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Discover Your Backyard: Historic York

Updated: 4 days ago

Author: Barry Pickard

York has a rich and varied history, spanning the Roman and Viking periods, through the Medieval period as a Cathedral city, to the modern age as an important railway hub and confectionary manufacturing centre. This pulsating narrative is reflected in the interesting and entertaining attractions that you can visit during a trip to York.

The compact nature of the city centre makes York an easy urban environment to traverse. Over two and a half days, we managed to cover many of York’s engaging attractions, and we found it to be an excellent place to visit. Join us as we discover some of the highlights of York.

Don’t forget that Tailor-Made Itineraries delights in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting York appeals to you, reach out to me by email. I would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the historic city of York, or indeed, a general tour of the UK.

National Railway Museum York

The National Railway Museum York is home to iconic locomotives and an unrivalled collection of engineering firsts, celebrating the past, present and future of innovation on the railways. Discover how the railways began and come face-to-face with Rocket - the locomotive that sparked a global transport revolution. Experience the working life of a station and peer into the world of royalty with the world’s finest collection of royal carriages, including Queen Victoria’s ‘Palace on Wheels’. Across the three giant halls you can also see the famous Mallard (the world’s fastest steam locomotive with its record breaking 126mph in 1938, which has not been beaten by another steam train since), a 1960’s Shinkansen (a Japanese bullet train), and a massive turntable, ready to service its fleet of pristine looking engines.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: York is famous for its genteel afternoon teas, and you can treat yourself to one of these experiences on the coaches of the Countess of York.

York Cold War Bunker

Take a fascinating tour of the York Cold War Bunker, which was in active service from 1961 to 1991. One of about 30 around the UK, the building was used throughout its operational existence as the regional headquarters and control centre for the Royal Observer Corps' No. 20 Group YORK. The building could have supported 60 local volunteer members of the Royal Observer Corps and is the only one that is preserved in its operational condition. The fully restored building contains air filtration and generating plant, kitchen and canteen, dormitories, radio and landline communication equipment and specialist 1980s computers and a fully equipped operations room with vertical illuminated Perspex maps.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Please note that access to the York Cold War Bunker is by guided tours only, with a maximum of 10 people per tour. Pre-booking online is required. The tours take place every hour and last approximately one hour.

York Minster

York Minster is a magnificent cathedral, a masterpiece in stained glass and stone and a sacred space which has been at the centre of Christianity in the north of England since the 7th century. The minster was completed in 1472 after several centuries of building. It is devoted to Saint Peter and has a very wide Decorated Gothic nave and chapter house, a Perpendicular Gothic quire and east end and Early English North and South transepts. The nave contains the West Window, constructed in 1338, and over the Lady Chapel in the east end is the Great East Window (finished in 1408), the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Our visit coincided with Good Friday, so photography inside the building was not allowed, although this is usually allowed on other days.

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York City Walls

York has, since Roman times, been defended by walls of one form or another. To this day, substantial portions of the walls remain, and York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England. The walls are generally 13 feet (4m) high and 6 feet (1.8m) wide. The walls are punctuated by four main gatehouses, or 'bars', (Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Walmgate Bar and Micklegate Bar below). These restricted traffic in medieval times, and were used to extract tolls, as well as being defensive positions in times of war. Besides the four main bars, there are two smaller bars.

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The Micklegate Bar is a four-storey-high gatehouse. The name comes from the Old Norse 'mykla gata' or 'great road' and was the traditional ceremonial gate for monarchs entering the city, who, in a tradition dating to Richard II in 1389, touch the state sword when entering the gate. At least six reigning monarchs passed through this gate. Its symbolic value led to traitors' severed heads being displayed on the defences. The lower section was built in the 12th century while the top storeys in the 14th.

The Micklegate Bar, York
The Micklegate Bar, York

Street Art

York is not the first city that you would associate with street art, but the city does in fact have a stunning selection of eye-catching murals throughout.

Many are works of public art, but we were also impressed by the works commissioned by the Brew York brewery at their central Walmgate taproom.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: One of our favourites pieces is a mural of a rare Tansy Beetle, painted in York by street artist ATM. It’s a painting which captures the beetle’s unique shimmering green hue. An endangered species, the beetle is found only on a 30km stretch of the River Ouse. ATM is an artist well known for his depiction of endangered species.

The Shambles

The Shambles is an old street with overhanging timber-framed buildings, some dating back as far as the fourteenth century. It was once known as The Great Flesh Shambles, with thirty-one butchers' shops located along the street in 1885. Historically, many small streets in York had a similar appearance to the Shambles, which is reminiscent of Harry Potter's Diagon Alley. However, the Shambles is the last survivor, and from the early-20th century, this had led to it becoming a tourist attraction.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: Look out for a number of the shops on the street which still have meat-hooks hanging outside and, below them, shelves on which meat was displayed.

York Army Museum

The York Army Museum displays the history of two current serving regiments of the British Army: The Royal Dragoon Guards and The Yorkshire Regiment. One cavalry, one infantry; each of these regiments can trace its history back over three hundred years. Both have a historic connection to Yorkshire and its people.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: The museum is privileged to be able to display the funeral sword of Captain Sir Tom Moore, which has been donated to the museum.

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Clifford's Tower

Clifford's Tower has sat at the heart of the city since the Norman Conquest, and over the years it's been a royal mint, a medieval stronghold and a garrison in the Civil Wars. In 1190, one of the worst anti-Semitic massacres of the Middle Ages took place on the site of the tower when York’s Jewish community were trapped there by a violent mob and many Jews chose to commit suicide rather than be murdered. Today, new walkways and staircases have opened up parts of the tower that have been off-limits for centuries.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: The new roof deck gives unrivalled views over York's historic skyline, with its medieval buildings and famous Minster.

Van Gogh – The Immersive Experience

The Van Gogh – The Immersive Experience is a temporary sound and light experience held within St. Mary's Church. This beautiful travelling exhibition combines the life story of Van Gogh with an in-depth immersion into the heart of his art.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: There is also a VR Experience which is in addition to the entrance fee.

Brew York Brewery Tour

If you are interested in craft beer, then the tour of Brew York’s facility at Walmgate, is a must. We were guided by James, who gave an excellent presentation on how beer is made and how Brew York manage to create a wide variety of interesting and flavourful beers. You even get 4 tasters of their own beers during the tours, which are conducted every Friday and Saturday afternoon.

Brew York was founded in 2016 by friends Wayne Smith and Lee Grabham and the brewery has become well-known for their quirky and playful approach to brewing, done with passion and attention to detail. The tour is conducted in their original brewery, just five-minutes' walk from the city centre in Walmgate. The main brewery is now sited in Handley Park on the outskirts of York.

Tailor-Made Top Tip: After the tour, relax in the Tap Room and Beer Hall with a drink, or sit out in the riverside garden.

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Real Ales!

Carrying on the beer-theme, we were delighted to find that York city centre has a wide variety of excellent bars serving real ales. Many of these traditional-style pubs are historical attractions in their own right, such as The Guy Fawkes Inn, which was the birthplace of the infamous gun-powder plot conspirator in 1570, and Ye Olde Starre Inne, set back off the Stonegate street (look out for the sign spanning the thoroughfare), which is probably York’s oldest surviving pub, having been established in 1644.

The Guy Fawkes Inn, York
The Guy Fawkes Inn

Then there is the House of Trembling Madness, which is also on Stonegate, and is known for its great beer and quirky taxidermy animal collection, all housed within a Norman house dating back to 1180AD. Stonegate continues to deliver, with The Punch Bowl, and leads on to the Lendal Cellars, just at the side of the Mansion House. There is also a collection of pubs around The Shambles, such as the Shambles Tavern, The Market Cat, The Blue Bell and the Fossgate Tap. Doing historical research has never been so much fun!

Tailor-Made Top Tip: York is a favourite for stag and hen dos, so if you want a more peaceful time ‘researching’ the city’s historic public houses, then we’d suggest visiting them from Sunday to Thursday.

Shambles Market & Parliament Street

The Shambles Market is a daily market held in the city centre of York. The market has 86 stalls and seven kiosks, with most of the kiosks selling food. Until 1955 the city's main markets were in Parliament Street and St Sampson's Square.

Shambles Market, York
Shambles Market, York

Parliament Street is a major shopping street in the city centre of York, and it is also used to host a variety of festivals and temporary markets.

Parliament Street, York
Parliament Street, York

Where to Eat

York city centre has ample options of places to eat, ranging from fine dining to hearty pub grub to late night takeaway meals. During our stay, we had excellent brunches at the Windmill Inn and SOPHiE (which has lovely views over the Ouse), pub grub at the Guy Fawkes Inn (the steak pie is to die for!) and YUZU street food at the Brew York taproom (a perfect combination with the beer), as well as a perfect Italian meal at La Vecchia Scuola.

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York’s stunning history is evident in the buildings and roads that surround you as you walk through this interesting and engaging city. An ideal destination for a weekend or longer, as well as being a perfect base from which to explore the beautiful countryside of North Yorkshire, York should be a must for every visitor to the UK. This post only scratches the surface and there are many other great attractions to discover in York, such as the Jorvik Centre, the York Castle Museum, Dig: An Archaeological Adventure, Treasurer’s House, the Yorkshire Museum, Fairfax House, and the Merchant Adventurers Hall.

Comment below and let us know what your favourite place was to visit in York.

Don’t forget that Tailor-Made Itineraries delights in creating bespoke self-guided tours. So, if visiting York appeals to you, reach out to me by email. I would be more than happy to design a self-guided tour around your requirements incorporating the historic city of York, or indeed, a general tour of the UK.

Tailor-Made Itineraries posts every two weeks, and you can subscribe to the latest blog and newsletter here. Until then, happy reading and safe travels.


Tailor-Made Itineraries creates one-of-a-kind bespoke self-guided travel itineraries for adventurous and curious travellers.

These self-guided tours deliver a personalised and exciting holiday experience that takes the effort out of trip planning.

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