York is one of Britain’s prettiest and most historic cities, but its touristic appeal has also made it popular and expensive. Put in some forward planning, however, and you can enjoy the best that York has to offer without spending much money or wasting any time queueing! In this post, I share my tips and photos from a recent weekend there with my sister (she’s the one on the left…)
The most important thing when planning a stay in York is to book accommodation as early as possible. It’s a small city with limited accommodation options, and the most affordable places sell out first. Thankfully, as our plans were flexible, we were able to book two months in advance for a weekend on which one hostel was still available (I expect I would have had more choice if I’d booked earlier still).
Unfortunately I can’t recommend our lodgings at Safestay York, as it was pretty noisy for most of the night and our private twin room had several issues – most crucially, the faulty lock that allowed someone else to walk in during the night – but at £80 per night it was by far the cheapest room in town…!
Train travel is never cheap, but book well in advance – directly through the operator – and you’re guaranteed the best price. If you’re able to travel and book directly with Virgin East Coast you get the added bonus of free wifi and entertainment (including TV programmes and films) through their BEAM app (download this before you travel).
Once we’d arrived we didn’t use public transport once. York is small enough to traverse entirely on foot, particularly if you’re staying in town, and you wouldn’t want to miss the walk. The city is so pretty that just walking around it is an enjoyable activity in itself.
I’m a strong believer in the simple pleasure of sightseeing, and that’s especially true of York. The city centre holds a feast of beautiful and interesting sights within easy walking distance of one another…
York Minster (from the outside!)
York Minster is the most famous of York’s many beautiful stone-carved buildings that you can admire from the outside for free. Stepping inside the foyer, before the ticket barrier, you can see that it looks just like any other British cathedral inside. In my opinion it’s probably not worth the £10 ticket to venture further (nor the extra cost on top of that to go up the tower)!
The Museum Gardens are free to enter and contain not only York Museum (paid entry) but also several old ruins, a grand Tudor house and a portion of the old city walls. There are information boards explaining what everything is, making the park feel rather like a museum itself.
The city walls are my favourite thing about York. It’s free to walk along the top of them, and up here you’re afforded great views of landmarks such as the Minster, as well as the river and the rows of period houses.
Although the walls are broken into several distant sections – each accompanied by information boards explaining their history – it’s possible to walk along every bit if you know where to go. The full city walls circuit is marked on the free tourist map available from the train station. There’s something very satisfying about completing the full circuit!
York is famed for its historic cobbled streets lined with Tudor buildings and swinging shop signs, the most famous of these being The Shambles. But my favourite is the longer and livelier Stonegate, which hosts a roleplaying/costume shop bulging with weapons, a toy shop guarded by a giant teddy, and a cornucopia of chocolatiers and traditional sweet shops. This is in addition to several bars and cafes.
Food and drink: Betty’s
When many people think of York they think of Betty’s, a chain of café and tea rooms dating back to 1919. There are two branches in York: the largest and oldest on St Helen’s Square and the smaller and newer one on Stonegate.
Afternoon tea is the obvious choice, and for this reason Betty’s gets really busy mid-afternoon with a long queue snaking around the building. However, Betty’s serves afternoon tea all day long! So if you really want a Betty’s afternoon tea, you can either book in advance, or turn up to have it in the morning (or evening?!) when it’ll be far less busy. We turned up at around 11.30 on Saturday and barely had to wait at all.
However, at £18.95, afternoon tea at Betty’s is not cheap. I didn’t think it was exceptional either – the sandwiches and scones were a little dry and the cakes small. So if you really want to eat at Betty’s you might want to consider having something else: the main York branch also does breakfast, lunch, dinner and drinks.
Food and drink: my recommendations for best value
For a tasty breakfast that’s really fresh, good value, and more interesting than a standard fry-up, head to Robinsons in the south of the city. This little independent café offers loads of choice, whether you prefer your brunch savoury or sweet (or in the case of myself and my sister, both). We began by ordering fresh orange juices and a chorizo, parma ham and spinach hash to share (topped with two poached eggs and sourdough bread), followed by teas and French toast with apple and cinnamon compote to share. Everything was cooked fresh to order and so, so delicous!
Lunch or dinner
Set menus are often the best way of eating well for less and that’s definitely the case in York, where there are several quite fancy restaurants offering cheaper meals for early diners. My top recommendation is the set menu at Rustique, a French restaurant with two branches in the city centre. At £14.95 for two substantial courses (12 to 10pm Sunday to Thursday, 12 to 7pm Friday to Saturday) it’s great value and the food, service and atmosphere are all top-notch (but it’s too atmospherically dim in there to take decent photos!) Book ahead!
York has loads of pubs and bars to choose from, but for cocktails you’ve got to try Evil Eye. There’s a rumour that this is Johnny Depp’s favourite bar, and while I can’t vouch for that it’s easy to see what he might like about it. The quirky interior design features bold colours, lizard statues, star-lit ceilings and a giant Jack Skellington.
The cocktail menu is well-priced, and so huge that you need at least 10 minutes to read it. Go at Happy Hour (between 5 and 9pm, Sunday to Thursday) and you can get any two £6 cocktails for £10. Once you’ve plumped for one, the next decision is where to drink it: the lively main bar, the psychadelic sun deck, or one of the colourful rooms upstairs where you can sit on a sofa or bed.
Paid attractions / Museums
If you decide to visit one of York’s many museums, the biggest and best is probably the Castle Museum. An adult ticket is £10, but the museum is so large that you could spend a whole day there if you wanted. The main attraction is a simulation of a Victorian street whose props, pretend shops, sound effects and day-to-night lighting create a really immersive experience.
The Castle Museum also hosts several exhibitions that change periodically: our favourite, ‘Shaping the body’ focused on how fashion has changed throughout history and even gave us the chance to dress up!
Have you ever been to York? What did you do there and what would you recommend? Let me know in the comments!
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2017. All rights reserved.