48 Hours In: York

Step inside the medieval walls of this splendid historic city and find out why it'll be burning so brightly this winter, says Anthony Lambert
Click to follow
The Independent Travel


A new £1.8m lighting scheme being switched on tonight will transform York at night by imaginatively illuminating many of the city's historic buildings. Besides a Christmas market of crafts and local food, St Nicholas Fayre on 24-27 November offers bygone refreshments from a medieval town house ( www.yuletideyork.com). Medieval music features in the Early Music Christmas Festival from 8-11 December (01904 658338; www.ncem.co.uk) and a Festival of Angels with ice sculptures is held on 10-11 December.


York station (1) is at the heart of Britain's railway system. There are fast and frequent services on the London-to-Edinburgh East Coast Main Line on GNER (08457 225 225; www.gner.co.uk), and from many other towns and cities on Virgin Trains (08457 222 333; www.virgin.com/trains).


Tourist information (01904 621756; www.visityork.org) is available at the station and on Exhibition Square (2), where you can buy the York Pass, which provides free entry to more than 30 attractions and a range of discounts; one day £19, two days £25, three days £32. Most of York's attractions lie within the old city walls that extend for two miles around a warren of medieval streets (many of them pedestrianised) with the River Ouse running through. The Minster (3) is at the northern corner; Clifford's Tower (4) and York Castle Museum (5) are on the southern edge. York station (1) lies just outside the western wall, within easy walking distance of the city centre. Leaflets on seven themed walking trails are available, one on the topical subject of Guy Fawkes, who was born in York in 1570.

The city is scattered with plaques marking the site of such events as the execution in 1572 of Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Anne Boleyn's lover before Henry VIII. The memorial (6) is almost opposite the entrance to Lady Peckett's Yard on Pavement.


The Grange Hotel (7) and its award-winning restaurant occupy a large

Regency town house at 1 Clifton (01904 644744; www.grangehotel.co.uk) within five minutes' walk of the city walls; doubles from £145, including breakfast (as all the prices quoted here do). Four High Petergate (8) refers to the address and the four storeys of an 18th-century town house attached to the walls by Bootham Bar just yards from the Minster (01904 658516; www.fourhighpetergate.co.uk); doubles from £90. Arnot House (9) is a Victorian house at 17 Grosvenor Terrace (01904 641966; www.arnot houseyork.co.uk), furnished with antiques overlooking Bootham Park, five minutes' walk from the city centre; doubles from £64. Until 21 March 2006 many hotels and guest houses are offering three-night "Stay Longer" breaks at up to 50 per cent off advertised rates; prices start from £138 double for three nights. Call 08701 203 115 for more details.


It's worth £3 and the effort to climb the 275 steps to the top of the Central Tower of the Minster (3). Not only can you see as far as the North York Moors and Great Whernside on a clear winter's day, but the horizontal section linking two spiral staircases affords a rare view along the flying buttresses as well as an insight into the erosion of medieval stonework. For a subterranean view, visit the Crypt with its exceptionally good audio guide (£3.50) to see the foundations of the Roman fort, Viking and Norman carvings as well as the work on the cathedral's foundations to stop it collapsing (01904 557216; www.yorkminster.org).


Starting at Bootham Bar (10), walk north- east along the most tranquil section of the part-Norman wall overlooking gardens, the Treasurer's House and the Minster grounds. From the steps at the early 14th-century Monk Bar (11), the largest of the city's gates, walk along Goodramgate to the Shambles, the famous narrow street mentioned in the Domesday Book that takes its name from the shelves on which the butchers placed their meat. The street was intentionally narrow to keep the meat out of direct sunlight.

Walk through the modern Coppergate Centre to the Georgian jewel of Fairfax House (01904 655543; www.fairfaxhouse.co.uk) (12), the exquisite town house of Viscount Fairfax and now opened by the York Civic Trust on Mon-Thu and Sat 11am-5pm, Sun 1.30pm-5pm; £4.50. Off Tower Street is a cluster of civic buildings, including all that's left of York Castle, Cifford's Tower (0870 333 1181; www.english-heritage.org.uk) (4), depicted in an unusual 1953 painting by L S Lowry which hangs in York Art Gallery. The tower is open daily 10am-4pm; £2.80.

Cross the river and walk up Piccadilly to visit what is claimed to be the finest medieval guildhall in Europe. Built in 1357-61, the Merchant Adventurers' Hall (01904 654818; www.theyorkcompany.co.uk) (13) has a magnificent timbered great hall and the only surviving medieval guild chapel in England. It's open 9am-5pm Monday-Thursday, until 3.30pm Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday; £2.50.


Henshelwoods Delicatessen (14) on Newgate at the south end of Newgate Market (15) is owned by one of Rick Stein's "food heroes" and serves a changing menu of sandwiches using such ingredients as artisan cheeses and home-made Whitby crab pâté (01904 673877; www.delidivine.co.uk).


Try going round the Castle Museum (01904 687687; www.yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk) (5) without saying "I remember...". The extraordinary collection built up by Dr Kirk of Pickering between the 1890s and 1920s has been arranged in authentic settings and added to, so that there is even a Seventies kitchen. Part of the collection is displayed in the grim cells of the debtors' prison, where such figures as Dick Turpin and the Chartist leader Feargus O'Connor were incarcerated, the former being hung in 1739. It's open daily 9.30am-5pm; £6.50.


Many of York's shops are the antithesis of bland chains, and the streets themselves are full of character. One of the prettiest is Stonegate, with shops selling second-hand books, antique English jewellery and gems. In Goodramgate you can find luxury chocolates, fossils and herbs. Those who love old-style ironmongers selling everything should head for Barnitts hardware store (16) at 24-26 Colliergate. Newgate Market is one of the largest in the north of England, with more than 120 stalls ranging from local food to crafts and gifts; open daily 9am-5pm.


The Living Room at 1 Bridge Street (17), one of York's newest and trendiest bars, has a balcony overlooking the river and serves cocktails made with fresh fruit, as well as brunch, lunch and dinner (08702 203 001; www.thelivingroom.co.uk) For more traditional imbibing, try the Punchbowl (18) at 7 Stonegate for cask ales (01904 615491).


With a head chef from Winteringham Fields who was voted York's chef of the year, Rish (19) at 7 Fossgate (01904 622688; www.rish-york.co.uk) offers imaginative dishes such as fennel bavarois with celery, apple and confit tomato salad (£6.50), roasted seabream with pomme écrasée, garlic-roasted prawns and caper sausage (£16.50) and tonka-bean pannacotta with blackcurrant foam (£6.30).


Attending Sung Eucharist at 10am or Choral Matins at 11.30am at the Minster (3) affords the chance to appreciate the exceptionally fine stained glass, some dating back to the 12th century, and the heraldic shields that commemorate Edward II and his barons when Parliament was based in York in 1309-10. Don't miss the octagonal Chapter House, begun in the 1270s, which contains 44 stalls embellished with Purbeck marble and 284 stone capitals and pendants for the governing body of the cathedral.


Spanning three storeys of a former saddler and harness-maker, Melton's too (20) at 25 Walmgate has something for any time of day from 10.30am (01904 629222; www.meltonstoo.co.uk). Its cooked breakfast (£5.50 with coffee) uses local dry-cured bacon and pork-and-leek sausages.


Take a chairlift-style ride through the recently transformed re-creation of Viking York at the Yorvik Centre (21) in Coppergate, which pioneered nasty niffs to lend a sense of authenticity to the experience (01904 543402; www.vikingjorvik.com). It is based on excavations on this site in 1976-81 that found more than 40,000 objects, including coins from as far afield as Samarkand. It's open daily 10am-5pm; £7.45.


A tree-lined promenade along the River Ouse from Skeldergate Bridge (22) was established in the 1730s, and the recent construction of a Millennium Bridge over the river near a wildflower meadow at Fulford has created a two-mile circular walk. On the west bank, you can walk through Rowntree Park, which was given to the city as a memorial to the workers of the Rowntree factory who fought in the First World War. The 30-acre park is designed around a lake and includes children's play areas.


Imagine yourself aboard a Cunard liner when you take tea in the Art Deco Belmont Room on the first floor of Bettys (23) in St Helen's Square (01904 659142; www.bettysandtaylors.co.uk). The tea shop's founder was so enamoured of his voyage on the Queen Mary that he commissioned the ship's outfitters to create a similar interior. Delectable cakes, scones and Fat Rascals can be washed down with 11 different kinds of tea.


The best way to understand how beer is made is to visit a microbrewery, and the York Brewery (24) at 12 Toft Green offers tours of its small-scale plant, with half-pint tastings of its award-winning beers (01904 621162; www.yorkbrew.co.uk). Daily tours at 12.30pm, 2pm, 3.30pm and 5pm; £4.50 including beer.