Arguably one of the best places to live in the UK, York is a city with a compelling past and a culturally-rich present. Home to various festivals throughout the year, a renowned racecourse, first-rate museums, and national parks for nature lovers to explore, there's something for everyone. You could start with lesser-known gems like Brown's department store, one of the many shopping destinations here, and Fairfax House, the beautiful former home of a regency viscount, or head straight for the world-famous York Minster.
Established in 1919, Betty's Café Tea Rooms is a York institution. There's often a queue to get in, but once you're inside, you're treated to a leisurely high tea that caters to various dietary preferences, including vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. Look out for their popular fat rascals made from a secret recipe. These special rock cakes slash scones are decorated with fruits and nuts to look like a smiley face and are sure to make you look like a happy emoji too.
No visit to York is complete without being transported back in time at this local landmark. York Minster, also known as the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter, is astounding. This gothic architectural masterpiece, one of the largest cathedrals in Northern Europe, brings to mind Paris's Notre Dame and books like Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. A modest church in the 7th century, York Minster became the grand building it is today over 250 years, beginning around 1230. The exteriors are intricate, and the remarkable medieval stained glass windows will take your breath away when you venture within. Go around sunset for evensong and peaceful choral music.
You'll find one of York's tastiest tourist attractions just a four-minute walk from Betty's. York has old-fashioned confectionary shops and cute tea spots aplenty, but you can further indulge your sweet tooth at York's Chocolate Story. Here, you'll learn the history of chocolate production in York, try loads of samples, and have a go at making something chocolatey. Another stone's throw away, you can check out Monk Bar Chocolatiers, where you can catch a glimpse of luxury handmade Belgian and French chocolates in production. You'll want to buy some for the road and for the short trek to the impressive railway museum.
Support a family business and while away a good few hours in the most pleasant surroundings. You don't need green fingers to appreciate these award-winning gardens filled with fountains, seasonal drawcards, thousands of different plants, and floral aromas. Breezy Knees is the bee's knees. In summer, expect a riot of vibrantly colored blooms; you can draw some parallels with the sweet stores and their kaleidoscopic wares five miles away in the city center. All are welcome—most areas on the 20-hectare property are wheelchair-accessible.
York's city walls, the longest in England, are a scheduled monument and one of its most distinctive features. You're bound to notice these, and you might be tempted to walk them when you do—the whole circular route is 2 miles long, and you can get your steps for the day over about two hours. The Romans originally built the defensive walls circa 71 CE, but the current iteration dates back to the 13th century and is signposted with various facts. Spring offers a side of daffodils.
You can climb to the top of York Minster and see for miles, but the best views of York lie at the top of Clifford Tower, York Castle's keep. English Heritage has spent money to conserve what's left of this Norman castle's ruins, and it's a must-visit for history buffs. William the Conqueror wanted a motte and bailey castle to be built after taking the city from the Vikings. Since then, the complex has been a military base, a seat of government for North England, a courthouse, a treasury, and a prison. In the 12th century, during the Crusades, 150 Jews died while taking refuge at the castle—most died by suicide after a mob laid siege to the keep.
The name York derives from the Old Norse word Jórvík because, between the late 9th century and mid-10th century, Scandinavian Vikings ruled the city. Dublin was also a Norse kingdom, and the two towns had a close relationship during this time. Fascinating archaeological discoveries were made in the 20th century, and it was decided that recreating Viking life on the excavation site would do justice to the treasure trove. Jórvík Viking Centre is an immersive experience; millions have visited it since 1984.
York is supposedly one of the most haunted cities in all of Europe. You can test your nerve by going on a ghost bus or ghost walk, where you'll be taken to spooky nooks and furnished with spine-chilling details. Treasurer's House, for example, is a mere five minutes away from York Minster and is a worthy stop even without its supernatural appeal. Many an apparition has been spotted here, from a previous owner to a group of Roman soldiers.
One of the best ways to see York is from the water. Hop aboard a boat and enjoy 45 minutes of captain's commentary as you wind your way around town. You'll learn about York's role as an inland port, flooding, witches, monks, and Saxon vs. Viking showdowns. There are self-drive boats, too, if you're keen on going it alone.
As you stroll through the heart of York, you'll encounter its most famous street, The Shambles. This cobbled lane is ancient and beloved by Harry Potter fans who believe it to be the muggle world's most Diagon Alley-like road. And if you're wondering why the buildings are up close and personal with each other, it was to keep direct sunlight out when this was a primarily meat-selling street.