The Best Things to do in York, UK

Incredible Things to See and Do in York, UK

Founded by the Romans in 71 AD, the city of York (or Eboracum, as it was originally named) quickly became a bustling provincial capital on the edge of an empire. After the Romans came the Anglo-Saxons, before the Vikings sailed along the River Ouse to claim York (or Jorvik, as they preferred to call it) as their own. 

With layers of history to uncover, you’ll love exploring York’s incredibly well-preserved medieval sights, including the Shambles, York Minster, and Clifford’s Tower, before stopping into old-fashioned tea shops or taking a cruise along the Ouse. 

With so many things to see and do, you might not know where to begin, so I’ve compiled our list of my favorite things to see and do in York. Stick to these fun and unique York bucket list recommendations, and there’s no doubt you’ll have an amazing time exploring this gorgeous city in England!

Incredible Things to do in York, UK

Travel Back to the Viking Era at the JORVIK Centre 

Best Things to do in York, UK: Jorvik Centre

The JORVIK Viking Centre is definitely one of the must-do things in York. Easily the city’s most famous sightseeing attraction, you can travel back in time to the Viking era that shaped York.

Viking York (or Jorvik) was the capital of a Scandinavian kingdom that ruled northern England in the 9th and 10th centuries. In the 20th century, much of Jorvik was excavated, revealing houses, shops, markets, stables, and blacksmith shops and offering a valuable insight into what life was like over a millennia ago.

The JORVIK Viking Centre has pieced this history together and offers a “ride” through a reconstructed vision of Jorvik, complete with the bad smells you’d expect to find in a medieval city!


Take a Stroll Through the Shambles 

Unique Things to do in York, UK: Shambles

Taking a stroll through the Shambles is one of the most fun York activities. Dating back to the medieval era, this long, narrow street is lined by timber-framed shops and heritage-listed buildings that lean ever inwards.

The Shambles is one of the best-preserved medieval shopping streets in Europe, and up until the late 19th century, it was primarily the domain of butchers (the name “Shambles” is thought to have Anglo-Saxon origins and to mean a place where meat was shelved or sold). 

Today, the Shambles is the domain of tourists, travelers, boutique shops, and quirky cafes, all of which add to the nostalgic allure of an iconic York destination that’s said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series. 


Walk York’s City Walls

Must do things in York, UK: City Walls

York is a masterful mélange of historical epochs, and the best way to visualize the city’s long history is by taking a walk along the City Walls.

Dating back to the Roman era, when York was founded as a military outpost on the River Ouse, the city walls grew from a wooden palisade into the stone relic that still stands today.

Parts of the old Roman fortifications can still be seen, but the successive layers of Viking ramparts and medieval walls are more prominent. In some places, the medieval walls reach a height of four meters and are almost two meters wide, with many of the gatehouses – including Bootham Bar and Walmgate – very much still standing.

The City Walls have a total length of around two miles, so there’s plenty to see as you trace their route through York. 


Admire the Gothic Architecture of York Minster

York, UK Things to do: York Minster

York has long been the most important religious center in northern England, so it’s no surprise that the city’s cathedral is one of the largest places of worship in Europe and one of the top York attractions.

In fact, York Minster (as the cathedral is named) is the second-largest Gothic cathedral in the world (the only one larger is Cologne Cathedral in Germany), and admiring its spectacular architecture is one of the top things to do in York.

Step inside and you’ll learn how construction began in the 13th century AD. It took almost 200 years to complete the intricate Gothic facade, and York Minster wouldn’t officially open until 1472. Despite several renovations and a serious fire in the 1980s, York Minster remains one of England’s best examples of a medieval cathedral. 


Enjoy Sweeping Views from Clifford’s Tower

Unique Things to do in York, UK: Clifford's Tower

One of the best sights in York is Clifford’s Tower, a medieval landmark that has dominated the city’s skyline since it was built by the Normans in the 11th century AD. 

Located on a tall mound in the center of York, Clifford’s Tower was designed to subdue the rebellious north of England following William the Conqueror’s 1066 invasion.

Variously used throughout its long history as a castle, prison, and even a site of execution, you can learn more as you tour through the medieval keep. 

Make your way to the top of Clifford’s Tower, which stands around 15 meters high, and you’ll love the sweeping views of York from the tall stone ramparts. 


Take a Cruise on the River Ouse 

What to do in York, UK: River Ouse

The River Ouse is the UK’s sixth-longest river, and for 13 miles, it flows through York. Centuries ago, it was the River Ouse that brought Viking longships to York, and today, York’s most famous waterway is lined with ancient buildings and spanned by historic bridges. 

The best way to experience the River Ouse is on a guided cruise. River cruises depart regularly from King’s Staith Landing or Lendal Bridge Landing throughout the day, offering a glimpse of iconic sights like the City Walls and Clifford’s Tower as you traverse the Ouse to the soundtrack of the captain’s guided commentary. 


Uncover the History of Locomotives 

Unique Things to do in York, UK: National Railway Museum

As travelers, we love everything about trains, and so a visit to the National Railway Museum is one of our top things to do in York. 

The railways played a huge role in York’s development, as the city was selected to be an important northern depot when the Victorians began creating a nationwide rail network. 

It’s an apt location for a national museum dedicated to railways, and you’ll find this Yorkshire institution inside the old sheds and warehouses where trains were stored until 1975.

The museum has a collection of over 6,000 rail-related objects, but the best things to see are the historic locomotives and carriages, including a Japanese bullet train, the Mallard (the world’s fastest steam engine), and countless others.


Have Afternoon Tea at Bettys 

Must do things in York, UK: Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms

If you love a classic afternoon tea, there’s no better place to be than Bettys Café Tea Rooms. This historic tea room and cafe is a Yorkshire institution, and your afternoon tea is in safe hands, given that Bettys has been serving since 1936.

With a lavish interior that draws on the art deco styles of the 1930s, you can dig into a traditional afternoon tea selection that includes egg mayonnaise sandwiches, raspberry apple tarts, and a pot of Yorkshire’s finest tea. 

You could even upgrade to the boozy afternoon tea, which includes a bottle of pink champagne or prosecco, all served in the Belmont Room, away from the crowds. 


Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth at York’s Chocolate Story

Fun Things to do in York, UK: Yorks Chocolate Story

A visit to York’s Chocolate Story is one of the top York activities for anyone with a sweet tooth. This unique York sightseeing attraction tells the story of chocolate from its Mesoamerican origins to the current day, with a particular focus on York’s local chocolatiers.

You’ll learn how cacao beans are transformed into chocolate bars before enjoying a sumptuous chocolate-tasting session led by a tasting expert. In the museum, you’ll then learn how Victorian York became a powerhouse in the chocolate world. 

Many of the UK’s most famous confectionery brands were founded here, and York’s Chocolate Story digs into the history of Rowntree’s (who developed the KitKat in York) and Terry’s (famed for their chocolate oranges). Of course, at the end of your tour, you can then purchase as much chocolate as you can carry! 


Venture Underground at York’s Cold War Bunker

If you’re looking for a quirky day out, then one of the top things to do in York is to visit the Cold War Bunker. This unusual York sightseeing attraction is located deep beneath the streets of York, where for many decades it remained completely hidden from local sight and knowledge.

Constructed in secret in 1961, York’s Cold War Bunker was part of a large network of nuclear fallout shelters across the United Kingdom. It was never needed, but until the 1990s (when the Soviet Union collapsed), there was a team of local volunteers ready to shut themselves away in the event of nuclear war. 

Today, York’s Cold War Bunker is no longer a secret, and you can book an underground tour through English heritage. 


Brave a Spooky Ghost Tour of York

York, UK Bucket List: Ghost Tour

A ghost tour is one of the coolest things to do in York. With a history stretching back to the Romans, this is a city that’s shrouded in mysterious happenings and tales of ghosts. 

Join a Ghost Walk or a Ghost Bus Tour, and you’ll hear strange stories of the paranormal as you’re guided through York’s medieval streets. 

Learn about York Minster’s resident ghosts, discover which pubs are still haunted by their previous patrons, and discover the dark and bloody deeds carried out in York in centuries past. 

There you have it! Incredible things to do in York, UK. What’s your favorite?


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Author

  • Richard Collett

    Richard is an award-winning travel writer based in Southwest England who’s addicted to traveling off the beaten track. He’s traveled to 75 countries and counting in search of intriguing stories, unusual destinations, and cultural curiosities.

    Richard loves traveling the long way round over land and sea, and you’ll find him visiting quirky micronations and breakaway territories as often as he’s found lounging on a beach (which is a lot).

    When he’s not writing for BBC Travel, National Geographic, or Lonely Planet, you can find Richard writing for the Wandering Wheatleys or updating his off-beat travel blog, Travel Tramp.

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