In this article of our winter travel series, we invited our fellow blogger Annabel Kirk owner of Smudged Poscard to present the best things to do in York in Winter. We are completely convinced, what about you?
The city of York in the north of England is a brilliant place to visit at any time of year – there is so much history and culture to explore. It is a speedy 2.5 hours direct from London by train, so it is perfect for a weekend break from the capital, although there’s enough to see and do in York to keep you there for longer.
York is perhaps most famous for its Gothic cathedral, which is also known as York Minster. This towering edifice has watched over the city since the 15th century. But York’s history dates back many hundreds of years earlier – Vikings once ruled the city a thousand years ago, and prior to that, there are clear remains of Roman and Anglo Saxon settlements.
York has some excellent museums where visitors can learn more about its incredible past. Still, the city’s streets are also packed with plenty of attractions to keep those interested in present-day entertainment. As well as the ubiquitous chain restaurants, York has a particularly good range of independent eateries and enough pubs to keep the whole of the UK well watered.
If shopping is your thing, you will be spoilt for choice in York – and wintertime heralds the start of some epic sales – there are plenty of bargains to be had in January when the shops unload their old stock.
Why visit York in winter
If you visit York in winter, you are in for a real treat. The city has a magical feel at Christmas time – the streets are incredibly festive with Christmas markets selling seasonal food and drink. There are plenty of indoor attractions for all ages in York, so you should not let the winter weather put you off visiting this incredible city. Indulge your taste buds at the chocolate museum, scare yourself silly in the York Dungeons or take to an old-fashioned bus for a ghost tour of the city – there are more than enough places to shelter from any inclement weather.
York is a brilliant city for foodies – there is a wealth of independent restaurants and pubs in the city, and the latter feel particularly cozy in the colder winter months with roaring log fires and real ales on tap. Although York is undoubtedly chilly in winter, the city’s narrow winding streets are particularly enjoyable to explore when the shops are lit up, and the store windows are filled with festive gifts and treats.
York lends itself well to a Christmas city break, and the suggestions which follow are particularly good fun in wintertime.
11 fun things to do in York, UK in winter
#1 Take a ghost tour
Billed as one of the most haunted cities in Europe, York is perfect for anyone interested in ghosts and ghouls. There are walking tours of the city and also tours aboard a traditional 1960s Routemaster bus. The latter might be preferable if it is particularly cold during your visit. However, wandering the medieval streets on foot after dark when the mist has descended is likely to be quite an exciting evening.
#2 Warm-up in Betty’s Team Room
Escape the chilly weather and head to the most famous destination in York for a cup of tea. Betty’s Team Room has been serving the perfect cuppa for over 80 years. Expect a great range of cakes and scones, too, along with seasonal fare such as Christmas cake, perfect fuel on a winter’s sightseeing trip.
Betty’s is a great place to stock up on traditional and authentic British gifts and souvenirs. There is a brilliant range of gift boxes of teas, biscuits, and chocolates – ideal if you are looking for Christmas present ideas.
#3 Discover York’s Viking past
If the cold winter weather is against you, head indoors to the famous Jorvik Centre – York’s most popular attraction (booking essential), and of of the best things to do in York with kids. York was home to a Viking settlement some 1,000 years ago. In the 1970s, archaeologists uncovered the remains of houses and workshops which are now recreated for visitors to explore.
This is a museum with a difference, and it is perfect for visitors of all ages, particularly children. There are no dusty cases or boring information boards at Jorvik. Instead, visitors are taken on a small carriage tour through York’s fascinating Viking history with lifelike waxwork figures and recreated scenes from Viking life. Famously, the experience not only offers a glimpse of what Viking York looked like but also how it sounded and how it smelled!
#4 Take in some festive carol singing in York Minster
Gothic York Minster is a fantastic cathedral to visit at any time of year but visiting at Christmas and listening to the choir sing carols is a particularly special experience. The vast nave fills with the sound of festive voices – it is a moving experience even for non-Christians.
#4 Enjoy St Nicholas Fair and the York Christmas Markets
York really knows how to celebrate Christmas. Usually starting in November and running through December, the St Nicholas Fair includes a Christmas market, an ice rink, and a Santa’s grotto, among other festive delights.
Given York’s Viking links, the Christmas market has a definite Scandinavian feel with stalls located throughout the city. Expect plenty of warming drinks – mulled wine, hot chocolate, and the like plus delicious snacks and lots of arts and crafts stalls to explore.
#5 Explore the narrow winding streets of the Shambles
York’s most famous medieval street – the Shambles – is particularly lovely in winter with festive displays in the shop windows and shoppers thronging the narrow thoroughfare.
Said to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter books, you will find quite a few wizarding shops along the Shambles, including The Shop That Must Not be Named and The Potions Cauldron. If you’re looking for things to do in York with kids, the Shambles is an essential stop on your travels.
There are many shops selling locally made gifts, and anyone with a sweet tooth will enjoy the traditional offerings at the Shambles Sweet Shop and the artisan chocolates at Monk Bar Chocolatiers.
#7 Enjoy a pantomime at one of York’s theatres
Winter in the UK sees all the nation’s theatres given over to pantomimes. This very British tradition can be found at several of York’s theatres. The pantomime usually attracts some big-name television stars and the show appeals to people of all ages.
There is always a hero and a villain, plus lots of jokes (both child and adult humor), singing and dancing along with a little bit of audience participation. Shows usually run throughout December and into early January.
#8 Walk York’s city walls
To warm up and enjoy a bit of exercise, nothing beats circumnavigating York via its medieval walls. Encircling the city center for 3.5km, the walls offer an elevated pathway with great views over York, particularly the Minster. There are plenty of places to clamber down if you need refreshments.
#9 Learn about York’s chocolate past
If you are visiting York with kids, ensure you find time to visit the York Chocolate Story. The chocolate makers Rowntree and Terry’s opened factories in the city in the 20th century, and this visitor attraction charts the history of chocolate making over the last 100 years. There is usually a Christmas theme during winter – perfect for chocoholics of all ages! Where better to stock up on some warming hot chocolate?
#10 Visit the National Railway Museum
The National Railway Museum can easily swallow a whole day of your holiday, perfect if you visit York in particularly cold winter weather. This epic museum contains some of the most iconic engines in railway history (and one or two replicas) – Stephenson’s Rocket, the Mallard, the Eurostar, and a Japanese bullet train, to name just a few.
The museum offers plenty of family-friendly attractions, and there are a couple of cafes where you can enjoy lunch. The museum is located next to the actual city railway station.
Take an alternative history tour of York via the city’s dungeons
The York Dungeons offer a gruesome take on the city’s history. Covering the Vikings, the plague, and plenty of blood and guts, this exhibition is not for the faint-hearted! The Dungeons have live shows with live actors playing the parts of some of York’s most notorious historical characters, including Guy Fawkes, highwayman Dick Turpin, and some particularly unpleasant Vikings.
Where to stay in York
Luxury: The Grand York
The only 5-star hotel in York, the Grand offers luxurious rooms and a good range of facilities. Families are not forgotten with special experiences for little ones and rooms sleeping up to four guests. The hotel has a spa and a pool, plus it is well located midway between the station and the river. Check for yourself and book here!
Character: Guy Fawkes Inn
You cannot beat this medieval pub with rooms for a characterful stay right in the heart of the city. Guy Fawkes was born in this very building over 400 years ago. The inn is right next to York Minster, and it has its own atmospheric bar and restaurant. Book here.
Budget: Safestay York
This hostel is set in a beautiful Georgian building in a good location close to the main tourist sites and not far from the train station. The hostel has en-suite doubles, family rooms, and dorms. Check prices and reviews here!
There is an excellent choice of accommodation in York bookable through Airbnb. If you are visiting with kids, Airbnb has some well-located apartments which are perfect for families.
About the author
After 10 years working in the travel industry selling and marketing holidays across the globe, Annabel decided to set up the Smudged Postcard blog to share her knowledge of family travel. The blog features adventure and cultural travel ideas with a focus on road trips and sustainable accommodation. Based in the UK, Annabel writes about where to travel in the British Isles with kids along with plenty of ideas for European holidays, with Italy being a particular focus.
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