We took an impromptu trip to York, England a few weeks ago. My husband had to go for business and since my son was out of school, we decided to make a family long-weekend out of it. I am so glad we did! York was a great, picturesque little town with so much history and lots to see and do.
We stayed within the medieval City Walls that remain around the city today, so everything I write about is within that historical center of town. What we saw of York outside the walls, on our drive in and out of town, was also lovely and I am sure there is even more to do than I even realized. A few of the blocks we passed through on the way into town reminded me of the Old Town area of my hometown, Alexandria, Virginia in the U.S.
We found York to be a very family-friendly destination. Many of the attractions and sights were of interest to kids and parents alike. We felt comfortable as a family in all the restaurants and businesses we visited. We also found the city to be quite walkable. We had the benefit of arriving on a weeknight, staying from Thursday through Sunday. It was much busier and crowded on Saturday than it was on the weekdays. I am glad we had the calmer weekdays to enjoy the city before the weekend.
While being family-friendly, I did notice that there was an abundance of “hen parties” (bachelorette parties) celebrating on both Friday and Saturday nights. There were also a lot of young people out reveling in general. York must be a popular party and nightlife destination as well! (I sound so old!)
Like when we visited Windsor, we drove to York. We compared flights, but given layovers, it was going to take the same amount of time flying or driving. We find it is nice to have our own car in the UK anyway, to make the driving more comfortable. It’s hard enough being on the opposite side of the road. Being on the opposite side of the car is even harder.
Since we used the Ferry service to cross over to England when we went to Windsor, on this trip we decided to take the Eurotunnel, where you board a train with your vehicle in order to cross the English Channel. Like the ferry, the tunnel was easy to reserve and easy to use. It was a quicker trip than the ferry, only taking about 30 minutes to cross. However, what it made up for in time, it lacked in views. The train arrives just south of Dover in Folkestone, so you don’t see the White Cliffs of Dover as you would if you arrived by Ferry. Both are nice options to have.
What We Did
The Shambles Market
Once we arrived, we spent our first evening walking around the city and getting the lay of the land. We enjoyed views of the River Ouse, The Shambles shopping area, and found the site of the Shambles Market, which we returned to each day to see the vendors in full operation. There are tons of stores and restaurants in this area. I cannot imagine running out of places to shop or eat in this town.
While my husband worked, my son and I spent our first day of sightseeing together. Our first stop was going to be Clifford’s Tower, which is all that remains of the York Castle built by William the Conqueror in 1068, but we got there before it opened.
York Army Museum
We passed the time taking pictures until my son saw the sign for the York Army Museum right across the street from Clifford’s Tower. I had seen advertisements for this museum and hadn’t planned on going, but since we had some time to kill and my son seemed interested, we went ahead on in. I am glad we did. It was very reasonably priced. As the “regimental museum of The Royal Dragoon Guards and The Yorkshire Regiment,” it was relatively small and easy to take in.
The museum had a very nice collection of artifacts and memorabilia that were beautifully and thoughtfully displayed. There were interactive areas within the exhibits that helped provide information in a hands-on way. There were also aspects of the exhibits geared specifically toward children woven throughout, mostly focusing on the animals of the regiment who were pets, mascots, and of service. We spoke with two employees while on site, both of whom were very kind and helpful. After wrapping up our museum visit, we headed back to Clifford’s Tower.
Clifford’s Tower is also relatively small. Inside, you can view a few rooms within the tower and take in the 360-degree view of York from the second level walkway. Now an English Heritage site, there are plans to soon improve the site for future visitors. Check their website before visiting in case your plans may be affected by renovations and improvement work!
Jorvik Viking Center
After Clifford’s Tower, we walked over to the Jorvik Viking Center. The center stands on the site of a York Archaeological Trust dig site, the Coppergate Dig, where the 1,000-year-old remains of the Viking-era city of Jorvik were uncovered.
The center is divided into three parts. First, an exhibit on the dig. Next, a “time capsule” ride through Jorvik, where the city and its inhabitants are depicted through a recreation of the city. The narration of the ride is offered in many languages, including a “children’s English” which I presume was more fun for my son to listen to. I appreciated that the portrayal was realistic, including smells! The last section of the center is their museum galleries of artifacts from Jorvik. In this section, as well as the first section on the dig, staff were available to assist with hands-on exhibits, allowing you to see and touch some of the artifacts on exhibit.
We exited through the gift shop which had a surprising number of local products for sale in addition to standard gift shop wares. I picked up some locally-made artisan gifts for friends and a locally-made beer for my husband. Individual and family ticket purchases to the Jorvik Viking Center are treated as a donation which grants you free admission for 12 months from the date of your initial visit. This came in handy the next day when we wanted to return to see a very important artifact we missed on the first visit! We learned about this important artifact at our next stop, the Jorvik Dig.
The Jorvik Dig is a sister property to the Jorvik Viking Center, owned by the same management group. It is a hands-on experience ideal for children. Prices vary depending upon if you want to take the hour-long guided tour or not. I recommend taking the tour, which we did, because it is the only way for children to be able to visit the hands-on excavation pits that allow them to conduct their own archaeological dig (in shredded plastic, not actual dirt).
The tour teaches attendees about archaeology before taking them through two activities, the excavation pits and then an examination of real archaeological artifacts. Here is where we heard about a fascinating artifact found at the Coppergate Dig – the world’s largest fossilized poo! The Dig had a replica of this treasure to show us, but the real thing is on display at the Jorvik Viking Center. You can see why it was important for us to go back to see it! Our guide said that even Prince Charles has held it, so clearly it’s a national treasure that should not be missed!
After the tour, the rest of the Jorvik Dig galleries are open for viewing, displaying more artifacts from York over time. I enjoyed looking at just the building itself as the Dig is housed in a beautiful old church. Like the Center, the Dig ticket purchase grants your return entry for a year from initial purchase.
The Jorvik Dig recommends booking your tickets in advance so that you can ensure a spot on one of the guided tours. We got in on a tour that started five minutes after we arrived, but that was pure luck. The Jorvik Viking Center also recommends pre-purchasing your tickets, which I always recommend when possible. I did not follow my own advice for this and we did experience about a 30-minute wait to get into the Center.
York Boat Cruise
Our final venture on our first full day in York was to take the “Early Evening Cruise” boat tour with the York Boat company. This was a peaceful, hour long cruise on the Ouse River. It provided nice views of the city from the water.
The captain narrated the tour, sharing interesting facts and trivia along the way. This tour is ideal for families. York Boat offers later evening tours which are probably more kid-free. Beverages are available for purchase on board. We sat on the upper deck and got a bit chilly, a common problem on boat tours, so my son enjoyed a hot chocolate … in July!! I recommend taking layers for warmth if you choose to enjoy this cruise.
York City Walls
We started our second full day with a walk along about one quarter of the York City Walls. Originally built in Roman times, 3.4 km of the walls remain (or have been reconstructed) today, the most complete city walls in England and the longest in the UK. We walked the Monk Bar and Bootham Bar section since our hotel concierge told us that it was the most scenic, and it landed us right near our next destination, the York Minster.
The York Minster is an 800-year-old medieval gothic cathedral, the largest in Northern Europe. The history of the site goes back 2,000 years, as it includes unearthed Roman barracks under the Minster which can now been seen in the Undercroft exhibit. The York Minster is a working, Christian cathedral and visitors can attend worship services in addition to touring the historical site.
I loved that the York Minster offered us a “Little Explorer Backpack” for our son to use while on our visit. It included a scavenger hunt, a child-friendly tour guide, binoculars, markers, paper, and some other activities. He loved it and had a great time using the binoculars to find special details within the cathedral. There were also some hands-on activities in the Undercroft exhibit that taught elements of architecture that he enjoyed. I love it when these sorts of things are available to make touring and learning fun for my son. Being a hands-on learner myself, they are usually really fun for me, too!
Time Traveller’s Guide to York (Theatrical History Tour)
After leaving the Minster, we rushed to St. Helen’s Square to catch a 3:00 pm theatrical history tour, The Time Traveller’s Guide to York by Nightshade Productions. So far in our travels, for better or for worse, we have not typically done guided tours like this. But, the night before over dinner at The Golden Fleece (more on that below), we saw one of the guides from Nightshade Productions gathering people for their York Terror Trail tour. My son was very interested in that, though I had doubts that a 7-year-old should go on a ghost tour. So, I asked the tour guide about it on our way out and he recommend the Time Traveller’s tour instead. He said it started with a sword fight which I knew would be enough for my son to forget about the ghosts.
We ended up being the only people on the tour, which in some ways was nice, but I think it may have taken away from the guide’s ability to pull off some of his usual tricks and jokes. Still, he did a great job with us, taking us by the Yorkshire Museum Gardens, back through the City Walls, by the York Minster, through the Shambles, and a few other areas. The overarching theme of the tour was the importance of learning history while travelling, but not just popular history, also the hidden secrets and stories that cities have to offer. The tour highlighted the importance of looking all around you when you travel in order to find the special details that make a place unique. A nice lesson for us travelers, especially on our last evening in York.
The overarching theme of the tour was the importance of learning history while travelling, but not just popular history, also the hidden secrets and stories that cities have to offer. The tour highlighted the importance of looking all around you when you travel in order to find the special details that make a place unique.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Hotel 53 in York. It was in a good location within the walls, but not too much in the center of town. On-site parking is limited but the hotel does have parking options in nearby public parking lots if you ask. We had a family room which was quite small but was clean and suited our needs. The room did not have a refrigerator or safe which are amenities we have gotten used to, but that isn’t the end of the world. The hotel was clean and the staff was very friendly and helpful. We ate breakfast there one morning. It was a decent, basic, English hotel breakfast. We opted to eat the rest of our meals out.
What We Ate
For breakfasts, we were happy to find a bagel place, Bagel Nash, nearby. Bagels are hard to find in Belgium so we get excited when we see them!
For one lunch, we grabbed sandwiches and pasties from the Cornish Bakery. These were good, authentic pasties and were great for a quick, cheap lunch on the go. I noticed a lot of people eating them in one of the public squares nearby while taking in a street performance.
We had lunch the next day at Eagle & Child. This was a really cool place, a timber-framed pub built in 1640. All the floors were crooked and leaning, oozing charm and history, if not a slight threat of collapse. Upstairs, the restaurant highlights the signatures (in lipstick) of the Rolling Stones band members on the wall from a visit in the 1960s. They served traditional English pub food and it was delicious. This was a very convenient location to have lunch before we visited the York Minster.
We had three great dinners in York. The first was at South American chain restaurant Las Iguanas. We were wandering the streets in the Shambles on our first night and the signs indicating tacos caught our eye. Good Mexican food is hard to come by in Belgium so we jump at the chance when we can have it. The menu had more of a Brazilian flair to it than Mexican, which was unexpected but very good! They had a buy-one-get-one special on cocktails, too, which was a nice bonus.
For our second dinner in York we opted for a traditional English Pub experience and ate in what is supposedly York’s most haunted pub, The Golden Fleece. While we didn’t experience any spirits while we were there, we enjoyed the traditional pub ambiance. The food was good but the portions were huge. Too big, really. I ordered the fish and chips and it came with two huge pieces of fish. While it is not uncommon to get two pieces, these were so big, I didn’t even finish one, and I am a really good eater! It easily could have been split between two people.
A word on fish and chips … I keep ordering it in the UK, now in Windsor, London, York, and in Ireland, and sadly, none of them have tasted great to me. They have all been fine, just kind of lacking in flavor. Are my expectations too high? Is there a place with great fish and chips somewhere in the UK that I shouldn’t miss?
Moving on, for our last night in York, we wanted something close to our hotel and our son was begging for pizza. Boy, did we luck out. We found Il Paradiso Del Cibo, a super-authentic (read the website) nearby Italian restaurant. I recommend reservations here because it is small and when we visited they were packed. Still, they made room for us and the food and service were both incredible. We were near the kitchen, bar, and the carry-out register so we really saw the staff in action. I loved it. We haven’t been to Italy yet but this was the closest I have felt so far.
What We Missed
I think we packed a ton of activities into our trip to York, but there are still some I know we missed. We did not purchase a York Pass because in our case, I didn’t think the cost was worth it (given our selection of activities) but it could very well be worth it, so check it out if you are planning a visit!
My biggest regret was not getting to the York Castle Museum. Their current “Shaping the Body” exhibit looked really interesting to me. It examines 400 years of history on how our bodies have been shaped and designed through fashion, food, and life.
We didn’t visit the National Railway Museum but it looks like a place my son would have loved a few years ago when he was in his obsessed-with-trains stage.
My more sophisticated side might have enjoyed the Yorkshire Museum and Museum Gardens, the Fairfax House, or the York Art Gallery. We learned about the York artist William Etty on our Time Traveller’s tour and we could have viewed his art there.
We have plenty of opportunities in Belgium to eat and learn about chocolate, so we passed on York’s Chocolate Story. We get plenty of beer in Belgium too, but my husband might have enjoyed visiting the York Brewery Visitor Center or trying a few stops on Yorkshire’s Ale Trail. I would not have minded a few stops on Yorkshire’s Tea Trail.
We had a lot of opportunities to shop in the Shambles and on other shopping streets, but I (mostly) refrained. I also glanced longingly at the York Designer Outlet as we passed it on our way out of town.
Finally, one thing I am terrible about on vacation is fitting in time to exercise. While we were on the boat tour, I could see that there was a walking/running/cycling path along the River Ouse that seemed to stretch from the Museum Gardens well past the walls at the south end of the city center. It looked like a great place to walk or jog to burn off the great meals and ice creams we enjoyed.
With so much we didn’t get to, I am sure we’d enjoy another visit to York if the possibility arises again. We really enjoyed our trip and everything we did manage to do!