What do you do with a long weekend in the fall from London? Grab the kids and head up to York for 4 days of vikings, ghosts, food, ruins, music and a whole lot of fun history.
York is a small city, the center of which is contained in a walled circle, and is the best preserved non-capital medieval city in Europe. Many of the streets are narrow with timbered buildings (“as London would have looked before the fire,” my kids pointed out.)
This is the beauty of York; it has survived the ages and with treasures from times gone by to share, yet is thoroughly modern.
For purposes of narrative flow I am presenting our trip in historical sequence. In reality, we bumbled from place to place all out of order, which didn’t detract from the pleasure at all. York is a city so full of life, both present and past, that simply strolling the streets filled with shops is enjoyable.
There are funny little touches from earlier times all around, including the shortest street with the longest name: whip ma whop ma gate (from the Saxon meaning neither one thing nor the other, apparently) and a red devil mounted on Stonegate. The shopping is good as is the food.
We have to start somewhere, and so why not as far back as most of us can think and to the Yorkshire Museum, which begins with Dinosaurs (York was filled with them!), moves into Romans (lots of statues, weaponry and the chance to dress up in Roman costume) and then a small, but impressive collection of medieval treasures.
The last section has a fun activity sheet for the kids to complete so they really do look at the stone carvings and funny objects d’art from the time, as well as the famous York Helmet from the 8th century.
Just outside the museum are the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, one of the many monasteries Henry VIII closed in order to take its riches. Anne Boleyn had a soft spot for it so it wasn’t completely destroyed; its ruins make an excellent place to play hide and seek and tag.
DIG, a museum of archeological exploration run by the York Archeological Trust, gave the children the opportunity to see what the previous cultures left behind. The current city is literally sitting on the ruins of the past, and for the city planners it is a constant balancing act between expanding for the new and retaining the old. We tend to think of archeologists as working in hot, dusty, uninhabited locations, but in York they work in and amongst the building sites.
Our enthusiastic guide explained the role of archeology as a study of how humans live, before setting them free in the DIG space, an artificial dig in which artifacts could be found. As this was done simply by brushing sand away with tools, it was more exciting for the younger ones, but as the artifacts were plastic copies of real things that had been found, all the kids like to see what had been uncovered.
They started with Roman artifacts, then Viking, Medieval and finally Victorian finds, which included bones, dice, bricks, pots and coins. The children had a go at sorting animal bones from other artifacts, the slightly creepy factor in this is appealing to the older ones. There were cases on other (real) things that had been found and our guide was happy to explain the relevance of them all.
As a stand-alone museum it’s not exciting for kids, but as a precursor to the Jorvik Viking Museum, under the same ticket, it’s a good beginning to understanding how York has been the home of British history for over 2,000 years.
Jorvik Viking Centre
The Jorvik Viking Centre is a celebration of all things Viking and just a short walk outside the city walls. The museum includes a ride through a Viking village full of revolting smells — this is a great hit with the boys.
Following the ride are rooms of Viking artifacts to see and study, many with robotic Vikings eager to explain them. The (real) costumed staff are also helpful and informative. My eldest, Lizzy, was particularly taken with the mysterious burial site of beheaded Romans. Gladiators? But no amphitheater has ever been found. Criminals? Early martyred Christians? Realizing that this remains a puzzle for current day archeologists turned it from just one more case of bones to something interesting to think about and discuss.
The Roman Emperor Constantine was born in York. For this reason, his statue sits outside the stunning and impressive York Minister. Begun in 1220, this cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. The inside is beautiful, a fire in 1984 notwithstanding, with famous stained glass windows and ornately carved altars and incredibly detailed stone statuary.
The Chapter House, begun in 1260 and still used today, has an elaborately decorated ceiling and floor and was the perfect place to play I-spy, while the older children climbed the 275 steps to the top of the Tower and took lots of pictures of the view, including that of the Cadbury Chocolate Factory!
Beneath the Tower are ruins of Roman buildings, discovered when some work was done in the 1960s. Our timing was such that we were able to attend Evensong, sung beautifully by the famous Minster Choir, which includes boy choristers.
Evensong is a (mostly) sung service of praise featuring the psalms. Dating back centuries, the tradition offers an inspiring relief from the bustle of life and the opportunity to hear some very special music. The children seemed to really enjoy this, or maybe they were simply exhausted from the days activities.
The York Ghost Walk Experience
Outside the Minster we gathered one evening, at dark, for what may have been the highlight of the long weekend: The York Ghost Walk Experience. A classically trained actor, most likely of the Shakespearean variety, walked us, by light of a lantern, around the city and told us tales of those whose end was so mysterious or so gruesome that they haunt the city today, including the Lost Legion, plague victims, workhouse children, and a dog. As ghost stories go they are on the (thankfully) tamer side, but in the dark and the mist, with old old walls all around, it is a fantastic way to end an evening (or begin a night).
The wall that surrounds the city is never far from you in York, including the minster. It is possible to walk all along it, stopping at what they call bars or gates. Monk Bar is an upper level of the wall, built by Richard III.
Fans of history and Shakespeare know that Richard III is one of the great baddies, known for allegedly murdering his brother’s young sons, the Princes in the Tower. However, as a Yorkist himself, the people of York have always maintained his innocence, and believe that his unpleasant reputation has depended too much on Shakespeare’s unflattering portrayal.
Betty’s Tea Room
Perhaps that might put you off your food, but hopefully not, as York is home to the famous Betty’s Tea Room. No one knows who Betty was, perhaps a nickname for the first owner’s wife, but it has been an institution in York since the 1920s.
The waitresses wear old-fashioned pinafores and offer a cart of cakes from which to select your treat. The line does become very long very quickly, so try to go earlier in the day — is there anything wrong with rich cakes and tea first thing in the morning? I think not.
River Boat Cruise
The Ouse river runs through York, and we took a short river boat cruise one day to escape the rain. With more coffees and hot chocolates to enjoy, we sailed slowly out of town and back again, admiring the mix of new and old architecture. This is a nice break from both the weather and walking on cobblestones streets. The boats leave regularly from the Lendal Bridge Landing, just below the museum gardens.
National Railway Museum
A short walk outside the city walls is the National Railway Museum, and it is exactly what it advertises, a museum of trains. Some of them fancy, like the train Queen Victoria traveled on, and some famous, like the Flying Scotsman, and some unique, like the Japanese Bullet train.
Some can be admired only from the outside, but several can be boarded, including the Bullet Train. My younger children thought this museum was great, although I found it, well, a bit heavy on the trains. The museum is huge, so kids can really move around without feeling hemmed in, even with enormous machines on all sides.
Where to Stay
We stayed in the vast, and very child-friendly, Principal York Hotel, just outside the city walls (5 minute walk from Lendal Bridge). Not only did the hotel offer a fantastic breakfast buffet, included in the room price, but it had a small swimming pool, ideal for resting sore feet and minds at the end of a busy sightseeing day.
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