York, where ancient and modern meet
Everyone knows about York’s Roman and Viking history, but not so many people realise it has a wealth of luxury boutique accommodation and a thriving cultural scene, with cool neighbourhoods full of independent shops, restaurants and cafés, as well as countless museums, theatres and attractions. York is an ideal size for exploring on foot, and is surrounded by some of England’s most beautiful countryside; it is only just over two hours by train from London or Edinburgh.
Few cities in the world can rival York for history and character. A picturesque riverside city encircled by ancient walls, York has a fascinating story that goes back 2,000 years. Every street and ginnel (Yorkshire dialect for alleyway) seem to reveal another historic site or lovely view, while York Racecourse, on the fringes of the city, is one of the UK’s oldest racecourses and offers a great day out.
Hot right now . . .
Tina Walsh, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest places to eat, drink and stay this season.
Los Moros (01904636834) is shaking up York’s street food scene with its authentic North African and Levantine cuisine. The stall is located in the Shambles Market, just behind the famous street, and the owners recently opened a restaurant, Los Moros York, on Grape Lane.
Evil Eye (42 Stonegate; 01904 640002) – self-described as "cocktail bar, gin shop and mobile bar" – sells no fewer than 1,028 gins and is listed in the Guinness World Records for 'most varieties of gin commercially available'.
The Parisi Hotel (51 St Denys Rd; 01904 658815) owned and run by ethically minded sisters Sophie and Maria Scott, is tucked away in York's historic Merchant's Quarter. It's a pleasing, tranquil hodgepodge of colours, designs and styles. Double rooms from £99.
48 hours in . . . York
Start your day at York Minster (Deangate; 01904 557200), a Gothic beauty and the largest Medieval cathedral in Northern Europe. For full atmospheric effect, approach the Minster via The Shambles, an ancient cobbled street mentioned in the Domesday Book, where the upper storeys of the 14th-century timber houses lean out, almost to within touching distance of each other.
Then, travel back in time at York Castle Museum (Eye of York, Tower Street; 01904 687687). The 80-year-old museum is best known for its authentic street of salvaged shop fronts, replicating the city’s stores and living rooms from the Georgian era to the 1980s. To get a panoramic view of the city, climb to the top of nearby Clifford’s Tower (Tower St; 01904 646940) opposite the museum. This ancient fortified mound and keep has a gruesome history and is all that remains of the Norman castle.
For lunch, head to Mr P’s Curious Tavern (71 Low Petergate; 01904 521177). Part Victorian curiosity shop, part swanky restaurant, chef Andrew Pern’s newest project is a departure from his other two successes – the phenomenal Star Inn (at Harome) and The Star Inn The City, just down the road. Think 19th-century lanterns, racks of jamón and artificial trophy animal heads on the walls.
Over on Coppergate, The Jorvik Viking Centre’s (19 Coppergate; 01904 615505) olfactory experiences, some more pleasant than others, have always brought to life what was a thriving 19th-century Viking city. After a multi-million pound refurbishment, the interactive exhibition is back with even more insight into one of Britain’s most exciting archaeological discoveries. Look out for the ultra life-like old woman on crutches and the baby crying its mother’s arms.
Afterwards, lose an hour or two in Browns (Davygate; 01904 611166), an old-school department store and a York institution. Pick up designer brands such as Ralph Lauren and Barbour, or bedding and linens by Joules and Julian Charles. There’s also a nail bar and a restaurant with smartly attired waiters serving Sunday lunches and afternoon teas.
Discover York’s winding alleyways on the Bloody Tour of York (07584 855 443) in the company of “Mad Alice”, a figure of local folklore, who is thought to have been hanged in York Castle in 1823. The tour starts at 6pm every Thursday, Friday and Saturday outside St Williams College, on College Street (an eight-minute walk from Brown's) and ends around 7.30pm by Clifford’s Tower.
For dinner, The Rattle Owl (104 Micklegate; 01904 658658) is a good option that has been garnering plaudits since it opened. Inside, it’s New York loft meets 17th-century Grade I listed building, with walls of exposed brick and the original parquet flooring. A well-balanced menu – five each of starters, main courses and desserts – features whipped Yorkshire blue cheese with figs, duck breast, and Medjool dates and poached rhubarb Anglaise.
For after-dinner drinks, stroll over to the recently opened Micklegate Social (148 Micklegate; 01904 348798), sister bar of Fossgate Social. It’s in a lovely old corner building and stocks a range of wines, spirits and craft beers.
Covering the journey of chocolate from raw jungle cocoa bean to the substance that became York’s most profitable export, York’s Chocolate Story (3-4 Kings Square; 01904 527725) uses immersive set pieces to uncover the history of York’s famous confectionary dynasties – Terry’s and Rowntree’s – and gives a fascinating flavour of the city’s rich social history too.
A five-minute walk away and equally as sweet is Yorkshire Museum and Museum Gardens (01904 687687), which gives a comprehensive overview of York’s many historical layers, with prehistoric, Roman, Viking and medieval artefacts spread over five galleries. Yorkshire’s Jurassic World, a major exhibition open until at least spring 2020, travels back 150 million years to discover the county’s lost giants using ground-breaking technology.
For lunch, head to Café No.8 Bistro (8 Gillygate; 01904 653074). This cosy trattoria with a secluded garden has built reputation for well executed, unfussy bistro dishes. It also has a café in the revamped York Art Gallery (Exhibition Square; 01904 687687).
Take in a matinee at York Theatre Royal (St Leonard's Place; 01904 623568), which reopened in 2016 after a multi-million pound refit that includes a new state and sound system. It’s one of the UK’s oldest theatres and has a broad schedule of consistently good-quality acts. Highlights of the spring 2019 season include RSC Macbeth and Heart of Darkness. Tickets are often available on the day unless the production is very popular or in the evening, otherwise it’s recommended to book ahead.
Dinner at The Star Inn The City (Museum Street; 01904 619208) in the Lendal Engine House is a special affair. Scooping design awards (the views inside and out are gorgeous) for the reimagining of an old water board building between the River Ouse and Museum Gardens, there is nowhere in York doing British cooking this confidently.
Round the evening off with drinks atValhalla(4 Patrick Pool; 01904 653 999), a 'Norse' themed music bar and café just round the corner from The Shambles. It was created by Viking fanatics who went to great lengths with the décor - touches include a skull and horn in a glass cabinet, flickering electric candles and hefty oak tables as rugged as Thor himself. Music is mainly rock and there's a good choice of wines, spirits and local beers.
Where to stay . . .
The Grand Hotel & Spaoffers tip-top service, a good choice of eating options, a spa and a pool. The building's original Edwardian features have been splendidly retained while bedrooms are vast, crisp and uncluttered. All bedrooms, spread over six floors, are generous to a fault; even the entry-level Classics have space for a small party.
Double rooms from £140. Station Rise; 01904 380038
A period building has been given a dark and clubby makeover at Hotel Du Vin & Bistro. It's comfortable without being fussy and smart without feeling too formal. Bedrooms are crisp with excellent bathrooms while food is classic French with a rich wine list. Expect slate and wooden floors, charcoal-grey walls, moody black and white photographs.
Double rooms from £99. 89 The Mount; 08447 489268
For the cost, the bright, buzzing, brilliant, neon-splashed Safestay– a reinvented hostel housed in a historic Georgian building close to the city walls — is a hard-to-beat budget option and a cut above anywhere in its price range in terms of facilities and quality. All rooms feature dark wood, chunky furniture and have touches of great design. There are a handful of double rooms.
Double rooms from £50. 88-90 Micklegate; 01904 627720
What to bring home . . .
Pick up fat rascals from veteran Yorkshire tea room Bettys (6-8 St Helen's Square; 01904 659142). Made to a long-standing secret recipe, these plump, fruity rock cakes are a cross between a bun and a scone.
For something sweet, opt for hand-made chocolates from Monk Bar Chocolatiers (7 The Shambles; 01904 634999). The chocolates are created on the premises using the finest quality ingredients from France and Belgium and visitors can watch the various stages of production.
When to go . . .
There is no off-season in York. All year round, regardless of the weather, festivals and events draw cultural tourists, historians, shoppers, foodies and sports fans to the city. Spring and summer are the busiest and most expensive period, and the high point for the city’s many events, including the racing season (meetings at York Racecourse run from May until October). If you don’t enjoy crowds, avoid weekends in July and August.
York really comes to life in autumn and winter. It’s cold but magical, lamp-lit and atmospheric; imagine a pale moon rising over the shadow of The Minster, the evening streets filled with the sound of bells. Many pubs have open fires to warm up by after a walk along cobbled streets or river paths and there are few more romantic places to be in the run up to Christmas. Under a dusting of snow, the Christmas Market’s stalls, lights and carolling attract a crowd of shoppers, who leave giddy as kippers after too many mulled ciders.
Know before you go . . .
The best local tourist information service is visityork.org, which also has offices and incredibly helpful staff at 1 Museum St, York, YO1 7DT (tel: 01904 550099).
A handy NHS Walk-In Centre is located at 31 Monkgate, York, YO31 7WA (01904 725 401); open daily between 8am-6pm. For more serious problems and A&E, York Hospital is on Wigginton Road, York, YO31 8HE.
Currency: Pound sterling
Telephone code: 00 44
Tina grew up in nearby Leeds and spent many childhood summers discovering York’s ancient nooks and crannies. Today, she’s more likely to be found hunting down the city’s many places to eat, drink and shop.
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