It is no secret that the UK is packed full of hidden gems which many visitors simply do not have the time to tour. York – situated in the middle of the UK but towards the north of England – is perhaps the jewel in the crown. Even by British standards, this beautiful city has an astonishingly rich history. Founded by the Romans, conquered and settled by the Vikings, and one of the hotbeds of the industrial revolution – few cities have as fascinating a tale to tell.
Ideally situated between London and Edinburgh, with both being around two hours travel by train, it makes for a fantastic couple of nights layover. Often topping domestic polls of being the UK’s preferred city, there’s a huge amount to see and experience. Let’s take a look at some of the key reasons why taking the time to explore York may well turn out to be the highlight of any UK vacation.
Although the city has long since expanded beyond the ancient boundaries, these medieval city walls are the best preserved in the country. Often referred to as the “Bar Walls”, over two miles they encircle the ancient city center and provide the perfect way for visitors to orient themselves to the layout of the city. The walls themselves are immaculately maintained by easy to traverse, offering stunning views throughout.
There is no admission fee (the walls are still used by locals to make their way around the city) and a couple of small ‘Bar Museums’ are located at the most historic sections with a nominal admission cost. If looking to enjoy a quick lunch on the go and save a few bucks, consider a little al-fresco picnic – weather permitting!
The Minster Quarter
Without question, the most standout attraction that York has to offer is one of the largest and most beautiful cathedrals in Northern Europe (and second largest in the gothic style). Dominating the city skyline and visible from miles around, this cathedral is referred to colloquially as the ‘Minster’ – a phrase dating back to Anglo-Saxon times. Even non-religious visitors cannot fail to be stunned by the astonishing architecture and largest expanse of intricate stained glass in the world.
This astonishing building deserves the time to really explore and offers an atmosphere that is quite unique compared to many other historic religious building. For a small admission fee, visitors can climb the narrow staircase up to the bell tower for unparalleled views stretching many miles over the Vale of York. The surrounding gardens are also magnificent.
Far from shambolic but often very crowded, try and visit the ‘Shambles’ district of the city center earlier or later in the day. This street has featured in countless historic movies and offers as unspoiled an experience of a still working medieval era street as can be found. The overhanging second stories add even more to the atmosphere, and there are some gorgeous little boutiques where once may have been a tanner, blacksmith or less artisan baker.
The National Railway Museum
York isn’t all about ancient and medieval history. The city has long played a vital role in the national rail infrastructure, and today is home to perhaps the greatest railway museum on the planet. Even if trains are not your thing – and there are a lot of classic engines on display – the museum also emphasizes the fascinating social history of the British railways. Including many international exhibits and some of the most unique examples of rail heritage to be found anywhere, admission is also free for all (donations recommended!).
The three attractions discussed so far are essential for any visit to York, but do be aware that there are countless other museums, historic buildings, and galleries that would take pride of place in many other cities. Clifford’s Tower exemplifies the darker side of the city’s history and is conveniently next to the city museum. This offers a compelling insight into the archaeological and social story of this fascinating destination. But what to do later on in the day? Once again, visitors are happily spoiled for choice!
York is home to a fantastic variety of historic pubs. Many of the best have been in situ for hundreds of years with glorious interiors. The city is also famed for its beer – with the annual festival (typically mid-September) offering over 500 varieties brewed both locally and internationally. As for dining, there is everything from great value independent bistros through to Michelin starred establishments.
One very popular, and highly recommended, way to enjoy the evening would be take up the services of one of the resident Ghost Walks. York is regarded as one of the most haunted cities in the UK, and these charismatic guides will escort you through the city at night recalling the dark secrets and mysteries that lie behind the beautiful facade.
Depending upon the time of year, there are plenty of annual festivals and events and you’d be very unlucky to visit when there wasn’t something special going on. York is home to one of the UK’s most prestigious racecourses, and do be warned the city becomes especially busy when a big ‘meet’ is being held. Food festivals, winter festivals, arthouse seasons – you name it they take place almost constantly in one form or another. For example, most recently they built a scale replica of Shakespeare’s famed Globe theater to play host to the great Bard’s collection of works!
So if you may be considering a vacation in the UK, and especially if intending to visit both London and Edinburgh, don’t forget that York is a wonderful option to break up the journey. While absolutely packed with sights to experience, it is a relatively small city and all of the key attractions are within an easy walking distance of each other. Accommodation is widespread and can cater for all budgets, with the train station delivering visitors straight into the heart of the city. For a fascinating stopover, York is very difficult to beat and will thrill any history enthusiast.