City break in York | Viking remnants and chocolate cafes in an ever-changing city

“Stepping back in time” often sounds like a cliché, but there’s never been a better phrase to describe wandering through the Grade I listed gates into York. Once inside, though, you’ll discover a city that’s far more fresh and contemporary than expected...

Strolling along the uneven cobblestones of The Shambles, I can’t help but admire how York has managed to uniquely marry the old with the new. The city is jam-packed with classic British attractions, from delightful pubs to enchanting snickleways, but there’s more to it than old world ambiance. Whether you want to admire art by Lowry or sample sensational modern street food, Yorkshire’s handsome capital also has a myriad of modern allures.

Creaky low-hanging buildings that once housed the city’s butchers now play host to chic boutiques and cosy cafes serving up cold brew coffee and avocado on toast. For Harry Potter fans like myself, the street even has two shops dedicated solely to magical memorabilia.

As one of my favourite locations for a UK city break, I’m excited to reveal exactly how to make the most of York’s classic and contemporary charms.

SEE | medieval masterpieces and modern art

York is undeniably one of the UK’s most fascinating cities. Founded by the Romans in 71 AD, it’s since been the home of fierce Vikings and was later hit hard by the Tudor Reformation. Nevertheless, there’s far more to the city than castles and cathedrals.


York Minister

York is an absolute dream come true for budding historians. At the city’s heart sits the regal York Minster, one of the world’s most impressive cathedrals that’s still the seat of the Archbishop of York today. Catch a glimpse of its glorious nave from the lobby or pay £15 to tour the undercroft and access its magnificent tower.

Learn about the city’s history

If you’re in York with kids, I’d definitely recommend checking out the Jorvik Viking Centre for its incredibly detailed interactive exhibits that track the city’s history during its Viking period. York Dungeon is another theatrical attraction that dramatises over 2000 years of unfortunate tales, while 14th century Barley Hall — tucked down an alleyway off Swinegate — has a permanent exhibition on the lives and times of the Tudors.

The Roman Baths

Evidence of York’s Roman history is pretty sparse due to centuries of building on top of the same compact spaces. Nevertheless, there is one place you can go to view it — the aptly named pub The Roman Bath. Underneath the main taproom sits a tiny museum that’s home to an original Roman bath house. Take a look around the ruins and admire replica Roman artefacts before heading above ground for a pint.


York Art Gallery

Not all of York’s attractions focus on the traditional. To bring you back to modern times after an afternoon immersed in medieval sagas, head over to York Art Gallery to be inspired by its pop art, impressionist paintings and ceramics collections.

One for the chocoholics

Chocolate fiends won’t want to pass up the chance to experience York’s Chocolate Story, either. I love KitKats and Terry’s Chocolate Oranges (who doesn’t?!), but did you know they were actually invented in York? Learn all about the city’s impressive chocolatiering past (and even take part in a delicious tutorial) before heading to the museum gift shop that’s truly heaven for those with a sweet tooth.

York Cocoa House

Continuing with the chocolate theme, York Cocoa House is the ultimate place for a sugar fix. The Chocolate Afternoon Tea is particularly divine — think rich chocolate brownies and gorgeous cherry and chocolate scones.

STAY | historic inns and confectionary themed hotels in York

From inns featuring rickety staircases and four-poster beds to more modern options with plush amenities, there’s a huge range of hotels in York to take your pick of.

Classic | stay in the birthplace of Guy Fawkes and enjoy incredible city views


As you might have guessed from the name, this hotel has strong ties to the infamous gunpowder plotter Guy Fawkes who was actually born on the same site in 1570. While the current building doesn’t date back quite that far, it’s still awash with beamed ceilings, dark wood flooring and original fireplaces.

Every room at the Guy Fawkes Inn is utterly unique, with many boasting wonderful views of the city. You’ll find the onsite restaurant appropriately atmospheric, too, with its candlelit tables and hearty menu of classic British fare.

Guy Fawkes Inn

York, 21.3 km to Castle Howard
8.0 Very good (584 reviews)
Excellent Location 9.5 / 10
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Classic | Georgian luxury with four-poster beds and roll-top baths


Tucked away in one of York’s gorgeous Georgian townhouses is Judges Court, a formers judges’ lodgings during the 18th and 19th centuries. Boasting just 15 rooms, they’re all classically yet lavishly decorated, with the largest having king-size four-poster beds and roll-top baths.

Judges Court is proud of its history and you’ll find hints of its former use throughout, from the satirical cartoons of criminals on the walls to rooms named after the judges who once occupied them. There’s no restaurant but you can have fresh breakfast pastries delivered to your room from a nearby café upon request.

Judges Court

Top rated
York, 21.5 km to Castle Howard
8.5 Excellent (1733 reviews)
Excellent Location 9.2 / 10
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Contemporary | chocolate-themed rooms in a hip neighbourhood


One of the newer options on York’s hotel scene is Hotel Indigo, located in Walmgate, one of the city’s hippest neighbourhoods. It’s part of a small chain that tries hard to reflect their hotels’ locations in their décor. The friendly York venue is no exception, and you’ll find many of its spacious rooms are delightfully chocolate-themed. The Smarties print cushions are particularly fun!

Hotel Indigo York is slick and contemporary yet still manages to feel cosy thanks to its warm colour palette, invitingly plump beds and gorgeously tiled bathrooms. 88 Walmgate on the ground floor is a good shout for a quick dinner or drink, but you’ll also find some of York’s best independents restaurants, like Polish Barbakan (brilliant pierogi), down the street.

Hotel Indigo York

Top rated
York, 21.4 km to Castle Howard
9.1 Excellent (1835 reviews)
Excellent Cleanliness 9.4 / 10
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Contemporary | minimalist boutique hotel with a touch of hygge


When you first learn that Jorvik House’s theme is Viking inspired, it may not seem particularly contemporary. Once inside its elegant Georgian building, though, you’ll discover a chic boutique hotel with oodles of modern luxuries, from deluxe roll-top baths and Cowshed toiletries to bespoke mini bars.

The décor at Jorvik House is stylishly minimalist and mostly an ode to Nordic living with a few subtle historic throwbacks thrown in. An old map of the city adorns the reception and cushions sporting stag motifs lie on the beds. Contrastingly, faux fur blankets and potted plants infuse the hotel with the trendy Scandi concept of hygge.

Jorvik House

York, 21.4 km to Castle Howard
7.8 Good (1197 reviews)
Excellent Location 9.2 / 10
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EAT | quintessential tea rooms and quirky pubs

York’s dining scene is pretty cosmopolitan to say the least. As well as boasting over 200 pubs to sample a pint and a roast, it’s also possible to savour global cuisine from Poland to Nepal.


Yorkshire pub grub

Good pub grub is effortless to find, from juicy Yorkshire beef steaks and seafood at The Whippet Inn to traditional fare at the haunted Old White Swan.

Homemade pies and craft ale

If you’re a fan of friendly, no-frills pubs, I urge you to head to the quirkily named House of Trembling Madness on Stonegate. The building sits on the site of an Augustine friary, and while its beamed taproom isn’t huge, it’s packed with character and has a tempting menu of hearty homemade pies as well as a rotating choice of craft ales.

Classic afternoon tea

You can’t visit Yorkshire without indulging in a classic afternoon tea, either. City mainstay Betty’s is the place to go for traditional fare with all the trimmings. The charmingly old-fashioned tearoom recently celebrated its centenary — and what better way to commemorate it than with a pot of tea and a plate of their delicious, fruit-filled Fat Rascal Scones?


Shambles food market

For those craving a foodie experience that’s a little more modern, York hasn’t escaped the trend for fun and friendly food markets. The Shambles Food Court is located off the street of the same name and is the go-to spot for delicious delicacies, whether that’s a cheesy galette from Krep (served out of a converted vintage Citroen) or melt-in-your-mouth chicken wings from rotisserie stall, Winner Winner.

Modern local fare

For something a little more up-market, check out The Park at Marmadukes Townhouse Hotel that’s well-known for its innovative global tasting menus, which continuously change depending on what local produce is available.

Vegan food

Any vegans should also check out Source on Stonegate whose meat-free offerings include pulled BBQ jackfruit and herby whole roasted cauliflower.

If you’re an avid foodie like me, you might want to try planning your trip around the York Food & Drink Festival. It takes place in September throughout the city, and is a smorgasbord of free cooking demos, food markets, wine tastings and special dinner clubs.

DRINK | cosy coffee shops and chic cocktail lounges

From creative cocktails to some of the best craft beer in the country, there’s no shortage of good drinking holes in York.


Pub gardens

Summer jaunts to York call for pretty pub gardens, and you won’t find many better than the enchanting courtyard at the Lamb and Lion Inn near York Minster. For a great menu choice, Pivni is also a good shout. It’s found in a creaky 16th century building on Patrick Pool and serves up over 50 different craft beers from local and international breweries.

Hand-roasted coffee

While tea emporiums are in no short supply in York, you’ll also find dozens of spots for a good cup of coffee. Duck into Gatehouse Coffee, that’s actually sandwiched within the city walls off Walmgate, for hand-roasted coffees and other warming drinks (the chai lattes are excellent). You can either enjoy your beverage inside the stone-clad interiors or head to the roof terrace for stunning views of York Minster and beyond.


Gin-lovers galore

Cocktail lovers certainly won’t be disappointed by the immense menu at Evil Eye on Stonegate which boasts over a thousand gin varieties. It’s one of the few independent bars in York City Centre, and rumour has it that the eclectic decor and equally as eclectic drinks once lured in Johnny Depp when he was filming in the area. To see what the buzz is all about, peruse the cocktail list and sip on drinks like the zesty “Curd Your Enthusiasm” — a tantalising mix of gin, limencello, Cointreau and lemon curd.

Craft beer tour

It’s no secret that York has jumped on the craft beer bandwagon in recent years so why not spend a couple of hours on a brewery tour? York Brewery hosts regular tours (including plenty of tasters) or you could even embark on York Cycling Tours’ Bike & Brew tour that takes you out into the surrounding Yorkshire countryside and along the picturesque riverside to Treboom Brewery.

If you’re planning on checking out Evil Eye, I’d definitely suggest booking on to one of their mixology masterclasses if you’re feeling creative. It’s just £25, and you can choose which cocktails from the menu you’d like to try your hand at making.

DO | shopping down snickleways and fun after-dark activities

Besides from York’s unrivalled portfolio of historic attractions, there’s multiple other options and excursions on offer that provide a true taste of the city’s contrasting ancient and contemporary cultures.


Jaunts down the Shambles

No trip to York is really complete without heading to its most famous snickleway — The Shambles. While pretty touristy, it’s jam-packed with shops with beautiful frontages selling everything from unique gifts to organic teas. As I mentioned before, the street has strong ties to the wizarding world of Harry Potter. As well as being home to the geniusly named The Shop That Must Not Be Named and The Boy Wizard gift stores, J. K. Rowling also supposedly modelled Diagon Alley after the quaint street, too.

Boating adventures

Boats have traversed York’s River Ouse for centuries, and it’s still a popular pastime for both locals and visitors alike. There are many ways to see York from the water including via narrowboat, on a private boat tour or on a leisurely afternoon tea or sunset cruise.

Ghost tours

A city as ancient as York must have a ghost or two lurking its alleyways which is why ghost tours are also extremely popular. If you’re not easily freaked out, walk the streets at night and discover tales of horror and strange occurrences with the award-winning Ghost Trail of York. There’s also the creepy York Ghost Bus Tour that takes you on a journey around the city’s most haunted sights, including the grave of infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin.


Shop ‘til you drop

York’s warren of narrow streets host innumerable shops, including all your typical high street offerings at the Coppergate Centre to fab independents on Gillygate. If you like a good sale as I do, hop on the Park & Ride bus to the contemporary York Designer Outlet which leaves regularly from outside York station.

After-dark entertainment

York’s night time activities are just as varied as its day time offerings. From stand-up comedy to dance shows and everything in between, York Barbican is the city’s performing arts mecca that’s worth checking the schedule of ahead of your trip.

Movie lovers can catch the latest films at the modern City Screen Picturehouse located on York’s picturesque riverside, while indie and alternative gig-goers will find up and coming bands performing weekly at cool Fibbers.

Most UK cities are no strangers to festivals but none are quite as diverse as York’s. Plan your visit around fun celebrations like the annual Jorvik Viking Festival or the Great Yorkshire Fringe.

Jemima Forbes Author

One of the most wonderful things about York is its potential for discovery. The best piece of advice I could give anyone planning a visit is to set aside some time to simply wander. Getting lost is a good thing, especially when one winding snickleway can lead you to an amazing ice cream shop and another to a tranquil garden oasis. I can’t wait to uncover even more of York’s treasures on my next trip...