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Things to Do in York for Free – A Weekend Break in This Beautiful City

Minster behind Street in York
Walking towards York Minster, Yorkshire

If you’re looking for cheap things to do in the UK, then this blog post about things to do in York for free is for you!

Looking back on it now, those Yorkie chocolate bar adverts on telly back in the 80s and 90s really were a triumph of subliminal advertising, weren’t they? I mean, Leni Riefenstahl herself would have been proud of the messaging and imagery in them.

Everything in those adverts was very cunningly designed to make you think a simple 46g bar of chocolate was absolutely massive. The adverts were all ENORMOUS TRUCKS with HUGE WHEELS driven by HUNGRY MEN in the POURING RAIN who probably shaved with BROKEN GLASS and pissed HOT NAPALM.

There was even a version made just for soldiers in the British Army at one stage, a small treat for when you were in a wood block somewhere in Wales with a filthy uniform the same colour as a Yorkie bar.

However, when you’d parted from your money and actually cracked one open, it was, still, very much a standard chocolate bar, albeit a bit chunkier than your average Dairy Milk I guess.

a yorkie bar with chocolate next to the wrapper.

Don’t worry, this hasn’t turned into a foodie blog (unless Mrs B decides I shall only write about food from now on, which I am not averse to – I do like eating, especially chocolate).

But I recently found myself on a train to visit York the other day, home of the eponymous Yorkie Bar, and I found myself staring out of the window, reminiscing about all things Yorkshire like I’d accidentally fallen into a trashy airport novel.

I have a genuinely turbulent relationship with Yorkshire. As anyone who knows me will confirm, I am a copper-bottomed, ocean-going, gold-plated Southerner through and through, all day long. I’m so Southern, you can see France from my house on a good day and I break out in hives at the thought of manual labour or drinking a whole pint without a top.

That said, my father is a Yorkshireman (from Castleford, no less) and always speaks fondly of the rolling dales while munching on liquorice allsorts, so I thought a weekend break to York should be on the cards.

For reasons that escape me, one of my inexplicable friendship group is a genuine, whippet-owning, flat cap-wearing, bearded hobbit from Bradford in Yorkshire, so when a rare spare weekend appeared on the family calendar, I took a deep breath, messaged a few mates who might be interested in meeting up, parted with some money and duly headed North.

London to York by Train

LNER train passing by a train station platform
The LNER is the mainline from London to York

Drinking was on the cards for the weekend, so taking the car wasn’t really an option. The train is the only real option given York’s history as a railway city, and despite successive Government attempts to ruin public transport, the railway is still an excellent way to get to York.

I took an LNER train from Kings Cross London to York and took advantage of LNERs “Weekend First” offer. Rail companies have long noticed that First Class carriages are pitifully empty at weekends, and so, for an additional fee (£25 normally, £35 if you’re going beyond Wakefield), you can upgrade a standard class ticket to the full First-Class experience.

If you’ve already saved a few quid by buying an advance ticket, or hold a railcard of any description, you can bag a First Class experience for much less than normal.

There’s also an Open Access rail operator that goes South to North – Grand Central Trains – who have rave reviews but crucially don’t have the frequency of journeys, so if you’re up against a deadline, do book in advance and pick carefully.

the first class seat on a LNER train
First-class LNER from London to York

If paying a First-Class supplement goes against your principles, and you‘d like the thrill of gambling with your comfort instead, you might want to consider downloading the SeatFrog app for your smartphone.

This is a really simple way to see if you can get upgraded by most train operators. You simply put in the time and destination of your train, add in how much you’re willing to “bid” for an upgrade, and shortly before your train leaves, you’ll get a notification of if your bid has been successful.

If it is, the amount of your bid is deducted from your card and you can go and sit in First Class. If not, there are no hard feelings and you sit in the seat you’d already purchased.

I’m sure there’s some sort of fee you have to pay to SeatFrog as well, but hey, if you can win an upgrade for a fiver, it’s a small price to pay.

The LNER First Class Lounge at Kings Cross

chairs surround a large fireplace with wallpapered walls and grey carpet in the LNER first class lounge
LNER first class lounge at Kings Cross

Being naturally averse to gambling with my comfort, I’d already opted to pay a supplement which came with access to the First-Class Lounge at Kings Cross, so I arrived a little early to have a nose around.

If you love travelling like me (of course you do, you’re on a travel blog, right?) you’ll know that little feeling of excitement in the pit of your stomach when you head across a packed passenger concourse off to somewhere new.

There are crowds of tourists, people saying hello and goodbye to loved ones, the roar of engines starting up – it’s all rather exciting on the old senses. Well, that feeling is always slightly heightened by the promise of a lounge.

Now, a Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse this is not. If an airline lounge like the BA First at London Heathrow is the equivalent of a Waitrose, the LNER First Class Lounge at Kings Cross is a Sainsbury’s level of expense.

The station concourse is, of course, your local corner shop where the kids outside will try and ask you to buy them twenty Rothmans and a bottle of white lightning. Entering via a lift from the main concourse, your ticket is checked by a very lovely receptionist who will wave you in the direction of the lounge.

London to York by train. Image credit: seat61.com

Now, this may or may not have been a fluke, but the day I went in, there was a genuinely complimentary masseur who was offering to rub you down before your journey. Because I’m British, I have a horror of being touched by, well, anyone, so I politely declined and explored the rest of the lounge.

There were some clean and tidy ablutions, a complimentary snack and refreshment area where you could get hot and cold drinks, crisps, muffins and fruit and stacks of comfortable chairs laid out in styles suitable for couples, families and solo travellers along with power points everywhere for the inevitable charging of electronics you’ll need to do.

Insanely cheerful LNER staff sailed around making sure you were topped up, propped up and powered up and taking a bottle of water and a banana for the journey, I reluctantly made my way to the train when the board flashed up that the train was ready for boarding.

Another cheerful member of LNER staff guided me to my seat and having identified the controls to make my seat recline and my phone continue to charge, I settled down with yet another coffee.

Before we’d even been moving ten minutes, the staff were up again, offering us a snack lunch of either coronation chicken or cheese sandwiches, crisps and as much Diet Coke and ice as our bladders could handle.

One of the advantages of Weekend First upgrades is the fact the carriages are almost deserted, but this came with the disadvantage that the lovely staff were practically begging us to get rid of stock, in the manner of Mrs Doyle from Father Ted trying to get people to have a lovely cup of tea.

“Will you be having a few white wines, sir?”

“Uhhh” I said. “It’s eleven in the morning.”

“Ah, go on.”

“It’s a bit early for me.”

“Ah, go on. Go on, go on, go on, go on.”

I went on.

Four hours later, I was having an absolutely smashing train journey, thank you for asking, rocking along happily to the motion of the train, “Its Grim Up North” by the KLF playing through my headphones and feeling incredibly benevolent to the very lovely train crew who had taken a shine to me and stuffed my coat pockets with extra bottles and cups of ice “for your onward journey sir”.

I’m not sure where they thought I was travelling onto – straight into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting felt like the most likely option by that stage – but I was thankful for their kindness and it was with some effort I fell onto the platform at York to be greeted by some surprised looking friends, who promptly accused me of cheating by drinking before them.

Artfully managing to defuse the situation, I somehow pulled a small plastic glass that was already filled with wine directly from a coat pocket and offered it around to the assembled masses. I was ready for York.

Visit York – Places to Stay

inside of an old tudor building pub in York
There are plenty of old pubs to visit in York

York is great for two things. Firstly, there are oodles of pubs, with about 100 within the ancient City walls, which I was very much in the mood for by that stage.

But next up, there are an equal oodles of places to stay, ranging from the super luxury Grand Hotel, York’s only five-star rated hotel just inside the City Centre. It’s only just been recently renovated too, so it looks stunning inside and out.

We popped in for a quick drink and to use the toilets, and every inch of it looked superb. The bar we visited screamed elegant coolness inside a genuinely beautiful period property, the staff were kind and attentive and if this had been any other sort of weekend, I would have booked myself in without hesitation. The rooms start at about £210 per night.

Sadly, this was more of a beer with lads rather than glad rags weekend, so we had cunningly opted to try a hotel apartment stay on the other side of town in the Staycity Aparthotels near the Barbican, which is over to the south-eastern side of the City.

twin beds with a large window overlooking York
Not quite the Grand Hotel, York, but the Staycity Aparthotels does the job!

For my money, this is the best value way to stay if you’re travelling with a larger group. A large, modern apartment that slept four in a double and a twin room combo came with all the mod cons you’d expect – air con, wifi, a couple of bathrooms with powerful kick-ass showers, plus a fully equipped kitchenette/lounge area if you fancied a spot of self-catering (spoiler, this is a lazy blog and no, I did not).

An apartment for four came to just under £350 per night, which at about £88 per head is a pretty reasonable shout.

As the Aparthotels are set up for self-catering, the food options were naturally limited, but I was pleased to see the reception area doubled as a shop/café/bar where you could get pizzas, snacks, and, most importantly, a good array of beers.

There was also a Co-Op supermarket located next door in case you wanted to buy anything else for your stay. Check-in was as seamless as any other place – give your names, swipe your card, hope your card doesn’t bounce, and here’s your room key.

The bedrooms were comfy and clean and so after dropping our bags off, we were off out again. Of course, if you don’t want luxury and you’re not a drunken lout like I am, there a dozens of other options available.

The normal chain hotels are dotted around the city. Hilton, IHG, DoubleTree (by Hilton), Holiday Inn, Travel Lodge, Ibis, Best Western and Premier Inn all have hotels dotted around the city and depending on your requirements and dates have reasonable prices, but for my money, I recommend checking out one of the many independent hotels in the City.

bar at the Hilton, York
Bar at the Hilton, York

The Minster Walk Guest House, slap bang in the middle of the city is a 300-year-old building that has been loving converted into an independent hotel and constantly receives rave reviews. It’s well worth checking out, or at least checking in.

Things to Do in York for Free

The York minster in between the shops
There are many things to do in York for free and taking in the scenery is one of the best

York is absolutely ideal for a weekend away, and depending on if you’re travelling with friends, family or solo, there’s something for every taste, budget and style.

In between supping beers, we managed to check out:  

1. The York City Walls Walk

Citywide and Free!

York Walls
The York Walls that wrap around the city
view of York minster from the York walls
Splendid views from the York walls

If you need to stretch your legs before or after eating a copious amount of chocolate, you could do a lot worse than strolling around the ancient City Walls of York.

There are access points dotted around the city and if you wanted to, you could walk the whole circuit in about 2 hours, depending on your level of fitness and the prevailing mood of any small children accompanying you.

looking through an old wall out onto the streets of York
Looking out from the many viewpoints on York’s wall

Be warned though, as the walls were built in a time before modern accessibility requirements, there are areas with steep steps and areas where there’s a drop of a couple of metres. If you can get over that, your reward is some amazing views of the city and the chance to walk in the actual footsteps of Romans and Vikings.

Check out these tours;

2.  The National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, YO26 4XJ

Free, although donations welcome!

trains throughout the years at the national train museum in York
Trains at the National Rail Museum, York

Aside from chocolate, York was also a railway powerhouse back in the day.

The National Railway Museum is open Wednesday to Sunday between 10.00–17.00 and is an absolute treasure trove of railway history.

Even if you’re not oddly over-enthusiastic about trains like I am, there’s something for everyone, from the social history of the UK explained through travel, through to modern technology marvels like cross sections of the Channel Tunnel and a café that knocks out some great quality snacks and drinks.

3. The Shambles, YO1 7LZ

Also free!

looking down into the Shambles, York
The Shambles, York

Harry Potter fans, rejoice! Here’s your chance to see the actual streets that Diagon Alley was based on in the acclaimed Harry Potter novels which you can see at the Harry Potter Studios

The Shambles is an Instagram-friendly, picture-perfect, but very narrow street of mostly timber buildings from the 13th Century packed with independent retailers and you can instantly see why JK Rowling thought it felt suitably magical and wonderous.

This has been enthusiastically embraced by some local shopkeepers and your aspiring young witches and wizards must pop into “The Shop That Must Not Be Named” for a quick magic fix.  

The crowds get absolutely manic on nicer days, so my top tip is to get up early and get your photographs early in the morning before doing anything else.

4. The Museum Gardens, YO1 7FR

Free, although donations welcome!

York museum gardens with the ruins of St Mary's abbey next to green grass
Museum Gardens

If the weather’s nice and you’re into all things horticultural, the York Museum Gardens are ten acres of charity-run gardens right in the beating heart of York.

Now, I for one try and steer Mrs B away from all things garden because plants are expensive and if she develops a collection of plants like she’s developed a collection of shoes, we’re definitely heading for a lifetime of penury.  

That said, if you simply want a pleasant amble though some obviously well cared for gardens during a lovely summer day, York Museum Gardens are a must-see. You’re more than welcome to bring along a picnic and relax on the lawns, or there’s a café nearby, by the Art Gallery – which leads me nicely to…

5. The York Art Gallery, Exhibition Square, York, YO1 7EW

Inside the York art gallery
Image credit – York Art Gallery

If you’re feeling cultured – and I’m assuming if you’re reading this, you are indeed a person of culture – why not spend a couple of hours marvelling at local and national artists.

If the weather’s looking a bit grey, it’s all indoors and given the Museum’s northern status, there’s a nod to local pottery and local inventions. The café inside, Café Sketch (open Opening Hours: 1030 -1530 / Wednesday-Sunday) does a really refreshing cup of tea at refreshing Northern prices. 

5 Things to Do in York for Families

If you do have a few quid spare, thanks to the aforementioned Northern prices, the things that do cost, don’t cost too much.

I heartily recommend you check out these things to do in York for families:

1. York’s Chocolate Story, King’s Square York YO1 7LD

Prices from £15.75, Children from £13.50.

a view of York's chocolate story shop in York
Visit York – York’s Chocolate Story

Look, everyone loves chocolate and if you claim you don’t, I’ll claim I don’t believe you, so there’s literally no better place to discover the history of York than via the history of chocolate, where the aforementioned Yorkie bar comes from.

I for one would have done better than my GCSE grade C in History if the teachers had used chocolate as the vehicle to teach kids history. If you book at least 2 days in advance, you’ll get an extra 10% off your booking price and the pick of time slots that best suit your day.  

If you want to have a bash at rolling your own truffles, that happens towards the end of the day, so you’re best off booking a later slot. Tours last about an hour and a half and are suitable for chocoholics, dentists looking to increase their profit margins and parents of small children who need some extra energy.

2. The Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of St Peter in York

Also known as York Minster – £16 adults (£22 if you want to go up the tower), Children free (£6 for the tower).  

York minster
York Minster

No trip to York can be complete without making “oooh” and “ahhh” noises at the genuinely stunning York Minister.

Now, I’m one of those heretics who have no real faith, but even I was impressed by the craftsmanship that went into knocking up this place.

The York minster from the outside, lit up through the stained glass windows
The impressive York minster lit up at night

We currently live in a world of badly built new houses, and it absolutely blows my mind that people in the 13th century could put together something so elaborate, beautiful and ornate using only brains and basic tools. Yet, Persimmon Homes can’t put together a basic 3-bed semi together without it crumbling in two years.

Get yourself down there, but check the times for general admission just in case you walk in on the Archbishop giving a lecture. Sorry, I meant sermon. 

3. York Castle Museum, Eye of York, York, YO1 9RY

Adults £13 online (£14 Walk up price), Children £6.50 online (£7 walk-up price).

York castle museum and grounds
York Castle Museum

Like castles? Like history? Want to shiver at the stories of murder and mayhem in the old Castle Prison? Perhaps you’re an unusually specific person who only really wants to see a recreated Victorian street that specifically and only recreates the time period between 1870 and 1901? Want to feel instantly old when you see your childhood toys in a museum?

Well, in that case, you’re in luck, my friend, the York Castle Museum has all of those things plus spades more – the kids will love the toy museum area and you’ll instantly fall under the spell of nostalgia as you see the toys from your own childhood on display, while simultaneously noticing you are, in fact, so very old.

You can leave safe in the knowledge that you are neither as old, nor as rich, as the history of York though.

4. The Jorvik Viking Museum, Coppergate, York YO1 9WT

Prices from Adults £15, Children £10.50, under 5’s free! You can also use Tesco’s Clubcard points to reduce the cost further.

viking helment
Viking helmet

Look, I will go out on a limb here and state that I think Vikings are cool. I am a proper Viking nerd and was a fan of sword-wielding warriors long before George RR Martin had even thought about Game of Thrones. I mean, they fought hard, carried cool weapons and liked a drink – not sure what’s not to like on that list, to be honest.

At the Jorvik Viking Museum, you can learn more about Vikings than you ever really wanted to know, including the history of the amazing Lloyds Bank Coprolite. The what? Fossilised Viking poo, that’s what.

Yup, the Jorvik Museum is home to a poo that has been described as “precious as the crown jewels” in terms of what they tell us about Viking diet and history. As an added bonus, it’s named after Lloyds Bank, where it was found. For some reason, I also think of coprolites when I think of Lloyds Bank. Seems fitting.

5. The York Maze, Elvington Lane, York, YO19 5LT

Prices TBC, will be confirmed in the Spring.

aerial shot of the York Maze with green fields behind
Image credit: York Maze

Don’t be fooled by the name, there’s more to the York Maze than a simple maze. Alright, it started out as a simple corn maze, but as the attraction grew … so did the attractions.

It’s a wildly popular outdoor attraction, which being outdoors, means it’s only open in the summer months, but if you need to fill a long, hot summer day with children, York Maze is where you need to be!

With well over 20 rides, attractions and shows, there’s something for everyone, from the largest Maize Maze in Europe (highly Instagram worthy) to an obstacle course and of course, a café to recharge with ice cream once the summer heat hits you. Highly recommended for those with young children, but not recommended for terribly hungover men.

Food and Drink in York

York at night with lots of lights on shop windows
York streets at night. It gets lively!

York has an abundance of places to eat, plus a few Michelin-starred restaurants if you’re feeling a bit fancy. How a company that makes tyres for F1 cars branched out into restraint reviews is totally lost on me, but if you want to impress someone, The Rattle Owl and the Fish and Forest (both in Mickelgate) both proudly boast Michelin stars.

Now, I’m too poor to be able to afford *checks notes* food but both looked incredible as I strolled past. Luckily, for some reason, Italian food is also wildly popular and widely cheaper, so we dived into the Marzano Italian Grill near Fossgate and managed a really decent bowl of pasta and a glass of wine for a couple of quid, and looking at the clientele of basically everyone, it proved it appealed to all ages.

For those of you looking for something a little more civilised for lunch or dinner, there are a couple of other offerings worthy of mention.

The Ivy front entrance in York, draped with flowers and foliage

First up, there’s The Ivy in York. Now, I’m always a bit sceptical of these. The original Ivy was set up in 1917 in London – specifically, in Convent Garden – as a handy spot for theatregoers to enjoy a quick bite and it quickly set the standard for food and drink.

Now there are over 30 spin-offs on this theme, but sure any dilution of any brand always risks being less good than the original was. I mean, you know where you are with a Range Rover. But drive a Range Rover Evoque and people will look at you slightly quizzically.

It’s the same with movie sequels, right? Die Hard was a stunning action movie, but Die Hard 2 rightly belongs in the pantheon of awful follow-ups. So is a chain using the Ivy brand going to be worth the money for lunch?

Actually yes.

The Ivy in York takes all the things that were great about the original Ivy – including the relentless commitment to quality food and drink – and gives it a modern and refreshed update.

The menu has something for even the fussiest eater and the impressive food is only really matched by the stunning ambience. I recommend you treat yourself, you probably deserve it.

Bettys tea rooms from the outside in York
Image credit: Bettys Tea Rooms

A follow-up honourable mention must also Bettys Tea Rooms if your stomach is rumbling around teatime. If you’re travelling for a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary, you could win some serious brownie points by booking here.

By all accounts, Bettys is a bit of a Yorkshire institution, with famous tea rooms both in York and also, Harrogate. It’s a little price – prices are from £39.95 per person but here’s the thing right – it’s unlimited.

Yup, all-you-can-eat pretty cakes, delicious scones and exquisite sandwiches are all yours for the taking after you’ve parted with your cash.

an old bridge over the River Ouse in York

I’m still slightly hungover from the weekend, so I don’t want to talk too much about drinking in York.

All I will say is that there are over 100 pubs just within the city walls, which probably explains why the Vikings were so keen to invade York. It all went slightly blurry after 10 pm, and before I knew it, it was time to depart York with a hangover the Vikings themselves would have been proud of.

As I slowly lowered myself back onto a London-bound train, clutching a hot black coffee like my soul depended on it, I was certainly impressed by all things York.

York and the River Ouse at dusk
Visit York! You won’t be disappointed

Perhaps those advertising geniuses in the 80s and 90s weren’t trying to be subliminal when they suggested all things Yorkie were massive.

Perhaps just because they were from York, they simply saw the world through a lens of massively impressive things – big chocolate, gigantic castle walls, impressive churches, mind-boggling numbers of pubs and huge trains.

So if you’re looking for something different for a weekend break, I can heartily recommend York.  Everything seems bigger there.

Including the hangovers.

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