Photo of Building's in York taken form an elevated position on the York City walls

York – Exploring The Historical City

Over the summer me and my girlfriend had the pleasure of visiting York for 3 nights. This city has played an important role throughout English history and there are several historical sites and museums worth a visit here. As well as many picturesque buildings to admire! There is also an interesting selection of shops and markets across the city. York is also well known for it’s nightlife and there are many great pubs across the city. All this therefore makes the city a great place to visit, whether as part of a wider trip around the UK or just for a long weekend. On a personal note I enjoyed the chance to visit one of England’s Northern Cities. I live in the South West (Bath) so it felt great to get ‘up north’ and see more of my own country.

In this post we will have a quick look at the history of York and it’s role in modern England. We will then have a look at what I recommend to see and do in York. One of the great things is that the city is very walk-able so you can explore a lot within a few days! Please note i’m not going to go into great deal about budgets in this post. I will mention general costs when known. Great Britain is itself is generally an expensive country to visit and York is no exception. At the end of this post you can find my overall thought’s on York as a destination. Spoiler alert – I like it a lot!

A quick look at the history of York

The city of York was founded by the Romans in CE 71 as ‘Eboracum’. They stationed 5000 troops in the city and it was an important fortress for them whilst ruling over the region. The city remained after the Romans had left, with Christianity becoming important in terms of the cities religious views. The city was an important trading centre, with links across Great Britain and Western Europe.

In 866 the city was captured by Danish Vikings led by Ivar the Boneless. They set up a puppet King and returned in 875 to rule over the area, which they called Jórvík. Varying parts of the Northumbria region were under Viking control during this time. They fought battles against the English Kings for regional supremacy. This lasted until 954, when the city was incorporated fully into English control. In 1066 near to York the Battle of Stamford Bridge saw the English King Harold Godwinson defeat an invading Viking army led by the Norwegian King Harald Hardrada. This effectively ended the Viking Age in Northern England.

Of course, Harold then perished a couple of weeks later as the Battle Of Hastings. William the Conquer and his invading Norman army were victorious, and thus began Norman rule over England. The Normans were themselves descendent’s of Vikings, but that’s a discussion for another time!

The Normans were quick to suppress revolts in York and Northern England, the city playing an important role in fortifying the region. This role continued into Medieval Ages, York being important both for trade and defence. It particularly played an important administrative role for English Monarchy during the wars with Scotland between 1298 and 1388. During the English Civil war the city was under Royalist control until it fell to the Parliamentarians in 1644.

Modern York

With a population of over 208,000 the city is fairly compact which makes it great for getting around. It may not be as large as nearby cities like Leeds and Sheffield but it’s interesting history and architecture attracts many tourists. These visitors play an important role for it’s economy and many jobs in the city are related to the tourist industry. The city also has a large University, with over 18,000 students.

One of the greatest things about York is that it still has a large number of Independent retailers. Unfortunately in my own city of Bath these are increasingly closing down. Too often across the UK high streets look and feel the same wherever you go. So it’s great to see a good amount of independent shops in York. If you want to know more then there is a website dedicated to showcasing York’s independent retailers. You can find it here:

What to see and do in York – what the city has to offer

The York City Walls

The first walls around York were built by the Romans, and remarkably the city still has walls today. The walls played an important role in the defence of the city throughout the ages. When the Danish Vikings invaded they restored the walls that were in bad shape after the Romans had left. After this period they were particularly important as part of English defence against Scotland. They also featured in the English Civil War, being damaged when the parliamentarians took the city. The victorious forces then repaired and strengthened them to use for their own defence. The walls even featured again in the cities defence during the 18th century. Fears of invasion from Scotland during the Jacobite rebellions saw them strengthened once again.

By the Victorian age though they had again fallen into disrepair. The Victorians had them restored and they have been well maintained to this day. The current walls encompass what was the old medieval city, and are great to walk around whilst exploring the city. There is no cost and they have have regular points at which to enter and exit. I really enjoyed my own walk around them.

There are 4 main ‘bars’ (aka gatehouses) found along the walls, as well as 2 minor ones. Micklegate Bar is notable as it was used to display the heads of criminals and traitors who had been executed by city authorities. It was also used as the entrance when Monarchs visited the city. The name ‘Micklegate’ is also Norse in origin, meaning ‘great street’. Another interesting thing to note is the plaque on the bar. This informs you that the bar was actually inhabited up until 1918, when the last resident moved out.

View of the Micklegate Bar gatehouse in York. Seen from the side approaching the city.
Micklegate Bar

York Minister

There is reported to have been a religious structure on the grounds of York Minister since 627. Today there stands a grand cathedral, which has developed over the years to be one of the largest Cathedrals in Northern Europe. It exterior is very impressive and well worth a walk around to admire. If you want to go in they do charge an entrance fee.

The current building’s foundations date back to 1080. The previous building was ransacked by the Normans during their invasion in 1066. And then again by raiding Danish Vikings in 1075. It was built then in 1080 in the Norman architectural style however what you see now is in the Gothic style. The expansion from the Norman style into the Gothic style started in 1200 and then took place over the following 250 years.

Outside the York Minister is a statue of Constantine the Great. He was proclaimed Roman Emperor in York in 306CE after the death of his father. At that point the empire was split but over the forthcoming years he defeated his rivals to become sole ruler and reigned until 337CE. Its a good reminder of the Roman’s legacy in England.

View of part of the outside of York Minister
Part of the York Minister

The Shambles

This popular shopping street showcases some fantastic old medieval building’s. Many of these were constructed around 1350-1475. This means it really is a great place to see medieval architecture and get a feel for life back then. In addition the street was even mentioned in the 1086 Doomsday Book, which is very impressive given how long ago that was! The Doomsday Book itself was essentially a survey ordered by William the Conquer to document his kingdom. It has really an important place in British history, particularly in the role it played in helping form English administration and law going forward. These days the street has several shops selling Harry Potter products, so if your a fan then be sure to check those out too.

Just off the Shambles look out for Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate. It’s the shortest street in York, and you will find a plaque there that explains it’s name!

Old buildings in the Shambles
Old buildings in the Shambles

JORVIK Viking Centre

This fantastic centre looks at what life was like during Viking rule of over the city. I don’t want post any spoilers, but suffice to say it’s a great experience! It does a fantastic job educating you about the Jórvík period and has some great viking artefacts to check out. Its good for kids and adults alike. You can check out their website here, including opening times and price info:

Clifford’s Tower

My favourite of all the attractions in York, this tower really strikes an impressive figure as you approach it. It’s the last remaining part of York Castle, which was first built by William the Conqueror in 1068. It’s purpose back then was to guard Northern England against the external threat of Viking Invasion and the internal one of local rebellion. This is when the Earth Mound that the tower stands upon was built. In 1190 one of York’s most infamous incidents occurred here. Local antisemitism had been stirred up and 150 Jews had sought shelter from an angry mob in the tower. Many of the Jews committed suicide rather than renounce their religion and the mob killed the rest, including torching the castle with them inside.

Clifford’s Tower itself built between 1245 and 1262 under the rule of King Henry III. Before then the castle has been constructed from wood, in the Norman motte-and-bailey style. Now this tower was built in stone, and this is what remains today, though it has needed restoration work done on it over the years. Between 1298 and 1338 the castle was an important centre of administration for the whole of England. During this period the country was engaging in war with Scotland, known as the Wars of Scottish Independence. Then during the English Civil War it was used by Royalists until it fell to the Parliamentary forces in 1644. As well as serving a military purpose the castle has also been used as a prison over the years.

These days when visiting the tower you can walk around it’s walls. They give you great panoramic views across the city. Check out English Heritage’s website for opening time info and entrance fee’s:

Looking up at Clifford's Tower form the bottom of the grassy mound it sits on
Clifford’s Tower

York Castle Museum

Nearby to Clifford’s tower you can find the York Castle Museum. Opened in 1938, it’s housed in old prison buildings which are on the old castle grounds. These were previously the city’s Debtors’ Prison and Female Prison. It features an array of exhibitions covering life in the city over the ages. These are really varied and it’s definitely worth setting aside a couple of hours to wander around and see what interests you here. I found that whilst some of the things on display were quite generalised to England as a whole, there is definitively enough about York here to make it worthwhile. Check their website for opening times and entrance fee’s:

Merchant Adventurers’ Hall

The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall is one of the finest medieval buildings in England. Its construction began in 1357, funded by a religious fraternity by the name of ‘Guild of Our Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary’. It was used for religious worship and notably still is today. In 1430 the fraternity became ‘The Mistry of Mercers’ after being granted a royal charter to trade by King Henry VI. The hall became an important place for conducting business affairs. Moving to present time the owners are now known as ‘The Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York’.

You can pay to enter the building and look around. As well as admiring it’s internal structure, you can learn about the company. You can see some of it’s old items such as flags and stained glass windows. Personally though I think it is most impressive from the outside, and it’s nice to walk around the building and see it’s exterior architecture.

Vie wof the exterior of the Merchant Adventurers' Hall
Merchant Adventurers’ Hall

St Mary’s Abbey Ruins

You can find these ruins in York’s museum gardens. Originally there was a church here dedicated to the Norwegian saint Olaf II. This was built in 1055 when Viking Influence was still strong in the city. Then 33 years later in 1088 King William II of England visited the city. The church was then refounded as a monastery and rededicated to the Virgin Mary.

The stone walls that have become today’s were ruins were built between 1271 and 1294 . The monastery actually became one of the most powerful in Northern England. However in the 1530’s King Henry VIII enacted the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ which greatly reduced the Christian Church’s power and wealth across the country. The abbey was closed in 1539 and these ruins are now all that remain. 

St Mary's Abbey Ruins - one of the ruined walls and doorways
St Mary’s Abbey Ruins

York Ghost Walk’s

York is famous for it’s Ghost walks. In fact it is actually said to the birthplace of the idea. These days there are many different ones that operate in the city. When we visited we joined ‘The Original Ghost Walk of York‘ which started around 1973 and continues to this day. As it’s name suggests, it prides itself as being the first ghost walk in York, and therefore the world! It’s a great way to learn about the darker side of York’s history. Supposedly York is one of the most haunted cities in Europe after all! The guide told us several interesting stories and pointing out some historic landmarks and sites. I definitely recommend joining a ghost walk whilst visiting York, it’s a great way to spend part of your evening. The tour at the time we took it cost £5, payable on the evening.

York’s Pubs

The city of York really is full of pubs and you have plenty of choice of where to drink when visiting! 3 places we enjoyed were The Last Drop Inn, Valhalla York and the Evil Eye cocktail bar. The first one was a great place to relax with a pint whilst taking a rest from all the exploring we were doing around York. Valhalla is a quite a small cosy place, and was very busy early evening when we visited. We didn’t try any but they were serving food there. And the latter has multi floors with great decor, great for an drink or two to end your day. Honestly though you can find all kinds of pubs here so have a look around to see where takes your fancy!

Further information…..

Where to stay?

Accommodation in York can be pretty expensive. It’s definitely worth booking in advance if you know the dates you will be visiting. There are plenty of hotels across York. You can many both independently run and as part of wider chains. When me and my girlfriend visited we actually stayed in a Travelodge. This was the cheapest option we could find. They are a chain of budget hotels found across the UK, at usually good value. The one we picked was the York Central Layerthorpe branch. It’s within walking distance of the city but away from the area’s that are busy at night. Which given York’s nightlife scene was a good thing whilst staying over a weekend.

Where to eat?

There are restaurants and pubs all over York that offer good food, so there’s plenty of choice. Walking around the city centre you will see many options. If you want to try some street food then there is a small market just off of the Shambles. Here you can find Indian, Italian, Thai and several other choices for reasonable prices. If you want a good vegan option then I recommend Humpit – Hummus and Pita Bar. As the name suggests Hummus is the main thing here, and it tastes great.

Getting around?

York is quite a compact city so you can walk pretty much everywhere. If you need to take transport then there are local buses and taxi’s available. The city is also a train hub for this part of England, so has plenty of connections. When we visited we travelled there direct from Bristol. On the return trip we needed to change via Birmingham, which is another rail hub.

Want a day trip?

A great day trip from York is a visit to Knaresborough. It’s only a short train ride away. Situated on the pleasant River Nidd it’s a very scenic place with some great spots for lunch. You can actually find the oldest charging visitor attraction in England here too. See what I have to say about the town here!

My overall thoughts on York

I really recommend York as somewhere to visit for a few days. I think it your from the United Kingdom as I am then it’s a great place for a long weekend. And if your coming from elsewhere in the World I would definitely add York to your ‘must see’ list when in England. My main reason is that I really like the amount of history that is accessible here. The medieval buildings around the city are fantastic to see and I very much enjoyed admiring them, even when I was just walking past on my route elsewhere. I also think the big landmarks like Clifford’s Tower and the York Minister are really worth a look. They strike imposing figures on the skyline and are both great places to visit to understand the history of Northern England.

Finally I like the overall feel of the city. As well as all the building’s the River Ouse running through it’s centre really enhances it’s appeal. There was plenty of cafe’s and restaurants along the river and it was good to see so many people out enjoying the scenery. It was good to see many independent shops too, as well as plenty of pubs and some nice green spaces. York has a lot offer visitors as well locals, and that’s a great balance to have.

Thanks for reading this post about exploring York! The featured image used for this post of a 5 star hotel known as The Grand. I took the photo whilst walking along the York city walls. If your interested in finding out more about me then check my About Me page here. I am planning many more posts about the UK in future so check back here for updates.

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