If you are visiting the UK be sure not to miss out on a visit to York, an ancient walled city in North-East England, founded by the Romans. York also makes a perfect weekend getaway for families.
York has an incredible history and showcases architecture from Roman ruins to medieval streets and Georgian townhouses to modern glass buildings. It truly is one of England’s most beautiful and interesting cities.
Take a look at the best family-friendly activities and things to see in York. We’d recommend taking at least two days to explore all that York has to offer, although, if you’ve got more than 48 hours in York, you won’t be short of things to do.
Explore the Shambles and the Snickleways of York
The Shambles is York’s oldest and most famous street, dating back at least 900 years, and has many interesting buildings. It’s got a proper old-world feel to it as many of the buildings grow ever more crookedly towards the sky. At its narrowest point, it is said that you can shake hands with someone in the building opposite. It will probably make your kids think of Hogsmeade.
The Shambles was originally full of butchers shops, up to 26 at a time. The butchers would flush away the offal and blood down the channel in the middle of the street. I can’t even begin to imagine the stench and the sight of that.
Nowadays the Shambles is thankfully free from rivers of blood and is full of souvenir and chocolate shops. It can be absolutely heaving with people so time your visit right. We found the best time to visit the Shambles was early in the morning, so it’s a good idea to begin your first day in York here.
Many of York’s other streets are pedestrianised, especially those around York Minster. Spend some time window shopping and weaving your way through the narrow streets, called Snickleways (which has to be my new favourite word). You’ll get lost, but that’s half the fun. Try not to buy too much fudge – there are far too many tempting sweet shops dotted about!
This immense gothic cathedral is so spectacular inside that even my notoriously difficult to impress 3 year-old really enjoyed it and behaved herself.
Allow plenty of time to walk around on the ground floor and pick up a map at the information desk so you don’t miss anything.
If you have small children then pick up an Explorer’s Pack to entertain them on the way round the cathedral, or download a family trail from the website before you visit. York Minster also runs dedicated family activities, especially in the holidays.
If you’ve got older children then you might want to take a guided tour (I didn’t dare risk it with my two prone-to-shrieking-at-the-worst-possible-moment little angels).
Don’t forget the Undercroft: an underground historical display which shows the history of the building from Roman times to the present. There were plenty of interactive things for kids to play about with down here and it kept the Cub busy.
From the belly of the Minster to the crown: you can also go up into one of the towers to get a great view over York – be warned as there are nearly 300 steps. This isn’t suitable for children under 8.
Entry to the Minster costs £10 (children under 16 go free) or £15 for the Minster and the Tower.
York Museum Gardens
The Museum Gardens are a great place to let the kids blow off some steam after visiting the Shambles and York Minster. These gardens have plenty of wide-open space for the kids to enjoy and some beautiful flowerbeds to admire too. The gardens also have some fascinating ruins; part of a Roman fortress and a medieval hospital.
In the centre of the gardens you’ll find the remains of St Mary’s Abbey. This beautiful building was begun nearly a thousand years ago on the orders of William the Conqueror and became one of the most important Benedictine monasteries in the country. That all came to an end in the 1530s when Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries. St Mary’s fell into ruin over the centuries and now only parts of the nave and cloister are left.
The medieval hospitium, where visitors to the now ruined Abbey would have stayed, is one of the other buildings that can be seen inside the gardens, alongside the York Observatory.
This is a lovely peaceful garden perfect for a picnic, but there are also riverside pubs here if you don’t want to pack your own lunch.
York City Walls
York’s city walls look like ancient battlements. Which, of course, they were. York has always had defensive walls of some sort and today there are 3.4 km remaining. Walking the walls is a must-do activity as you’ll get some great views of the city. It’s a great way to start your second day in York.
As well as the views of York, the most interesting features of the walls are the bars, or ancient gates. One of them, Walmgate Bar, has the only remaining barbican. With our kids we walked from Micklegate bar, near our hotel, to the city centre.
There are several different routes to take and you can find them on the Friends of York Walls website.
Family-friendly museums in York
York has plenty of museums which cater to a variety of tastes. You’re sure to find something of interest! I doubt you’ll get round all of them in a weekend but you should try to see at least one. Here’s our pick of the best museums for families in York.
National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum houses 100 or so locomotives from the 19th century to the present day. Kids of all ages will love it here and adults will love the entrance price – it’s free.
Begin by looking at some of the old Royal steam trains that ferried Queen Victoria and Kind Edward about. Everything is as opulent as you’d expect. Victoria’s carriages look like a miniature palace, decked in blue silks with golden trim. Even the ceiling had gilded cornicing. King Edward appears to have tried to out-do her with his duck-egg and mahogany smoking room. But King George’s carriages, built for touring the country in the Second World War, are much more spartan.
The modern age is represented in the main hall where a large shinkansen is displayed, including a carriage that you can walk through. There are trains from all ages and countries in this large hall, including the 15 foot high Chinese locomotive whose wheels are taller than me. Don’t miss the Mallard – the fastest steam engine in the world.
For very little ones there is a play area and there are plenty of interactive displays for older children.
Clifford’s Tower and York Castle Museum
Clifford’s Tower is the largest remaining part of York Castle. The castle is long since gone but Clifford’s tower once had a chapel and apartments inside. It was also used as a prison – Dick Turpin was held here before he was executed.
If you climb up the steps to the top of the tower then you’re treated to a great rooftop view over York. The Cub and I managed this but Bee had to stay behind as the Tower is not accessible for buggies or wheelchairs. Clifford’s Tower is administered by English Heritage and costs £5/£3 for adults/children 5+.
The York Castle Museum just opposite is a worthwhile visit. The museum’s buildings were once prisons and they sit on the site of the former castle, hence the name. The museum covers a time period from Victorians to the present day. It’s a great museum for kids, who will think that the recreated Victorian street inside is fabulous, not to mention the Toy Museum.
We didn’t attempt it with our toddlers but we’ve been in the past. Instead the Cub had fun on a carousel and helter-skelter outside the museum entrance. Sometimes you’ve just got to go with the flow with kids!
Entry to York Castle museum costs £9.09 for an adult and children under 16 go free.
Jorvik Viking Centre
Another historical museum that covers a different phase of York’s history is the Jorvik Viking Centre just a short walk away from Clifford’s Tower. York was known as Jorvik during Viking times, when many people came from Scandinavia and settled in the area.
When we last visited York, the Jorvik centre was shut after being badly damaged in floods. It has recently re-opened and has been reimagined and refurbished. At the new Viking centre a ride takes you through a reconstruction of Jorvik populated with animatronic characters based on real people. You can also see Viking artefacts found in York.
Prices start at £10.25/£7.25 for adults/kids 5+. There are various ticket options offering entry to other attractions with the York Pastport. You can book your tickets online to avoid queues at the centre.
Our children were far too small for the York Dungeon but older ones made of stern stuff and adults will love the interactive experience. The Dungeon offers a live-action journey through some of the darker parts of York’s history, and you’ll get to meet characters such as highwayman Dick Turpin and plotter Guy Fawkes.
The husband and I have been to the Dungeon on a previous visit – the actors are great and the exhibits suitably gruesome. I’d recommend you visit too.
Book your York Dungeon tickets online for the best prices. The York Dungeon is part of Merlin so if you’ve got a Merlin annual pass then your entry is free. York Dungeon may not be suitable for children under the age of 10, but entry is at the discretion of parents.
And if you’ve not had your fill of the macabre in the York Dungeon, you could join a ghost tour after dark (there are several companies which run these). York has plenty of ghost stories, both past and present. Surely they can’t all be without foundation?
Know before you go
Getting there and away
York is a well connected city and is easy to get to from pretty much anywhere in the UK.
If you’re coming by car then York is near the M1/M62 motorways. It’s a good 4 hour journey by car from London if you’re lucky with the traffic.
The nearest airports to York are at Manchester, Leeds Bradford, Humberside and Sheffield.
If you’re travelling from London the train is the quickest way, taking only 2 hours. Book your tickets in advance for the best prices.
Where to stay in York
When we explored York as a family, we stayed in the Premier Inn on Blossom Street which was a 10 minute toddler walk from the city centre. By booking a couple of weeks in advance we got a good price of £80 for a family room with a king-sized bed and two smaller beds for the kids. When we extended our stay at the last minute we paid £120, so book in advance to take advantage of best prices.
We couldn’t fault the Premier Inn – you know what you’re getting here. Basic but clean, comfy beds and good location. There was plenty of room for the four of us.
For a more upmarket hotel in the centre of York, try the Grand Hotel. I’ve stayed here previous to having children and it was a great stay. They also do a children’s afternoon tea (which needs to be pre-booked). Perhaps when mine are bigger!
Again, before having kids, the husband and I have stayed in Middlethorpe Hall, which is on the outskirts of York. This is a lovely hotel if your kids are a little older, and they do have a family room. You’ll need to drive in to the city from here.
Getting around York
York is easily walkable, but if you’re visiting York with young children they (and you) might want to take the occasional rest. We decided to take a Red Bus Tour which is a good way to orient yourself in the city.
The Cub is obsessed with buses so we climbed on board and got the front seats at the top. Great view! The Cub, however, started to shriek and ask to sit downstairs – the open feeling of the big windows really upset her and she was worried about falling out. She was happy as a pig in muck downstairs but the husband and I couldn’t really see much. Never mind!
Where to eat in York
York has a plethora of places to eat. Many are the usual chain restaurants but there are some lovely cafes and independent restaurants too. For a local’s recommendations on where to eat and drink in York, take a look at this post by Wandermust Family.
Betty’s Tea Rooms
You cannot visit York without either eating at, or buying from the shop at Betty’s Tea Rooms. Queues can be around the corner so visiting outside of lunch time is recommended.
In the past we’ve had lovely afternoon teas here but our little ones can’t be trusted not to melt down in the sophisticated and quiet setting so this time we settled for a take-away macaron for the Cub, fat rascals for the husband and a slice of cake for me. All delicious!
York’s Chocolate Story
If you find yourself stuck for something to do on a rainy day you could do worse than touring York’s Chocolate Story to learn how chocolate was brought to York. Book ahead of time and allow an hour and a half. Tasting is mandatory!
Before you go, try to plan what you’d like to do and see if the York Pass is worth paying for. It depends on how many paid attractions you think you’ll visit. Attractions included in the York Pass are: York Minster, York Museum, Clifford’s Tower, York Chocolate Story, York Dungeon, Jorvik Viking Centre, Rievaulx Abbey and Castle Howard, among others. You can get a 1, 2 or 3 day pass.
We didn’t bother as with such young children we couldn’t be sure that we’d be able to stick to a plan. The York Pass is not worth buying for children under 5 as entry is often free for them.
There is also a scheme called the York Pastport which has discounted entry to some of York’s historical attractions. This is associated with the Jorvik Viking Centre.
Hopefully you’re now inspired to take a look at this fantastic city.
There was much that we left undone – everywhere you turn in York there is something else interesting to look at. Yes, it can be expensive to visit, it’s often crowded, and yes, there are a lot of tourists.
But where else can you visit with such a rich history, with so much of it so carefully and lovingly preserved?
Roman Ebacorum; Anglo-Saxon Eoforwic; Viking Jorvik; modern York. Which will you visit first?
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