York is an unparalleled medieval city and one of the few places from all of my travels that I have called home. I studied medieval history and sociology at the University of York as an exchange student during my junior year of college. It was during that time many moons ago that my wanderlust began. I explored literally every nook and cranny of the city – visited every museum, bought produce at the Shambles Market, watched Hamlet in the Yorkshire Museum’s theater, peeked inside York Minster several times each week and tried out dozens of pubs. I met life-long friends while playing cards in the common room of my residence hall and also used York as my home base while traveling around the UK on weekends and to eight other European countries during my six-week Spring break.
York is an easy two-hour train journey on England’s Northern line from Kings’ Cross station, and I have been back four times since my semester abroad. When we planned our last trip to London in 2015, I was ecstatic that we would be able to fit in two days and one night in York. We booked tickets a few weeks in advance online through Grand Central Railway. Our kids (aged 11 months, 5 and 7) thoroughly enjoyed the lovely train journey, and we fit all of our things for the quick trip into two backpacks that we tucked in our daughter’s stroller.
When orienting yourself in York, it is important to remember that streets are called gates, gates are called bars, and bars are called pubs. Most streets end in “gate” like Fishergate, Castlegate, Fossgate and Petergate. The four main entries into the city are called Bootham Bar, Monk Bar, Walmgate Bar and Mickelgate Bar. And, as is common throughout the UK, the corner establishments that sell beer by the pint are called pubs.
We stayed at the Novotel York Centre, a modern hotel just outside the city walls between the city center and the University of York. The only downside to our trip was that it was unseasonably hot. The Novotel was not air conditioned but luckily did offer us a fan.
I particularly enjoyed taking the kids to visit the University of York, the guesthouse where I lived and my favorite pub, the Rose & Crown. We stopped by on the evening we were there and found that kids were not permitted after 8 p.m. We returned the next afternoon when the pub was practically empty and were directed to a back room. My husband and I enjoyed some beer, but it was clear that our kids were not really welcome. Those stops would probably not be trip highlights for families with no connection to the University.
There are still so many great things for any family to do in York, and here are my top five suggestions.
#1: Relax in Museum Gardens
Museum Gardens is a very special place – this is where my husband literally got down on one knee and asked me to marry him while surreptitiously filming with my digital camera years ago. These Gardens are known for the medieval ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey as much as they are known for the luscious green space. When I was a university student, I walked through the gardens practically every time I went into York’s city center. I was always in awe of the Abbey ruins, especially when they were illuminated at night.
On our first trip to York with our children, the Museum Gardens were definitely at the top of our list. Even though it was a quick overnight trip, we spent at least an hour relaxing in the Gardens each day. We showed them right where their Dad proposed to me, but the exact spot was unfortunately under construction at the time. And, the peacocks that used to roam in the Gardens have been removed since my last visit.
While climbing on medieval ruins is pretty cool, the highlight of our time in Museum Gardens was definitely the Birds of Prey Show. Admittedly, the the Birds of Prey Show more than made up for the missing peacocks. A falconer brought six birds of prey to showcase during the free seasonal show that we happened to catch. And, our five-year old son was chosen to hold a white barn owl, which is something he will never forget.
The Yorkshire Museum is also located on the grounds and features archeology, geology, paleontology and natural history collections.
- Kid Facts: If the medieval abbey ruins are not ancient enough, Museum Gardens also include the remains of a portion of a Roman fort, including the Multangular Tower and a portion of Roman wall.
- Kid Moment: The owl show seems to be a free seasonal attraction and was an absolute highlight of our trip to York. Distinguishing the small Roman stones from the larger medieval ones on the Multangular Tower and adjoining wall is also a great activity.
#2: Evensong at York Minster
York Minster is the largest cathedral in Northern Europe. I’ve been to dozens of cathedrals, but York Minster is my hands-down favorite. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked through its doors, and every time, I feel an overwhelming sense of awe at its enormity and beauty.
Because our trip was so short, and we had a baby with us, we did not take the guided tour. Also, children must be at least eight to climb the narrow staircase to the top of the tower, so we had to save that for another trip. We chose instead to visit during Evensong with Songmen and Choral Scholars.
- Kid Facts: Construction began on the Minster in the thirteenth century after at least three churches previously at this site had been destroyed. It’s classic Gothic architecture was modeled after Canterbury Cathedral (the archbishop of York is second in England only to the archbishop of Canterbury). Its stained glass windows are some of the best remaining examples from medieval times. There was a disastrous fire in 1984 that badly damaged the south transept.
- Kid Moment: Make sure to request a free Explorer Backpack and the Blue Peter roof bosses in the south transept. In 1986, the popular television show Blue Peter held the York Minster Contest and asked children to submit boss designs for the Minster’s vaulted ceiling. They are the only cathedral designs I have ever seen created by children.
Downton Abbey fans will notice that the York Minster makes several cameo appearances in the series, which is set in Yorkshire.
#3: Climb Clifford’s Tower
Clifford’s Tower is a tower that sits on top of a small hill and is reminiscent of Monty Python movies. It is the largest remaining portion of the castle originally built on this site by William the Conqueror. There isn’t much to see inside the Tower, but it does offer the best view of York. We arrived after it closed, but the kids enjoyed running up the hill to get a closer view.
Below Clifford’s Tower is the York Castle Museum that allows visitors to step back into time and experience everyday life in earlier centuries. While it is named in honor of the castle that used to sit on this site, it is housed in prison buildings constructed in the 18th century.
- Kid Facts: Clifford’s Tower is the only remaining portion of York Castle. In 1190, about 150 Jews died inside the previous timber tower that stood on this hill – most from mass suicide to avoid being murdered. The current stone tower dates from the 13th century.
- Kid Moment: My kids particularly enjoy towers in general, but the added excitement of the hill and stairs made Clifford’s Tower especially fun.
- Kid Caution: Clifford’s Tower is definitely not stroller accessible.
#4: Walk on the City Walls
Since Roman times, cities were walled as a defense mechanism. York’s city walls are more intact than any other city in England and recently ranked by CNN as the third best medieval walled city in the world. There are some remains of the Roman brickwork, as well as Norman and medieval portions with modern renovations.
Visitors can access the remaining portions of the city walls by climbing the stairs at each of the four Bars. The entire circuit is 4.5 miles, and the best stretch is between Bootham Bar and Monk Bar.
Walmgate Bar is the only city gate in England with a working barbican, a fortified outpost of gateway. Unfortunately, the 12th century stone archway did not contemplate the size of modern vehicles, and there are regularly accidents. This is how it looked in 2015, and how I generally remember it. I think a truck tried to drive through days after it was re-opened when I lived there.
- Kid Facts: Very little of the Roman walls remain, but the current 13th-century walls were built right on top of the Roman ones.
- Kid Moment: We imagined what it would be like to be a castle guard scanning the horizon for enemy forces as we walked along the walls.
- Kid Caution: Like Clifford’s Tower, the city walls are definitely not stroller accessible.
#5: Stroll Down the Shambles
The Shambles is a very old and narrow street with overhanging timber buildings lining each side. The architecture is classic 15th century Tudor. Its name comes from “shamel,” meaning either slaughterhouse or the stalls or benches used to display meat. In 1862, there were 26 different butcher shops on this small, cobbled pedestrian street. The first floor shops that used to be occupied by butchers are now predominately used as souvenir shops and cafes.
- Kid Facts: One advantage of the cantilevered buildings is that it maximizes available space without obstructing the street.
- Kid Moment: With the narrow street and the overhanging buildings, it is fun to stand in the middle of the street and look up.
York is a great destination for families to get a chance to experience a bit of medieval times (and not the dinner theater variety).
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