From Eboracum to Jorvik, York has been called numerous names over the years. But I was fortunate enough to call it ‘home’ for three years while studying at university. Established in 71 AD, York is a history lover’s playground, with a culture as rich as the chocolate that the city manufactures! It’s often labelled one of the most beautiful cities in the UK and it’s not hard to see why. The beautiful blend of the old and the new means it has something for everyone. And while many of the attractions in York will require you to pay to enjoy them, there are many activities in York that won’t cost you a pretty penny. So from historical churches and beautiful gardens to free events and must-visit museums, here are 11 amazing free things to do in York!
This article is written by Faraway Lucy writer, Aquiel Brittain-Dissont.
1. Take in the splendour of York Minster
Address: Deangate, York YO1 7HH
Phone number: 01904 557200
It’s no surprise that York Minster is considered to be one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. Just one look at the breath-taking structure, which dates back to the 7th century, will immediately explain why it is the pride of the city. While entrance to the cathedral is free to York residents and York students, others do have to pay for admission. Nevertheless, it won’t cost you a single penny to attend a service at the Minster or to admire the exterior of the building. Whether you stop by for a picture or a picnic, it’s easily one of the best free things to do in York.
The gothic structure truly towers over the other low-rise buildings. And therefore, it can be spotted peeking over the top of numerous points across the city. The quality of the Minster’s architecture is incomparable. You could easily pass time studying all the hidden features of the building’s exterior, such as the heart-shaped window in the centre of the face of the Minster, often coined the ‘Heart of Yorkshire’. The Minster is stunning day or night, sunshine or rain. You really can’t pick a bad time to stop by and take a photo!
2. Take a stroll around the Museum Gardens
Address: Museum St, York YO1 7FR
Phone number: 01904 687687
Home to the brilliant York Museum, the Museum Gardens are a natural haven that perfectly contrasts the urban city. Admission to the gardens is totally free and it’s chockfull of star attractions. One of the main sights to see is St. Mary’s Abbey, a ruin that dates back to 1088. It was built during the time of William the Conqueror in order to cement his power over the North of England. It was then later destroyed in the time of Henry VIII, as part of the King’s effort to break the Church of England away from the Catholic church. Aside from its history, its gothic architecture against the natural backdrop of the gardens makes it one of the most beautiful spots in the city.
Other points of interest in the gardens include The York Observatory, the Edible Wood and The Multangular Tower. The Tower is the best example of Roman influence in York with some of the stones at the bottom of the Tower dating back to the 3rd Century! The gardens also sit alongside the calming River Ouse, providing a peaceful, serene vista amidst a bustling city, making a visit here one of the most romantic things to do in York.
3. Amble down the Shambles
Address: Shambles, York YO1 7LX
For Harry Potter fans, the Shambles is not one to miss. One of the oldest shopping streets in England, the Shambles is said to be the influence for the infamous Diagon Alley from the J.K. Rowling book series, and fans will immediately see the link. Previously coined the ‘Great Flesh Shambles’, the medieval street was originally a place where butchers would display their meat from hooks. You can still see them hanging from some of the buildings!
The Shambles is one of the best-preserved medieval streets in the country. In fact, it even bagged itself a mention in the Doomsday Book back in the 11th-Century! The picturesque, quintessentially old English street is a stunning sight to see. Plus, it’s the perfect place for a spot of window shopping. The street is stuffed with boutique coffee shops, fudge shops, nick-nacks, and a number of Potter-themed shops for wizarding world-enthusiasts to peruse. This may be one of the best free things to do in York; however, don’t blame me if you suddenly want to start spending money here!
4. Walk the city walls
Address: York YO1 7LJ
There have been walls surrounding York since the 1st Century when the Roman Empire set up shop in the city. The walls that encompass York today date back to the 13th Century and offer beautiful elevated views of the city centre. While many UK cities still proudly boast medieval walls, York’s city walls are the most complete set walls that are still standing. The walls stretch approximately two miles in total. And if you get a little tired, there are four gatehouses, also known as ‘bars’, acting as checkpoints along the way: Walmgate, Bootham, Micklegate and Monkgate.
The Monk Bar contains the immersive Richard III experience, a great place for people to learn more about the last King of the House of York. And in Walmgate bar you can even stop for a coffee and cake at the utterly charming Gatehouse Coffee. Walking along the walls is ideal for a relaxing stroll and a great way to connect to the history of the city.
5. Immerse yourself in the National Railway Museum
Address: National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, York YO26 4XJ
Phone number: 0800 047 8124
There is a myriad of museums and historical experiences in York, but what differentiates the National Railway Museum from the others, is that admission is totally free! Listed by TripAdvisor as the Number 1 attraction in York, this experience doesn’t disappoint. Just a ten-minute walk from the city centre, the museum tells the story of 200 years of rail history and the evolution of station life.
The Great Hall is packed with an impressive collection of train carriages from the last two centuries. Train-lovers can walk among the historic carriages, getting up close and personal with some of the most iconic trains. You’ll even see the likes of the Mallard, the world’s fastest steam locomotive, the Japanese Bullet Train. Delve into the history of rail travel and learn about how rail travel has impacted the world we live in! It promises a great afternoon.
6. Kick off and relax in Rowntree Park
Address: Terry Ave, York YO23 1JQ
Joseph Rowntree, York born-and-bred philanthropist, reformist and, most perhaps famously, chocolatier, is one of the city’s proudest exports. Joseph Rowntree opened Rowntree Park in 1921, in memory of his Cocoa employees who tragically died in the First World War. The Rowntree family intended the park to act as a place of “rest and recreation”, somewhere to escape from the “turmoil and stress of life, and bring health and happiness”.
Just a 15-minute stroll south of the city centre, Rowntree Park is a peaceful, relaxing oasis, perfect for escaping the urban landscape. The entrance to the park is completely free, and there’s plenty to explore. Look out for an amphitheatre, picturesque lake and play area for the little ones! The park is ideal for picnic-goers and nature-lovers to kick back and relax on a summer’s day, or for a wrapped-up winter’s walk.
7. Have a mooch around the shops and markets
Attention window-shoppers and browsers! York is the perfect place for you to exercise some serious retail therapy. With a fantastic mix of household names, department stores and numerous independent brands, York is home to shops galore. If you’re looking for a unique shopping experience, there are a number of establishments that can fulfil this wish. One of York’s most remarkable stores is Kathe Wohlfahrt, the shop where it’s Christmas 365 days of the year. Shoppers can truly get lost in the immersive maze of festive decorations and splendour. Yep, even in June!
Another distinctive shopping experience is at the Yorkshire Soap Company. They flaunt a gorgeous range of soaps, bath and shower products in a breathtaking display in the form of cakes. It really gives you the feeling of stepping into a bakery! Its sister shop, The Imaginarium, is also worth a visit. Its eclectic range of stationery and household wares is incredibly fun to explore. The modern Shambles market is also a sight to see. Open 9-5 every day there are a plethora of stalls to wander around and admire.
8. Get inspired at Spark:York
Opening in 2018 on a site that was unused and derelict for twenty years, Spark:York is one of the most innovative and exciting city attractions. Made up of 23 shipping containers over two floors, Spark:York is home to food and beverage kiosks, independent retailers, work and social spaces. It’s the perfect spot for some browsing and to chill out with friends.
Supporting local business and breathing life into a barren space, the space is pretty inspiring. It’s not something that I’ve seen before in another UK city, making it an exciting addition to York. Check out their social media and website to keep up with the many events they hold throughout the year. It’s a great place to explore and to enjoy the sunshine in, and the colourful landscape is ideal for capturing a photo or two.
9. Join a free walking tour
York has a bountiful history, and its many museums are fantastic sources for learning more about the great city. However, if you’d rather not spend your money on their entrance fees, then fear not, there’s another way you can get your fix of knowledge. One of the best ways to hear all about York’s history, from Romans to Vikings to Tudors, is by booking a free (yes, free!) walking tour of the city.
There are plenty of providers to choose from, such as the Association of Voluntary Guides, White Rose York Tours and more. Most tours last between two and three hours and take you around York’s most iconic sites. The expert tour guides are on hand to share their unparalleled knowledge of the city and answer any burning questions you may have.
10. Go church hopping
I couldn’t begin to estimate how many churches there are in York. It feels like there is one on every street you venture down! York has strong historic links to Christianity; the emperor Constantine, who made Christianity the main religion in the Roman Empire back in the 4th Century, became Emperor while living in the city. You can even visit his statue commemorating his accession next to the Minster.
Similarly, in the 7th Century, Pope Gregory chose York to be the centre of Christianity. So, it’s no surprise that York has one of the most well-preserved collections of Medieval churches in the world. Aside from the Minster, the vast majority of the churches in York have free admission. This means you can go and admire the stunning architecture and design without splashing the cash!
11. Get lost in the alleys
York is notorious for its wonderful winding roads and cobbled streets. Nestled in just off many of the main roads, you’ll notice alleyways, known by locals as Snickelways. The original understanding of a Snickelway is, “a narrow place to walk along, leading from somewhere to somewhere else, usually in a town or city, especially in the city of York”. The city is home to at least thirty Snickelways giving the city it’s maze-like feel.
You could either download a map of all the Snickelways and work your way around them or just wander around yourself and see where they take you. Down these alleyways, you’ll discover little tidbits of history and beautiful pieces of architecture. The Coffee Yard Snickelway is one of my favourites as it takes you past Barley Hall. This medieval townhouse has a large window on the alley. Here you can have a nosey into a reconstructed Great Hall!
So it’s safe to say that despite being one of the UK’s smaller cities, there are so many amazing free things to do in York. Even after living there for three years, I found that I was constantly discovering new streets, attractions and quirks about the city that I didn’t know existed. It’s a total treasure trove full to the brim with hidden gems.
You’ll find that there is always something happening in this historic city. Whether it’s street performers, parades of Vikings and Romans through the streets, or festivals, such as the Christmas markets and York Food Festival, there’s always something to do. You’ll never tire of the unparalleled beauty, history and people that make the city so spectacular. So which of these free things to do in York are you most desperate to try out? Please let me know in the comments below!
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