel room, you must request a smoking room at time of booking, if this option is available – often it is subject to availability.
Top 5 Attractions
York’s rich heritage, coupled with a lively cultural scene, mean there are plenty of things to see and do in the city. With some of the best-preserved medieval buildings in Britain and a wealth of historic structures from other eras, it’s tempting to spend your visit simply strolling through the streets and admiring the city’s architecture. However, there are also a number of museums, galleries and other attractions that you should definitely make time to visit, including these five world-class attractions:
- York Minster – Towering over its surroundings, the impressive façade and tower of this historic cathedral is hard to miss. The Minster is known as the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, and is the seat of the Archbishop of York. While some form of church has existed on the site since at least the seventh century, the earliest parts of the current structure date from the 1200s. Surprisingly bright and airy, the cathedral is famous for its spectacular stained glass windows, some of which actually date from the Middle Ages. Try to catch an evensong service at the cathedral – it’s a great way to properly savour the atmosphere.
- Jorvik Viking Centre – This highly interactive museum offers fascinating insight into what York was like during its Viking period. Based on extensive excavations of the old Viking town of Jorvik undertaken during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the centre features a “time travel” ride that lets visitors experience the sights, sounds and even smells of the early medieval settlement. Visitors can also explore a recreation of the original excavations - including 1,000-year-old timbers that once formed part of a Viking dwelling - plus hundreds of artefacts, including the skeleton of a Viking berserker, complete with battle wounds.
- York Castle Museum – The extensive collections at the York Castle Museum are so cleverly interpreted that even people not normally interested in history cannot fail to be entertained. Focusing on everyday life across the centuries, the museum uses thousands of artefacts to recreate rooms and other spaces from ages past – offering a rare glimpse into homes, shops and even an entire Victorian street. There’s plenty here to engage anyone interested in antiques, design, textiles, household goods, weaponry and more, or who simply wants a first-hand look at everyday life in former times.
- National Railway Museum – A must-see for those who love trains and transport, the National Railway Museum at York is the biggest railway museum in the world, covering over 300 years of rail history. With its long history as a key rail hub in the north, York is an ideal place for such a collection, and the award-winning displays do justice to the selection of 100 locomotives (and 200 other assorted cars) you’ll find here.
- Treasurer’s House – A true national treasure, this manor house was the first property to be donated to the National Trust complete with its own interior collection – and it’s enormously fortunate it was, as the home offers an evocative glimpse of over 2,000 years of history. From the Roman remains in the (allegedly haunted) cellar, to the elegant rooms above, this is an atmospheric place to explore and offers endless discoveries waiting to be uncovered.
It’s not surprising that a city with such a varied history and architecture offers numerous options for guided tours. Many of these are either free or very cheap (£5 or under), and they’re a great way to get your bearings and gain some insight into the wealth of culture around you.
For instance, the Association of Voluntary Guides provides free walking tours covering general history and the major sights of York. The tours leave from just outside the York Art Gallery and last approximately two hours. There is one tour a day year-round (except Christmas Day) and extra tours during the summer months.
You can also catch The World Tour of York, starting in St. Helen’s Square twice a day on Saturdays, or the Yorkwalk, which also runs on weekends and starts on Museum Street, just outside the Museum Garden – these are both entertaining introduction to the city and its inhabitants.
York is reputed to be one of the most haunted cities in the world, so if you enjoy all things spooky, a ghost tour is strongly recommended. Catch the Ghost Trail of York outside York Minster each evening, or the Original Ghost Walk of York, which leaves from the King’s Arms Pub on the Ouse Bridge (and is thought to be the first solely ghost-focused walk in the world). Other options are the Ghost Hunt of York, which starts each evening in the atmospheric Shambles, and the York Terror Trail, which commences at the haunted Golden Fleece Inn and focuses on the darker side of York history.
There are also a number of niche walking tours that tailor to specific interests , including a Viking tour, an 18th-century themed tour, guided battlefield tours, and even a tour of the many cat statues that appear throughout the city. You can also hire boats to cruise on the River Ouse.
Part of the fun of visiting York is taking the time to explore hidden nooks and crannies and uncovering the many wonderful secrets this city has to reveal. Devote a few hours to strolling through York’s Snickleways, the narrow, twisting medieval lanes that wind through the city centre, and the Shambles, one of the best-preserved medieval streets in the world and once home to York’s butcher trade. These picturesque roads are now home to a variety of boutiques, cafés and pubs, with excellent opportunities to shop and dine in an atmospheric setting.
It’s also worth taking time out to walk around the medieval city walls that enclose part of York. The walls are a fairly easy walk and offer superb views, plus the opportunity to visit the Micklegate Bar Museum, situated in one of the original gateways to the town. The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall on the Fossgate and the Barley Hall off the Stonegate are also highly recommended – these medieval buildings are powerfully evocative of times past and offer fabulous insight into York in the Middle Ages.
In terms of food and drink, York offers a wide range of establishments ranging from cheap and cheerful student haunts to high-class fine dining, so you will be able to find something to suit regardless of your budget and taste. For mid-range diners, try Melton’s on Scarcroft Road for a pleasant bistro atmosphere and top-notch Yorkshire produce, or J Baker’s Bistro Moderne on Fossgate for an innovative selection of grazing plates that let you sample some appetising creations.
The Hairy Fig on Fossgate and Henshelwoods on Newgate are both superb delicatessens for those who’d like to pack their own picnic of local delicacies, while if you’re looking for somewhere high-end, try the elegant Middlethorpe Hall Restaurant on Bishopthorpe Road for fine dining in a historic setting, or the sleek, contemporary 31 Castlegate Restaurant just below Clifford’s Tower.
Another interesting dining experience is The Eboracum Legion Bathhouse on St. Sampson’s Square. Upstairs is a buzzing bar and restaurant, while the cellar houses the intriguing archaeological remains of a Roman-era bathhouse that is open to visitors. Also be sure not to miss the famous Betty’s Tea Rooms on St. Helen’s Square. A traditional, classy and slightly posh tea room, Betty’s is renowned for its delectable patisserie, which is worth the slightly high prices and occasional queue to get a table.
You may also want to take a guided tour of the York Brewery (located in the Micklegate Bar Walls) to sample the locals ales, or cosy up for the evening in one of the many charming medieval pubs, such as The Black Swan on Peaseholme Green, or The House of Trembling Madness (named after a traditional beer) on Stonegate. If your taste runs more to cocktail bars than pubs, the Stonegate Yard Bar & Brasserie on Little Stonegate and The Biltmore Bar and Grill on Swinegate both have an excellent selection. The Evil Eye Lounge is also highly recommended for its innovative cocktail concoctions, although the atmosphere is decidedly more bohemian than uptown.
If you’d like to bring a taste of York home with you, the city is known for its associations with chocolate – both Rowntree’s and Terry’s of York have been based here since the 19th century, and Nestlé (which purchased Rowntree’s) still produces over 80,000 pounds of chocolate a year at its York factory, including the iconic Rowntree brands Kit Kat, Quality Street, and Smarties. While all these products are widely available, you can learn more about York’s association with chocolate and sample some of the goods at one of the city’s newer attractions, York’s Chocolate Story on King’s Square.Photos: York Minster by Glen [email protected], The Shambles by [email protected]