17 Best Things To Do in York City Centre Without a Car

Are you exploring the vibrant city of York but wondering what you can do without having to rent a car?

Luckily for you, exploring the charm and history of York’s city centre without a car is so easy, in fact, I’d recommend it! In this guide, we’ll uncover the 17 best things to do in York city centre, ensuring you make the most of your visit while leaving the car behind.

All of the main sights to visit in York are close together, from the stunning York Minster Cathedral, to afternoon tea at Betty’s, and the cobbled streets of The Shambles. This makes York an incredibly walkable city – plus parking is expensive and a space can be hard to find.

We’ve included a huge variety of activities and attractions from the best park to visit or how to see the spooky side of York. Also, we’ve answered some of your most important questions like how long should you spend in York and when is the best time to visit York.

If there’s a part of this guide that you’re particularly interested in you can skip straight there by clicking on that section in the contents below. If not, then continue reading to read about the 17 best things to do in York City Centre without a car.

17 best things to do in York City Centre

1. York Minister

York Minster is an impressive Cathedral that was built between 1220 and 1472. Located in the centre of York, it’s truly worth visiting to see the stunning detail in the stained glass windows, stone, and wooden carved pews. There’s so much to experience once you’re inside the Minster, including visiting the museum under the Cathedral and the crypt. 

2. Shambles

The Shambles is a historic part of York, and one of the best preserved medieval shopping street in Europe. There are many independent shops to explore including The Shop That Must Not Be Named, the Nutcracker Christmas Shop, and our personal favourite – The Society of Alchemists.

3. Shambles Market

Threaded throughout the winding streets of the Shambles is the Shambles Market where you can find a mixture of stalls filled with handmade gifts, artisan crafts and homemade sweet treats. There are also plenty of food stalls, cafes and bakeries around the shambles market for you to grab something for breakfast or a quick snack.

4. Walk the City Walls

Built for protection during the 13th century, the York city walls are still largely intact and open to the public from 8am to dusk. If you’re visiting in winter you should check if they’ll be open ahead of time as they close if there’s adverse weather that would make them unsafe. Although the entire wall isn’t still standing you can still follow the trail to complete the wall in its entirety. Starting at Walmgate Bar follow the trail around to Micklegate Bar, stopping off at Cliffords Tower along the way. Not only do you get great views of York on the walls, but the best part is that it’s completely free to do! 

5. Visit Cliffords Tower

Way back in 1069 William the Conqueror built two small castles in York, one of which stood on the same spot that Clifford’s Tower stands today. With a varied history throughout the years this castle could have easily been left to ruin, but instead has been turned into a historic gem in the heart of York. After being burnt to the ground and rebuilt twice the tower was rebuilt in stone for the final time from 1245 – 1272. In more recent years the castle has been restored further by the National Trust with new walkways and a roof deck offering stunning views across York. 

6. Visit Rowntree Park

After exploring the city centre for a day or two you may be craving the serenity of some green space! You’ll find this serenity in Rowntree Park with woodland walks, duck ponds and awesome kids play parks. There are also toilets and a cafe/restaurant on site so you’ll have all the facilities needed for a great afternoon in the park, especially if you’re lucky with the weather. Located just a 15 minute walk from Cliffords Tower and less than 30 minutes walk from the centre of York it’s easily accessible without a car.

7. Visit a Museum

There are many museums to visit in York city centre but the two best ones that you should include in your York itinerary are the York Castle Museum and the Yorkshire Museum and Gardens. 

Once the York Country Gaol, the York Castle Museum is now home to exhibitions showing what life was like in York. Not to miss is Kirkgate, the oldest indoor street of its kind with original shop fronts and items from around the end of the 19th century. 

Visit the Yorkshire Museum to learn all about the city’s rich history, including its Roman, Viking and Medieval past. You can also visit the gardens surrounding the museum where you’ll find stunning plants and flowers, a wide array of wildlife, and the historic ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey. When visiting the Yorkshire Museum don’t miss the observatory tucked away on the grounds of the gardens.

8. Book a Ghost Walking Tour

Aside from its Viking history York is most well known for the ghostly and haunted! This is why during your visit you have to take part in a walking or bus ghost tour. During the short tours you’ll be taken around the city streets, visiting some of the most haunted places and buildings, and hear all the ghost stories that have been passed down through generations.

9. York River Cruise

The River Ouse runs through the centre of York making it the ideal way to see the city. There are many options if you want to take a cruise along the river, from a basic daytime cruise to a cruise during the evening sunset. You can even hire a self steer boat if you’re feeling confident! 

10. Visit the Jorvik Viking Centre

Stop in at the Jorvik Viking Centre to get a glimpse into what life would have been like in Viking York. The centre sits on the excavation site of a 10th century Viking community, including houses, workshops and backyards. If you’re visiting in February you’ll also get to experience the Jorvik Viking Festival, it’s the largest Viking festival in Europe and is well worth the visit. 

11. Enjoy a Sweet Treat at Betty’s

Betty’s is a 100 year institution in York and is known as having some of the absolute best cake and sweet treats in the city. Their afternoon tea is the most popular for visitors however it’s quite costly so for a cheaper option stop in for an individual sweet treat instead. 

12. Enjoy the Shopping

York is well known for being a top spot with excellent shopping options like The Shambles or Coppergate Centre. From the standard high street shop to designer names, and plenty of little independent shops selling things that you just won’t find anywhere else. Our favourite shops to visit in York are ‘The House of Trembling Madness’, ‘The Shop That Must Not Be Named’, and ‘York Vikings’. 

13. Yorks Chocolate Story

Chocolate is one of the many cornerstones of York with several famous chocolate factories calling the city home throughout history, including Terry’s, Rowntree’s and Craven’s. Visit the Yorks Chocolate Story shop to discover why York is called the Chocolate City through interactive exhibits, demonstrations and even take part in a delicious chocolate masterclass!

14. The York Dungeon

There’s no better place for an immersive trip through 2000 years of York’s history than the York Dungeon. From the viking invasion to the torture chamber, and even a 15th century execution you’ll be thrown into the deep end with live actors and horrifying stories – think scarefest with a twist.  

15. Barley Hall

Originating back to around 1360, Barley Hall was covered by a relatively modern brick facade that hid the secrets of its true age until the property was set to be redeveloped in 1984. In 1987 it was purchased by the York Archeological Trust who restored it to the piece of medieval history that it is today. Nowadays the Barley Hall has been completely restored as a replication of how it would have looked as a 1483 townhouse, complete with a great hall that would have been perfect for medieaval banquets. 

16. The York Cat Trail

The most surprising thing you’ll find to do in York is the cat trail where you can do a walking tour of York on the hunt for the black cat statues dotted on top of houses or on the side of buildings. It’s quite the mystery with no one knowing exactly when or why they first started but the current thinking is that the first few originated in the 1920s. There are now up to 28 cats to find that make for a fun and quirky way to do a tour of York city centre. 

17. Visit a Themed Bar

There are many themed bars in York where you can enjoy a cocktail or two in the coolest surroundings. The absolute best is the loud and dinghy Valhalla, a Viking themed bar where you can enjoy craft beers while listening to rock ‘n metal music – even if it’s not your scene it’s worth stopping in just for one. Another option to explore is Evil Eye, a self confessed “home of the bizarre, weird and wonderful”, complete with wacky cocktails and eclectic decor. 

FAQ: what are the best things to do in York City Centre?

Is York worth visiting?

Yes, York absolutely is worth visiting. It’s one of my favourite places to visit in England because of the shopping, history and food. If that doesn’t convince you to book a trip to York then below I’ve listed the top 5 reasons you should plan York into your next UK break.

  • It makes a great day trip from London or Edinburgh. Not only is it easy to get to from either location by train, but the train station is right in the centre of York making it easy to get around. 
  • Kind of a follow on from the first point, York is a very walkable city. Everything is close by and it’s super easy to get around on foot. 
  • York is steeped in history and charm with a 13th century cathedral and Viking past that you can explore. 
  • Many of the attractions and things to do in York are either free or low cost, including walking the York City Walls, York Museum and Gardens and The Shambles. 
  • There’s such a huge variety of shops from designer brands to small independent shops, it’s easy to spend a whole day shopping.

What is the best time to visit York?

York is an incredible city no matter when you decide to visit, however there are better times to visit than others depending on what you want to do during your time there. One key thing to remember before deciding when to visit York is that it’s in the north of England so there’s no guarantee on the weather. You could end up with rain for most of your visit in July or a few nice days in November

Spring is a good time to visit York if you want long walks in the crisp spring air with less tourists and people around. You are more likely to get more rainy days but there is also the chance of some better weather and the spring flowers are beautiful to see.  

Summer is a good time to visit York if you want the best chance of beautiful sunshine, picnics in the park and relaxing in a beer garden overlooking the River Ouse. You’re more likely to get better weather but don’t forget that many hotels, shops and attractions in England don’t have aircon to make you more comfortable. 

Autumn is a good time to visit York if you want to avoid the summer crowds but still visit before it gets too cold. It won’t be as busy but there’s a higher chance of rain which could put a damper on any outdoor activities. 

Winter is a good time to visit York if you want to spend the chilly afternoons snuggled in a cosy cafe after walking around the Christmas market that runs throughout the city streets. It is incredibly busy in York when the Christmas market is open so if you’re not a fan of crowds this is something to consider.

How long do I need to spend in York? 

York is quite compact so it’s possible to see the highlights of York in one day. Having said this, one day will feel quite rushed, so to fully explore at a slower pace and get to dig a little deeper into York than just the highlights you should plan to spend a weekend in York.

There’s more to Yorkshire than just York so if you’re planning on hiring a car and travelling further afield then plan for 5 days to add on a trip to the Yorkshire Dales and one of the many seaside towns to your trip.

How do I spend one day in York?

One day in York is enough to see the main historic sights and some of the best things to do in York. If I only had one day to spend in York the three things I’d prioritise seeing would be the York Minster, walking a portion of the city walls and wandering around the shambles and shambles market. These can all easily be done in one day whereas some of the other things to do in this post – like the Jorvik Viking Centre or one of the museums – would take up quite a big chunk of time. 

Summary: what are the best things to do in York city centre?

Hopefully from this post you’ve seen that not only is it easy to visit and get around York city centre without a car, in fact it’s way more difficult and expensive to visit with a car when you have to navigate the traffic, figure out where to park and pay the high parking fees. Even without a car there are so many attractions and restaurants to experience in York, most at a low cost or – even better, free! 

We’ve visited York a few times throughout different times of the year and it remains one of our favourite cities to visit in England. To help you narrow your visit down we’ve listed below our absolute top 5 things to do in York city centre. 

  1. York Minster
  2. Walk the city walls and Cliffords Tower
  3. Yorkshire museums and gardens
  4. The Shambles and shambles market
  5. Book a walking ghost tour

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