I adore York. It was a city that I had been desperate to see for a very long time. It was also the first place that I booked a trip to completely on my own. I had travelled solo with tour groups for many years, having the cushion of people around to eat meals with in the evenings. It was the evenings that worried me as I know that I could happily wander all day by myself. So – I took the plunge and had the most amazing mini break all on my own which has given me the confidence to book up more in other places!
York is a beautiful city, with plenty to keep you occupied whether there is sunshine or rain. It is a lovely city to wander around with its medieval streets, stunning cathedral and ancient walls. Just two hours from London by train and compact enough to explore on foot, it is a perfect city break.
A Brief History
The Romans knew it as Eboracum. To the Saxons it was Eoforwick. The Vikings, who came as invaders but stayed on in settlements, called it Jorvik.
York as we know it began with the Romans in 71 AD, when 5000 men marched from Lincoln to set up camp and conquer York. Not only did the Romans create York, they lived and ruled in it for the next three centuries, turning it into a city of global importance.
The Viking invasion of York took place on November 1st 866AD. The Vikings who settled farmed the land and were great craftsmen, traders, artists, engineers and ship builders. Over the one hundred years that York was under Viking rule, the city prospered greatly.
York was a flourishing port in Medieval times and an important manufacturing centre. This was also the period when many of the key buildings were constructed.
How long should I stay?
Tight on Time? Spend a day exploring. The city itself is fairly compact and you will be able to see lots of the main sights in a day.
Plenty of Time? Ideally spend at least a weekend here. There is plenty to see and explore.
It is very easy to explore York on foot and wandering the streets is the best way to get a good feel for the city.
Where to Stay
I stayed in Walmgate at the Hotel Indigo . As this was my first completely solo trip, I had the following criteria for my choice of accommodation.
1. I wanted a nice hotel room! Often I am happy with a fairly basic hotel room and as long as it is clean, all is fine. This time though, I thought that I might want somewhere that I could spend the evening as I was all alone, so I picked somewhere where I would be happy to spend an evening in.
2. I wanted the hotel to have a restaurant, so that if I wasn’t brave enough to eat out in the city at night, I knew that I would be able to eat at the hotel.
I liked the Hotel Indigo. I booked a superior room and it was super comfortable. The room wasn’t very big, but I found that it felt cosy and was perfect for me on my own. I had a lovely evening meal in the restaurant and found the staff very helpful and friendly. Location wise, within 10 minutes or so I was in the historic centre. It was quite a walk from the train station when I was carrying luggage, but there were regular buses which helped.
What to see: Ten things to do in York
1. The Shambles
The Shambles is a beautiful cobbled, narrow medieval street. Originally, the shops were all butchers, so the streets were narrow to keep the meat out of the sun. Overhanging upper floors, also served to give more space for living accommodation above the shops. The word ‘Shambles’ comes from ‘Shamel’ which were the benches on which the meat was displayed. Nowadays, instead of being a place to buy your offal, you can come here and buy handmade chocolates (recommended) and fudge! The Shambles get pretty busy, so to avoid the crowds get here before 10am or in the evening. I deliberately didn’t book to eat breakfast at the hotel as it meant that I got into town early on my hunt for a full English and wandering into town for this, gave me an opportunity to wander down the Shambles on my own!
2. Treasurer’s House
This was a peaceful oasis next to the cathedral. It is owned by the National Trust, so well worth a visit if you have an NT card, otherwise you do pay an entrance fee, although you can visit the small garden and the cafe for free. The house was first built for the Treasurer of the cathedral, but it was donated to the National Trust in the 1930’s by the then owner Frank Green. If you visit, do not even think about moving any of the furniture! Frank was very precise about how the rooms should look and be kept. His staff were expected to maintain his high standards and you can still see the metal studs he placed in the floor to mark the position of furniture in case it was moved. In fact, when he handed the house over, he vowed to return and haunt it if any changes were made.
This is not the most famous ghost attached to the place though. Venture to the cellars and you might just see a whole army of them marching through! There have been sightings of Roman soldiers appearing through the walls and marching through. Excavations have revealed that there is a Roman road underneath the cellar floor.
3. Walk the Walls
At 3.4 kilometres long, the beautifully preserved walls are the longest medieval town walls in England and I enjoyed my walk around them on a sunny afternoon. It can take around an hour to complete an entire circuit at a quick pace, longer if you take one of the many guides available with you to learn more as you go, or you can hop on and hop off doing as little or as much as you would like. There are 4 main fortified gates (known as bars) on the circuit as well as two smaller gates and frequent towers. One of the bars houses a cafe, and two of them contain museums, so you could make a day of it on the walls. The walls themselves are free to walk around and are generally open from dawn till dusk. If you want to find out more about the walls as you are walking, you can download an audio guide here which is the one that I used, or there is a detailed guide here.
4. The Cathedral: York Minster
Even if you don’t set foot inside the doors, you will not be able to miss seeing this huge Gothic structure which towers over the city. The whole area around the cathedral is also well worth exploring. The current building was started in around 1080, but took around 400 years to emerge into the building that we can see today. The cathedral is beautiful inside and is well worth the entry fee. I also went on a tower tour, climbing 275 steps to get to the highest point in York. I do love a tower, so that was quite a highlight! There is a stunning octagonal chapter house which took 20 years to build, it is worth going in just to stand and gaze at the ceiling for a while.
5. Clifford’s Tower
Another tower for views across York is Clifford’s Tower which is owned by English Heritage. It is almost all that remains of York Castle and has been used as a prison and a royal mint in its time. If you are a member of English Heritage, then it is worth the climb for the 360º views and views of the Minster (Tip: make sure you have a clear day, or the Minster may be obscured by cloud) otherwise you will need to pay a £5.40 fee – and it is just a tower.
6. Fairfax House
I hadn’t planned to visit Fairfax, but I found myself wandering past and decided to pop in (entry fee £7). It is a Georgian house which was originally the winter home of Viscount Fairfax and his daughter Anne. The inside reveals the domestic interiors in Georgian times, the fashions of the day for architecture, interior decoration, food and furnishings, as well as the customs and habits of York’s wealthy gentry and aristocracy. In the 20th century, the house became a cinema and dance hall before being transformed back into an 18th century home. The rooms have been furnished from a collection by Noel Terry who was the great grandson of the owner of the confectionery business: Terry’s of York (think Terry’s chocolate orange). I found the room guides inside to be fascinating to listen to as they talked passionately about the history of the house and the interiors – they really made the visit come alive.
7. York Museum Gardens
When you are ready for some more fresh air, then a walk around York Museum Gardens will blow the cobwebs away (free entry). Inside you can see the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey which was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England, the Hospitium where guests to the monastery would have been housed, the Yorkshire Museum and York Observatory as well as the gardens themselves.
8. Holy Trinity Church
This one is hard to find. Don’t ask me for directions as I found it by mistake. When I was actively looking for it, I couldn’t find it and only stumbled on it late in the day. The church really is a hidden treasure and when I found it, tucked away behind the busy shopping street of Goodramgate, I had it all to myself. It is a charming medieval church with uneven floors and you really get a sense of going back in time when you walk through the doors.This is the only church in the city to have retained its box pews. The high sides protected worshippers from draughts and gave them some privacy during the service. It is worth the effort to find it!
9. Wander the Snickelways
I love that word – ‘snickelways’! The word Snickelway was coined by local author Mark W. Jones in 1983 in his book ‘A Walk Around the Snickelways of York’, and is a combination of the words snicket, a northern English dialect word for a narrow passage, ginnel, a narrow passageway between or through buildings, and alleyway.
“…a narrow place to walk along, leading from somewhere to somewhere else, usually in a town or city, especially in the city of York.” (Jones)
York is full of them and they are worth the wandering. Keep an eye out for them as you journey around the town. Also look out for the street names as York has some cracking ones. My favourite was Whip-ma-whop-ma-gate which is also the shortest street in York.
10. Go on a ghost walk
I booked up a ghost tour for my first evening in York, in case I was feeling bored with an evening to myself. So, it turns out that the evenings alone did not phase me in the slightest and I was perfectly happy, but the Ghost Tour was a fun thing to do! Lots of companies offer ghost tours and it is worth a Google before you go to see what is on offer and what you think you will enjoy. I chose this one, but others are available.
We met outside The King’s Arm pub on a night which was as black as ink and we were entertained with tales of the many ghosts that roamed York. Boy are there a lot of them! I learned which hotels not to stay at if I come back and I learned which pubs might lead me to share a pint with a spirit! It wasn’t a scary experience, but it was fun and only cost a fiver. The group on the tour was fairly big, but I could hear everything that the guide said so it wasn’t a problem.