Visiting England and not stepping foot in one of its most historic cities, York, would be like checking in to Paris and not going up the Eiffel Tower. About two and a half hours north of London by car and just under two hours by train, York will take you back in time quicker than Doctor Who. Its story can be traced back to the Roman era, and each part of that tale can be experienced in a unique and memorable way.
Before you start sightseeing, invest in a York Pass. With one single payment, you will get entry into most of the city’s attractions and save yourself a small fortune. Once that’s sorted, here are the places you can’t leave without seeing.
Best Things to Do in York with Kids
Jorvik Viking Centre
Almost 2,000 years ago, way back in 866, the Vikings conquered York; a very long time after that, in 1972, archeologists unearthed one of the most significant Viking finds ever discovered. Forty thousand artefacts were dug up from the Coppergate site, a street in the centre of York. From all of this the experts were able to discover the construction and layout of Viking homes, how the people of Jorvik made a living, what they ate and how they entertained themselves.
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Instead of being displayed behind glass cases, these items have been brought to life in a living history centre in Coppergate itself. The Jorvik Viking Centre opened in 1984, but following a flood in 2015, it was shut for a year. It reopened in Easter 2017 after a major redevelopment utilising the latest technology. Now, you step into a little cart and are taken on a ride back in time through a Viking village, complete with smells and incredibly realistic Viking robots designed using the skeletons of Vikings found on the site. Once you’re through the ride, costumed history makers are there to answer questions and let you see and touch Viking finds so old they make the mind boggle.
When you’re walking around York, it feels like there is an ancient monument on every street corner. Clifford’s Tower is a stone’s throw from the Jorvik Centre. It has sat astride its steep hill since 1068 and is all that remains of William the Conqueror’s York Castle. Kids love climbing — they need no incentive to ascend the mound and then the ancient steps inside the tower itself to reach the ramparts, from where they can pretend to be the castle guards who would have surveyed the area.
The tower has a grim past: It was the scene of one of the worst Jewish massacres of the Middle Ages. In 1190, a furious mob trapped York’s entire Jewish community within it and many Jews decided to take their own lives, rather than be murdered or forcibly baptised by the attackers.
York Castle Museum
York Castle Museum, opposite Clifford’s Tower, is home to a recreated Victorian Street, among other interesting exhibits. At Kirkgate, you can interact with walking, talking Victorian characters, pop into an old-world sweet shop, toy store, pharmacy and clothes shop, and even experience life in a Victorian prison.
York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. Its vast size cannot be explained in a photograph, but in an attempt to put things in perspective, it took 250 years to build and that tiny blue speck in the photo above is my 12-year-old standing at the entrance. Step inside, explain that it was built without machinery, computers or hard hats, and the mouth will drop on even the hardest-to-impress child. It’s worth climbing the central tower and going underground to discover the secrets of the Undercroft too.
The National Railway Museum
If your small people are into trains, The National Railway Museum in York has the largest collection of railway objects in the world — does it need any more explanation? There are a lot of trains in here. Climb onto the city walls, follow them round and get off when you see York Station, which is alongside the museum. Once on board, you can see how the royals travel in style in their royal carriages, watch engineering work being carried out in the workshop and check out the world’s fastest steam engine, amongst a host of other on-track-related things.
York’s Chocolate Story
British confectionary superstars Kit Kat, Smarties, Yorkie and Terry’s Chocolate Orange all originated in York, and many are still made in the city. Chocolate has been one of York’s biggest industries for hundreds of years. York’s Chocolate Story is an interactive tale that begins with the early experiments in chocolate-making that went on in the city and takes you up to the present day, with lots of tasting along the way.
The interactive tour of York Dungeon is not for the fainthearted and not recommended for under-10s, but thrill-seeking older kids will love this gruesome show, which brings to life some of York’s more colourful characters from history. Learn about notorious highwayman Dick Turpin and the chap who is remembered every year on November 5, Fireworks Night in the UK: Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
TIP: As long as you’re in York, you should also take a stroll down one of the best-preserved medieval shopping streets, The Shambles. Have lunch or tea at infamous teahouse Bettys.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Anna Tobin except where noted.