Best things to do in York: your local experiences bucket list
It’s impossible to tire of York. Having grown up in the area and spent many days out exploring the castles and ramparts, ducking down “snickelways” – the local nickname for the many cobbled lanes – and tracing the banks of the River Ouse, I’m still discovering new things to do in York all the time.
There’s the (literally) rich and very sweet history of chocolate-making, the medieval streets – among Europe’s oldest – and impeccably preserved city walls, which offer some of the best views over the city. And it’s all too easy to spend a whole day just gawping at the Gothic architecture and intricate details of the resplendent York Minster. Here are my local tips for the best way to explore and enjoy this endlessly enchanting city!
1. From Harry Potter to chocolate, have a wizard time with the kids in York
The Harry Potter movies are more closely associated with landmarks such as Alnwick Castle in Northumberland (Hogwarts) and London’s Leadenhall Market, which stood in for Diagon Alley. It’s hard to think of a city where the boy wizard and friends would feel more at home, though, than York. Take a Harry Potter walking tour and be pulled right into the magical world of the hugely popular books and films. Kids (and, let’s face it, adults) will love strolling around parts of the atmospheric city believed to have inspired descriptions of many locations in the Harry Potter series.
Parts of the first film, The Philosopher’s Stone, were filmed right here, too – including scenes at Platform 9 3/4, shot at the station here rather than in London’s Kings Cross. Tour guides throw in themed games and quizzes as you wander down the Shambles, a wavy, cobbled shopping street lined with timber-framed buildings – and about as Potter-esque as it gets. If all that gets everyone wanting more wizardry, take a ride on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and hop off at Goathland – Hogsmeade Station in the first film.
2. Discover the beauty of York outdoors
The Yorkshire countryside you may have seen on TV, in films or even just on a postcard is real. Yes, it is that pretty. It can feel like being pulled into a painting as you follow roads that carve and curve, twist and tumble through a patchwork of greens, passing fields grazed by sheep round as balls of wool, and skimming alongside the region’s famous dry-stone walls. I recommend the full-day Yorkshire Dales National Park tour, so you can soak up the scenery properly while someone else does the driving.
Pick-up is in York, before guests are transported (via comfy mini-coach) into the idyllic scenery right on the city’s doorstep. Just watching the countryside unfold outside the windows is a treat, though there’s plenty of time factored in for exploring on two feet and taking lots of photos (believe me, you’ll be snapping away at every turn). This really does encapsulate some of the best of the national park, visiting pretty market towns and magnificent monuments like Bolton Castle, once home to Mary Queen of Scots. You’ll even get the chance to sample from world-famous Wensleydale cheese – crumbly, butter-yellow in colour, and not to be missed.
3. Find a moment to enjoy a tour just for you two
York’s cobbled streets, Gothic cathedral and hilltop monuments certainly evoke a sense of romance. But the River Ouse offers a different way to explore and appreciate the city, inviting you to sit back and watch the scenery unfold, gloriously, from the comfort of a boat. One of the most romantic things to do when visiting York as a couple is to take an afternoon tea cruise on the Ouse, aboard the lipstick-red Captain James Cook.
There’s really nothing to do except relax and nibble on a selection of dainty and delicious sandwiches, cakes and scones while gliding by some of the city’s most romantic architecture. You don’t even need to look up what you’re gazing at, because the in-the-know skipper provides informative commentary along the way, pointing out landmarks like Bishopthorpe Palace, residence of the Archbishop of York.
4. Visit cool and unusual spots that just locals would know
York is known as one of the Europe’s – and, depending on who you ask, the world’s – most haunted cities. Rather than venturing out to search for ghosts alone, we recommend a more comfortable but nevertheless chilling ride with a York ghost bus tour. It’s perhaps the most entertaining introduction to York’s history you’ll find, with the ghostly, ghastly and gruesome stories delivered with a good dose of humour.
The city’s longest-term residents include George Villiers, who lurks around the Cock and Bottle pub, a monk who rooms the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, and a legion of Roman soldiers still marching along a highway that was buried beneath the Treasurer’s House. With stops at hilltop Clifford’s Tower – a complex of castles, prisons and courts – and the grave of infamous highwayman Dick Turpin, the tour brings the characters and stories back to life.
5. Have a stay to remember with the best private hotel experiences
A city as grand as York deserves a grand hotel, and The Grange Hotel perfectly complements the elegance and heritage of the city. It’s also refreshingly committed to showcasing local makers, particularly in its food and drink. Book a place on one of the hotel’s gin-tasting masterclasses, where Yorkshire gins are perfectly paired with mixers and garnishes. After the tasting, head to the brasserie for an indulgent two-course lunch. Accompanied by a G&T, of course.
The hotel is close to the city centre and an easy walk from York Minster, with the sumptuous feel of a mansion in the middle of the countryside. The Regency property was once a wealthy family’s estate and the rooms reflect the sense of tradition, with four-poster beds and luxurious fabrics. Just don’t sleep in and miss the hearty Yorkshire breakfast.