Nestling in the embrace of York’s miraculously preserved wall is one of the great medieval town centers of Europe. You can walk the wall itself and then descend to the winding streets including the narrow Snickelways and the Shambles, now considerably cleaned up since the days when its rivers of blood and offal made it a synonym for chaotic mess.
York offers architectural marvels at every turn, the most impressive being the enormous York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, renowned for its outstanding stained glass. Climb the tower for an unparalleled view of the city.
Elsewhere, York's days as a Viking stronghold are brought to life in Jorvik, a reconstructed village. Other must-see sites are the Norman fortifications of Clifford’s Tower, the medieval Merchant Adventurers’ guild hall and the gruesome thrills of York Dungeon, which recreates some of the most violent episodes of the city's history.
The last vestige of York Castle, Clifford's Tower is now one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, perched on a grassy mound overlooking the River Ouse. Although the castle was originally built by William the Conqueror in 1069, the present-day tower was erected between 1245 and 1265 by Henry III when the fortress was rebuilt in stone and has served numerous purposes throughout its long history. Used over the years as a royal mint, a prison and an execution ground, the tower takes its name from Roger de Clifford, who was executed for treason by Edward II and hanged in chains from the tower walls.
Today, climbing the 55 steps to the top of the mound is a popular pastime among visitors to the city and walking along the tower ramparts affords expansive panoramic views over York.
With over 1,000 acres of landscaped flower gardens, boating lakes and scenic woodlands, and a grand baroque façade that appears more like a royal palace than a country home, Castle Howard is one of England’s most undeniably beautiful estates. Built in the 17th-century for Charles Howard, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle, much of the castle’s striking design was the work of architect John Vanbrugh and the stately home, with its central domed cupola, sculpted pilasters and elaborate frescos, took over 100 years to complete.
Today the palatial building is open to the public by guided tour and exploring the interiors unveils a trove of period décor, antique furnishings and fine china. A notable highlight is the castle’s vast art collection, including paintings by Van Dyke, Rubens, Tintoretto, Canaletto and Reynolds; a portrait of Henry VIII; and an array of personal works by the 9th Earl of Carlisle.
As the name implies, York’s Merchant Adventurers were merchants. They traded along the English coast, northern Europe and sometimes as far as the Baltic and Iceland, bringing back an assortment of desired goods to York. The city was an important river port and the wealthiest city in Northern England, second only to London for most of the Middle Ages, allowing the merchants to make enough money to build the Hall between 1357 and 1361.
It was ahead of the time, built before craft or trade guild halls were common in Britain. There are three rooms in the Hall, and each served a specific purpose. Business and social gatherings took place in the Great Hall, the Undercroft served as an almshouse caring for the sick and poor, and religious events were conducted in the Chapel. The Hall has a number of collections; everything from paintings, to furniture and silver. The Company of Merchant Adventurers still use the Hall for meetings and events and hold services in the Chapel.
Regarded as one of England’s most impressive Georgian town houses, Fairfax House dates back to 1762 and takes its name from Charles Gregory, the 9th Viscount Fairfax of Emley, who acquired the property in 1759. After a short-lived incarnation as a gentlemen’s club and cinema, Fairfax House was bought and renovated by the York Civic Trust, reopening in 1984 as a house museum, showcasing a fine collection of period furnishings and antiques.
Today, the museum displays the Noel Terry Collection of Georgian furniture, but it’s the painstakingly restored interiors that earn the most acclaim. Designed by Yorkshire architect John Carr, the house is a masterpiece of Georgian style, adorned with elaborate wrought ironwork, intricate woodcarvings and striking stucco ceilings. Highlights include the exquisite Great Staircase, the grand Venetian Window, furnishings including one of the houses’ original four-poster beds and a selection of 18th Century paintings.
Go back in time and learn about the Viking history of York at the Jorvik Viking Centre. The museum is actually built on the site of a famous archeological dig uncovered more than three decades ago. Buried under eight tons of dirt, archaeologists found the remarkably preserved Viking city of Jorvik as it was 1,000 years ago. Along with houses, and workshops they uncovered more than 40-thousand artifacts. Rare objects made of wood and leather; objects that normally do not survive over time, were un-earthed in great condition. The moist-oxygen free soil is credited with helping to preserve the artifacts.
Visitors can explore the reconstruction of the Viking streets, seeing how they would have looked so long ago. Built by the York Archaeological Trust, the goal was to recreate the Viking city keeping it as authentic as possible, from the layout of houses to the distinct smells of the neighborhood.
Founded in 1938 to display the personal collections of Dr John L. Kirk, the York Castle Museum is situated close to Clifford’s Tower on the grounds of the former York Castle. Celebrated as one of the UK’s most unique museums of everyday life, the vast exhibitions center around a series of period reconstructions, designed to evoke the feeling of stepping back in time.
There’s an 1850s-style cottage and a 1940s kitchen; Jacobean and Georgian dining rooms laid out with china tea sets; and a Sixties gallery crammed with music, fashion and design from the era. There’s even a prison cell, fashioned like the one where notorious highwayman Dick Turpin was kept prisoner; an early 19th century flourmill; a military exhibition; and a collection of Jane Austen costumes.
Most renowned is the reconstructed Victorian street of Kirkgate, which was renovated in 2012 and is now kitted out with sound and light effects to offer an interactive experience of Victorian Britain.
This historic site was discovered by accident, when it was scheduled to be destroyed. The oldest parts of Barley Hall date from about 1360, but until the 1980s the house was hidden under a more modern brick façade.
The medieval house was once home to the Priors of Nostell and the Mayor of York. The building has been fully restored to replicate what it would have looked like around 1483. A living museum, many volunteers work in costume to help recreate history. Visitors are allowed to touch objects, even sit in chairs to get a true feel of life in Medieval England.
Located in the center of the city, the Mansion House is the official residence of the Lord Mayor of York. But along with being a home, this historic house is popular with visitors. The Mansion House exhibits an impressive collection of paintings, silver and furniture.
It was designed to entertain distinguished guests and host ceremonies, so a bit of grandeur was a must. Built in Georgian style, the first brick was laid in 1725. But just like building projects today, costs grew. A few craftsmen worked for free in return for citizenship. The Mansion House was completed in 1732, seven years later.
The Mansion House offers a variety of tours tailored to guests’ interests, including a Silver Tour. The Candle Light Tour shares spooky stories and secrets of the house as you explore. Book in advance if interested in a specialized tour.
Whisking visitors on a hair-raising journey through York’s grim and gruesome past, the York Dungeon is one of the city’s most entertaining attractions, located close to the landmark Clifford’s Tower. Spanning over 2,000 years of York’s history, the city’s most notorious ghosts and villains are brought to life in the dungeons, with 11 shows employing a wacky cast of actors, authentic sets and costumes, and special effects to shock and scare even the bravest of participants.
Get lost in the murky world of 18th century York, as you watch the infamous outlaw Dick Turpin meet his fated end in the gallows; follow notorious traitor Guy Fawkes as his plot to blow up Parliament is foiled; see how the Great Plague raged through the city in 1349; or test your nerves as you hunt down the eerie Ghosts of York. That’s not all – there’s also a terrifying invasion by bloodthirsty Vikings, medieval torture chambers and the treacherous Labyrinth of the Last Roman Legion.