First-time visitors to York, UK will surely be overwhelmed by the historical heritage of the city. Inside the city’s walls are well-preserved buildings and structures from the Medieval and Roman periods.
The history of the city spans 2,000 years, including long periods ruled by the Romans, Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, and is both fascinating and at times gruesome. York was an important center in Roman and Viking-era Britain and there are many immersive historical attractions to visit.
But while the city’s illustrious past gets a lot of play, its present-day offerings are pretty impressive as well!
Whether you’re roaming through colorful fields of flowers, strapping on a pair of ice skates, sampling some world-class chocolates, or browsing for products at the local market, you’ll find a nice mix of the mellow and the adventurous here.
York’s city center is largely pedestrianized and maintains its cobbled streets which really adds to its charm. It perfectly treads the fine line between a historic monument and a thriving modern and multicultural city.
Here are some fun and unusual things to do in York, UK.
1 – Visit the Shambles on a York walking tour
The Shambles is probably York’s most historic street and has a distinctive old-fashioned charm to it. Some of its buildings date to the 13th-century and are built in the timber-framed fashion that was once common throughout the city.
Some use a medieval design element known as jettying, where higher floors protrude out above lower ones. Why not take a walking tour of the city and discover the historic street and its origins.
2 – See historic engines at the National Railway Museum
York’s National Railway Museum has one of the largest collections of historic trains in the world. It has up to 100 engines on display at any one time and is located in the city’s old motive power depot which still contains the turntable.
Some notable trains on display in the museum are The Mallard which is the fastest steam train in the world, the Flying Scotsman, a replica of Stevenson’s rocket and the only bullet train outside of Japan. This is a must-see for railway enthusiasts!
3 – Picnic in Museum Gardens
The city of York has no shortage of public parks and Museum Gardens is one of the best. Located right next to the River Ouse, which flows through the center of the city, Museum Gardens is a great place to unwind right in the heart of the city.
Visitors can find a number of majestic ruins in the gardens including the Roman-era Multangular Tower, the medieval St. Leonard’s Hospital and St. Mary’s Abbey which dates from 1066. There are also rare trees like the Cut-leaved Hornbeam, impressive flower displays and the York Observatory that dates from 1832.
4 – Climb the tower of York Minster
York Minster is one of the most important religious buildings in the country and the largest Gothic-era cathedral in Northern Europe. The current building was constructed between 1230 – 1472 but there has been a church on the site since the year 627.
Visitors can take a guided tour of the Minster, visit the crypts and climb the 275 steps to the top of the tower. Behind the Minster, you can find the large gardens known as Dean’s Park. This is a great place to relax and take in the peaceful ambiance of this truly monumental building.
5 – Learn the city’s cruel history at York Dungeon
York Dungeon is a living museum to the city’s gory past. It covers 2000 years of grisly history in the city with immersive sets that allow you to see, hear and smell the terror. A guide will lead you on your experience through the many different rooms of the dungeon.
Visit Viking-era York in the middle of an invasion, step into the plague-filled streets of the 1500s and the castle torture chamber. Come face-to-face with witches, ghosts and treasonous conspirators. This is definitely one of the most fun things to do in York!
6 – Take a trip through time at York Castle Museum
York Castle Museum covers over 400 years of the city’s history with thousands of historic objects and interactive displays. Visit a Victorian-era street and the infamous Cells of the Castle Prison.
Discover weird clothing and unusual foods while you meet famous local characters. Learn about the dramatic differences between the rich and poor in the industrial 19th-century. Take a trip to the frontlines of the First World War then take in the atmosphere of the Swinging-Sixties.
7 – Explore JORVIK Viking Centre
This is one for the Viking enthusiasts! The Jorvik center recounts the history of York’s Scandinavian past in the 9th- and 10th-centuries. Visitors take a ride through a Viking village to meet real characters that lived and died in these times.
The museum is located in Coppergate on the site of an archeological dig that took place in the 1970s. It features many artifacts that were retrieved from the earth including five tons of animal bones, thousands of fragments of pottery, many tools, clothing items and pieces of jewelry. History-lovers should not miss this fascinating interactive museum.
8 – Take a hop-on-hop-off bus tour
A hop-on-hop-off bus tour is a great way to explore a new city! See the major sights and landmarks with commentary about the history of the area. Get on and off as many times as you like and explore the city at your own pace.
See Exhibition Square, Clifford’s Tower and Museum Gardens on these great value tours. Tickets also include discounts to local eateries and attractions.
9 – Visit the historic Clifford’s Tower
Clifford’s Tower was first constructed from wood by William the Conqueror in 1068 as part of York Castle. It was an important fortification and has been the site of many misfortunes having been burnt, exploded and partly demolished through the centuries.
In 1190 the city’s Jewish community took refuge in the tower and committed mass suicide before the building was set on fire. It was later the site of the rebel Robert Aske’s execution and in the 1800s part of the city’s prison complex.
10 – Walk the York City Walls
The city of York was once entirely surrounded by a series of defensive walls. The City Walls were first constructed in Roman times and then rebuilt in stone in the medieval period. Large sections of the walls still exist and stand mostly 13 feet high and 6 feet wide.
Visitors can walk the length of the walls and see the city’s sights in a unique way. A journey around the walls will take you past the numerous gatehouses, known as bars, which were once the major routes in and out of the city.
11 – Get lost at York Maze
York Maze is a fantastic fun place to visit especially if you have kids. It is just outside the city center and has a huge maze to explore in a planted sweetcorn field. There is also a bunch of corn-based rides and attractions such as the “Cornwall” climbing wall and “Utter Cornage” water tower.
There is a lot of silly fun to find at York Maze as well as slower-paced attractions like the construction area, falconry and creepy creature corner. The maze also has a cafe serving drinks, sweet treats and hot food.
12 – Discover the “secret” city on a scavenger game
Scavenger games are a really fun way to explore a new city. Gather up your team and decipher clues as you find your way through the city. Follow an app to locations where you will solve riddles to find your next clue.
See the parts of the city that other tours may miss and indulge your competitive side at the same time. This is a really fun thing to do while in York.
13 – Take a day trip to Beningbrough Hall, Gallery and Gardens
Beningborough Hall is an extravagant country estate near to the city. Discover the history of the hall, which was constructed in 1716, and its fascinating architectural features. Take a walk through the walled garden and visit the Victorian laundry building.
The hall also displays exhibitions of contemporary art and has a gift shop and restaurant to visit. Set in 8-acres of landscaped gardens, Beningborough Hall is sure to be an entertaining day out for everyone.
14 – See historic planes at Yorkshire Air Museum
The Yorkshire Air Museum is located on the original site of the World War II RAF aerodrome in Elvington, York. See historic planes and exhibits that cover nearly 100 years of aviation history, from a replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer to Cold War-era fighter jets.
Visit the historic Astra Cinema to watch short RAF training films and the 77 Squadron room which covers the exploits of the Elvington-based WWII squadron. Yorkshire Air Museum is a must-see for aviation fans!
15 – Discover the ancient history of the region at Yorkshire Museum
The Yorkshire Museum is just a short walk from York Minster. It is located in a grand 1830s building surrounded by the picturesque Museum Gardens. The museum has a lot of interesting artifacts including the 4.5 billion-year-old “Middlesborough Meteorite”, Viking-era swords and fossilized skeletons.
The Yorkshire Jurassic World exhibit offers an immersive virtual-reality dinosaur experience and also features genuine fossils including the remains of Alan, the oldest dinosaur discovered in the UK.
16 – Explore Castle Howard
The magnificent stately home of Castle Howard is a short drive north of York. The impressive estate was built in the early 1700s and has been a filming location for Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Brideshead Revisited and Bridgerton to name but a few.
Castle Howard is a private residence and has been in the hands of the same family for 300 years. Visitors can explore the house and extensive grounds located in the beautiful North Yorkshire countryside.
17 – Let loose at The Web Adventure Park
Looking for a way to entertain the kids while in York? The Web Adventure Park has everything for a fun day out all in one place. The Web has a huge indoor play area and an outdoor adventure park including a high ropes course and water play area.
Test your free-running skills on the ninja course, watch a magic show or play a game of Jurassic Mini Golf, The Web is an action-packed day out kids will love!
18 – Meet the animals at Piglets Adventure Farm
Piglet’s Adventure Farm has lots of rural fun for small children to enjoy. Visit the Bale Play Barn to see what’s happening and climb the straw bale mountain. Take part in an assault course or play a round of crazy golf.
Meet the farm’s animals including Kune Kune pigs, cows, alpacas, rabbits and chicks. Piglet’s Adventure Farm also has a coffee house and pizza parlor serving a variety of warm snacks, drinks and ice creams. There’s plenty of fun to found here!
19 – Discover York’s Chocolate Story
Chocolate making was and still is a major industry in York. The popular British confectionery company, Rowntree’s, was founded in the city in 1862 and would go on to be the fourth largest in the world.
Hear the history of York’s chocolate production and discover its origins in the rainforests of Central America. Have a go at had-making your own chocolates with the help of an expert chocolatier. The Chocolate Story is a really fun place to visit during your time in York!
You can also stop by York Cocoa House, which offers everything from bars and truffles to delicious hot chocolates.
Or take things to the next level with a chocolate tasting tour, which offers the chance to sample some stupendous sweets from places all over town.
20 – Learn the origins of the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall
The Merchant Adventurers Hall is a stunning timber-framed building that dates back 660 years. The hall was built by a local fraternity as a center for business, religious activities and charity. It is still in use by today by the city’s Company of Merchant Adventurers and is a scheduled ancient monument.
Experience the history of this impressive building and see the collection of paintings, treasures and medieval items some of which are older than the hall itself.
21 – See the ceramics collection at York Art Gallery
York Art Gallery has the country’s largest collection of British Studio Ceramics in its Center Of Ceramic Arts (COCA). It contains over 5,500 objects from over 600 artists as well as archives for research including photographs and catalogs.
The gallery’s collection of paintings cover works from the 14th-century to the present day. The gallery also holds the largest collection of work by York Artist William Etty. During his lifetime, Etty campaigned to preserve the city walls and York Minster from being demolished.
22 – Check out the Shambles Market
Shambles Market is located in the very center of York and sells a wide variety of goods. From fresh fruit and vegetables to clothes, furniture and records there’s something for everyone. Stalls change regularly and you find different stores open throughout the week.
Visit one of the local food vendors for coffee and snacks or shop for vintage clothes in this vibrant local market. Shambles Market is right behind the famous tourist street The Shambles.
23 – Take a relaxing boat tour
The River Ouse cuts right through the center of York and there are many historic bridges and sights to see located around the river banks. Why not take a boat tour along the river and see York in a unique way.
See Clifford’s Tower and York Museum while listening to commentary about the area and its history. Enjoy a leisurely cruise and tour the city in the most relaxed way.
24 – See raccoons at Askham Bryan Wildlife & Conservation Park
Askham Bryan Wildlife and Conservation Park is a small center with 100 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and invertebrates. Many of the creatures are threatened or endangered species. The park has species of raccoons, primates, wallabies, lemurs and tortoises.
It also has an arboretum with rare and exotic trees such as sequoias, twisted hazel and Hungarian Oaks. Visitors can purchase animal experiences that let them join the keepers to feed and take care of the creatures.
25 – Tour the Treasurer’s House
York’s Treasurer’s House is a historic building that has a history spanning back almost 1000 years. From 1091 to 1547, The site was the home of the treasurer for York Minster, which was a very prestigious title. The current building was originally three houses but was remodeled in the 1800s by local tycoon Frank Green.
During the renovation, four Roman-era columns were uncovered and repurposed for use in the construction. Visitors can explore the house which is maintained exactly as Frank Green left it. It has small but beautiful gardens and a collection of paintings, ceramics and textiles some of which are up to 300 years old.
26 – Sample the beverages at the best cafes and tea rooms
Whether you want a classy experience or a cozy sitting spot, the tea rooms of York are an experience all their own.
Settle into the cozy environs of the Vanilla Cafe for a nice cup and remarkable views of York Minster Cathedral.
After one afternoon at any of these stops, you’ll feel properly British!
27 – Climb the 199 steps on a Whitby day trip
The seaside town of Whitby is an essential day trip from York. Its well-known residents have included the explorers William Scoresby and Captain Cook. The famous ruined abbey dates back to the 7th-century and looms over the town from its East Cliff vantage point.
Whitby appears in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and visitors can climb the 199 steps up to the graveyard of St. Mary’s Church. To really travel in style why not take a steam train tour of the North Yorkshire Moors from York to Whitby?
28 – Explore the Georgian-era Fairfax House
Fairfax House is a stunning Georgian townhouse on Castlegate in the center of the city. The house was developed by the Ninth Viscount Fairfax of Emley who bought it in 1759 and transformed it with the help of local master-architect John Carr.
Between 1762 and 1772 the fashionable townhouse hosted parties and balls for over 200 people. In the early 1900s, the house was a popular cinema and dance hall until it was restored to its former glory in the 1980s. Fairfax House is a must-see for its collection of antique furniture and preserved period features.
29 – Shoot some hoops in Rowntree Park
Rowntree Park is one of the biggest green spaces in the city, covering 30 acres. It is a great place to take a picnic on a sunny day. The park is just a short walk from the city center down the side of the picturesque River Ouse.
It has lots of sports facilities including six tennis courts and two table tennis tables, a skate park, a basketball court and a well-equipped playground. The park also has a pond with ducks and geese and a cafe.
30 – Embrace the magical side of things with The Wizard Walk of York
Even if you never got your letter from Hogwarts, you can still enjoy a magical British experience… on foot!
The Wizard Walk of York takes you on a lively, immersive journey through the city, complete with magic tricks, fun banter, and possible sightings of fantastical creatures!
While this adventure is best suited for kids, it’s got enough entertainment and fascination for the whole family to enjoy!
And at the end of the journey, you can even snag some wand kits for the budding magicians in your life to practice at home.
31 – Take a spooky ghost bus tour
York’s violent history and gruesome past have given rise to many supernatural legends and stories. Why not take a lighthearted look at the macabre side of the city on a ghost bus tour? Hear stories of murderous highwaymen, murders and religious persecution from the city’s past.
Take in the sites of York Minster, Clifford’s Tower and the grave of Dick Turpin as you voyage through the city. Be scared and entertained by your ghoulish guide on these fun and spooky tours!
32 – Visit the fascinating York Cold War Bunker
One of York’s most modern historic attractions is the Cold War Bunker in Holgate. Built in 1961 to track nuclear activity and decommissioned in 1991, the bunker is like a time capsule of the period. It is the only one of its type that has been maintained in working order.
Visitors can take a guided tour of the bunker’s kitchen and dormitories, decontamination room and operations room with specialist computers from the 1980s. Tour’s run on the hour every hour.
33 – Unearth history at DIG: An Archaeological Adventure
DIG gives visitors the chance to become an archeologist for the day. It is a hands-on experience where kids get to become trainee “diggers” and feel the excitement of uncovering treasures from the past.
DIG features four indoor excavation pits that are based on actual archeological digs that occurred in York. Discover artifacts from the main periods of the city’s history including Roman, Viking, Medieval and Victorian items. This has to be one of the most fun things to do in the city!
34 – Explore the North Yorkshire Moors
The North Yorkshire Moors has some of the most picturesque scenery in the country. Its striking purple heather gives life to the acres upon acres of desolate rolling hills. The area extends over 550 square miles and includes thick woodlands and the rocky coastline around Whitby and Scarborough.
The small village of Goathland has a quaint old fashioned charm and has appeared in various Television shows and movies including the Harry Potter movies.
35 – Learn about Medieval magic at the Barley Hall
The Barley Hall is a medieval townhouse that was rediscovered in the 1980s and restored to its former glory. The Hall was built in about 1360s and is now owned and operated by York Archeological Trust. The hall offers educational historical activities and workshops.
The Barley Hall has a number of exhibitions including its Magic and Mystery displays which cover the science of alchemy and witchcraft in the Middle Ages. Check out the website for more details on this fascinating historic place.
36 – Go wild at Point Zero Trampoline Park York
Need to release some energy? Take a trip to Point Zero Trampoline Park and discover a world of action-packed fun! Join one of the friendly sessions to explore at your own pace or try a guided fitness class.
Point Zero has over 90 connected trampolines as well as foam pits and other fun equipment to play on. It is suitable for adults and children alike so everyone can get involved. This is definitely a fun thing to do in York.
37 – Take a walk in Breezy Knees Garden
Just five miles outside of the busy city center you can find Breezy Knees Garden. Covering 20 acres of landscaped and manicured spaces, the park is home to 7,000 varieties of plants. Visitors can see a unique collection of irises and peonies as well as rose gardens, rock and pond gardens and shady areas.
The Garden has a cafe serving a selection of drinks and fresh homemade snacks as well as a plant nursery selling a selection of rare perennials raised in the temperamental Yorkshire Weather.
38 – Take a day trip to the Yorkshire Dales
The Yorkshire Dales is a National Park famous for its abundance of natural beauty spots and timeless villages. It boasts a variety of landscapes from windswept hilltops to peaceful meadows and offers many opportunities for hiking and outdoor sports.
Malham Cove and Gordale scar are popular with climbers and tourists along with the waterfalls of Aysgarth and Janet’s Foss. The Medieval Bolton Castle in Wensleydale is one of the best-preserved of its type in the country and is well worth a visit. There’s a lot to see in the Yorkshire Dales!
39 – Get a friendly competition going with some bowling
For a relaxed, family-friendly evening out on the town, you can’t beat a bit of bowling!
Tenpin York offers 28 lanes to test out your skills, as well as pool tables, arcade games, and laser tag courses.
Or see some stars – metaphorically, of course – at Hollywood Bowl, which offers a family-friendly setting and a fun American diner theme. And at Puttstars, you can combine your time on the lanes with a stroll on the mini-golf course or a trip to the arcade.
It’s the perfect all-ages game night!
40 – Join a railway experience at Murton Park
Murton Park has something for everyone. It features a museum of farming, friendly animals including ducks, guinea pigs and goats, a playground and a preserved vintage railway. Visitors can take part in hands-on railway experiences operating pump trolleys, signals and driving the trains by special request.
Murton Park hosts regular events where visitors can see demonstrations of historical crafts, battle reenactments and vintage engines and machinery.
41 – Festivals in York
No matter when you visit York, you’ll likely find a vibrant festival afoot!
Or celebrate the holidays at the York Christmas Festival (generally held mid-November through late December).
In this lovely town, there’s always a reason to celebrate!
42 – Travel the city on a bike tour
York is fun to discover by bike due to the city’s extensive cycle paths and trails. Why not take a cycling tour of the city and see all the major landmarks with ease? Cruise ancient cobbled streets while your guide brings you up-to-speed on the area’s rich Roman and Viking history.
Hit all the important historical sites like York Minster, Clifford’s Tower and the city walls. Hear stories of industrious confectioners and phantom soldiers on this fun and laid-back tour.
43 – Test your skills at Gr8escape York
Gr8escape is York’s premier independent escape room experience. Choose from three themed challenges and try to solve all the clues and puzzles before the timer runs out.
Gather up your friends and family and join York’s Ministry of Wizards to prove your magical prowess in a spellbinding escape room game. Take part in a crime scene investigation as part of the New York Police Department or visit Atlantis in the search for treasure. Dare you take on the challenge?
44 – See the gardens of Goddards House
Goddard’s House and Gardens were built in 1927 by the Terry family, owners of York’s famous Terry’s chocolate brand. The house is built in the Arts and Crafts style and is set in magnificent private gardens which include a kitchen garden, greenhouse and tennis lawns.
Tour the gardens of this magnificent home and visit the tearoom which serves food inspired by Terry’s chocolate products. Goddard’s house also has a shop that sells a variety of gifts, books and home furnishings.
45 – Go ice skating at Yorkshire’s Winter Wonderland
Open between November and January each year, Yorkshire’s Winter Wonderland is a festive spectacular! Featuring the largest outdoor ice rink in the North of England in a landscape of log cabins, shimmering lights and Christmas trees it’s sure to get you in the festive spirit.
If skating’s not your thing take a trip to the Alpine-themed chalet for a taste of mulled wine, hot chocolate and sweet treats. There’s also a vintage funfair and Santa’s Grotto to keep everyone entertained.
46 – See the historic ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey
The historical ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey were once part of a very important Benedictine monastery. The original church was established in 1088 and grew to be one of the richest establishments of its type in the North of England. It was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539 during the Reformation and fell into ruin.
A 13th-century Limoges Enamel of Christ was discovered in the abbey in 1826 and is on display at the Yorkshire Museum. Visitors can see the remains of the abbey’s original nave and cloister in the rear of the Museum Gardens.
47 – Try the delights of Michelin-starred restaurants
Taste the best of modern British cuisine in some of York’s most reputable restaurants. Roots have a great location near the Museum Gardens and serve locally grown and seasonable produce in stylish surroundings.
48 – See history brought to life in the Richard III & Henry VII Experiences
Get to know two of England’s most infamous kings in these two museums located in the historic Monkbar and Micklegate Bar buildings. Hear the turbulent tale of Richard III who ruled England for just two short years before his death at the age of 33.
Visit the Tudor kingdom of Henry VII who took the throne from Richard III when he defeated him at the Battle of Bosworth. Learn about the successful dynasty that he left in his wake and the harsh realities of Tudor life in the city.
49 – Have a night on the town at York’s best bars
York is full of great traditional pubs and quirky bars to pass the afternoon or evening in. Amongst the many bars, one of the best is Pivni if you’re looking for a quiet night out.
For a casual drink in lively surroundings check out Evil Eye Lounge, Valhalla, The Market Cat and The Biltmore Bar and Grill. A wander through the city at night will give you many more excellent drinking opportunities!
Enjoy a nice mixture of gorgeous aesthetics and creative concoctions at The Botanist Bar, which offers a wide array of plant-based libations. Or indulge in some craft beers at BrewDog York Bar, which even offers tasting classes and holiday parties.
And for convenience with your cocktails, try Slug & Lettuce, which provides mixed drinks and ales alike, all within walking distance of the main shopping area.
How to get to York?
Manchester Airport is the nearest hub for fliers, and you can book a transfer to the city for an easy transportation process.
With direct service to your hotel, you can spare yourself the hassle of taxis, and get started on the fun!
Where to stay in York?
True to its moniker, the Grand Hotel provides top-notch luxuries, with wellness centers, a sauna, and a lovely traditional restaurant that offers everything from luxurious dinners to afternoon tea times.
Meanwhile, Novotel York Centre offers a more contemporary option, as well as railway stations, shops, and delightful sites like Shakespeare’s Rose Theater.
The Churchill Hotel is housed in a gorgeous historic mansion, but with its gorgeous grounds, elegant library, and marvelous beer garden, it has a modern charm all its own.
Hampton by Hilton York is a great starting point to explore the city’s many historic neighborhoods, as well as the Jorvik Viking Center and the National Railway Museum; and its lovely rooms and welcoming atmosphere make a nice refuge in the evenings.
And at Park Inn by Radisson York City Centre, you can enjoy a cocktail and take in spectacular river views, then stroll over to the Shambles, the York Dungeon, or the nearby shops.
Visiting York on a budget?
Looking to do a lot in a short amount of time – without breaking the bank? Buy a York Pass, and maximize your fun!
This card includes access to over 40 of the coolest spots in town, from museums and historic buildings to immersive art exhibits and adventurous experiences.
It also offers discounts at restaurants and stores, and free cruises and sightseeing buses.
Where to go next?
With its unique past and exciting present, it’s little wonder that York is considered one of the best places to visit in the UK!
But there are plenty of other worthy stops nearby as well.
Liverpool is (rightfully) known for its musical pedigree, but it also offers a fascinating nautical history, and some fabulous galleries and theaters.
Or swing by Manchester for a dose of sports, architecture, and fascinating industrial structures.
In Birmingham, you can shop ‘til you drop, cheer your heart out at a cricket match, or stroll through the lush green hills that helped inspire The Shire in The Lord of The Rings.
And of course, you can’t pass up London, the thriving hub of history, culture, and entertainment, with adventure at every turn.
Want to head out of England? Pop over to Scotland for a taste of Glasgow, where you can sample whiskies and world-class concerts in equal measure; or explore Edinburgh, with its dazzling buildings, comedy clubs, and gorgeous gardens.
As you wander the streets of this marvelous town, you will feel the weight of history all around you.
But as you step into its buildings or dive into its live events, you will see another side to the city, shaped by modernity, filled with delights.
So as you try the many amazing things to do in York, remember to stop and enjoy the view!