Where in England can you simultaneously enjoy major historical sights, big city features like museums and theaters, (and a wonderful variety of culinary delights) but also easy public transit access, manageable crowds, and a lovely, walkable city center? Hint: the answer is not London orLiverpool, but instead would be York! Nestled halfway between capital cities London and Edinburgh, York is a small city absolutely loaded with world class sights all within walking distance of the city center. There is no need to rely on a car or even public transit to see this gem of a city in the North of England. To truly get the best of York, three full days and nights is recommended, but you can easily spend five days there and spend the additional days to utilize it as a base for exploring the region via day trips.
York’s greatest asset is its compactness. For such a happening place with so much to do, virtually all the sights of interest are generally found inside the town walls, with the Railway Museum being a can’t miss exception. Having a city center accommodation (I usually stay at a well located AirBnB), allows the freedom to see as many great sights as you can while not having to rely on public transit. All this points to York being a stress free and thrill packed destination. I have been to York at least four times and I never tire of it and always find something new and fun to experience.
YORK CITY WALLS
York contains intact city walls that were originally erected by the Romans and modified in the 14th century. While updated somewhat in the 1800s, it still has a distinctive Medieval feel to it. One can’t help but be transported back in time when walking the walls. Located on the wall in the gatehouse at Micklegate Bar is the “Henry VII Experience” and further down at Monkgate Bar you’ll see the ‘Richard III Experience”. These exhibits give us a glimpse into the lives and times of these two pivotal English monarchs.
Arguably the finest Gothic cathedral in England, the sheer size and attention to detail of this massive church is overwhelming. It is so large that it is nearly impossible to fit into one photo. Legend has it that you can easily fit St.Patrick’s Cathedral (in New York) inside Yorkminster! On display here are also some terrific examples of late Medieval stained glass.
York got its name from the Old Norse Jorvik (pronounced YOR-vik), and the Vikings made York their capital when they controlled over half of what is today England in the 9th and 10th centuries. Jorvik Viking Centre tells the story of Viking York ala a Disney-esque interactive experience, which is a great way to get the kids involved and interested in history. There’s even a Viking themed pub in the city center called “Valhalla”, and the decor of this place is fantastic. Great beers also!
THE SHAMBLES AND THE MEDIEVAL CENTER
Ever wonder where J.K Rowling got the idea for the famous “Diagon Alley” in Harry Potter? Legend has it that she was besotted with the higgledy-piggledy layout of York’s most famous street: The Shambles. Once a row of butcher shops with overhangs to display their meat, the Shambles is now a well preserved medieval street with some buildings dating as far back as the 1300s! Anyone who visits York needs to have a photo op at The Shambles. Banking on the Rowling association, there are shops dedicated to Harry Potter gear, with my favorite being “The Shop That Must Not Be Named”. The rest of Medieval York is centered in and around Stonegate, a long straight road filled with shops that leads to the Minster. Other medieval sites of interest are Barley Hall, a reconstructed Medieval Townhouse and The Merchant Adventurers Hall, a 14th century guildhall.
NATIONAL RAILWAY MUSEUM
A train buff’s delight, this museum contains a massive variety of all sorts of locomotives, train cars from different time periods, and even a replica of one of the earliest true locomotives, “The Rocket”, designed in 1829! On display are the royal train cars that the Royal Family traveled on and the Mallard, which set the speed record via rail in 1938 at a blistering (for the time) 126 mph. Also found in the museum is the Japanese Bullet Train, which revolutionized rail travel by ushering in the high speed era.
Tucked in and around York are a series of small streets and footpaths called “Snickelways”. These little alleys are hidden between the old buildings in the city center and they often have interesting stories associated with them. Some of my favorites are “Mad Alice Lane” (supposedly named after a woman hanged for poisoning her husband), the “Hole in the Wall” , and “Lady Peckett’s Yard” (the most scenic). Exploring these little streets is a lot of fun, and another adventure that will appeal to children and adults alike.