Top 10 Things to do in York for history lovers

Mel standing in front of the ruins of St Mary's Abbey in York - pinterest image

The ancient city of York offers a fascinating collection of historic as well as beautiful sites within its formidable walls.  

Its rich history goes back all the way to Roman times and was the Northern most city in the Empire. From the Romans right through to the Viking and Norman periods, the city has had many incarnations which makes it such a hot spot for history lovers!  

Packed with blockbuster sites and scattered with relics and ruins – it’s a must-see city and a fantastic weekender to boot. If you love city breaks as much as your history, this one’s for you! Here are the top 10 things to do in York for history lovers.

Top things to do in York for history lovers

1) Visit Clifford’s Tower

Standing proud on a high mound, Clifford’s Tower is part of the remains of York Castle. It was originally built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century but burned down in 1190. King Henry III then rebuilt it in the 13th century in stone which included the impressive Clifford’s Tower.

It’s a hugely important historic site and has played a central role in the city of York for over 1000 years. With unrivalled panoramic views over Old York, it’s also the perfect place to start when visiting the city.  

Beige medieval castle building on top of a green hill at night time

2) Go shopping down The Shambles

Arguably the best-preserved medieval street in the world. The Shambles was made for window shopping, people watching and strolling.  

Originally a meat market known as ‘The Great Flesh Shambles’, it is now home to a row of sweet and gift shops including several that are Harry Potter themed.

Many of the buildings on the street date back to the 14th and 15th centuries with the street itself so historic it was referred to in the Doomsday Book of William the Conqueror in 1086!

Medieval main street in York, UK with brown facades, windows and signs

3) Go walking along the York City Walls

You don’t need to take a tour or even pay to see this historic place.

York has been defended by walls since Roman times and continued to be repaired and strengthened throughout the city’s incarnations. Originally built in 71AD, substantial portions of the walls still remain today with more miles in tact that any other city in England.  

Along the walls you’ll find four gateways into the city. But make sure to stop off at Micklegate Bar which is the grandest of them all! Also known as ‘Traitors Bar’ this was the main entrance into the city. The heads of the Kingdom’s traitors would be placed on spikes here including Richard Duke of York in 1460.  

The walls themselves have a fascinating history but they’re also an awesome way of getting a great view of York.  

Mel sat on a step on the York, Roman city walls as the sun sets.

4) Visit the Jorvik Viking Centre

Many kids who grew up in the North of England will no doubt remember visiting the Jorvik Viking Centre at school. But if you didn’t, you’re in for a treat!  

York’s Jorvik Viking Centre is a really fun and interactive way to learn more about how the Vikings lived. 

Through animatronic mannequins and life-size displays, the attraction takes you on a literal ride through the daily lives of Vikings. There’s also a great museum filled with archeological treasures from the Viking period at the end – including skeletons! 

Male viking dummy holding a spear and a chain with a wolf attached to it at the Jorvik Viking Centre in York

5) Go see York Minster

I’m in no way religious but even for those like myself who aren’t will appreciate the grandeur of York Minster.  

This exquisite, handcrafted stone church has been at the centre of Christianity in the North of England since the 7th century. It still remains a working church today.

From the medieval stained-glass windows to the exterior gothic gargoyles, York Minister is a sight to behold for history-lovers.

Outside York Minster, a grand cathedral against a blue sky in York, UK

6) Explore the Roman fort of Eboracum

Located in the York Museum Gardens, the remains of a Roman fort including a tower have unbelievably survived! 

The Roman fort of Eboracum was originally built as a fortress against enemy invasion. Later it became a city all its own whilst Britain was occupied by the Romans. In its hey-day it was the largest town in northern Britain and even became the capital. 

After the decline of the Roman Empire, the fort remained occupied and ultimately evolved into modern-day York. 

The Roman fort of Eboracum is a really cool slice of York’s heritage. It’s also a great way to experience history without being on the other side of a pane of glass in a museum!

Mel in front of the Roman ruins in York Museum Gardens, York, UK

7) Visit Barley Hall

Barley Hall is a real hidden gem in York. Not only because of its incredible historical significance but because its medieval structure was actually hidden behind a modern façade until 1984!  

Locals had long known that there was a medieval building in the location. But it wasn’t until the site was sold for redevelopment that the extent of the medieval structure became clear. 

The timbers of the building were tree-ring dated with fascinating results. With some parts of the hall dating all the way back to 1360! 

The York Archaeological Trust purchased the property in 1987 and began restoration work. Now open to the public, it’s a great exploration of York’s medieval past for history-lovers.

Outside Barley Hall, a medieval building in the centre of York, UK

8) Visit St Mary’s Abby

I discovered St Mary’s Abbey quite by chance when I went to York for the first time. York has historic ruins scattered all over the city. I literally followed a path of ruins from the city walls to see what I would find. And what a cool find indeed!  

This beautiful fallen Abbey was established in 1088 and was once the richest Abbey in Northern England. Unfortunately it was destroyed during Henry VIII’s reign when he broke from Rome to marry Anne Boleyn. Awks as we know how that one panned out!

But despite the damage, it remains part of our history. I actually think it makes it even more interesting than if it was still standing today!  

St Mary's Abbey York ruins beige arch and green grass

9) Go on a ghost tour

Sit atop a ghoulishly converted double-decker bus as the lights flicker and the sound of footsteps slowly creep closer.

There are a few different bus tours that you can take in York but The Ghost Bus Tour is by far my favourite! You’ll get to see all of York’s top attractions, including: Clifford’s Tower, York Minster, The Shambles and Dick Turin’s Grave. All whilst learning about their ghoulish history with many of the main players refusing to cross over… 

It‘s the UK’s only comedy-horror theatre show on wheels and honestly was one of the most fun things I did in York! It brings history to life through a live show and some of the best ghost stories that the history books left out.  

Mel sat on a dark bus at night smiling next to a glowing light wearing a red scarf and wooly hat

10) Visit the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall

If you think you’ll enjoy the likes of Barley Hall and The Shambles, you’ll love The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall! It’s the largest timber-framed building in the UK still standing and still used for its original purpose.  

The majority of the Hall was built in 1357 to house a religious fraternity and was granted a royal charter by King Henry VI in 1430.  

The Merchant Adventurers’ Hall is still regularly used by The Company of Merchant Adventurers of the City of York, who, although no longer use the hall for trade activities are prominent in York and still exist as a charitable membership group.  

The fact that this Grade I listed building has survived is a feat in itself but it also houses a beautiful art and antiques collection that has been passed down through the generations of traders.  

Inside the Merchant Adventurers' Hall in York with medieval wooden beams and wood flooring

Have you ever been to York? Is there anything you would add to this list of top things to do in York for history lovers? Let me know in the comments below 😄

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