Winter in England – Grey, dreary, rainy… that’s the impression we all have. Somehow, the old English streets and shambles have a particular kind of tragic romance and beauty of December rain that attracts me in a different way.
York is a small northern English city but it plays an important role in British history for over two thousand years. Under the backdrop of Roman, Viking, and Medieval Anglo-Saxon rulings, the city retained relics and heritage that uniquely manifest in the streets and alleys.
York is one of the most popular English cities and as you may have noticed, “York” is how the city “New York” got its name. This is the city that New York is referring to. New York has sparkled to become the world’s largest cosmopolitan, and “Old York” kept the English flavor and small-town charm – yes, it is where the English time stands still. The city is not big that most tourists would find it easy to walk around, in fact, it is recommended to explore the city on foot because you don’t want to miss any interesting find at every turn, with hundred of half-timbered buildings and other marvels.
One way to experience York is to stay in a Bed and Breakfast, then spend an afternoon exploring the city’s historic center (The weather was so incredibly unpredictable, that my bedroom’s windows were blown away by a torrential downpour, and then the sun comes out. Luckily, the other room was empty and available and I can switch rooms).
Without further ado, let’s immerse in the traditional English history and culture, and explore the best 5 things that you have to see and do in York.
Feel the grandeur and beauty of York Minster
Amongst all the historic buildings (like Clifford’s Tower and Abbazia di St Mary), York Minster is the landmark of the city, and it is a classic Gothic-style cathedral built 600 years ago (and it took 252 years to build!). York Minster today remained one of the highest and most prestigious offices of the Church of England, that’s why I have also listed it as one of the top cathedrals in Europe.
The site could be seen from any vantage point within the walls due to its height (the Central Tower is the highest point of the city, 230 feet tall), and it looks magnificent inside and out with decorative pinnacles and gargoyles.
Enjoy a 275-step hike up the tower and the panoramic view through the windows – York Minster is surrounded by tourist shops, tea houses, and museums, making it the best starting point for your afternoon day tour in York.
Don’t forget to enter the cathedral, the interior looks stunning. In particular, the stained glass window at the main entrance is the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. It has a size bigger than a tennis court, and I am amazed how the delicate and refined art piece preserved so well for over 670 years! More, check out a crypt where you can explore the Minster’s Roman foundations; the Treasury has an interactive gallery portraying the building’s history from its Roman times to now.
Walk the Medieval City Walls & historic sites along River Ouse
York’s medieval city walls mark the historic center of the city, and it is of course a must-do while checking out the many landmarks located within the boundaries. The wall runs about three miles and incorporates some of the city’s original Roman structures.
You may be surprised to know that four of the old gates of the wall are still here: Monk Bar, Micklegate Bar, Bootham Bar, and Walmgate Bar. Bootham Bar still has its original portcullis and Walmgate Bar, the three knights.
Among the many historic buildings in York, Clifford’s Tower stood out to me as the most memorable because of its design and shape. It is located between Fishergate and Skeldergate Bridge, and it is the oldest remaining part of the York Castle, which was built of wood by the Normans in the early 11th century. The Clifford’s Tower was created in the 13th century to replace the wooden fortress and was named after Roger de Clifford, a Lancastrian party leader who was executed here in 1322.
The tower is located on an elevated hill, offering a stunning view of the riverfront houses and beyond.
Moving on, it would be nice to visit the York Castle Museum, which was built on the original site of York Castle. The museum features the English way of life throughout the centuries. Check out the Kirkgate, a recreation of a Victorian Street; Toy Stories, a history of toys: and a Victorian parlor and 17th-century dining room.
Walk along the River Ouse, and take pictures of the beautiful scenery. My friend described the River Ouse as a “teabag” river because it always looks muddy, but the river is certainly lively, too!
For a more immersive experience with the river, hop on a motorboat and sail down the river, of which you will be able to see places like the Bishopthorpe Palace from a different perspective.
Ramble through the Shambles
The shambles is the narrowest old street in York, and also one f the city’s biggest attractions.
Both sides of the streets are lined with timber-framed buildings, now unique shops, restaurants, tearooms, and boutiques.
Here, discover five of York’s Snickelways. The collection of small streets and winding footpaths connects the old city and is so fun to explore. Especially at Christmas, you will find yourself walking through lights as if you are exploring the Harry Potter world (well, I am a Harry Potter fan and I am enjoying it).
Venturing outside the shambles, the markets are just as fun and exciting to explore. They are scattered in squares and stalls and some of them have been here for centuries, selling all sorts of local fresh produces, flowers, cooking, home products, and fashion items. To dive deeper into the fashion realm, go to Parliament street, Vangarde Shopping Park, and Murton Sunday Market for some amazing finds.
Visit the many museums, especially National Railway Museum
Yes, it’s a national museum, it’s big, it’s free, and it’s awesome!
Honestly, I didn’t expect York National Railway Museum to be so huge and with so many things to see. I am a train fan (also a Harry Potter fan) and I enjoyed the museum very much – just because it has a huge warehouse that showcased real, life-size locomotives with over 200 years of railway history.
One of the most important collections in the museum is the Royal Trains, including carriages once used by Queen Victoria.
The impressive array of locomotives and carriages are served in life-size, and I see children were having a swell time running in and out of the exhibits. Furthermore, the museum showcased precious information about the development of trains, railway networks, technologies, and development; the demonstration of the vintage turntable is a treat, visitors can witness how this massive machine worked (and still functioning today!) when a train has to be turned around.
The Yorkshire Museum and Gardens has located nearby the Railway Museum and it’s a geological and natural history collection. Here, you will find the thousand-year-old Cawood Sword, a Viking weapon that is the best preserved in the world. Don’t forget to drop by the Saint Mary’s Abbey and appreciate the Medieval sculptures and utensils exhibits.
The Museum Gardens is another free location visitors can simply walk in and enjoy. The 10 acres size garden has a rich collection of birds, trees, and flowers – for the best Instagram moment? Take pictures of the ruined walls and arches of the medieval Saint Mary’s Abbey.
The Jorvik Viking Centre captures the lives of the Vikings era of York in the 9th century. The site reconstructs dwellings of the Vikings and medieval workshops, giving you a taste of how life was at that time. To add more fun, visitors can dress up and play Vikings!
Have a sip of English tea in a tearoom
It’s always time for tea!
English tea has been a well-known and elegant tradition around the world. No first-time visit to York is complete without having a sip of tea and a taste of the legendary scone at a traditional tea house. I know everyone’s talking about Betty’s, which is the biggest, and the most eye-catching café and tea room around the corner of St. Helen’s square and Davygate, but like most of the travel books promoted places, the long queue in the afternoon time was a nightmare. Avoid the peak hours, get a scone take-out in the pastry shop, or don’t even bother waiting outside for a table. Just looking for a nice, cozy, warm café that you like in the nearby streets, there are lots of them and sometimes, you will be surprised.