One of my favorite cities in England is the charming medieval city of York. Located in northern England, it’s a great place to visit on a trip from London to Scotland.
The city of York was founded as the Roman city of Eboracum in 71 AD and became the northernmost provincial capital in the Roman Empire. In fact, Constantine was declared Emperor here in 306. After the fall of the Roman Empire, York became the capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.
Vikings invaded in the 9th century, and York was a Danish trading center for two centuries until the Normans took England. Medieval York was England’s second largest city and became wealthy on the wool trade. In the 15th century, it was involved in the War of the Roses, and its city symbol is still a white rose. Henry VIII made York the capital of his northern church, and today’s York Minster is still one of the most powerful in the Church of England.
As northern Britain became industrialized, York served an important role as a railroad hub with the world’s largest train station at the time. The station and York were bombed during World War II, but thankfully, the town survived to be the best preserved medieval town in all of England.
York has become popularized in today’s television through Downton Abbey (the fictional castle is set in Yorkshire but the castle used in filming, Highclere Castle, is located in Hampshire) and All Creatures Great and Small.
Today York relies on tourism as visitors walk on cobbled streets and through lanes full of leaning timbered buildings. It’s the most picturesque city in Britain!
I first visited York as a college student and was so happy to return on our family’s vacation in 2022. It was just as delightful and special as I had remembered! The appeal of York is that you get all of the modern amenities of a large city wrapped in a package of historic buildings and easy-to-navigate lanes. I recommend spending at least one day and night in York on any England trip.
The historic city is contained and easily walkable. Stay in or just outside of the historic center for the easiest itinerary. We stayed at The Grand, housed in a turn-of-the-century building that is a former railway headquarters. It was so atmospheric with a great restaurant and is just a short walk over the River Ouse from the medieval city. Check out the York tourism site for more options.
To make the most of your visit, consult Rick Steves’ walking tour of the city which hits all of the highlights.
There are so many great historical sites in the city that you’ll want to spend more than a day here!
A grand cathedral that is a must-see on any trip! It’s the largest Gothic church north of the Alps and was completed in the 15th century after hundreds of years of building. Its archbishop is second only to the archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England. This large and imposing cathedral looms over the town and is a great focal point for any city walk.
You’ll enter through the front door and your eye will immediately be drawn to the long nave and the beautiful stained glass. It was saved from the German bombs in both WWI and WWII by storing it in homes throughout the area.
As you walk down the nave to the altar, take in the Gothic Quire and the Rose Window on the south transept.
The crypt is where you can see the remains of a Roman fort and the tomb of William, the patron saint of York. There is also an Undercroft Museum where you can see more Roman history.
As you leave, don’t miss the statue of Emperor Constantine who was here when his father died, making him emperor. He is known for being the first Roman emperor to stop the persecution of Christians and to legalize Christianity.
While we were visiting, there was a lovely pop-up restaurant right beside the cathedral that was a good place for a break.
The ancient column across the street was placed there in the late 20th century as a reminder that the cathedral is located on the site of a Roman headquarters.
This was my kids’ favorite thing to do in York! Climb up the stairs and be transported to medieval England where the city walls protected you from the infamous Picts. It’s a narrow walkway but is safe for kids. You can even see where the moat was! The views of the York Minster from the walls are amazing!
You can do a guided tour of the walls at the City Walls Experience.
This museum is an archaeologist’s dream! Located in the York Museum Gardens, it’s a good stop if you’ve got a budding Indiana Jones on your hands!
The ruins of this 11th century abbey in the York Museum Gardens is one of the most picturesque spots in England! Your kids will love exploring the grounds, imagining what it was like here when Henry VIII destroyed all of the abbeys to get control of the land.
Don’t miss the Multangular Tower ( 12-sided tower) built in 300 AD. It served as the west tower of a fortress that protected York from river attacks.
This is my favorite place to visit in York. This 13th century fort has a sad history and serves as a memorial to the Jewish people who died on this site. In the late 12th century, an angry mob chased the Jewish inhabitants of York into the tower (not this one as it was built several decades later) and set it afire. It is an interesting place to visit and has incredible views from its roof. Note that it is quite a steep climb up to the tower so it’s best for older kids.
Kids will enjoy the interior spaces, especially the king’s latrine!
I wish we’d had time to visit this museum with its recreated Victorian street and WWI and prison exhibits. Next time!
A hidden gem that tells the story of Britain’s Cold War bunker that was to monitor the fall-out of any nuclear blast!
Part museum, part amusement park, this center looks like a lot of fun for kids. While it’s more commercial than the other museums, it can get your kids excited about Viking history in York, which is a good thing!
This is another archeological museum where your kids can get some hands-on training as they dig through “dirt” for artifacts.
Train enthusiasts will love this museum where you can see a replica of a Chunnel train and see a real turntable like in Thomas the Train! For real train enthusiasts, take a short train ride on the historic North Yorkshire Moors Railway (whose station at Goathland’s village played Hogsmeade Station in the first three Harry Potter films).
Other fun activities with kids
This is one of my favorite things to do with older kids while in England. I took the Original Ghost Walk back in college and remembered it fondly so my family took it again last year! It’s a great way to see the city and hear some history along with some spooky stories. Note that it is usually very crowded so hold tight to little ones’ hands (best for ages 10 and up).
Don’t miss seeing this street with its leaning medieval buildings thought to be an inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter.
If your kids are tired of walking, take them to this museum with lots of delicious samples.
Kids love boats, and it would be lovely to see this beautiful town from the river.
Day trips from York
Located just outside the city limits on a WWII air force base, this museum is perfect for any airplane enthusiasts. We didn’t get there this trip, but I know it’s high on our priority list for next time.
The rolling hills and moors of Yorkshire make it a place full of grand homes, many recognizable through our favorite TV shows! Castle Howard, one of the most stately homes in all of Britain, was Simon and Daphne’s home on Bridgerton. Harewood was used in the Downton Abbey movie. Branham Park has been used in several movies and shows. Burghley House and Gardens was built in the 16th century by the high treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I.
James Herriot tourism
There’s so much to do in the historic town of York! Your kids will love the fun history while you’ll love how accessible everything is. It’s truly a delightful place!
- I recommend at least one day and night in York. As you can see from above, you could easily make it a week-long stay. We stayed two nights on our latest trip.
- I loved The Grand hotel. Since it’s a former railway headquarters, the ceilings are high and the rooms are spacious. Other options can be found here.
- Dining in York was lovely. We had several amazing meals here in beautiful buildings. We had both breakfast and dinner in our hotel’s restaurant that we really enjoyed. The hotel also serves a lovely afternoon tea. We also really enjoyed our lunch at The Judge’s Lodging restaurant – it was so nice on its expansive patio located on one of York’s pretty medieval streets. For an Italian meal set in the majestic former hall of York’s Grand Assembly, eat at Ask Italian (a chain but the food is great and kid-friendly!). A York institution for tea is Bettys Cafe Tea Room.
- York is an easy train ride from anywhere in England. It’s two hours from London and 2.5 from Edinburgh.If you want to fly to York, Manchester is the closest large international airport (two hours by train).
- York has great shopping with all of the major chains but also local stores. The shops around St. Helen’s Square and near The Shambles were my kids’ favorites. We also really enjoyed the Kaethe Wohlfarht Christmas store – it’s worth a visit even if you don’t buy anything (this is the brand’s only location in England!)!
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