The layers of history pile on thick in York. Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and various warring royal claimants have left their mark on a city that, for a long time, was the de facto capital of the English north. In more recent times, the railway and chocolate industries have given York their distinctive stamps too.
But the city’s not a giant museum piece, sterilised for tour buses and abandoned by modern life. Within the remarkably preserved city walls, the healthy buzz of independent shops and chefs making magic with quality local ingredients aid an already prodigious appeal. It goes way beyond being merely photogenic – it’s a hard heart that leaves without an enduring fondness for the place.
In fact, the wealth and variety of things to do give York a strong claim to being the most enjoyable English city outside of. It has more depth and contrast than the likes of one trick ponies Bath and Cambridge, combined with a picturesque, small-scale manageability beyond the likes of and Birmingham.
A comfortable bed
Within the walls, the Cedar Court Grand Hotel (www.cedarcourtgrand.co.uk, 00 44 1904 380 038) is the only five star option. An audacious conversion of a former railway company headquarters, the spa and pool downstairs occupy the former vaults. Plenty of period detail remains amongst the modern sparkle, and the rooms are far more spacious than most in town. Low season doubles from £104.
The other place that’s a bit special is a short bus ride out of town. Middlethorpe Hall (www.middlethorpe.com, 00 44 1904 641 241) is a gloriously traditional National Trust-owned property, with marvellously welcoming country house style service. Doubles from £119.
On a relative budget, there are dozens of B&Bs within a short walking distance of the city walls but, closer in, the contemporary-meets-heritage Goodramgate Apartments (www.goodramgate.co.uk, 00 44 1904 211 020) offer more space and facilities. Studios from £60.
Find your feet
The almost circular 3.4km loop along the city walls offers consistently pretty panoramas. Throw in the odd detour, and you can make a day of the circuit. York’s Chocolate Story (www.yorkschocolatestory.com, 00 44 845 498 9411) gives an entertaining overview of the city’s proud chocolate-making heritage, complete with demonstrations, although the big hitter is the Jorvik Viking Centre (jorvik-viking-centre.co.uk, 00 44 1904 615 505). Through mildly hokey ‘time-travelling’ rides, painstakingly reconstructed medieval street scenes and serious archaeological insight, it’s a brilliant and surprisingly authentic romp through York under Viking control in the 9th and 10th centuries. And there’s still a slight otherly Scandinavian influence on the city’s personality.
The York Castle Museum (www.yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk, 00 44 1904 687 687) is vastly underrated – covering everything from the English Civil War to the oddly engrossing history of cleaning products with perfectly-pitched aplomb. And the National Railway Museum’s (www.nrm.org.uk, 00 44 844 815 3139) top notch collection – many of the most famous trains ever made have a home here – takes it way beyond the realms of trainspotting nerdishness.
Meet the locals
York’s a broadly well-heeled city with a large cultural scene for its size. Its theatres punch well above their weight, with the York Theatre Royal (www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk, 01904 623 568) adeptly straddling that balance between populist and challenging in its programming.
Book a table
There’s no shortage of restaurants taking pride in Yorkshire produce, but the Star Inn The City (www.starinnthecity.co.uk, 00 44 1904 619 208) is the exciting new kid on the block. The architectural combo of glass modern extension and heritage-listed former engine room works a treat, while the £30 fillet steaks are the splash-out staple on an ever-changing seasonal menu.
Amiably chilled, with sheet music and instruments all over the walls, the music-themed Café Concerto (www.cafeconcerto.biz, 00 44 1904 610 478) has slightly boho but chattily local feel. It’s strong on veggie options, such as the butternut squash, spinach and blue cheese lasagne for £11.95.
York has a heart-warmingly strong line in small independent shops with a quirky streak. These tend to cluster on Petergate, Stonegate, Fossgate and the Shambles, though the whole city centre is very much designed for inquisitive mooching. Examples include W Hamond’s jewellery store (www.whitbyjetstore.com, 00 44 1947 603 330) on the Shambles, which specialises in jet, Yorkshire’s signature black semi-precious stone. Or, perhaps, The Cat Gallery (www.thecatgallery.co.uk, 00 44 1904 413 000) on Petergate – which is lovingly stocked with feline-themed giftware such as dancing cat MP3 speakers and kitty-shaped pendants.
What to avoid
York is easily walkable, and very well connected to the rest of the country by train. Many of the key areas are pedestrianised, so a car is only going to be a nuisance. If you do bring one, be aware that hefty fines have been recently introduced for crossing the Lendal Bridge during the day. Most GPS systems will try and send you over it.
York has plenty of old-fashioned tea rooms (think scones and lace doilies), but York Cocoa House (www.yorkcocoahouse.co.uk, 00 44 1904 675 787) offers something engagingly different. The hot chocolate recipe goes back centuries and everything in the £12.50 afternoon tea has chocolate in it – even the savoury wraps and rarebit slices. It also runs regular truffle-making workshops for those who want to get hands-on.
This story was researched in Spring 2014, and originally published in The National.
All content copyright David Whitley.