The best York attractions to see in a weekend
The best York attractions to see in a weekend can appear in different forms. You may find it in the many period buildings around the city, its lush green landscapes or its magnificent sights.
A city with Roman roots, and Saxon, Norman and Viking heritage, it merges its historic past with a sophisticated present.
How to get to York
York is perfectly placed between the capitals of London and Edinburgh. The London North Eastern Railway (LNER) has fast and frequent daily services between London and York, in under 2 hours. They also have trains going from York to other parts of north-east England and Scotland.
If you’re planning to hire a car, it takes around 20 minutes from the M1/M62 network. There are 3 main airports connected to York, with many flights in and around Europe and further afield. These include Leeds Bradford, Manchester and Doncaster.
Top York attractions to see in a weekend
Save money with the York Pass
Before I share the best York attractions to see in a weekend, I’d really encourage you to buy a York Pass. It gives free entry to over 30 York attractions and tours, along with restaurant and exclusive shopping deals. We took one, and not only saved a lot on entrance tickets, but we also skipped the lines too!
You can either buy your pass online, or at the Visit York Information Centre on 1 Museum Street.
A world of trains
Start your York weekend bright and early at the National Rail Musuem. The site was once York train station, dating back to 1877. It’s a fitting place then for one of the biggest — and best — rail museums in the world.
It’s free to enter, and once inside, I guarantee you’ll be amazed by the display on show. Even for non-train enthusiasts like me, I really enjoyed seeing historic train models, and learning about the railway’s importance.
It has an impressive collection under its roof. Over 100 locomotives on show either ran on the railways or were built there. The 20-acre site is the home of historically significant railway vehicles, and many other items of historical interest.
We spent around 1 hour exploring the grand site, before taking some brief refreshment at the café. There’s good reason why I say to start at the museum. Outside the main entrance is a mini passenger steam train that takes you from the museum to York Minster. There’s a small fee to pay, but it’s free with the York Pass. Trains run every 30 minutes, giving you sufficient time to plan your visit inside.
The centre of York is also a perfect meeting point for booking a local tour. Your guide can tell you more entertaining tales that you won’t find online or in the books!
National Rail Museum
The mother of all minsters
Once you disembark from the train, you arrive at York Minster. Its famous tall spires can be seen from many points around York. It’s the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe, containing some of the oldest and finest stained glass. ‘Minster’ refers to churches established in the Anglo-Saxon period as missionary teaching churches.
When inside, the cathedral’s famous stained-glass windows will blow you away. A lot of work goes into preserving them, which is evident from the way they gleam on first sight.
You do have to pay to enter either the minster, or the minster and tower (both free with the York Pass). There are 275 steps to reach the top, so make sure you can handle the climb before attempting it. If you can make it to the top the views are spectacular. The money from ticket sales contribute to the cathedral upkeep, but it’s free to enter if you’re attending mass.
Jorvik Viking Centre
Explore York’s Viking past
The JORVIK Viking Centre is the place to go to learn all about the Viking connection. Jorvik was the old Norse name the invaders, turned settlers, gave to the city.
After excavating an area of York in 1972, a team of archaeologists found a site with plenty of references to its Viking ancestors.
The tour’s interactive in nature, where you sit in a carriage and learn about the Viking ancestry of York. You learn all about the sounds and smells of Viking city living, which can be quite strong!
It takes around 45 minutes, and is a fun and different activity for the entire family. Take note that you’re not allowed to bring in large bags and luggage. Again, it was great to jump the line with the York Pass, and believe me, the lines build up quickly here.
“Clifford’s Tower has a limited enclosed space…. Arriving in the morning means also having uninterrupted views to yourself, as well as photos! “
Walk the walls
To walk in the steps of the Roman soldiers, and see a different perspective of York, visit the city walls. There are 4 main entryways, called ‘bars’ or ‘gateways’, with steps leading up to the walls. Measuring at 3.4km in length, they’re the longest, and well preserved, medieval walls in England.
I’d advise you to walk the entire length of the walls, which takes around 2 hours. If it sounds like too much, you can exit from one of the ‘bars’ and re-energise in a proper bar!
York’s Chocolate Story
Chocolate lovers rejoice, for there’s a tour dedicated to the history of the sweet stuff in York. York’s in fact the home of the globally enjoyed Kit Kat, and Terry’s Chocolate Orange.
Visitors to York’s Chocolate Story will learn about the inside story of its chocolate history, and in immersive experience. There’s plenty to learn — and sample — here, and it’s a fun tour guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
City Cruises York
Sit back and relax on one of the excellent city cruises in York. The rivers Ouse and Foss are significant to York’s existence and development, which you learn more about on the cruise.
Naturally, make sure to check the weather before booking, as you’ll enjoy the cruise more when it’s dry! There are several boarding points, including Lendal Bridge and King’s Staith. We found the latter had far less people, but it all depends on the time and day.
Take a seat on the top deck for the best views of the river, surrounding nature, and of York itself. Live commentary is provided, and our tour guide was informative and also highly entertaining. The cruise lasts around 1 hour, and will bring you back to your starting point.
A short walking distance from JORVIK Viking Centre is Clifford’s Tower. It’s the last remains from what was once York Castle, and the tower atop the green mound’s hard to miss. On first glance, it does appear slightly out of place, with a busy car park nearby. Still, once you climb the steps, you begin to see, and feel, its history come to life. Holders of the York Pass can enter for free, but others will have to pay a small entrance charge.
The best tip I can give you is to come early. Clifford’s Tower has a limited enclosed space, and so gets busy very quickly. Arriving in the morning means also having uninterrupted views to yourself, as well as photos! Take caution on the staircase leading to the top level. It’s a very narrow passage with spiral steps that aren’t so wide. That said, hold onto the handrail as you climb and descend. Views at the top are far-reaching, and give an impressive birds’ eye view of the city, especially when sunny!
In close vicinity to Clifford’s Tower are 2 museums. One is the York Castle Museum, and the other, Fairfax House. The former is a recreation of historic York, with cobbled streets, costumed guides and period rooms. Fairfax House is a must for anyone curious to know more about how the Georgians used to live.
The friendliest B&B in York
No.21 York is everything you’d want from a first-class B&B. It’s around a 5-minute walk from York train station, and around the same distance to the city centre. Its owners, Simon and Andrea, are incredibly accommodating, and with plenty of useful and local information about York.
For a B&B it’s quite boutique in feel, with 9 individually designed rooms, complete with local brand, H2K of Harrogate products. Our room was a deluxe double on the second floor, with a view looking onto the centre and beyond. There are several personal touches that make you feel at home. Simon gives guests a bottle of fresh local milk for the room; something that goes well with the homemade biscuits.
A big B&B breakfast
Breakfast is a big deal at No. 21 York. Andrea bakes the bread and makes the homemade jams and marmalade. Simon’s in charge of the cooked breakfast, and trust me when I say, everything’s really good. Whether you opt for the full Yorkshire, or the freshly baked croissants, you won’t be hungry for a long while!
Don’t miss out on seeing the stunning St Mary’s Abbey. It’s the ruins of a Benedictine abbey, and is also a Grade I listed building.
It was once the richest abbey in the north of England, and is surrounded by the picturesque York Museum Gardens. It was sadly destroyed in 1539, but you can still marvel at its beauty, and imagine what could have been.
What do you think about York attractions? Is it a city you’d like to visit for a weekend? Leave me a comment below — I’m waiting to hear from you!
Disclosure: This post is in collaboration with Visit York. It may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I’ve recommended. Thank you for your support.