In York, crumbling city walls encircle narrow, dimly-lit streets where the businesses revel in nostalgic names plucked from a forgotten past, such as Ye Olde Pie and Sausage Shoppe, Ye Old Shambles Tavern, and HMV.
Ask any Brit if they’ve been to York, and the chances are they have, when they were a kid. Given how jam-packed it is with museums, it’s easy to see why this is quite possibly England’s school trip capital. But what’s it like as a city break for an adult? I made the very easy train ride from London to find out.
York is packed with inns, and I guess the Premier Inn sort of counts as one of them. After getting off the train we headed straight for the Blossom Street South branch (just a five-minute walk away) to ditch our bags before heading for an early lunch at a place I’d been eager to visit for a long time: The York Roast Co. Here, the star turn is their Yorkshire pudding wraps, which they cram full of veg, stuffing, gravy and your chosen meat (in our case, turkey). This sublime snack had us stuffed.
Slightly worried that York had already peaked too soon, we ambled our way round to The Shambles, the time-capsule network of alleyways, where top-heavy buildings teeter over the heads of the shoulder-to-shoulder tourists below. Among our shopping highlights were The Nutcracker Christmas Shop (need an emergency tree bauble in mid-August? – this is the place for you!) and a Game of Thrones themed-shop (where I picked up some Super Mario merch in what, sadly, appeared to be a closing down sale). Other nearby shops definitely worth checking out were Travelling Man (a fantastic comic book shop) and Rafi’s Spicebox (a great concept store offering cooking packs for curry fans). We later found out about a frankly incredible-sounding Ghost Merchants which we didn’t have time to go back and visit, but goes straight to the top of our list for next time.
Still eager to rescue our turkey-filled tummies, we decided to get some proper exercise and walk the city walls. York may be a small place, but the trek round its circumference is longer than expected and took us close to a couple of hours to complete. Still, it’s worth it, especially on a clear day like this one where you can gaze way over the city (and, admittedly, over a Waitrose car park and numerous building sites). The wall is punctuated by a number of ‘bars’ (not the drinky kind), each of which provides a handy (free) route to the top, meaning you’re never far from a way up (or down) no matter where you are in the city.
Our yorky puds successfully walked off, it was rumbly tummy time again, so we took a chance on Wheldrakes, one of the city’s many friendly old-school cafes. Here, we ordered cream teas and squabbled over the jam-and-cream pecking order on our fruit scones (everyone knows it’s jam first for the win).
With evening creeping up on us we had just enough time to squeeze in an hour at the National Railway Museum before it closed, and we were very glad we did.
Now, bear in mind I’m not a big train guy. Don’t get me wrong, a comfortable train journey can be great, but I’ve had way too many experiences of being plonked at a table seat against my will and having to spend six hours staring into the cold, dead eyes of a stranger. Unhealthy associations aside, I can honestly say this is one of the best museums I’ve ever been in. They have old trains, new trains, big trains, small trains, and even a selection of trains used by royalty, with requisite velvet covering every surface (royals love a bit of velvet, for some reason). Apparently, given what was on show here, some trains of the past even came with a bit of leg room.
All trained out, it was off to dinner at Source, a homely-but-modern restaurant offering plentiful vegan options alongside tray-loads of slow-cooked meat. Eyes too big for our bellies as always, we started with the fish tacos (beware: they’re delicious, but big for a starter) before trying out the brisket and pulled pork trays. If you have an appetite for big portions and inventive twists on pub classics, you’ll love it here. Possibly best not to pile it all on top of yorkshire puddings and scones as we did, though.
Still able to move – but it was touch and go – we finished the night with a floodlit evening cruise from City Cruises York. For £14 a head, they’ll take you up and down the river a couple of times, and chuck in a hot chocolate or prosecco. The drop-off (and pick-up) is at King’s Staith Landing, which as it turned out was mercifully close to our hotel.
Apparently, York Minster has itself some nice gardens, which we’d planned to visit after breakfast, but a monumental downpour put paid to that idea. So instead, we went into the Minster itself for a nosey around. At £23 for two adults (plus the £10 extra we spent on an interesting-but-way-too-long crypt and passages tour) it’s not cheap, and I’m tempted to go further than that and say unless you’re a history or religion buff it’s just plain not worth it – but hey, you can’t visit York without hitting up the Minster, right?
History by now seeping from our ears, we hatched a plan to follow a friend’s recommendations and check out one of the two branches of Betty’s Tea Rooms. Unfortunately, we can only assume that friend had given the same recommendation to the entire population of York, because both locations had queues snaking out of their doors and onto the street. Popular places, it would seem. So instead we took shelter from the rain in Madhatter’s Coffee and Cakes, a hidden gem located above the Stonegate Teddy Bear Shop. Here, you can take your pick from gigantic cakes and fancy teas, so we did. I tucked into a chocolate orange brownie, snaffled a taste of white chocolate and coconut sponge cake, and also sampled the chocolate and mint flavour tea. If you can squeeze it in, and you have a sweet tooth, it’s worth discovering.
At this point we had planned to check out Clifford’s Tower, but with the downpour morphing into a full-on thunderstorm, we switched to Plan B: the Yorkshire Museum, and its Jurassic World dinosaur exhibition (£8 per adult with Gift Aid). An important thing to note about the dinosaur exhibition (and, to their credit, the staff were very eager to point this out when we bought our tickets) is that there are no actual dinosaurs in it. The Natural History Museum it’s not. What you do get is a clever CGI and VR-enhanced canter through prehistoric times, the highlight of which is the chance to strap on a headset and feel a bit silly as you try to feed a long-extinct sauropod. There are also some cool aquatic fossils that you can bring to life using augmented reality and a tablet. Beyond that there’s not a huge amount for adults, but the museum has been planned with kids in mind and the ones we saw certainly seemed to be lapping it up.
After that we enjoyed an early dinner at Cut & Chase where, luckily, we were able to take advantage of their very generous Wednesday night steak deal (for £30 in total you get two sirloin steaks with various sides, plus a bottle of house wine). We both wolfed down our steaks, which were juicy, perfectly cooked and served with a smile. Much like P-Diddy might have done, we threw in some extra green for peppercorn sauce, plus sticky toffee pudding for afters. It’s what Biggy would have wanted.
Next up was my personal highlight: a tour of the city’s eeriest corners, with Shadows of York Ghost Tours. As you might expect of a place like York, there are loads of ghost tour companies fighting it out for your attention, and when you explore the city their signs and flyers are everywhere. Choosing the right one for us wasn’t easy, but we knew very clearly what we didn’t want: actors in crappy masks jumping out at us and shouting ‘BOO!’ (having previously experienced this on an Edinburgh ghost walk, we were strongly of the opinion that it kills both the atmosphere and the tour’s credibility). Shadows of York didn’t go in for any of that nonsense, and the guide, Mackenzie, provided a tour that was spooky and informative, but also friendly and fun. Whether you’re a believer or not, I’d highly recommend Shadows of York for a night-time insight into the creepier side of York’s past.
Not quite done with the paranormal yet, we finished our evening (and trip) with a spooky pint in the Guy Fawkes Inn, a wonderfully atmospheric little pub with a history of things going bump in the night. Don’t get scared now.
Premier Inn York City (Blossom Street South)
Nutcracker Christmas Shop
Shop of Thrones
Rafi’s Spice Box
The York Ghost Merchants
York City Walls
National Railway Museum
City Cruises York – Floodlit Evening Cruise
York Minster – Crypt and Passages Tour
Stonegate Teddy Bear Shop
Yorkshire Museum – Jurassic World Exhibition
Shadows of York Ghost Tours
York trip: 27-28 August 2019