The big idea 

Well, it doesn’t get much grander than York. Its status throughout history as an important city – and its lack of manufacturing bases coupled with a particularly far-sighted housing committee – has ensured that York’s finest buildings and architecture have pretty much remained to this day. This makes York the perfect city to see examples of every significant period in English history (and, incidentally, one of the most haunted).
And as with any city that has attracted the aristocracy and money throughout the ages, there’s a fine cultural heritage here, too; and a love of leisure hard-wired into the city’s DNA.

A complete history of England

When King George VI visited York in 1923, he proclaimed, ‘the history of York is the history of England’. And he wasn’t wrong. York has played a major role throughout England’s history and modern York bears all the marks and scars of its past proudly, from Roman architecture and Danish street and place names from Viking times (Jorvik, anyone?), to the fabulous York Minster (the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps) and the mediaeval guildhall and city walls, York is very much defined by its past.
And it’s probably because it’s witnessed so much, and had such a significant role in wars, power struggles and the bloody history of England York s claimed as the most haunted city in Europe. To build on this in the 1970s it was the originator of theworld’s 1st ghost tours. So come here to see history and quite literally experience it!

Love of leisure

The flip side of all that lovely preserved architecture and history is that York has always attracted money, and where the money and aristocracy go, leisure pursuits are not far behind. Hence the historical investment in beautiful buildings and a love of leisure that manifests itself today in a fabulous shopping scene, café culture, more festivals than other cities, and the largest food and drink celebration in the country.
What sets York apart shops-wise is the blend of distinctive shops with the most charming streets. Consider wide-open Parliament Street, which is home to family-owned department store Browns; or York’s most famous mediaeval street, the step-back-in-time experience that is The Shambles, voted most picturesque street in Britain in the Google street view awards – there’s even a lovely shop there that will photograph you in period costumes; or how about the Stonegate, with the Cat Gallery, Stonegate teddy bears and exquisite crystal at Mulberry Hall? And that’s only scratching the surface. You see, most places offer retail therapy, but not many can do it in surroundings like York can.
And with such a huge variety of festivals taking place over the year – with many dedicated to food and drink – it lends itself to a true, not marketed or gimmicky, café culture. Add in places like the National Centre for Early Music, promoting jazz, mediaeval, folk and world music, and it makes York the perfect city for pleasure.

The Essence

 It’s a true gem is York. To sum it up in a couple of words, a Historical delight.

How it can make you feel / who's it for

In one city, York can help you understand the different nationalities that make up England today and feel truly proud of your place in history; there are examples of every period all here; from the Romans and Vikings to the modern day.
And clearly it’s ideal for anyone interested in the pursuit of pleasure: perfect for families (and ideal for getting the family in the mood for Christmas), people wanting an interesting/informative weekend, perfect for foodies and shoppers, and overseas visitors who want to understand the rich history of England.


Although there is some evidence of people living in the area before the Romans arrived, the true story of the city really starts in AD 71 with the arrival of the Romans looking for somewhere suitable to pitch a fort. They selected a raised spot, between two rivers, the Ouse and Foss, and named the fort Eboracum, which is said to mean ‘place of the yew trees’ (much of this fortress lies under the foundations of York Minster). The fort was significant in Roman Britain, and eventually became the Capital of the Northern Province.In AD 410 the legions were deserting Britain, and York fell into disrepair.The two centuries following this were of unrest as first the Angles and Jutes from Germany and Denmark appeared to settle in the area, followed by the Saxons.
By the early 7th century York was an important royal centre for the Northumbrian kings and the Anglian King Edwin was baptised in a hastily constructed wooden church by a visiting monk, Paulinus: that little church evolved over time into what is now York Minster, and Paulinus was the first of a long line of bishops to be based there. Over the next few hundred years Christianity was centred in Yorkshire, and York itself was seen as second only to Rome as a centre of learning.
In AD 866 the Vikings arrived and took Eboracum and renamed it Jorvik (from which the modern name derives). They stayed for nearly 80 years until the splendidly titled Eric Bloodaxe was defeated. There followed a succession of Danish and English kings until 1066. During this period York was a busy city, producing leather, iron and copper goods, very much with the feel of Scandinavia running through (hence why many of the streets in York are called ‘gates’, as the Danish word for street is ‘gade’).
By mediaeval times York was really flying high: the presence of an Archbishop in York did much to enhance the wealth of the city and a succession of kings continued to visit. However, over time trade declined as competition grew, and the court returned to London, which, in addition to the damage done by the Black Death and the War of the Roses, meant York’s national glory was on the wane. Indeed, the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century saw the closure of many of York’s religious houses, and a greater central control from London imposed on the city.
During the Civil War of the 1600s, York became a parliamentary stronghold, but by the end of the century the place was quickly gaining a reputation as a cultural stronghold, with artists and musicians settling here. It was at this time that York again became England’s third largest city (after London and Norwich).
It wasn’t until the 18th century that York really became the aristocrats’ playground, with many of them financing impressive buildings such as Castle Yard. The Theatre Royal was built in 1734 and there were at least 16 breweries.
Expansion in the 19th century saw York taking over surrounding suburban villages, and it was at this time that Joseph Rowntree joined the family confectionery business (the Rowntree family had a massive impact on the city, famed as they were for philanthropy and introducing employee benefits).
The 20th century saw an increased need for space in the city, which was met by building outwards, not upwards; indeed, York has remained pretty much at street level, with nothing built higher than the nave of the Minster to this day. This is thanks to one Bill Burke, Chairman of the Housing Committee, who declared, in typically Yorkshire fashion, ‘over my dead body will we have bloody tower blocks in York’.

How to experience what's different/get under the skin of

Start at York Railway Station and take in the fabulous architecture of this iconic building- once the largest train station in the world. Behind the station, pay the National Railways Museum a visit, where you can see legendary trains such as the Mallard and the iconic Japanese Bullet. When you’re finished, head out of the station for your first glimpse of the city walls, which at 4km long stretch nearly all the way around the city (York actually has more miles on intact city walls than any other English city). From here, head over Lendal Bridge – if you’ve time for a scenic diversion, take the Yorkboat from here for a lovely trip along the River Ouse. Over the bridge on the left are the Museum Gardens, where you can see the Multangular Tower, which is the most noticeable and intact part of the early Roman fort defences.
You’re now on the western side of the main shopping part of York. Stroll along Blake Street, turn left up Stonegate and stop at Number 35, the ‘most haunted house in York’. You’ll see the Minster in front of you, but after exploring Stonegate, why not try cutting down and meandering around the area known as the Quarter (the Swinegates, Little Stonegate and Grape Lane) – this charming little tangle of lanes is a little treasure to browse.

Head east to Church Street, then turn left and on your left is a Roman Bathhouse Museum, which is underground and accessed via the Roman Bath pub.
Carry on from there along Parliament Street, which is the main shopping street in York and where most of the numerous food and drink festivals take place. Take a left at the end and you’ll find the Coppergate Shopping Centre, where amongst the shops you can find the award-winning JORVIK Centre, where archaeologists found remains of the original Viking City of Jorvik; you can take a ride in here which takes you back to see, feel and even smell the city over a thousand years ago.
From here cut past Fenwick and you’ll come out at Clifford’s Tower- rebuilt in the 13thcentury it’s the only keep in the country which is designed in a four-leaf shape (and where Dick Turpin was held- his grave is over the river at St Georges Church). There’s some fantastic Georgian architecture around the tower, or why not visit the York Castle Museum, where Victorian times are recreated in a complete street scene from York. Retrace your steps and, when back at Coppergate, head right and take a peek down Piccadilly; you’ll find the Merchant Adventurers Hall, one of the finest medieval guild halls to be found anywhere in the country. Head back towards the centre of the city and look next for The Shambles, a historic mediaeval street (if you look up one the outside of the buildings you’ll be able to see the shelves where meat was once displayed).
Now head through the shopping area and towards the Minster (its worth a look at some of the buildings facing the Minster as well – look out for the Treasurers House of 1419 right opposite, it’s said the ghosts of an entire Roman legion march through the cellars!) Finally, then, to the iconic York Minster – it’s a magnificent sight to behold, and truly one of the great cathedrals of the world. Inside simply marvel at the sheer scale of the building, including the famous Great East Window, the world’s largest single expanse of medieval stained glass.
In the evening, check out the theatre and ensure you go on a ghost walk, preferably after a trip to the York Dungeon, just to get you in the right frame of mind

When to visit

City pics