Why you should visit York at Christmas

PUBLISHED: 00:00 27 November 2018

Two of the city's bridges will be illuminated, and there will be over 100 Christmas trees with lights.

Two of the city's bridges will be illuminated, and there will be over 100 Christmas trees with lights.

©2017 Charlotte Graham

There are times when a visit to York city centre is a bit of a must, says Tony Greenway. And Christmas is definitely one of them.

Winter lights in York will twinkle for longerWinter lights in York will twinkle for longer

As a local resident, I know there are good times to visit York city centre and, occasionally, times when it’s wise to give the place a wide berth. For example — like any city centre — later on a Saturday can be a bit fraught because of the crowds, lack of parking or because you may bump into the odd stag and hen party in various stages of refreshment. That’s always fun to explain to the kids; although, to be fair, a lot of work has gone into making York more family friendly in recent times and complaints of antisocial behaviour are on the wane.

When the city centre puts on its Christmas face, however, you most definitely need to head there pronto, and with your children if at all possible. True, trying to walk down Stonegate in the height of summer isn’t always the most pleasant experience because you have to fight your way through what appears to be a Cecile B DeMille crowd scene. There are tourists everywhere. I’m not complaining — and neither are the retailers — because York relies on visitors to keep its economy chugging along. Even so, its streets weren’t designed for this kind of 21st century consumer action. Strangely though, the city’s narrowness and snickety cobbled charm were just made for Christmas, particularly the streets around York Minster: Stonegate, High and Low Petergate, Stonegate, and Minster Yard.

And don’t even get me started on The Shambles (or as my York-born colleague Jo Haywood insists/shouts: ‘ARGH! IT’S JUST CALLED SHAMBLES!’). Maybe Amanda Monaghan, co-founder of seasonal pop-up bar THOR’S Tipi, hit the nail squarely on the head. ‘York has been winning awards all year for the best city in the UK,’ she said, ‘and Christmas is a time when it just gets better.’

It’s hard to disagree. In fact, in the run-up to the big day, we have a family ritual. We go into the city on at least one weekday evening to look around the Christmas market, visit the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas shop on Stonegate, eat some street food at the Shambles Food Court (or maybe we’ll try Spark on Piccadilly this year) and look at the lights. Then we all go skating at The Ice Factor at York Designer Outlet outside the city centre, and have a hot chocolate with extra cream.

Romantic YorkRomantic York

‘York just lends itself to Christmas,’ says Paul Whiting, head of tourism body Make It York. ‘Shambles, Stonegate, the medieval streets, the city walls with the lights... there are so many things that give it a Dickensian Christmassy feel. Plus there’s a lot going on. The Christmas markets grow every year with food, drink, and gift ideas. And the retailers put on festive-themed programmes. So it becomes a Christmas wonderland.’ There’s also late night shopping on Thursday — and the Thank York it’s Friday late night shop initiative continues on (naturally enough) Friday evenings.

This year, York looks more stunningly twinkly than ever, mainly because York Business Improvement District (BID) and Make It York — who are are responsible for the winter lights display throughout the city — have joined forces to extend seasonal displays to more streets. This year there are over 160,000 lights which would stretch 15km if laid end-to-end. Two of the city’s bridges will be illuminated, and there will be over 100 Christmas trees with lights.

‘York has worked hard to earn its reputation as Britain’s most festive city, and we’re doing what we can to ensure it retains this crown,’ says Andrew Lowson, executive director for York BID. ‘Our partnership with Make It York will extend the winter lights to even more streets — Colliergate, Shambles Market and New Street; and we will once again be lighting up the city’s four medieval bars — Micklegate, Bootham, Monkbar and Walmgate — to provide an incredibly warm welcome for residents and visitors alike.’

What’s more, the streets will remain illuminated until the end of February. This isn’t a mistake: it’s been carefully planned. ‘When the Business Improvement District was set up, one of the core aims was to improve the appearance of the city centre, and the winter lights give it a boost for over three months, including the busiest — and the quietest — time of the year for retailers,’ says Lowson. ‘This provides a great opportunity for retailers and hospitality businesses alike to attract visitors at a time when other the streets in other city centres are looking bleak and bare once their Christmas lights have been removed.’

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