I’ve never been the kind of guy who’s content to park my butt in front of the TV with a brew and tune out.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for relaxing with a movie or binge-watching a Netflix series, but it’s got to be educational as well as entertaining. Lately, every historical docudrama I’ve seen somehow includes the city of York in Northern England. Many commanding powers took a shot at ruling the unruly people of York, from the Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, to medieval English monarchs. With an entangled history so coalesced, I figured present-day York would be pretty interesting.
I was right.
Visiting York feels like strolling through a history book filled with tall Roman walls, Norman castles, quaint medieval buildings, Victorian railways, and narrow cobblestone streets lined with picturesque Georgian townhouses.
For every historic building, there’s a story of conquest, war, or rivalry and even a ghost story or three. York’s backstory had no shortage of drama, and the modern city celebrates its past, warts and all, creating a charming fusion of classical and quirky that’s ripe for exploring.
With this 3-day itinerary, I discovered interactive museums, cruised along the River Ouse, marvelled at beautiful architecture, and tasted mouth-watering international cuisines.
There’s no time for lollygagging. Let’s get York-ing!
York Minster from the city walls
York tip: I recommend picking up a 3-day York Pass to save big on the attractions included in this itinerary.
Timing tip: While the headline assumes you’re enjoying a long weekend in York, this plan will work any time of the week (and mid-week is a little quieter!).
9:30am – Collect your 3-Day York Pass
The York Pass covers entry to the most popular attractions in the centre of York and also some parks, castles, and museums beyond York. The pass can be purchased online and either shipped to a residential address within the UK, downloaded as a digital pass, or collected from the Visit York Information Centre. I collected my pass from Visit York and received a neat little pack with a York Pass card, vouchers for a hop-on hop-off bus and river cruise, and an information booklet.
York Pass Tip: If you choose to download a digital pass, you’ll still have to collect your bus and cruise vouchers from Visit York.
Without the 3-Day York Pass (£70), entry to attractions in this itinerary would cost £138.45 per person, meaning you save £68.45 by using the pass (almost 50%). The pass provides entry to more attractions than I could fit into 3 days, but the more you see, the more you save. So, let’s get going!
10am – See York from the top of a Hop-on Hop-off Bus
My first stop was York City Sightseeing (a 3-minute walk north from Visit York) to see this city from an open-top double-decker bus. I handed my York Pass voucher to the driver in exchange for a 24-hour hop-on hop-off bus ticket and climbed on board. My particular bus didn’t include the usual audio recording and headphones, but instead a live human guide, Nancy. Win!
Nancy pointed out many of York’s most quirky attractions, like 23 medieval stone cat statues forming York’s Cat Trail, and a pub that’s home to an ancient Roman bath. According to Nancy, York is the birthplace of Dame Judy Dench (we passed her old school), the city where Roman emperor Constantine was crowned, and has housed a thriving chocolate industry since the 1700’s. That’s right, we can thank York for Kit Kats and Smarties.
11:30am – Walk along York’s City Walls to the Richard III Experience
Just across the road from stop #1 for York City Sightseeing is a stone staircase leading to the top of the city walls at Bootham Bar. Walk northeast along these for 10 minutes for a stunning view of York Minster and to reach Monk Bar, home to the next York Pass attraction, the Richard III Experience.
Only in York: The 4 “bars” on York’s city walls are gatehouses that restricted traffic in medieval times. Not the kind of bars you’re thinking of.
The 3-level museum starts on the top level of Monk Bar, where a short movie and series of placards tell the story of the Wars of the Roses, in which 2 royal houses fought for the crown over a series of bloody battles. The story continues a level below with the incredibly complex royal family tree, posters detailing the life and reign of King Richard III, and scale models of battle formations. There’s also a small display on the discovery of Richard III’s remains, which were found under a carpark in 2012.
Hours: April to October: 10am – 5pm; November to March: 10am – 4pm.
York tip: I recommend watching the TV series The White Queen before visiting the Richard III Experience. The show isn’t 100% accurate historically speaking, but provides enough context to better understand the information in this museum.
Show your York Pass to enter the 18th century townhouse and former winter home of Viscount Fairfax. The architecture style, classical furniture, and exquisite interior decorations provide a peek into the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by the elites of Georgian England.
Hours: February to December, Monday: 11am – 2pm; Tuesday to Saturday: 10am – 5pm; Sunday: 11am – 4pm.
2:30pm – Get groovy at the York Castle Museum
Walk 3 minutes southeast from Fairfax House to the York Castle Museum and present your York Pass at the ticket desk. This museum is a perfect example of how York makes history fun. It presents the everyday lives of locals from Victorian England to the 21st century in exhibits that appear frozen in time.
The first exhibits show Victorian period rooms of upper-class and lower-class families. The differences between lifestyles is really quite pronounced. The main event is a recreated Victorian street, “Kirkgate” complete with period-dressed actors and an operational candy store. As we get closer to present day, one exhibit focuses on the impact of WWI on everyday lifestyles and another on 1960s British rock music, tv shows, and movies.
Hours: Daily 9:30am – 5pm.
4pm – Admire York from the top of Clifford’s Tower
Clifford’s Tower is a 1-minute walk north from York Castle Museum and included in your York Pass. The imposing tower was originally part of the 13th century York Castle constructed by William the Conqueror to fortify his rule over England. Today, the tower serves as a lookout point providing 360° views over the city and River Ouse.
Hours: Daily 10am – 6pm.
4:30pm – Cruise along the River Ouse
Walk 5 minutes west from Clifford’s Tower to King’s Staith Landing and hand in your York Pass cruise voucher for a 45-minute river cruise. Boats run regularly throughout the day depending on weather and season. The 4:30pm cruise is guaranteed between May and August.
Our captain, Aaron, filled us in on the history of York’s river system and pointed out notable landmarks, like the York Minster and an elite school that’s almost 1400 years old. The warm sun shone brightly on the day of our cruise, so remember to bring sunscreen.
5:30pm – Sip a pint overlooking the River Ouse
Next to Kings Staith Landing is the Kings Arms, a traditional pub with a selection of craft beers and ciders and riverfront alfresco seating. Grab a pint of your favourite brew to enjoy by the river.
6:30pm – Dinner at Los Moros
Walk 8 minutes north from Kings Arms for a taste of York’s international food scene at Los Moros, a cosy restaurant serving Northern African cuisine. This restaurant gets pretty busy so I suggest calling to reserve a table before you go.
My favourite thing about Los Moros is their use of fresh, local ingredients and home-grown veggies and herbs. They offer several vegetarian and vegan-friendly dishes too, so I went a little overboard ordering Morocco-inspired dishes like falafels, vegan shakshouka, butternut and chickpea couscous, and Moroccan salad.
The entirely authentic flavours transported my tastebuds the souks of Marrakesh – a surreal yet enjoyable out-of-body experience.
10am – Amble along The Shambles
Start your morning with a casual stroll along York’s narrowest and most picturesque pedestrian street, the Shambles. Some of the houses’ second stories extend so far over the street below they almost touch. Apparently, this was a sneaky tactic to build larger houses without paying tax on a larger land area. Today, the wistful buildings are stores selling chocolate, jewellery, souvenirs, and Harry Potter merchandise. Yes, there’s actually 3 Harry Potter shops on this street, which served as the inspiration for Diagon Alley.
Snazzy new Viking arm ring I picked up on The Shambles
Behind the Shambles is the aptly named Shambles Market selling artisan crafts like paintings, wood carvings, jewellery, plants, and clothing.
11am – Visit the York Art Gallery
The York Art Gallery is an 8-minute walk north from the Shambles with entry included in the York Pass. On the day of my visit, there were two temporary exhibits on the ground floor: “Sounds Like Her”, a contemporary exhibit where modern female artists explored sound in visual and audio forms; and “Poussin” a classical baroque exhibit centred around Nicolas Poussin’s 1636 masterpiece “The Triumph of Pan”.
The gallery’s second level houses permanent collections of classical and modern paintings and ceramics with a few drawing stations for visitors to express their creativity, finding inspiration from the surrounding masterpieces.
Hours: Daily 10am – 5pm.
12pm – Lunch
After the art gallery, walk 3 minutes south to Ask Italian, where your York Pass entitles you to a free pizza or pasta. There’s a separate menu for York Pass holders so let staff know you have a pass before being seated. They’ll just need to jot down your pass number when you’re ready to order.
The York Pass menu includes a couple of vegetarian options which can be served vegan upon request. Pasta dishes can also be served with gluten-free pasta.
1pm – Relive history at Yorkshire Museum
Walk 3 minutes northwest from Ask Italian to the Yorkshire Museum (included in the York Pass), which provides a fascinating overview of York’s history right back to prehistoric times. Most exhibits focus on 6 historical periods: Roman, Anglian, Viking, Norman, Medieval, and Tudor.
Roman presence in York dates back to 71AD and Roman-era exhibits include pots and pans, sculptures and ceramics, skeletons, and excavated walls and mosaics. Other exhibits included replica royal dining halls from the medieval and Tudor periods, and timelines explaining key historical events for each period.
Hours: Daily 10am – 5pm.
York tip: I recommend watching the Tudors before visiting for context into Henry VIII’s religious reformation and suppression of the monasteries.
2pm – Walk among the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey
Just outside the Yorkshire Museum is a large, landscaped garden area and the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, which was dissolved in 1539 under King Henry VIII’s suppression of the monasteries. The remaining ruins hint of the monastery’s former beauty and are well worth a short visit.
2:30pm – Climb York Minster
Walk 7 minutes west to York Minster, the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe and the epicentre of history in York. The exquisite minster sits on top of a 2,000-year-old Roman fortress, the very site where Roman emperor Constantine was crowned. The fortress was later inhabited by Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, each leaving layers of artefacts since uncovered and displayed in a museum under the cathedral.
The York Pass includes entry to the cathedral and museum, but I suggest paying an extra £5 at the door to also climb the tower. I spent about 1-hour marvelling at the cathedral’s medieval architecture and exploring the Undercroft Museum before my timeslot to climb 275 narrow, winding steps to the top of the tower. I was a little dizzy by the time I got back down but had to stay on my feet to see 1 more site before 5pm!
Walk 5 minutes south to the next attraction, the Barley Hall, a restored medieval townhouse that also hosts regular exhibitions. The first few rooms explain the history and architecture of the building before shifting focus to the main exhibit, which was “Magic and Mystery” on the day of my visit. I was interested to learn some things considered “magic” in medieval times were actually today’s natural medicine or astronomy. Imagine being burned at the stake for taking encaenia to cure a cold!
Hours: April to October: 10am – 5pm; November to March: 10am – 4pm.
5pm – Have another pint at an English Pub.
After a 1-minute walk west to a local historic pub like The Punch Bowl, you can finally get off your feet and rest with nice cold pint of local cider or beer… and a ghost story.
6:30pm – Dinner
I suggest walking 1 minute southeast to Las Iguanas, my favourite Latin American restaurant chain in the UK. The menu separates dishes by country such as Brazil, Peru, and Mexico, but there’s also a dedicated vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free menu. I recommend trying the mushroom fajita stack or jackfruit burrito.
8pm – Be haunted on the Original Ghost Walk
According to my hop-on hop-off bus guide, Nancy, York’s history of murder and massacre made it the most haunted city in the world. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, but I decided to try a ghost tour anyway. The Original Ghost Walk is not included in the York Pass so you’ll need to pay £5 per adult and £4 per child. The tour starts at 8pm outside the Kings Arms, no booking is required but I suggest arriving a few minutes early.
My tour was led by a brilliant guide-slash-actor who stayed in character throughout the tour, coming up with spooky or gruesome explanations for every question asked. He had the perfect northerner spooky-story-voice while telling of grisly deaths at sites like Coppergate and the Golden Fleece Tavern, all of which resulted in spooky hauntings, of course.
9:30am (or 9am) – Be amazed by Castle Howard
3 days isn’t nearly enough time to visit many York Pass attractions beyond York, but Castle Howard is not to missed. It’s often lauded as one of the most beautiful castles in the world. If you have a car, drive 35 minutes northeast to Castle Howard, otherwise catch a 1-hour bus from Station Avenue bus stop. Bus tickets can be purchased online in advance. Aim to arrive at Castle Howard at 10am.
You could easily spend a full day at Castle Howard walking through the woods, rowing on the lakes, and picnicking in the parklands, but since I was short on time, I only took a tour through the 300-year-old grand house to admire the distinguished architecture and art collections, then wandered through the elegantly landscaped gardens.
York tip: I recommend watching the Tudors before visiting for context into the Howard family and their role in the Renaissance-era royal court. You could also watch the Brideshead Revisited series or movie, both filmed at Castle Howard.
12:30pm – Lunch
I recommend leaving Castle Howard by 12pm to return to York. Leave your car at your hotel (if applicable) and walk towards the next attraction, the Henry VII Experience, stopping for lunch along the way. I recommend Gulp and Graze, a cosy café with outdoor seating and delicious light vegan and vegetarian options.
1pm – Visit the Henry VII Experience
The Henry VII Experience is located within Micklegate Bar, a 1 minute walk southwest from Gulp and Graze. The top floor of the museum picks up where the Richard III Experience left off, telling stories of Henry Tudor’s childhood and youth and the battle that saw him defeat Richard III and claim the English throne. The lower level tells of Henry VII’s struggle to secure his reign and explains life for the people of York during the Wars of the Roses.
Hours: April to October: 10am – 4pm; November to March: 10am – 3pm.
York tip: Watch the TV series The White Queen before visiting for context into the early life of Henry VII.
2pm – Take a Brewery (or Chocolate) Tour
My next recommended stop doesn’t exist anymore! The York Brewery closed their York location in June 2019, however continue to brew in Masham. Until they find a new location, an alternative brewery tour can be found at Brew York. Tours run at 5:30pm Friday and 1:30pm & 3:30pm Saturday, at a cost of £10. The only problem? It doesn’t fit neatly into my itinerary!
So plan B is York’s Chocolate Story (included in the York Pass) where you can drown your sorrows in chocolate. Sweet, sweet chocolate. Oh, and wander through 3 floors of interactive exhibits about the stories behind one of the world’s most influential capitals of chocolate.
Hours: Daily 10am – 5pm.
3pm – Smell the Jorvik Viking Centre
Walk 4 minutes south to the Jorvik Viking Centre and present your York Pass for entry. Jorvik is located on the site of the archaeological excavation that uncovered 1,000-year-old remains of Viking city, Jorvik.
The interactive museum is split into 3 sections – first is a recreation of the excavation site explaining how the Viking city was discovered. The main attraction is a 15-minute slow-moving suspended train ride through a very realistic recreation of Jorvik, complete with an audio guide, farm smells, and life-like animatronic Vikings. Yes, I said smells. Every inclusion in the recreated village is based on archaeological evidence, down to the facial features of the Vikings.
The final section is a more traditional museum displaying the actual archaeological finds, from combs, tools, jewellery, shoes, and weapons, to actual skeletons.
Hours: April to October: 10am – 5pm; November to March 10am – 4pm.
York tip: I suggest watching the TV series Vikings before your visit for context into the Vikings’ journeys to England and settlement in York.
4pm – Avoid concussion at the National Railway Museum
To save some time (and your feet), I suggest taking a 6-minute Uber or taxi to the National Railway Museum, which is free to enter. This is the largest railway museum in the world consisting of 4 large halls filled with everything locomotive you can imagine. Train lovers will have a major train-gasm. Exhibits include the very first steam engines, postal trains, Queen Victoria’s royal carriages, and a few future-focused innovations.
At the back of the North Shed, we even found the original “9¾” sign from the set of Harry Potter, which was filmed at the nearby York Railway Station. Apparently, the sign was originally hung at the train station but had to be moved when fans received concussions after running headfirst into the wall. On multiple occasions.
Darwinism at its finest.
Hours: summer: 10am – 6pm; winter 10am – 5pm.
6pm – Dinner
For your last dinner in York, I suggest walking 13 minutes northeast to Thomas’s of York, an English pub with quirky interiors and a few vegetarian and vegan options.
Where to Stay in York
While visiting York, I stayed at the centrally located Middletons York Hotel – the perfect base from which to explore the city. Middletons has a small car park for guests driving to York, but most of the attractions visited in this itinerary are within easy walking distance from the hotel. I enjoyed Middletons cosy home-away-from-home feeling with stylish, recently renovated rooms, cooked-to-order breakfasts every morning, and a relaxing alfresco area to enjoy a drink or two.
The Bottom Line
York has substance. It combines history with entertainment, legend with whimsy, and chocolate with… well, pretty much everything goes with chocolate.
Unlike most history-centric cities, York’s museums aren’t just full of ancient crumbling artefacts to gawk at. They aim to edutain by telling stories with actors, recreations, movies, props, and of course, the original archaeological finds.
In tandem with a 3-day York Pass, this itinerary will save you a pretty penny while you explore the best of this quirky yet blissfully beautiful pedestrian-friendly city. That means you’ll have more spending money to fill your ram horn with cider, hot chocolate or Polyjuice Potion.
Having experienced York firsthand, I now recognise the intangible offbeat allure that drew in emperors, kings, invaders, and Netflix fans for centuries.
And while you can leave York at the end of your trip, somehow it will never leave you.
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