“Another high wall appeared ahead of us. York seemed a city of walls. Behind it the Minster loomed. Ahead was a large open space crowded with market stalls under brightly striped awnings that flapped in the cool damp breeze”. Such is a scene that welcomes the protagonists of Sovereign, one of the acclaimed Tudor mysteries by author CJ Sansom.
One could argue that York, a sizable city located in the north east of England – hasn’t changed much through the centuries. The imposing Minster - its majestic gothic cathedral - makes for a breathtaking sight right in the middle of the city centre, surrounded by an open expanse of well maintained grounds and sidelined by the river Ouse that placidly provides a gentle background to the view.
The beauty of York is that its medieval heart is incredibly well preserved and visitors flock to experience its past as well as the welcoming offers that modern day York provides.
Only two hours by train from London and little two from Edinburgh, York is a beautiful place truly worth a visit. A weekend will probably be just enough to begin to appreciate all that the town has to offer, from heritage museums to quirky tea rooms to Michelin starred restaurants. Where to start? Follow our suggestions to make the most of your trip.
Walk through history
Assuming you have arrived by train, why not start your walk leaving behind the bright, elegant Victorian train station. Cross the river over Station Road and pick up a coffee at Perky Peacock, a local coffee shop housed in the medieval watchtower, sure to be a memorable first stop before the tour of the city.
Across the bridge, on the left are the lush Museum Gardens; edged on one side by the river itself, this green space is definitely a must. Past the evocative ruins of the ancient abbey is the Yorkshire Museum, a first-class collection of historic artefacts which explains in detail the history of the town and the region.
At the back of the gardens is one of York’s gateway towers, called ‘bars’ since the ancient times. It is worth going up the steep staircase at the Bootham Bar and starting here the walk on the city walls - the view point from the raised path is a great way to appreciate York in its historic glory.
The wall in fact surrounds the old city centre and laps manicured gardens, the Library and finally presents the Minster to the viewer.
Come down to street level at Monk Bar and walk the short distance back towards the Minster to gape at the interior of this wonder of gothic architecture. The site occupied by the York Minster has been a site of worship since the 7th century (with the first record in 625AD referencing a wooden church which provided the setting for the baptism of King Edwin). The current building was started around 1080 and took around 400 years to emerge into the magnificent structure we see today. The church has many incredible pieces to inspect but perhaps the most notable is the Great West Window, which was completed by 1340. Nicknamed ‘the Heart of Yorkshire’ due to the shape of its upper stonework, it illustrates the authority and purpose of the Church.
After visiting the Minster, head back towards the historic centre, through the picturesque winding alleys of Dean Gate, High and Low Petergate. Some alleys are so tight, one could easily miss them but they often reveal hidden surprises: for example head through Coffee Yard to discover the timber framed Barley Hall, a faithfully rebuilt medieval dwelling.
While most of the old centre is fascinating in its heritage feel, one street in particular is possibly the most famous medieval thoroughfare of the world and it’s right here, in York. The aptly named Shambles is one of the best-preserved historic shopping streets in Europe.
Although none of the original shop-fronts have survived from the Middle Ages, some properties still have exterior wooden shelves, reminders of when cuts of meat were served from the open windows. The street was made narrow by design to keep the meat out of direct sunlight; even today it is easy to imagine the Shambles packed with people and awash with offal and discarded bones and the smells that must have wafting through the throng.
Today, the beautiful old buildings have been restored and now house lively cafes, quirky boutiques and pubs. It’s usually packed during the day but late at night and early morning you might be able to find it empty and achieve some stunning photographs of the wonky houses and tiny streets.
Past the Shambles, heading towards Fossgate, another building is worthy of attention and it’s Merchant Adventurers' Hall: dating back to the 1350s, today it is still the everyday base for the 160 members of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York. The Hall is also a museum with fine collections including silver, furniture and paintings which provide a glimpse into the rich history of the people associated with it.
Nearby, Fairfax House is yet another museum housed in an grand building form the Georgian Era, a little detour from the predominant middle ages yet it transports you to the glory days of city-living in eighteenth century York and the opulent lives of Viscount Fairfax and his daughter Anne who lived within.
Finally, why not finish the walk by Clifford Tower, a large, round and compact tower that today stands peacefully on a grassy hill but that sees its strength in the past of wars. Rebuilt by Henry III in the 13th century after being burned to the ground, the tower’s name comes from the execution of Roger de Clifford for treason against Edward II. The views from the tower are instagram-worthy for sure.
Well deserved rest stops
York has no shortage of eateries and drinking holes, but it can be a little overwhelming between touristy traps and major chains. Here are some of our recommendations to enjoy local food and drinks, beginning with a cup of tea at Betty’s, one of the most famous tea rooms in the world.
Originally opened in nearby Harrogate 1919 by a Swiss baker and chocolatier, Betty’s is an established name in Yorkshire and beyond with two locations in York: come to enjoy a proper quintessential afternoon tea and don’t forget to take away a box of Yorkshire ‘Fat Rascals’, delicious, chewy locally made tea cakes as well as a bag of locally roasted coffee from Taylor’s of Harrogate, another Yorkshire homegrown brand.
Chocolate however is possibly the sweetest thing about York: the town is in fact home to many much loved English brands such as Rowntree and Terry’s and visitors can follow a chocolate trail to learn more about this sweet side of history.
When you’re ready for a drink, head to the wonky, ancient House of Trembling Madness on Stonegate for a time warp experience of a medieval alehouse albeit with great comfort food and an astonishing selection of ales, lagers, ciders and more.
But York has even more surprises and for those looking for a memorable foodie experience, look no further than Roots, the town’s outpost of young Michelin starred chef Tommy Banks. Tommy and his family opened The Black Swan in nearby Oldstead in 2006 where they have lived and farmed for many generations. They grow their own produce in a 3 acre kitchen garden in the field next to the restaurant and they have some unique ingredients such as Crapaudine beetroot, Black Truffe potatoes and Wineberries. The produce grown in the garden and on the farm is transported to the city for Roots York on a daily basis so even those who can’t visit the countryside restaurant can fully appreciate Tommy’s cuisine and experience the best of Yorkshire Dales’ produce.
Whatever your reasons to visit York, you will not be disappointed - it is a city with much to discover and enjoy.
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