York: A beginners' guide

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Explore the ancient city of York and its beautiful surrounding countryside with some tips from local experts. 

 Where are the best attractions in York?  Where can I get the best views of the city?
Where are the best places to shop and eat? Where can I go for a day trip from York?
What activities and attractions are nearby? How do I get there, and get around?

Top attractions in York 


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Where are the best attractions in York?

 Expert tipSusan Briggs: “Gaze in wonder at the splendour of York's cathedral, imagine living in the tiny half-timbered houses of the Shambles, wander around the cobbled streets and explore the history of the splendid buildings.” 

Yorkshire Museum and Gardens
A great introduction to the city, at the Yorkshire Museum you can explore York's medieval history through interactive activities for all ages The building is surrounded by beautiful gardens and the remains of an abbey, on the banks of the River Ouse.

JORVIK Viking Centre 
Travel back in time at JORVIK , one of the UK’s most popular attractions, to see how the city looked in 975AD. You can see real remains of 1,000 year old houses beneath your feet. Proof that you're standing in a very old city!

York's Chocolate Story 
Discover the humble York beginnings of treats like Toffee Crisp, Smarties, and KitKat with this chocolate factory guided tour, which includes plenty of opportunities for tasting and even a chance to try your hand at chocolate making.

The National Railway Museum 
Perfect for families, York's Railway Museum is the largest in the UK, and it's also completely free. Whether you love the railways or not, the collection of nearly 300 historic trains and over 1,000,000 items from history is very impressive, and well worth a visit.


Where can I get the best views of the city? 


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 Expert tipSusan Briggs: “I love to walk round the Roman city walls which enclose most of the city. Because they are slightly elevated, you get great views and glimpses into the gardens of some of the finest historical buildings in England.” 

The City Walls 
The remaining sections of York's ancient city walls offer a unique, elevated perspective of the city and are a great way to explore. At various parts of them, such as Bootham Bar, you can climb the steps and walk along the wall for some fantastic views of the Minster and the Museum Gardens.

York Minster  
In the very heart of the city, this is the largest medieval Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe, and the architecture is stunning (pictured, right). Make sure you climb the Central Tower for some marvellous views of the city.

Clifford’s Tower
Almost all that remains of York’s historic Castle, this tower offers unrivaled panoramic views of the city and the contrasting scenery beyond. You can often see all the way to the beautiful countryside of the North York Moors, far in the distance.

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Shopping and eating in York 


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Where are the best places to shop?

The Shambles
Once a place for butchers to trade, the Shambles were built with overhanging timber-framed buildings to stop meat from going bad in the sun. Retaining much of their medieval charm, they’re now filled with quirky eateries and shopping spots.

Coppergate Centre 
A modern shopping centre in the heart of this ancient city, there’s more on offer at Coppergate than just the usual high-street names – check it out to find museums, galleries and local cafes.

The Quarter 
The perfect place to pick up unique gifts, this patchwork of streets is filled with quaint cafes and boutiques. The family-run department store Browns, sometimes called the 'Harrods of the North', is nearby if you fancy even more luxury.

 

Where can I get something to eat? 

Crumbs Cupcakery 
On a pretty street in the shadows of the Minster, this café serves delicious cupcakes in flavours like caramel and peanut butter. A great place to grab a treat and a quick drink and take a break from exploring. 

Betty’s Tearooms (pictured, above)
York’s city branch of these famous tea rooms is well-stocked with dainty pastries, freshly baked cakes and classic British afternoon teas. The house special is the Yorkshire Fat Rascal, a fruit scone topped with melted butter. Yum! 

Gatehouse Coffee
This is an independent coffee shop with a difference. Gatehouse Coffee is actually built into the UK's last remaining barbican (a tower above the city walls.) It does justice to the majestic surroundings with good coffee, cosy leather sofas and an intimate atmosphere.

Ate O’Clock 
Regularly changing menus, seasonal locally-sourced produce and a friendly atmosphere make this Mediterranean-style bistro a huge hit with the locals. Find it down a quiet alleyway in the city centre and pop in to sample dishes like Yorkshire-bred steak.

Café No 8 
Also with the locals' seal of approval, this bistro offers reasonably-priced  and delicious dishes made with local ingredients like Yorkshire blue cheese and Yorkshire lamb. Great for an al fresco dinner in warmer months, the garden even backs onto the city’s historic walls.

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Day trips from York 


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Where can I go for a day trip from York?

Expert tip – Susan Briggs:“If you want to see quite a lot on one day, then make your way to the beautiful market town of Helmsley, enjoy a walk around the nearby Rievaulx Abbey and perhaps take a trip over the moors to the coast.”

Helmsley
This picturesque market town is home to both a 900 year old castle and the dramatic ruins of the ancient Rievaulx Abbey. Nearby, from the Hambleton Hills you can get spectacular views of both the moors to the east, and the dales to the west.

Haworth
Once home to the Brontë sisters, the village of Haworth attracts literary enthusiasts from around the world. Its cobbled main street is strewn with quirky tea rooms, iconic buildings and shops, set upon a backdrop of rolling hills and wild moorland, aka. 'Brontë country'.

Ilkley and Otley
In these traditional Yorkshire Dales towns you'll find homely tea rooms and stunning countryside views. There are some fascinating places to go walking nearby, such as Ilkley Moor, which is strewn with prehistoric carved and standing stones. 

Expert tipCedric Farineau: “Visit Surprise View on The Chevin, near Otley - it's quite remarkable. On a clear sunny day, it is said you can see all the way to the North Sea! You're more likely to see Ingleborough though, one of the three tallest peaks of Yorkshire.” 

 

 

What activities and attractions are nearby? 

Expert tipMark Reid: “For the best coastal walk, take the cliff-top path between Whitby and Robin’s Hood Bay. There's so much history along the way, from Captain Cook to smugglers, not to mention the bracing sea air and some fantastic fish and chips!”

Whitby Abbey
The inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula, Whitby Abbey is a Grade I listed building perched on the clifftops of Whitby's village. Admire its gothic splendour and get great coastal views to charming villages, like Robin Hood's Bay nearby.

Scarborough Castle
Scarborough, a sandy seaside town, is home to this spectacular castle, which has views of the entire Yorkshire coastline and a history dating back to the Iron Age.

Fountain's Abbey
West of York, near picture-postcard towns Harrogate and Ripon, the remains of this abbey are surrounded by countryside where Downton Abbey was filmed. On the same estate, you can also visit a deer park and an elegant water garden.

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Getting to York 

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From regional airports

  • Leeds-Bradford International Airport is the closest airport to York and operates services from Europe on low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and Jet2.The airport has no rail station, so to get to York you will have to travel to Leeds city centre - take the 757 bus or a taxi. You can then get a direct train from Leeds to York, taking about 25 minutes.
  • Manchester International Airport is around 80 miles by road from York and is served by direct flights from Europe and America.You can take a direct train from the airport to York railway station, with a journey time of about 2 hours.

From the rest of the UK

  • From London, York is less than 2 hours away by train. Direct trains from London Kings Cross to York railway station operate at least every 30 minutes.
  • Driving to York from London will take around 3 and a half hours. National Express coaches run regular coach services to York from London. If coming straight from Heathrow or Gatwick airport, you'll need to change coach once.
  • From Edinburgh, York is just over 2 hours away by train
  • Other cities with direct train services to York include Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds and Hull. These cities are all closer, with journey times well under 2 hours.

 

Getting around

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On foot and by bike

  • Many of York’s attractions are within just a few minutes’ walk of each other.
  • The roads within the city walls are closed to cars between 8am and 4pm, making it ideal to explore on foot.
  • York is also one of Britain's most cycle-friendly cities. The town centre is mainly flat.
  • The surrounding countryside is also a great place to explore by bike.
  • You can easily hire a bike from outside York's railway station.

By bus

  • Although York is very pedestrian-friendly, a bus tour is a great way to get your bearings and visit sights you might not think to walk to.
  • The hop-on, hop-off tour is great for picking up tips and insider knowledge from a friendly guide, such as the secrets of the streets where Harry Potter scenes were filmed. You'll get a day's access to 22 stops around the city with your single ticket.
  • The local bus company First runs buses all over York, as well as express services to Whitby, Scarborough, Ripon, and Pickering.
  • I Travel York is a useful tool to help you plan your journey by train, bus, bike and on foot.

By rail

  • Whitby, Harrogate and Scarborough have central railway stations with regular train services. A BritRail England Pass lets you travel on any train in the region, so is great if you want to visit multiple towns.
  • The North Yorkshire Moors Railway (pictured, above) is a traditional steam train that runs from Pickering, all the way through the North York Moors National Park to Whitby, and is a great way to take in the region’s diverse scenery or take a day trip to the beautiful North Yorkshire coast.

By car

  • Coastal towns Scarborough, Robin Hood's Bay and Whitby are about an hour’s drive from York, through the picturesque countryside of the North York Moors National Park.
  • Harrogate, Ripon, Otley and Helmsley are also around an hour's drive away by car.
  • Haworth and Ilkley are slightly further away, around 1.5 hours to the west.
  • Some roads in York city centre have driving restrictions during the day. You can find out more details here

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Our contributors

Susan Briggs

Susan is a Yorkshire local with an unrivaled wealth of information about the region. Her website, dalesdiscoveries.com, delves deeper into the best parts of the Yorkshire Dales, with insider tips from over 300 local people.  

Mark Reid

Mark is a freelance writer and publisher, and  author of the multi award-winning Inn Way series of guidebooks. His website, innway.co.uk, provides much more information about his guides to walking all over the UK.

Cedric Farineau

Cedric is a French guy living in Yorkshire. He has a passion for the outdoors and has walked in many places in Yorkshire and the UK. He has a blog called Walk In Yorkshire filled with stories about his own “adventures” in the county.

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