A mini-guide to visiting York
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 July 2013 | UPDATED: 11:25 24 October 2015
Joan Russell Photography
Prepare for your next visit with some insider's dos and don'ts from Tony Greenway who has lived in York for quite a while
If you get caught up in York’s gravitational pull, it’s hard to get out again. Take me. I’ve lived in the city for 20 years, which is 19-and-a-half years longer than I’d planned. I’m not the only one who ended up here by accident. People come to York to go to university, or as a stop-gap on the way to somewhere else and never leave. So what’s the attraction?
Well, first-off, there’s the look of the place. Visually, it’s the full-on chocolate box (which is apt for a city that was once home to Terry’s and Rowntree Mackintosh) and, in the centre at least, spick and span.
Then there’s the history. Everywhere you look, you can tick off architecture from every major era (medieval, Gothic, Georgian, Victorian) which reminds you that you’re living in a place with a glorious past. There’s lots of green space, too; crime is relatively low, it has some good schools (so it’s a decent and safe place to bring up children) and house prices aren’t as eye-wateringly high as other parts of the country — or county, come to that.
When I first arrived here, the choice of cafes and restaurants was limited. It was pretty much Bettys, Bettys or Bettys but now you can eat your way around the world without leaving the city walls, and the food festival, run by local restaurateur Michael Hjort, is rightly acclaimed.
Entertainment-wise, the standard of stage productions at York Theatre Royal is consistently high and now The Barbican is back in business again the city isn’t being bypassed by big musical names. There are some small ‘n’ quirky venues, too, like the Richard III Museum in the gateway of Monk Bar on Goodramgate; Barley Hall (a restored medieval townhouse) and the York Cold War Bunker plus Castle Howard and some fabulous countryside on the doorstep.
Like all urban centres, there are downsides. The traffic is hellish (don’t go on the ring road during summer), the car parks are expensive and there’s a sense that things don’t happen here as quickly as they should. Authorities dithered for an age about where to put the returning Yorkshire Wheel, for instance, presumably because they were frightened of spoiling the look of the place (although that doesn’t explain how the monstrous Stonebow came to be built in the 1960s). And whenever anywhere in the UK is on flood alert you can bet that at least one BBC reporter will be standing in his or her galoshes on the burst banks of the Ouse near the submerged King’s Arms pub or the Bonding Warehouse — a sorry sight which should deter the tourists, but doesn’t.
Yes, tourists. There are millions every year. I was going to say that one of York’s big plusses is that, because of its manageable size, you can walk across it very easily, and it’s true, you can. But from April onwards its narrow streets get clogged with tourists, so my advice is choose your time carefully in order to beat the crowds. People come here in their droves to see the Minster and Shambles, the city walls and the Yorvik Centre, among countless other sights. I bet that at least some of them like it so much that they come back again for another look. And, like me, never leave.
BE PREPARED FOR…
It’s awful. My advice - don’t drive into the city centre unless you a) know where you’re going and b) are certain about where to park the car. York has a Park & Ride service on the outskirts which may help your road rage stress levels, particularly during summer and in the run-up to Christmas. Also, in summer, the A64 should be designated as a national no-go area — or re-defined as a car park.
Don’t get me wrong. Tourists are the lifeblood of York (you’re probably one of them) and long may they (and you) continue to visit but you do have to factor them in to any city centre visit in peak seasons. The main shopping streets around Stonegate, Coney Street and Shambles can get particularly busy.
It’s expensive, so take lots of change with you. If you’re a York resident (with a York resident sticker) you get a reduced tariff; if you’re not, you don’t. If you’re going to be in town for more than an hour or two, Park & Ride is the cheaper option.
You can hop on a tourist bus, take a river cruise, or even clip-clop around town in a pony and trap, but the real plus is that York is small enough to see on foot. Once you’re at the Minster, expend some shoe leather by heading off towards (and then down) Stonegate. The city opens up from there.
It looks good in the pictures, but York is insanely pretty close-up and voted Britain’s Most Beautiful City by one independent survey. Prepare to be seriously impressed.
FIVE MOST PHOTOGENIC YORK LOCATIONS
Home of the Yorkshire Museum and the stunningly beautiful ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, first built in 1088. No wonder this was used as a backdrop for the most recent Mystery Plays.
This incredible building — the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe — looks good from every angle; although its east front is under wraps.
Any part of York’s waterfront is spectacular, but this bridge, near the wonderful green space of Rowntree Park (which, by the way, has a great refurbished café, now called The Reading Cafe) is something of an architectural marvel.
Ridiculously pretty, but if you want to get a good shot of the UK’s most picturesque street (lined with leaning 15th century buildings), you’ll need to visit early on or later in the day when there are fewer people about.
Perched on a mound, this is almost all that remains of York Castle — originally built by William the Conqueror. It’s one of the most famous sites (and sights) in York… but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. The view from the top is rather special, too.
PLACES WORTH QUEUING FOR
There’s always a queue outside Bettys, because the name is so famous and the cakes are so good. In nearby High Petergate, meanwhile, you’ll also find a lunchtime queue outside Café Concerto. Join it. You won’t be disappointed.
There always seems to be a queue outside Yorvik, but then it is one of the UK’s most popular attractions outside of London; a recreation of York’s Viking-age streets with sights, sounds and smells that whisk you back to the 10th century, courtesy of a state-of-the-art ‘flying capsule’.
•The National Railway Museum
In peak periods the queue stretches down the street (the NRM is the largest railway museum in the world, attracting 700,000 visitors per year), but admission is free and the exhibits include the Mallard, the world’s fastest steam engine. The museum is also restoring the world-famous Flying Scotsman.
•Berwick Kaler’s Annual Panto
You don’t have to queue exactly but, wow, you do have to book early. This show, masterminded by actor-writer and co-director Berwick Kaler every year at the York Theatre Royal, has become a seasonal must-see for York residents — and tourists from around the world.
This was once the city’s gaol (or ‘jail’ to you) which was home to Dick Turpin for a while, pre his hanging. Now it’s a fascinating social history museum, but the original 18th century cells remain and are open for you to visit. The museum is name-checked in the title of Kate Atkinson’s best-selling York-set novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum.