York might be our favourite city in England. And with a lot of the historic centre pedestrian-only, it doesn’t feel like a big modern city. If you are looking for a place that is quintessentially historic England then you must visit York. Many people visit England and don’t make it much further north than London. I have also seen people suggest stopping for a few hours in York on the drive north to Scotland. In my opinion this doesn’t do York justice at all. If it is your first visit then at least stay one night to fully explore York!
If you are looking for somewhere to teach your children about Romans and Vikings, archaeology and medieval architecture, Kings and Queens, the Tudors and lots more, then York is the perfect destination. There are so many attractions that teach history in a fun, engaging and interactive way. Leaving kids and adults with a thirst to learn more.
The Romans founded York in 71 AD. The Emperors Hadrian, Septimius Severus and Constantius I, all held court in York during their various campaigns. York is a city steeped in history. Founded by the Romans, invaded by the Vikings, Norman William the Conqueror marched on York in 1068. If you want to learn your British history the medieval streets of York are the place to do it.
Jorvik Viking Museum
Probably our favourite attraction in York, the Jorvik Viking Centre is a great way to learn about life in Viking times. We visited in 2013 years ago when L was 5. The museum was severely damaged by flooding in 2015. Thankfully many artifacts were saved and eventually the Centre reopened in 2017.
Tickets aren’t cheap, but like many places in England the admission is valid for one-year. If you are in the area for long enough you can enjoy a second or third visit. This works well at the Viking Centre where the main attraction for kids is the 16 minute ride through a re-created Viking street. On our first visit we spent a long time looking at the exhibits. The 2nd and 3rd time we whizzed through to have another ride and soak in all the details. A good time to do this is at the end of the day, when most of the tourists have left and there are no lines.
The first area upon entry is Discover Coppergate. Glass floors show you what the street looks like underneath. The exhibits tell the story of how archaeologists pieced together the story of the Vikings from their incredible finds.
Visit the Viking Age
Next you hop into your ‘time capsule’ and travel back to 10th Century to York. This ride shows you the sights, sounds and even smells of the city 1000 years ago. There is adult or children’s commentary which makes it more fun and easy going for the kids. As you pass through recreated shops, homes and the shipyard, stories are told of the different types of settlers and traders that lived there.
A really interesting point to note is that each of the ‘characters’ are recreated from actual skeletons found during the archaeological dig. Using the bone size and structure, they recreate the features of each person. If you think too hard about this during the ‘time travel’ it can feel a little bit creepy. The characters are so real and sometimes seem like they are looking right at you!
There is so much to learn at Jorvik. Yet kids don’t get bored as everything is made interactive and interesting. In the final gallery area, guides are dressed up and know just how to engage children in a fun and interesting way.
Worldschool in York from Romans to Vikings
We visited Yorvik both before and after our 3 months in Europe. After we’d visited Portugal we had learned a lot about shipping and the movement of people to different lands. We’d covered the Romans in depth over several months. Of course the same principles of archaeology, of studying ruins and remains, to learn about how people lived, what they ate, what they wore, how they spent their leisure time, apply to Vikings as they do to Romans and other peoples. This layering of learning was really starting to sink in with L who had by now developed an absolute passion for history. This was fuelled by the discovery of the Horrible Histories series of books. If you haven’t introduced your kids to these books yet you must try them. Something to tempt even the most reluctant readers.
Explore York with Jorvik Pastport
If you have a couple of days to explore York, (or one big day), then I highly recommend upgrading your Jorvik Viking Centre ticket to a Pastport. This gives you 12 months of entry to 5 historic attractions. It also includes Fast Track admission at the Viking Centre which is very useful during peak season. The 5 attractions are: Jorvik Viking Centre, DIG a hands on archaeological attraction, Barley Hall a medieval townhouse, and the Richard III and Henry the VII experiences. We visited them all over 2 days and returned to the Viking Centre multiple times!
The Pastport, combined with English Heritage membership and Alnwick Castle tickets, meant we had hundreds of day trips and endless history lessons within easy access from our base in the North East of England.
York City Walls
The city of York has been defended by walls in some form, since Roman times. Very little of the walls from Roman times exist today. Being added to, altered, repaired and rebuilt over the centuries. However, York has more miles of intact walls than any other English city. There are also 4 main gatehouses (known as bars), these were used to restrict traffic in medieval times. Also as tollgates and as defensive positions during war time.
Monk Bar is one of the most impressive and today contains a small museum, the Richard III Experience at Monk Bar. It is also very interesting to see the working portcullis at Monk Bar.
Micklegate Bar has a gruesome history. With the dubious honour of being the place where the severed heads of traitors were displayed. Today it houses the Henry VII Experience at Micklegate Bar. Both the small museums inside the bars are well worth visiting. They had children’s activities when we visited. The Jorvik Pastport includes admission to both museums.
York’s hidden medieval townhouse. Until the 1980s the building was covered by a relatively modern façade. Only when it was about to be destroyed was the original structure and its amazing history uncovered. Beautifully restored, the hall was opened to the public in 1993. It is a fantastic example of a medieval townhouse, the oldest parts of which date back to 1360.
For visitors the hall is furnished and decorated as it would have been in 1430. When we visited there was an exhibition of Magic and Mystery. L and S spent a long time with all the interactive displays learning about wizards, witchcraft and ancient remedies.
A new attraction since our previous visits to York, we headed to DIG to learn even more about archeology. At DIG kids get the chance to become real life archaeologists. Starting off with a briefing we were then taken to an area with recreations of actual excavations done in York. Digging through the synthetic sand we could discover bones, shells, and pottery.
The guide encouraged us to consider what these remains told us about who lived here, what that ate, what their houses were like. It was made fun for kids with things like the discovery of a old ‘toilet’. Each of the four digging pits covered a different period in history: Romans, Viking, Medieval and Victorian.
After the DIG we did an activity called Touch History, where we were able to handle actual archaeological finds from previous digs. We had a challenge trying to categorise the different bones and fragments of leather or pottery.
Clifford’s Tower York
William the Conqueror built York Castle in 1068-9. Clifford’s tower is almost all that remains. The wooden tower was destroyed by fire in 1190, when York’s Jewish community, around 150 people, was besieged here by a mob and committed mass suicide.
The stone tower was built in 1245-72. The interior of the tower was destroyed in an explosion in 1684 leaving the stone framework. As the rest of the castle’s stonework was replaced in the 1800s there is little remaining from medieval times except the tower. You can read about the full history of the tower here.
If intense history is not your thing, you can still visit the tower for excellent views of York, the city and the Minster.
Free things to do in York
York is a very walkable city and there is plenty to see without spending money. Head for historic streets such as The Shambles, walk the walls and explore the park outside the York Minster. Everywhere you turn there is a little lane or side street to turn down while you explore York. A huge part of York’s charm is places like this – the lane leading to Barley Hall.
Other Free Attractions in York:
- The National Railway Museum
- Free walking tours with the Association of Voluntary Guides
- Explore York Market
- Visit Rowntree Park
I never get tired of a wander up the shambles. Except maybe in the high tourist season where you will fight elbow to elbow to make your way through the crowds. If you must visit in summer go out early! Was The Shambles the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter? Rumour says so. On our most recent visit I noticed several Harry Potter merchandise shops have opened and the street is now even busier (if that were possible). This can be irritating for those that are interested in the truly fascinating medieval history of this street. But if telling your kids that this is a ‘Harry Potter street’ gets them enthused about medieval architecture, then why not?!
One feature you will notice is the overhanging buildings, where the upper floors are wider than the lower. The reason for this is when they were built (1300-1400s) residents paid taxes on the size of the ground floor. They squeezed a little tax free space into the upper floors. Tax evasion a thing in medieval times too!
The name Shambles comes from the name for the shelves that butchers used to display their meat on. The Shambles was originally a street of butchers. Today you can see some meat hooks and some shops still have the wide shelves at their windows. In the 1870s there were still 25 butchers on this street, but none remain today.
Eating in York
A visit to Betty’s tearooms is a classic York experience that shouldn’t be missed. Great for breakfast, lunch or a Yorkshire Cream Tea. They also have a good children’s menu.
For good quality, affordable meals in the UK we like the Café Rouge chain of restaurants. The York Café Rouge restaurant in Low Petergate is a favourite for its lovely atmosphere in a Grade II listed building. Good for classic French dishes like Beef Bourguignon and great kids options.
For an English pub meal you can visit the birth place of Guy Fawkes at the Guy Fawkes Inn. A dark and atmospheric, medieval inn very close to the York Minster.
Budget Accommodation in York
There are lots of lovely hotels in York as well as endless Bed and Breakfasts, but for families on a budget we think the Travel Lodge and Premier Inn chains across the UK are very good value. They have good family room options with extra pull out beds and often have deals for kids staying or eating free. Many have excellent city centre locations. The Premier Inn is generally considered a superior option and is more expensive, but recently Travel Lodges have had huge makeovers and have introduced Plus rooms which are very comfortable and modern. We’ve stayed at both Travelodges in the city and they make a great base to explore York.