48 Hours In: York
Singular treats await in this historic city, from Roman remains to Norse sagas, via chocolate, beer and trains
Simon Calder is Travel Editor at Large for The Independent, writing a weekly column, various articles and features as well as filming a weekly video diary. Every Sunday afternoon, Simon presents the UK's only radio travel phone-in programme called The LBC Travel Show with Simon Calder (97.3 FM). He is a regular guest on national TV, often seen on BBC Breakfast, Daybreak, ITV News and Sky News. He is often interviewed on BBC Radio, particularly for BBC Radio 4’s You & Yours programme and BBC Five Live.
Thursday 24 January 2013
Why go now?
The former northern bastion of Roman Britain has a deep heritage combined with a sense of playfulness – and the early part of the year is an excellent time to visit before the crowds arrive. In two days you can explore the narrow streets that have defied development, taste the flavours that York has made its own, and discover some singular cultural treats.
All rail lines lead to York station (1), the halfway point on the East Coast mainline between London and Edinburgh. Trains from the English capital take two hours or less; from the Scottish capital, about half an hour longer. The lowest East Coast fares are available at eastcoast.co.uk; one-way tickets start at £13 and £15 respectively.Fast trains run to York from many other parts of Britain with other operators; 08457 48 49 50 or nationalrail.co.uk for fares and times.
Get your bearings
York Minster (2) dominates the city, providing a reference point from wherever you are in the centre. The walls are no longer needed to defend York, but they still define the city's core, where visitors spend most time. The walls are at their most complete close to the Minster, with the gatehouse at Bootham Bar (3) providing easy access.
The Visit York Information Centre (4) is at 1 Museum Street (01904 550099; visityork.org); you can buy the York Pass, which provides free entry to more than 30 attractions and a range of discounts. A two-day pass costs £48.
Si vales valeo – "if you're well, I'm well" – is the Roman saying painted on an interior wall of the Old Brewery (5), now an apartment block close to the Minster grounds on Ogleforth (07771 966895; yorkoldbrewery.co.uk). The property comfortably sleeps four, and a two-night stay costs £295 – including a welcome hamper of local produce.
Two miles south of the walls, Middlethorpe Hall (6) stands in beautifully landscaped grounds beside Bishopthorpe Road, close to the racecourse (01904 641241; www.middlethorpe.com). This 300-year-old manor house has, in its time, served as a boarding school and nightclub – though not at the same time – and is now a luxury hotel and spa. Double rooms begin at £199, including a full Yorkshire breakfast and use of the spa, with specials available on some nights before Easter. All profits go to the National Trust.
For history on a budget, the 1752 Micklegate House is now the Ace Boutique Hostel (7), close to the station at 88 Micklegate (01904 627720; acehotelyork.co.uk). A night in a dorm can cost as little as £16. Wi-Fi is free at all these properties.
Until 28 March, the "York Wrapped Up" promotion offers a two-night break at various properties for as little as £149, including a free dinner or Yorkshire welcome hamper. See visityork.org/wrappedup for full details.
Take a view
York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England and there are excellent views from several stretches. But to see the layers of history up close, start at the Multangular Tower (8) – part of the Roman fortress that defended the empire's main military base in northern Britain, Eboracum. It dates from the third century.
Take a ride
The Vikings imprinted their heritage upon York – the map of the city is full of road names ending in "gate", the Norse word for street. But only in the 1970s did the big picture of the city of Jorvik, as it stood a millennium ago, start to emerge with a York Archaeological Trust excavation. Then the Jorvik Viking Centre (9) was created on the site of the archaeological dig at Coppergate (01904 615505; jorvik- viking-centre.co.uk; 10am-5pm; entry £9.75). You discover that the Scandinavian settlers lived orderly lives – "Viking" was more a job description than an ethnic group.
Lunch on the run
In 2008, Sue Hardie created a delicatessen called the Hairy Fig (10) at 39 Fossgate (01904 677074; thehairyfig.co.uk) – soon customers had demanded a café. Get there early to grab one of just 10 places, and tuck into specialities such as smoked eel with beetroot.
After the regular deli, try a "liquid deli". That is how Demijohn (11) at 11 Museum Street (01904 637487; demijohn.co.uk) styles itself. It sells mead, malt whisky, oils and vinegar straight from large glass vessels. York's inner core is made for window shopping, with a 19th-century feel and independent retailers offering, well, Victorian value. The most celebrated street is The Shambles (12), formerly a straggle of butchers' shops. For fresh produce, try Newgate Market (13), with Yorkshire cheeses and fish caught at Whitby.
Take a hike
Whether you are shopping for souvenirs or searching for spirits, York is constantly intriguing. The city claims to have created the first "ghost walk" more than 40 years ago – and there are still daily departures from the King's Arms pub (14) by the river at Ousebridge run by the Original Ghost Walk of York (01759 373090; theoriginalghostwalk ofyork.co.uk). The main tour is at 8pm and costs £5, but it is better to make the most of the eerie twilight of January and February and book an earlier private tour (£100), available for groups of two or more.
Go back to basics at York Brewery (15), close to the station at 12 Toft Green (01904 621162; york-brewery.co.uk). The 5pm tour of the microbrewery runs daily except Sunday and costs £6 – including a pint of beer at the end.
To see how well the brews travel, wander across to the Yorkshire Terrier (16) at 10 Stonegate. In a bar that prefixes York with "New," the Biltmore (17) at 29 Swinegate (01904 610075; thebiltmore barandgrill.com) has cocktails plus a DJ.
Dining with the locals
"Proper York beef sourced from just around the corner" is among the dishes on offer at Café Concerto (18) at 21 High Petergate (01904 610478; cafeconcerto.biz) – as well as home-made hummus and other Mediterranean delights. This eclectic, rambling café, with old music scores on the walls, becomes a classy bistro by night.
Sunday morning: a walk in the park
Venture beyond the walls to discover the atmospheric ruins of St Mary's Abbey – once the richest monastery in the north of England – in the grounds of Museum Gardens. Opposite stands the Yorkshire Museum (19) (01904 687687; yorkshiremuseum.org.uk; 10am-5pm daily; £7.50), devoted to a county that is almost another country.
Out to brunch
Bettys (20) at 6 St Helen's Square (01904 659142; bettys.co.uk; 9am-9pm daily) is an Art Deco institution, founded by a Swiss immigrant. You can order afternoon tea at any time, with dainty sandwiches, crumbly scones and heart-stopping cakes for £25.95, or £7 more with a glass of champagne. To peel back a few more centuries with brunch, try Melton's Too (21), in a 17th-century property at 25 Walmgate (01904 629222; meltonstoo.co.uk). It promises "Yorkshire ingredients and global flavours" – the Yorkshire pudding with beef and gravy makes a mighty meal.
Go to church
In the 14th century, York Minster (2) was one of the most magnificent structures in Europe; in the 21st century, it still is (0844 939 0011; yorkminster. org; noon-5pm on Sundays, from 9am other days). Admission is £9 – or £5 more if you want to take a heavenly spiral staircase to the tower. The foundations of this masterpiece of English Gothic rest upon the remains of the Roman fortress. Explore the precincts, too, including the exquisite Treasurer's House in Minster Yard (01904 624247; nationaltrust.org.uk), which reopens for the year on 16 February.
In the nation that brought railways to the world, York is the natural place to celebrate the tracks of our years. The National Railway Museum (22), in a former steam locomotive depot behind the station (08448 153139; nrm.org.uk; 10am-6pm daily; free), is the world's biggest railway museum. The star of the show is Mallard, once the fastest machine on Earth; in 1938 it set the steam train record of 126mph, even faster than the 21st-century electric trains on the East Coast mainline.
Icing on the cake
While other northern cities made their wealth from wool, coal, cotton and steel, York went its own sweet way and became Britain's capital of chocolate. York's Chocolate Story (23) on King's Square (0845 498 9411; yorks chocolatestory.com; 10am-6pm daily; £9.50) explains the origins of chocolate and the manufacturing process, and includes live demonstrations of the chocolatier's art. It's a place to melt the heart of any chocolate lover.
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