The inside guide to York

Known for its medieval streets and iconic Minster, the ancient city blends its historical highlights with a thriving modern food scene.

By James March
Published 26 Jan 2021, 08:00 GMT, Updated 22 Feb 2021, 10:25 GMT
A young couple sit in sun outside Fossgate Social coffeehouse and bar.

A young couple sit in sun outside Fossgate Social coffeehouse and bar.

Photograph by Alamy

While York has ushered in smart new bars, global cuisine and boutique hotels over the past decade, it’s hard to deny the city’s appeal still lies in the authenticity and allure of its past. From its time as the Roman city of Eboracum to the Viking settlement of Jorvik, more than 2,000 years of stories linger within York’s ancient walls, ramparts and medieval streets (called ‘gates’ and ‘bars’), and traces of its past wait at every corner.

York Minster is the ideal starting point: completed in 1472, the cavernous gothic icon dominates the skyline and is the largest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe. Don’t miss the 600-year-old Great East Window — it’s the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the country and dazzles with rich colours and graceful curves. After exploring the Minster’s vast interior, follow the aroma of chocolate down to Brew & Brownie on nearby Museum Street for a coffee and treats made with local Yorkshire produce. 

Take in views of the River Ouse before enjoying the calm of the Yorkshire Museum Gardens, a rolling Victorian meadow dotted with oak trees and Roman and Norman ruins. From this serene landscape, head north and take a stroll along the elevated City Walls, which offer some of York’s finest views. Largely dating back to the 13th century, the walls encircle the historic centre, and their northern section, which begins from Bootham Bar, looks out across lush gardens and Georgian houses, with the Minster looming in the distance.   

Full English breakfast at Brew & Brownie, which serves coffee and treats made with local Yorkshire produce. 

Photograph by Brew & Brownie

Another historic highlight is the Shambles — a winding cobbled street of leaning timber buildings that look poised to buckle and collapse at any moment. The quirky boutique stores here draw plenty of shuffling tourists, so make a turn into the Shambles Market for a bite and a breather. It’s open every day, with street food options ranging from gourmet hotdogs to Turkish wraps. 

Though its historic appeal is often associated with more distant periods, York Castle Museum showcases the city’s Victorian history with its Kirkgate exhibit. Led by enthusiastic guides in period dress, the recreated street features shops and businesses with authentic signage dating from the late 19th century. A quick hop across the museum’s courtyard is the cylindrical ruin of Clifford's Tower, the keep of York Castle. Built by William the Conqueror, it offers panoramic views of city and countryside.  

Multicoloured bunting crisscrosses nearby Fossgate, a sloping ancient street with a buoyant mix of independent bars, cafes and shops. A highlight is The Fossgate Social — a modern, laid-back affair with a low-lit, exposed brick interior. Hang out on the cosy sofas upstairs and order one of the fine cocktails; there’s regular live music, too. If beer’s more your thing, a range of local craft and cask ales are on sale at The Hop, set in an ornate former market hall decorated with mosaic tiles and a carved mahogany bar, while Brew York serves up everything from American pale ales to gooseberry sours, and has an inviting riverside garden.  

A short saunter across town is Los Moros, a North African restaurant that started life in 2015 as a stall in the Shambles Market. These days, at its home on Grape Lane, the restaurant serves up immaculate Moroccan-influenced dishes that won’t stretch your wallet. 

The luxurious embrace of Grays Court Hotel makes it one of the finest stays in town. The oldest inhabited house in York, it’s been receiving guests since 1091, including the likes of James I and William Wilberforce. Tucked away between the Minster and the city walls, it’s full of regal Jacobean interiors, while its restaurant The Bow Room showcases understated fine dining with superb views from its Georgian dining room. The boutique Hotel Indigo plays on the theme of York’s rich confectionery history (the proud home of the KitKat) with rooms featuring chocolate-bar panelling and Smarties cushions. 

If you’re after more sweet succour, you’d be remiss not to call in at the Double Dutch Pancakes House, where indulgent creations can be doused in everything from golden syrup to crushed Oreo biscuits. 

A short stroll across the River Foss lies Spark:York, a creative space that hints at the city’s foodie future. Constructed across two floors from 23 painted shipping containers, it’s populated by a host of colourful independent street food vendors. Lose yourself among diners and choose from the likes of hearty ramen at Shori, Colombian arepas at Tricolor and vegan tacos from Dog's Nose Taqueria, York’s first independent taco joint. 

York Minister, the largest medieval cathedral in Northern Europe, overlooking the city.

Photograph by Getty Images

Mad Alice’s favourite historic escapes

Alicia Stabler — best known by her alter-ego ‘Mad Alice’ — is a local tour guide who leads the award-winning Bloody Tour of York

The Bar Convent
The oldest running convent in the country, it contains the ornate Hidden Chapel. Decorated in gold and white, it’s home to the relic hand of martyred St Margaret Clitherow and several escape routes in case of invasion. 

Gatehouse Coffee
A great pitstop if you're walking the two-mile City Walls, it boasts unique views of York from the barbican. Inside, the gatehouse transports customers back to the 17th century with wooden benches and oak beams. 

Treasurer's House
An overlooked stately home tucked right behind York Minster, it houses the furnished collection of noted Victorian industrialist Frank Green and is said to be one of the city’s most haunted properties. 

More info: visityork.org

Published in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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