If a day trip to York, England is all you can manage then you’ll be pleased to know that it’s still well worth visiting even if you have limited time here. As part of a larger UK trip or just a day out from your regular routine, York really captures the hearts and minds of all who visit. Why? Well, I guess many reasons, but for me it was the wealth of history that the city has that drew me to visit. There’s also a faint smell of chocolate – that’s quite tempting too! More about that later!
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York doesn’t feel like a city. It’s not sprawling and it’s not hard to get around. In fact, get there early enough and you’ll enjoy a sense of peace and serenity that I never associate with cities. The compact feeling is amplified by the fact that the city is surrounded by medieval walls and most things a day tripper will be interested in is within them.
There’s so much history in York that it’s both hard to get away from it yet it’s also hard to understand what went on here – I knew that it was a city full of historic sites, but I’ll be honest, I felt a bit overwhelmed by what was around. Where do you even start? Do you go and enjoy each time period, or try and cram them all in? If you’re limited by your time in the city then you’ll likely want to do the latter!
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What to do on a day trip to York
So, my itinerary for you here takes into account a bit about each part of history that the city of York is famous for, so if history is your thing you’ll love it, but really when we did it it was just enjoyable itself. James isn’t quite as into history as I am and he had a really fun time so I hope you do too. It, of course, doesn’t cover everything history wise, and certainly not all there is to do in York but it’s a pretty good introduction.
First things first is that you should consider getting yourself a York Pass for the day. It’s especially good if you’re visiting the area for a few days as you can also get one that covers the city centre attractions and also some surrounding sights too. If you really only have a day in york then you can still get your money’s worth with the one day city pass that they do.
Be aware it works on a calendar day and not 24 hours so don’t start using it one day and thinking you can finish up seeing sights the next morning unless you go for the two-day option. You can get the pass here or I’ve linked to each attraction individually if you want to pick and choose.
For early birds:
My top tip for you if you can manage it is to get into York early and just wander around the streets, or maybe do the city wall walk while the city is just waking up and before lots more tourists spill on to the streets. This is what we did and we found the Shambles, the famous medieval street in York, deserted! No, we couldn’t look round the shops, but we did lots of window shopping and returned later for another look around.
Go to the York Visitor centre to get the York pass
The tourist information office opens at 9 am, so head there straight away to get your pass and you’ll be ready for the day ahead. They’re really friendly there too so if you have any questions about your day they’ll be able to point you to where you need to go. You do get a small booklet with a map in with your passes to help you navigate the city.
*feel free to do things in your own order – this is pretty much how we spent our day, but any order is fine. Some attractions can get busy in the summer months e.g Jorvik, so perhaps aim to get that done early if you’re worried about queues*
Start the day at York Minster
York Minster completely dominates the city landscape so you’ll definitely want to take a peek inside. Going early means that it’s very peaceful and not busy at all. You can look around in your own time and really take in the beauty of the building.
I personally was in awe of the Minster and couldn’t believe that it was built 800 years ago – just how did they do it? Ok, it did take them 250 years to complete it fully, but the architecture and skill were immense. There’s actually history that goes back even further on the site too and you can learn about that in the Undercroft museum which goes under the Minster (opens normally around 10 am).
You can also get a guided tour of the Minster (included in the York Pass) and there’s a chance to go up the tower too for an additional admission fee. Apparently you get excellent views over the city but we couldn’t partake as James forgot to bring his asthma inhaler! One for another time.
Monk Bar, one of the old gates to the city is quite close to the Minster if you want to head on over there while in the vicinity. You can learn about one of the old kings here as well if you want to go inside the gate to the Richard III experience.
Get tickets here:
Head over to the York Chocolate story
It’s about a 5-minute walk to the next attraction from the Minster and if I’m honest, this was one of my favourite parts of the day and it was only partly because we got to taste chocolate!
York’s Chocolate Story is an attraction that combines the history of some of the most famous names in chocolate, who came from York, with information on how chocolate is made and of course, some chocolate tasting too. The lovely smell of chocolate hits you as soon as you walk through the doors here and it stays as you head on through the tour. There are some lovely tastings to be had, and some not so nice ones too – there’s a reason chocolate has sugar in it!
The history of the companies of Rowntree’s and Terry’s was really interesting and it was such a big employer of the city in the late 19th and early 20th century. The tour ends with a quick making of a chocolate lolly that kids will love (ok, I did too) and a demonstration of how handmade chocolates are made.
If you want more chocolate there’s cafe too and if you want more than that there a lot of independent chocolatiers all round York too. There’s even a chocolate trail that I may have to do myself one day too!
Get tickets here:
Visit the Roman Bath house
Just around the corner, there’s time to fit in another little attraction before lunch. This is such a quirky little place and I really loved the story of how the ruins of this place were found.
Roman York actually lays about 4 feet under the ground you currently walk on in York so there are actually pretty few Roman remains to be seen in the city, even though we know that the Romans were here. The fort in this area was called Eboracum.
The bathhouse remains were found in 1929 when the building, which was (and still is) a pub, had a big fire. That fire gave them the chance to dig and get a bigger cellar, but they found a little more than they bargained for! What they found was the corner of the fort and the remains of the ancient bath house the legionnaires would have used.
It’s only a small attraction and doesn’t take too long to get around, but the man on the desk was really friendly and knowledgeable if you want to know more about what’s around. Plenty of dressing up opportunities for the kids too!
Lunch & shopping
(if you like your lunch a bit later you might like to add in Jorvik beforehand – see how you’re doing for time. This is what we did.)
Time for some food and also take some time to wander around the shops. The Shambles is one not to miss, even though it’s super touristy and will be very busy by now. Another street that is extremely pretty is Stonegate (above) so add that one on your list. One of the buildings there dates back to the 1400s which is quite mind-blowing!
The Shambles actually dates back to medieval times, although the shop fronts aren’t from that era. Narrow streets like this were actually designed like that to keep the sunlight out because it would have been used by butchers selling meat from the windows. No sunlight meant the meat was less likely to go off!
It’s thought that the Shambles is actually one of the inspirations for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter (alongside Edinburgh) and there’s plenty of Harry Potter inspired shops there nowadays too. If you have some HP fans you can even take a dedicated tour!
In the afternoon take the 8-10 minute walk to the south of the city walls to Clifford’s Tower which is the only remaining piece of York Castle from medieval times to still be standing. You can get amazing views of the city from the top but really there’s not a lot to do in the tower and you can be done in a short time. Max 30 mins I’d say.
There are a couple of museums around here too if you like those – the York Castle Museum and York Army Museum are right next to Clifford’s Tower.
Go back in time to see the Vikings at Jorvik
York is very proid of their viking heritage and I’d heards loads of good things about Jorvik but wasn’t exactly sure what happens when you get there.
There was a little bit of a queue to get in, but as we were out of season it didn’t take long to get to the front. I’d be aware of queues if you’re there in high season. Once you’re in you’re greeted with a glass floor where you can see the archaeological remains from the Viking settlement that have been found. You can watch some videos about the stories of the excavations too.
Once you’ve had your fill of that you can go on the ‘ride’ which takes you through the Viking village reconstruction. I say ride because you sit in a chair that is moved around, a bit like an extra slow rollercoaster! There are speakers that will guide you and let you know what you’re seeing as you go round and they can be in lots of different languages too. I really loved seeing the reconstruction and I think the models were really well done – some of them I really thought were real people! It’s fully interactive with your senses as well with lots to see, hear and smell!
After the journey through Jorvik, you’re led to a museum area where there are all sorts of collections of Viking artefacts found on site, skeletons of some of the people you saw in the village and some people in costume demonstrating things too and on hand to ask about.
After Jorvik we took a little breather and headed for a little stroll to the riverside before our last attraction of the day:
Finally, finish on a fun note by visiting the York Dungeon!
Personally, I wasn’t too bothered about doing the York Dungeon, but James really did want to do it. I’ve seen the chain of attractions in lots of cities – Edinburgh has one as does London and actually there’s a few worldwide now too, but I’ve never actually been there. I was a little worried I wouldn’t like it but actually, it was a heap of fun and I’d definitely recommend it.
What you need to bear in mind is that it’s an interactive attraction and they may well pick on you to be part of it and be ok with that – I’m not so good with this kind of thing, but I was lucky and didn’t get picked on! James did though!
You’ll get led round different rooms, each with a different time period and you’ll hear stories. The actors are really brilliant and we laughed out loud so many times. I liked that they kept their stories to things that York is famous for, so Viking, medieval times, Guy Fawkes makes an appearance as does the story of Dick Turpin.
We enjoyed it so much we’ll definitely consider visiting next time we see one!
Get tickets in advance:
Was the York Pass worth it for a day?
When planning our day in York I knew that I wanted to take in as many of the historic attractions as possible and straight away I started wondering if a YorkPass would be worth it.
If you do the places in this itinerary you’ll find that you save money on buying the admission for each attraction individually. For us, it was definitely worth it as there was no wondering whether each place would be worth the price – we could go in, spend as little or as long as we wanted there and not worry. I actually like having the freedom to do that and there are so many attractions in York if you found something lacking you could definitely find something else to fill its space.
A general note if you’re visiting York in winter. Many of the attractions in York run a contracted set of hours in the low season. We visited in January and so we couldn’t use the Sightseeing bus as it didn’t run and the city cruise schedule was limited too. Both of these are included in the York pass but we couldn’t take advantage. Most of the attractions don’t open until 10 am and close between 3 pm and 4 pm too so bear that in mind when deciding your timings. On the plus side, queues weren’t long at all!
Evening in York
If you still have the evening to enjoy in York there are quite a few ghost tours that we saw advertised around the city (or you could arrange a private tour) and there’s plenty of pubs, both historic and not, to enjoy a meal and an evening’s entertainment in. I’m afraid we didn’t have time for any of them this time.
York City Cruises also does evening trips which are worth thinking about if you happen upon some lovely warm evenings.
Where to stay in York
If you’re looking for somewhere to stay overnight in York you’re in for a treat as there are loads of independent and quirky hotels in the area. The Grand Hotel is a 5-star Edwardian era hotel if you’re looking for something special. Another option might be The Guy Fawkes Inn which is reportedly the birthplace of the man himself – it’s a little smaller and right next to York Minster.
How to get to York
York is really easy to get to. It’s situated in the North of England and if you’re coming by car you’ll find it’s just 20 mins from the M1 motorway.
There are parking options in the city but I recommend the park and ride option which is what we did. It means you don’t need to navigate around the city at all – parking is free and you just need to pay for the bus journey in and out which was £3.10 return per adult (correct Jan 2019). Check out the park and ride sites here.
The train is also really easy and we had planned to do this until our local connection was cancelled. You can get to York in 2 hours from London and about 2.5 hours from Edinburgh so if you’re arriving in the country and basing yourself in any of those places you can totally add York to your vacation easily! Check out Trainline for times and costs for getting there.
Disclaimer: Thanks to VisitYork for providing us with a YorkPass each for the day so we could review whether it would be worth it for a day trip.
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