York is the county town of North Yorkshire, in the north-west of England. Unfortunately, it's not particularly accessible by any motorways, but the A roads serve it well, specifically the A19. The city often finds itself on tourist itineraries due to its history and beauty. York is small enough that it can be easily explored on foot and though there are many things to do and see, the main sites can be covered in a day or two.
York originated in 79 AD as a Roman army camp, around which a settlement developed. The settlement was named Eboracum. The Romans leaving Britain did not damage the city as it continued under the Saxons, who called it Eoforwic. York became the capital of a Saxon kingdom named Deirwa, which later combined with another northern kingdom to form the Kingdom of Northumbria. The Saxons made few changes to the city and their buildings, being wooden, have not lasted.
The Vikings invaded and captured the city in 866 AD, modifying the name slightly to Jorvik, from which the current name comes. Later, York was sacked in the failed northern revolt against the Norman invasion. By the Middle Ages, York was the main city in the north of England.
As a result of Charles I's dispute with Parliament, the King was forced out of London. For a time, York was his base. Charles and his court were based in the former Abbot's House of St Mary's, which was renamed King's Manor as a result. The city was beseiged by Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War before being freed by Prince Rupert, cousin of King Charles. He and his army were then defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor, leading to the surrender of the city.
York was also popular with Georgian socialites, and in the Victorian age the rise of the railways and manufacturing provided a boost to the city. While York's importance as a northern city has faded thanks to the rise of more industrial cities like Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester, this lack of industrialisation has preserved its heritage, making it a popular place to visit.
Where To Visit
Number one on your agenda should be York Minster, the huge medieval cathedral which dominates the city. You have to pay to get in any further than a few metres, but you can attend a service if you wish. If you have five minutes to spare, you can get a great side view of the Minster from the Marks and Spencer shop on Parliament Street1. Go up to the top floor, where there is a large window with a telescope that is well worth a quick look.
Take a walk around the well-preserved medieval city walls. You can access the wall walk at each of the gates or 'bars'. They were called bars instead of gates because the Viking word for street was gata, which meant that there were already a large number of streets in the city with the suffix 'gate'. Calling the entrances in the walls 'gates' too would cause confusion, so they were named bars instead. This has led to the joke that York is the place where the streets are gates, the gates are bars, and the bars are pubs! The section near the Minster is particularly good for views of the building. There is more to York than the Minster, though.
The Shambles is the best-preserved medieval street in Europe, was mentioned in the Domesday Book and is rumoured to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley, the wizarding shopping street in the Harry Potter series. It originated as a butcher's street – the name comes from the medieval word 'shamel' which was the shelf on which the meat was displayed. The street is narrow and the buildings lean into each other at the top. The pavement in The Shambles is raised on each side to allow the blood to flow down the middle. Now it is full of interesting shops, including a chocolatiers, a few tourist shops, some jewellers, and a shop where you can have photos taken in old-fashioned costumes. There is also a shrine to Saint Margaret Clitherow, who was executed in 1584 by being crushed by a door piled with stones for harbouring a Catholic priest.
Another street worth a quick look if you're passing2 is Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate, a very short street near the Shambles. There are two theories as to the origin of the name - one is that is was a medieval expression translating to disgust that something so small was called a street, and the other is that it was the place where husbands used to take their wives to whip them as a punishment for talking too much.
Jorvik Viking Centre is also worth a visit for those interested in the history of the city. It’s built over excavations of Viking remains which it explains, and it also has a sort of ride around a recreation of part of the Viking city, complete with animatronic figures and authentic3 smells. York Dungeon is also popular with the kids, but is probably not for the particularly young or anyone who hates a good scare!
Speaking of scares, consider taking a ghost walk. York is known as the most haunted city in Europe and a number of companies run walks with a guide to tell some of the stories that gave the city this reputation. Most last an hour or so and start between seven and eight in the evening, from points advertised on boards around the city. The walk leaving from the King’s Arms pub is good for those who are more interested in the scary stories and the walk from the Minster is better for those after a laugh. Continuing the haunted theme, try one of the several pubs, such as the Snickelway4 Inn on Goodramgate, that claim to be haunted.
The Railway Museum near the train station has a good reputation among those who like that sort of thing, with displays covering two centuries of locomotion. Clifford's Tower is the only remains of York Castle, though it is rather small. Next to this is the well-regarded Castle Museum which contains an authentic Victorian street. Continuing in the historical bent is the Merchant Adventurer's Guild Hall.
There's also Barley Hall, an authentically restored medieval house, the city's Guildhall, Fairfax House, a Georgian city house, and behind the Minster is the Treasurer's House, which charges for entry but has a nice garden you can go to for free if you fancy a little peace.
Museum Gardens is also a pleasant spot for a wander in the sun. It's a riverside park area in the grounds of the Yorkshire Museum. It contains the remains of St Mary’s Abbey, which are well worth a look, as well as the Hospitium which was the Abbey's guesthouse. There is also the Roman Multiangular Tower, which forms the main remains of the Roman fortress. Nearby is King's Manor, which was, as mentioned above, once the Abbot's house but is now the University’s Archaeology department. Members of the public can walk around the courtyards and use the refectory.
Another option is to consider a guided tour. Tour buses leave from many points around the city or you can get a free two-hour tour from the Association of Voluntary Guides, leaving from the Art Gallery every morning at 10.15.
Pubs, Churches, and More Pubs
One thing to bear in mind about York is that to many visitors, it will seem as though every other building is a church or a pub. This seems to reach the height of silliness when you see a church, St Michael-le-Belfrey, situated directly next to the Minster.
York has enough watering holes that you could drink somewhere different every night for a year5. One notable pub is the King's Arms at King's Staith on the banks of the River Ouse, which is famous for the regularity with which it floods. The water level on the Ouse has risen high enough to flood the pub many times. Flood levels are marked on a board inside. The highest to date was above head height while standing in the pub, which is, of course, several metres raised above the river’s normal water level.
The city is not the place for dedicated clubbers6, but it does have several clubs, the main ones being Toffs on Toft Green, Ziggys on Mickelgate, and The Gallery on Clifford Street. The music played depends on the night of the week.
There are a couple of music venues too. Fibbers is a small venue usually catering to rock bands, some local with some lesser-known national bands. They have a pretty good success rate – Arctic Monkeys, The Killers and Kaiser Chiefs all played Fibbers on the road to stardom. A number of pubs and bars hold open mic nights and other music nights such as acoustic or blues performers. City Screen Cinema also hosts musicians in each of its two bars. As an independent cinema, it's rather expensive for watching films, but the only alternative is a trip to the out-of-town shopping centre, Clifton Moor, where a Vue cinema is located, but when travel costs are taken into account it may turn out more expensive.
York is not a bad city for shopping with a nice mix of high street, tourist and independent shops. There are a few strange ones, such as a lace shop and an all year Christmas shop. The tourist shops usually contain a mixture of 'olde-worlde' English items, postcards, souvenirs, and English foods such as toffee.
York is packed with cafés, bakeries, sandwich shops and the like for a lunch or snack. There is also no shortage of restaurants to suit most budgets. In the more upmarket eateries it may be wise to try and book ahead, especially during the busy summer tourist season. La Vecchia Scuola on Lower Petergate is great for excellent food at prices that won’t ruin you, and the setting is gorgeous. If you can, try to eat something – afternoon tea, a slice of cake, or a whole meal – at Betty's Café. It originated in Harrogate but York has two branches of its own. The larger, decorated in Art Deco style, is at St Helen's Square and usually has a queue outside. The smaller is on Stonegate and is medieval in style.
York has one of the best racecourses in the UK, which hosts major meetings every year. It also has a football team, York City FC. Furthermore, there is a rowing club as the sport is fairly popular on the River Ouse.
Famous York Residents
Highwayman Dick Turpin was not from York but was imprisoned there for a time. He is famous for making the ride from London to York in less than a day in order to give himself an alibi for a crime he had committed, but he made no such ride, having been given the credit for another man's exploit. Turpin was executed on the Knavesmire - now the home of the racecourse - and his grave can be found in the graveyard just before Fishergate Bar.
Gunpowder plotter Guy Fawkes was from York. His old school never burns an effigy of him on Bonfire Night as many other places do, because he is an old pupil.