York is one of the UK’s gems. A wonderfully preserved medieval city, walking down its cobbled streets is like taking a trip into the past. With a wealth of attractions, you could happily spend a couple of weeks in York and not get bored. Even better, there’s an abundance of free activities to do and places to visit. Here’s a guide to the top 21 things to do for free in York.
Outdoor Spaces and Activities
Possibly the most famous part of York, The Shambles is an old street in the city centre with a number of overhanging timber-framed buildings, some of which date back to the 14th century. The name comes from its old Anglo-Saxon name Fleshammels, literally translating to ‘flesh-shelves’, as the street used to be filled with butchers’ shops and it was possible to see the cuts of meat hanging in the windows. Now the butchers’ shops don’t exist, but as you walk down this delightful cobblestone street, you will find a great mix of shops and restaurants. The street is also the location of the home of Saint Margaret Clitherow, who was married to a butcher on the street and was pressed to death for harbouring Catholic priests; you can still see the priest hole fireplace where she hid priests at number ten, now a cufflinks shop.
As well as the Shambles, there are dozens of small streets running off the main thoroughfares in the city centre of York. Most of these narrow streets, big enough only for pedestrians to pass down, are medieval, although a few are more modern. The name ‘Snickelways’ is a portmanteau of the words snicket, ginnel and alleyway, coined by Mark W. Jones in 1983. It is cool to wander around the city seeking out all these little streets which usually have quirky names like Mad Alice Lane, Pope’s Head Alley and Grape Lane.
York City Walls
The impressive city walls of York have guarded the city for over 700 years. At approximately two miles long, they are the longest medieval walls in England. A walk along the walls takes about two hours and takes you past five main gateways, one Victorian gateway, one postern and 45 towers.
Free Guided Walking Tours
There are a number of companies which offer free walking tours of the city. The Association of Voluntary Guides leads a two-hour tour taking you past some of York’s biggest attractions and sights, including York Minster, Monk Bar, St Mary’s Abbey and The Shambles, as well as telling you many stories about the city and its history. The great thing about this tour company is that not only is the tour completely free, they don’t insist on tips either. Other walking tour companies to consider are: White Rose York Tours; Footprints Tours; and Strawberry Tours.
The Cat Trail
Since records began in the city of York, cats have been considered lucky and have played a major part in city life. For about two centuries, statues of cats have been placed on buildings in an attempt to frighten away rats and mice and therefore reduce the risk of disease; they were also believed to ward off evil spirits and generally to bring good luck to the occupants of the property. It is possible to download a Cat Trail map from the website of the Cat Gallery; not only will you be able to seek out the cats of York, but it will take you past some of the most beautiful parts of the city.
In the heart of the city is Shambles Market, a vibrant market consisting of 85 different stalls selling a wide variety goods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing, books, cosmetics, flowers, crafts and gifts. There’s also a really great street food area; be sure to try out the North African and Levantine food. The market is open seven days a week from 7am.
Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre is Europe’s first pop-up theatre. Although you have to pay for the plays which are performed, it is free to wander around the Shakespeare’s Village the theatre is set in. Located in the car park next to Clifford’s Tower, the village captures the atmosphere of a medieval village, with oak-framed, reed-thatched buildings offering the finest Yorkshire food and drink along with wagon entertainment, minstrels and even a lovely Elizabethan garden with flower and herb beds. The theatre and village only pop up in York during the summer months; in 2019, the village and performances will start in June and run until the beginning of September.
Museums and Libraries
National Railway Museum
One of the city’s most popular museums, the National Railway Museum is the largest museum of its kind in Britain. The museum details the history of rail transport and the impact it has had on society. It has a collection of over 100 locomotives and around 300 other items connected with trains and railways. Some of the most impressive trains in its collection include: a 1938 Mallard; a working replica of the steam locomotive the Rocket; an 1846 Coppernob; and a 1976 Shinkansen bullet train, the only one on display outside of Japan. Other highlights of the museum are: the George Cross medal awarded posthumously to train driver Wallace Oakes for staying on a burning train after it had been involved in an accident; the Royal trains, including a carriage that was used by Queen Victoria; and the warehouse, which houses a permanent exhibition telling the story of the Flying Scotsman.
The Bar Convent
Founded in 1686, the Bar Convent is England’s oldest living convent. Originally founded as a school for girls, it still has members of the Congregation of Jesus living there today. Housed in grade I-listed 18th-century buildings, they are open to the public. Here you can visit an exhibition on the interesting history of the convent; at the time the convent was founded, practising Catholicism was very dangerous, so the ladies who lived there had to be very secretive about what they were doing. You will learn about radical nun Mary Ward who traversed the Alps twice on foot and get the chance to hide yourself in a priest hole. There’s also a cafe and accommodation on site.
Parks and Gardens
Located just a 10- to 15-minute walk south of the city centre, Rowntree Park is a wonderful place to take a long stroll. As well as the well-kept gardens, there is also a lake, canal and water cascade which are home to a number of swans, ducks and Canada geese. There are plenty of facilities to make use of, such as tennis courts, a skate park, a basketball court and bowling greens. If the weather is nice, there are also some picnic areas for you to enjoy a meal in the sun. Kids will enjoy the excellent play area which has climbing frames and a zip wire.
Located north of York Minster, the main draw of Dean’s Park is that it offers spectacular views of this fabulous church. Although you need to pay to enter the Minster, it is free to admire the wonderful exterior. It’s a lovely spot to take some time to relax during a hard day’s sightseeing, and during the summer there are places to buy ice cream and soft drinks.
Yorkshire Museum Gardens and Observatory
Set in the grounds of St Mary’s Abbey, Yorkshire Museum Gardens is a great way to enjoy some peace and quiet in the middle of the city. There’s a lot of things to see in the gardens. It houses the oldest working observatory in Yorkshire, built between 1832 and 1833; the telescope inside was built by Thomas Cooke, the man who went on to build what was then the largest telescope in the world. The observatory is also home to a clock dating back to 1811 which tells the time based on the positioning of the stars; it is the clock that all others in the city were set by back in the 19th century. There is also an abundance of flora and 40 species of bird to spot.
One of the most beautiful natural areas of the city, Homestead Park is located in Clifton, 1 ½ miles from the city centre. The park’s main features include: a wild flower meadow; a tree-lined avenue; herbaceous and extensive shrub borders; and the Backhouse pond and rock garden. There’s loads of facilities for children in the popular play area, such as a paddling pool, table tennis, a monkey gym and helter skelter rides. The park also offer leaflets with different walks, such as several tree-trail walks and a wildlife walk.
Technically not in York itself but only a short 15-mile drive away, Yorkshire Lavender Gardens and Specialist Plant Nursery offers some of the best views in the county, being set in the Howardian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. As well as the award-winning lavender gardens, there is a sculpture park to explore, a lavender maze to get lost in, a sensory garden, and Highland cattle and lambs to pet.
York St Mary’s
Dating back to 1020, this beautiful medieval church is known for having the city’s tallest spire, standing at 47 metres high. Having been consecrated in 1958, it spent a few decades as a heritage centre before being transformed into a contemporary art gallery in 2004. Exhibitions change regularly and the church makes an ambient place to view the artworks.
St Michael le Belfry
Known primarily as the church where Guy Fawkes was baptised in 1570, St Michael le Belfry is an impressive building. It is free to enter but tours of the church are run entirely by volunteers, so it is best to check before you visit whether it is possible for you to enter.
St Mary’s Abbey
Established in 1088, St Mary’s Abbey was once one of the wealthiest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England. The history of the abbey connects two very important events in England’s history: the abbey was built by order of William the Conqueror as a way of exerting control of the north, and was destroyed under the reign of Henry VIII as a consequence of his Reformation of the church. Visitors can see the remains of the nave and crossing of the abbey church. The walls surrounding the abbey, built in the 1260s, are considered to be the most complete set of abbey walls in the country.
Festivals and Events
York Food and Drink Festival
One of the most popular festivals in the city, the York Food and Drink Festival is running three events in 2019: the Chocolate Festival in April; the Taster Festival in June; and the main festival in September. It’s a complete not-for-profit event; the festivals and demos are free to enter and any money that is made from food and drinks sales goes back into funding for the festival the next year. Their aim is to promote local food and drink producers, to put York on the map as a culinary destination and to provide educational workshops on food and cooking.
Jorvik Viking Festival
Possibly the city’s most famous festival, the Jorvik Viking Festival celebrates York’s history as a Viking settlement. It takes place in February every year to coincide with the Viking festival of ‘Jolablot’, which was a celebration to say goodbye to winter and herald the coming of spring. Although you have to pay for some of the events, there are also free events during the week-long festivities. Events include workshops, talks and re-enactments.
York Festival of Traditional Dance
Taking place in September every year, for two days you will hear the sounds of jingling bells, tapping clogs and clashing sticks during the York Festival of Traditional Dance. Throughout the city you will see over 100 dancers and musicians performing a wide variety of dance styles.
York Christmas Market
From November to December every year, York is transformed into even more of a wonderland than it usually is. Tens of wooden chalets set up shop selling all kinds of festive goods. The Christmas standards of mulled wine, hot chestnuts and grilled sausages can be found all around the city centre. Kids will love Santa’s grotto and adults will love Thor’s Tipi, a Scandi pop-up bar complete with warm open fires and cosy fur hides.
York is a stunning city to visit whatever the season. And with this list of free things to do, you can enjoy the city for less.